Sunday, March 4, 2007

Couture, 43, beats Sylvia for heavyweight title

By Dave Doyle

George Foreman came out of retirement and won the UFC heavyweight title at the age of 45. Jack Nicklaus won his final Masters in 1986 at 46.

And now the sports of mixed martial arts has its first Rocky moment. Thirteen months after calling it quits, 43-year-old Randy Couture is the new Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight titleholder.

The undersize former light heavyweight took it to 6-foot-8 former champion Tim Sylvia and stunned the MMA world with a commanding unanimous decision. A sellout crowd of 19,049 paying a facility record of $3 million at Nationwide Arena saw Couture, who was giving up 41 pounds to the 263-pound Sylvia, win all five rounds on the three judges' scorecards.

"I didn't really realize what I had done until there were 10 seconds left," Couture said at the post-fight press conference. "At that moment, I sort of looked up and looked around and realized that I actually did it and I was able to enjoy it. But not until then."

With the victory, Couture began his third reign as UFC heavyweight (206-265 lbs.) champion. He was also twice UFC light heavyweight (186-205) champ.

This is the second time Couture has pulled off an against-the-odds title win. His first came in 2003, win the then-39-year-old decided to drop down from the heavyweight decision to go lightweight. At the time, he was considered on his downside and was expected to lose to current champ and World MMA No. 1 Chuck Liddell. But Couture scored a third-round TKO to take the title.

"I'll be honest, I brought Randy in to lose to Chuck," said UFC president Dana White. "He was supposed to be an opponent to build Chuck."

Instead, Couture dominated the light heavyweight ranks, scoring wins over 20-somethings Tito Ortiz and Vitor Belfort. But he dropped the title to Liddell in 2005, then retired after losing his third match to Liddell in February 2006.

"I've been there before," said Couture. "I knew what it took to get there and I knew that I was considered a big underdog, but I believed in myself now like I believed in myself then."

In Sylvia, Couture was facing a foe who angered fans with a plodding but effective defensive style. Since winning the belt from Andrei Arlovski in April of last year, Sylvia (23-3) had twice defended his title using a patient approach in which he waited for his opponents to come at him and take advantage of his tremendous reach and ferocious knockout power.

But Couture (15-8) served notice early on that he didn't fear the big man from Maine's game. Couture opened the fight by coming right out and rocking Sylvia with a tremendous right cross. Sylvia managed to fend Couture off before The Natural could finish the fight in short order, but a pattern was established.

"In training, we worked on the same thing over and over," said Couture, who trains at his Legends Gym in Hollywood. "Go in for the overhand right, then hit the left hook. Left, then right. Well, I hit him with the overhand right, then next thing I knew, I was going in for the left and I realized he was five steps away from me. Then he went down and that was that for the overhand right."

Sylvia appeared flustered from that point on. Couture expertly dodged and weaved and darted in and out of Sylvia's range throughout the fight and was never in serious danger at any point over the course of 25 minutes.

Seven times over the course of the fight, the former alternate to the U.S. Greco-Roman Olympic team managed to score takedowns on his gargantuan foe. Only twice did Sylvia manage to initially sprawl to fend off the takedown, but on both occasions, Couture stuck with it and scored the takedown.

"I actually wasn't able to fight quite like I wanted," said Couture. "In a perfect world, I would have been more effective on the ground and wouldn't have had to stand up with him so much. But he had some nice defense on the ground and I had to do what I could standing up."

Not once over the course of five rounds did Sylvia take Couture down. According to welterweight Matt Hughes, who is Sylvia's stablemate at the Miletich Fighting Systems camp in Iowa, Sylvia suffered a back injury in training the week before the fight and considered pulling out. Sylvia did not attend the post-fight press conference.

After two rounds, it appeared the only thing that might catch up to Couture was fatigue, as the challenger came out of his corner breathing heavily after so expertly pushing the pace. But Couture kept the entire third round standing and was able to beat Sylvia at that game as well as on the ground. From that point on, if Couture was tired, he never let on.

Over the final two rounds, Sylvia never displayed the sort of urgency one would expect from a champion who knew he was losing and had to pick up the pace in order to hold on to his belt. Couture controlled the tempo over the final two rounds and went back to his methodical takedown game. With 30 seconds left, Sylvia, in his guard on the ground in center octagon, appeared to have mentally thrown in the towel.

"I proved my point," said Couture, who sported a bruised nose, but otherwise appeared no worse for fear. "I had my trouble earlier in my career with the bigger heavyweights and it was a big motivation going into the fight. I think I answered all the questions."

So where does Couture go from here? A rematch with Sylvia is on no doubt on the agenda, and the prospects of facing Croatia's Mirko Filipovic, the No. 3 ranked fighter in's World MMA top 10 and a UFC newcomer, seems on pace for later in the year.

Couture was asked what he'll do at age 50. "I can tell you for sure what I won't be doing," he said. "I won't be stepping in the octagon getting the crap knocked out of me."

To which White responded: "Yeah, right."

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