Sunday, March 4, 2007

Couture shocks Sylvia, claims third heavyweight crown

By Steve Sievert

Back in the saddle, indeed.

With Aerosmith's Back in the Saddle Again blaring from the Nationwide Arena speakers, Randy Couture walked out of retirement and into the octagon Saturday night for UFC 68 in Columbus, Ohio.

He left the eight-sided cage with the heavyweight title.

In a stunning performance, the 43-year-old Couture knocked down Tim Sylvia with his first punch of the night and dominated the champion on his way to a unanimous-decision victory. Despite giving up 43 pounds, Couture beat up Sylvia in each of the five rounds and controlled the fight from his feet and on the ground.

"Not bad for an old man," Couture said after the fight. "I felt if I could get on top of Tim, I could be effective. He was hard to deal with, but the big guys I worked with really helped me a lot."

Couture (15-8), who is already a UFC Hall of Fame fighter, became the UFC's first five-time champion and the oldest titleholder in the organization's history.

Sylvia had no answer in a fight all three judges scored 50-45 for "The Natural."

"He kept me off balance all night," said Sylvia (25-3). "He had me guessing the whole 25 minutes."

Franklin, Hughes post comeback wins

Looking like the fighter who strung together eight consecutive victories before losing his middleweight title to Anderson Silva last October, Rich Franklin delivered for the home-state crowd with technical knockout win over Canadian Jason MacDonald.

Pressing the pace with solid strikes from the outset, Franklin roughed up MacDonald in the first round and had him in serious trouble as the second round came to a close. MacDonald's corner saved their fighter from further damage by throwing in the towel after the second five minutes.

The win moved Franklin to 23-2 and set the stage for a rematch with Silva later this year -- a fight planned for Franklin's hometown of Cincinnati.

Matt Hughes also took the first step toward regaining his welterweight crown with a unanimous-decision victory over Chris Lytle. It was a fight contested almost exclusively on the ground and lacked spark, but Hughes stayed busy enough to impress the judges. Hughes said after the fight that he wanted no part of Lytle's hands and felt going back to his wrestling roots was the right strategy to win the battle.

The win pushed Hughes to 43-5 and sets up a third fight with Georges St. Pierre this summer, should GSP get by Matt Serra in his first title defense at UFC 69.

Jason Lambert scored a significant upset, taking out Renato Sobral by TKO in the second round. Sobral, fighting for the first time since losing to Chuck Liddell last August, had his way with Lambert in the early going, but once Lambert found the range to throw his shots, it was clear "Babalu" couldn't handle his power.

After a referee break to return the fighters to their feet, Sobral's flying knee was countered by a wicked right hook, and it was game over for Sobral.

"His submissions were great, but I stayed calm and weathered the storm," said Lambert, who scored the biggest win of his career to improve to 23-6.

Pre-PPV fights

The dark portion of the card was highlighted by strong performances from Matt Hamill and Jon Fitch. Hamill, who fights out of Cincinnati, had the energy of his home state behind him and took the battle to Rex Holman's front door. In a matchup of former collegiate wrestlers, it was Hamill who let his hands go and staggered Holman twice with rights in the first stanza.

Holman tasted the canvas after the second attempt, and Hamill (5-0) pounced to put the put the fight to rest with a TKO at the four-minute mark of the first round.

Hamill, who's refused to be derailed in life by a hearing impairment, is an easy guy to root for, and closed his night in the octagon by saying emphatically, "I'm going to be here for a long time."

In what has surfaced as his trademark, the 28-year-old Fitch came out with a workmanlike performance, trading a few shots with Luigi Fioravanti to soften him up, then taking matters to the ground -- a place where Fitch has few peers. Fitch was extended to the second round, but the outcome was never in doubt. He finished off Fioravanti with a rear-naked choke at 3:05 of the second.

Fitch has won a dozen in a row and is 18-2 overall.

Next stop, Houston. The UFC rolls on to H-Town for UFC 69 on April 7.

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