Friday, March 9, 2007

Couture's win was a night to remember

By Dave Meltzer

His victory over Sylvia is one of the greatest moments in MMA history.

If mixed martial arts is here to stay as a sport in the United States, then years from now people will look back and marvel at how much of the sports media missed what would have to be one of the great sports stories and moments of the era.

In an octagon cage and with the UFC's world heavyweight title at stake, seven seconds into the fight, undersized heavyweight Randy Couture, the most admired and popular fighter in the history of the sport in the United States, threw a low kick, and then came over the top with the hardest overhand right of his career.

The least popular champion in UFC history, the monstrous Tim Sylvia, was knocked on his back. At the same moment, a sellout crowd of 19,079 fans leapt to their feet. For the next half hour, they never sat down again. With the exception of 21 seconds, Couture dominated the fight. With ten seconds left, the crowd, in unison, reacted like they were in Times Square, and New Year's was coming early. "Ten, nine, eight...." The pop built and exploded as the clock hit zero. The first seven seconds, and the last ten seconds are sports moments that none of the people there live, nor the two million or so watching on PPV or in sports bars around North America, will likely ever forget.

Randy Couture, at nearly 44 years old, came out of retirement to become the UFC's world heavyweight champion for a third time. Giving up seven inches in height, a foot in reach, and probably in the range of 60 pounds when they got in the ring, Couture told a story that even Sylvester Stallone didn't dare tell in "Rocky Balboa," a movie that in many ways inspired the fight.

In the days since the fight on March 10th at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, the few sportswriters who did realize they saw something that will become legendary struggled to find a sports comparison. In the end, there isn't one.

Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46. But you simply can't compare golf with fighting. Golf is a skill sport that older men have been able to compete with younger men at. With the exception of Couture, the oldest man to ever win a major promotion championship in MMA was Dan Severn, at 37, and that's when the sport was in its infancy. Couture is the only man over 40 in history to be truly competitive at the top level.

George Blanda won the NFL MVP award at 43. That was an improbable series of miracles week after week where Blanda either threw a touchdown pass, kicked a field goal or a conversion to lead the Oakland Raiders to wins (or in one case a tie) six straight Sundays. But that was still a team effort.

Muhammad Ali beating George Foreman in Zaire is the comparison many have made. In both cases, you have a bigger and more powerful knockout artist who was heavily favored to not just beat, but possibly hurt badly, a beloved but aging former champion. But the aging Ali was all of 32 years old at the time, and he was not coming out of retirement, nor had he been knocked out in two of his three prior matches at light-heavyweight before retirement.

Foreman himself was older, 45, when he knocked out Michael Moorer in 1994 to become the oldest heavyweight champion in boxing. But Foreman was much bigger and stronger than Moorer, and had incredible physical gifts that Couture simply couldn't match. He could take punishment like few heavyweights, and he may have been the hardest punching heavyweight in history. The fact was, Moorer was making Foreman look like he had no business in the ring with him for nine rounds, until Foreman tapped Moorer's chin and ended the fight.

Couture was dominant in every aspect of the game from start to finish.

Even when Stallone made "Rocky Balboa," which in a small way inspired this match (the main inspiration is they simply had no other match that would do the kind of business this one would, and the logical contender for Sylvia, Brandon Vera, was involved in a contract dispute with UFC), in the end, Rocky didn't beat Mason Dixon. That was too much for even a scripted movie. But the movie character proved himself a champion by defying logic, having his moment where he was competitive, and leaving with pride and dignity. The perfect venue to capitalize on the movie was pro wrestling. On paper, the UFC is probably the worst place to try and reenact a Stallone movie.

Without question, from a business standpoint, this was the right call. It's pretty well guaranteed it will be the biggest PPV event of any type for at least the first quarter of this year.

But what if Couture was completely shot? Sure, Couture is an excellent wrestler, but Sylvia had eaten younger wrestlers like Ricco Rodriguez and Jeff Monson for lunch. He left UFC's hope for their own Mike Tyson-like scary heavyweight---Andrei "The Pit Bull" Arlovski---whimpering like a cocker spaniel.

Worse, the theme of MMA in 2006 was that the legendary champions of the past, Ken Shamrock, Mark Coleman, Royce Gracie, Kazushi Sakuraba, Mark Kerr, and Couture himself, were all shown that time had moved on. A new generation of fighter---younger, faster and better trained in the sport from their youth, as opposed to converted wrestlers and Jiu Jitsu practitioners---had taken over. Couture was one of the last of the two-hand set shot guys still trying to compete with the slam dunkers.

But there was no mistaking people loved Couture, and even more, loved a good story. Ticket sales took off in the days after Couture went on "Inside the UFC" and announced the match. It sold out farther in advance than any major MMA show in history. But the experts feared he was a little lamb being led to a giant slaughter.

Sylvia was 6-8, and had to dehydrate himself down to make the 265-pound heavyweight limit. He weighed in officially at 263. In the cage, he was probably between 280 and 285 pounds. Couture came in at 222.5 pounds, a weight most modern light-heavyweights are going into battle at after rehydrating. The gate topped $3 million, the first time such a figure had been reached outside of Japan or Las Vegas, and broke a record set by the Rolling Stones for the largest indoor entertainment gate ever in the state of Ohio.

Even Couture's friends quietly hoped for simply a good showing. The hope was that he would show himself to at least be competitive, and come out of it retaining his dignity, and more importantly, his physical health. As long as he got a takedown or two, got a little bit of offense in, and lasted until the third round, it would be a huge moral win. He'd leave with an even bigger standing ovation than when he announced his retirement on Feb. 4, 2006, after being knocked out by Chuck Liddell.

Of course everyone knew what an incredible thing it would be for both the sport and for business for him to win, but it really wasn't all that hard to get people in UFC to talk about Sylvia's probable upcoming title defense later this year against Mirko Cro Cop.

Ironically, Couture would have disagreed with both statements. A week before the fight, it was noted to him what a great thing for the sport it would be if he won. He'd give the sport a champion the older sports establishment couldn't shun because it didn't look like the boxing they grew up with. An army vet, college grad and Olympic team alternate couldn't be dismissed as a tattooed, Mohawk-haircut bar-room brawler, who they saw as a thug simply cleaned up with rock music, flashy lights and 10,000 screaming fans to look legit.

Instead, the UFC, of all places, would have a hero for post-40 men by proving hard work and smart strategy can overcome all kinds of physical and age disadvantages in one of the physically toughest sports in the world.

But Couture was there to win, not just to show up, try not to embarrass himself, and collect a big paycheck at the end.

He wasn't the best athlete, the biggest, nor the strongest, nor the best in the world at any specific discipline. He was hardly unbeatable, and perhaps that made him that much more admired. He hadn't had one fight in the last seven years that if he didn't bring his A game, he would have won. And there were several days, due to bad strategy, and perhaps outside stresses and issues in life, where he didn't bring his A game, and he did lose, and in some cases, lose badly.

He was a very normal high school coach (before UFC took off, Couture was a high school wrestling coach in Gresham, Ore.), who, aside from being a remarkably fit older guy, hardly looked like the kind of guy who would fight the baddest men on the planet. But on more than one occasion, he was capable of doing things decidedly not normal. He had been the underdog in nine previous UFC fights, and won eight of them, including stopping Chuck Liddell and spanking Tito Ortiz at the age of 40.

If he was the best at anything, maybe it was at knowing how to train for his own strengths and limitations. Maybe it was at avoiding abusing his body, to where he didn't have the injuries that would have doomed people younger than him. Whether it was through smart training, lack of drug abuse, or simply genetics and luck, he was a 43-year-old athlete who had competed at a top level for a quarter-century. Yet he had never had a major joint or muscle operation. Except for winning two world titles after the age of 40, that is probably his most amazing athletic accomplishment.

Nobody at 40 can dominate a highly physical sport at the top level simply on natural athletic ability. Very few can even survive to play at the top level. Michael Jordan was the greatest athlete of our generation, and he couldn't do it. Muhammad Ali couldn't. Dan Gable couldn't. Even the famed Russian wrestler, Alexander Karelin, the single most physically dominant athlete over a long period of time in any combat sport in modern history, couldn't do it. Think about this. Karelin is four years younger than Couture. He came from the same sport about at the same time as Couture, and was throughout his prime, so far superior it's not even worthy of discussion. Yet even his body broke down to the point he retired seven years ago.

If anything, maybe he was the guy who puts down on paper the best strategy to beat people who expect their athletic ability, size, power and mostly youth, to guarantee them a win. Most likely, he trained that much harder, and ate that much stricter. And none of the success went to his head. Perhaps what kept him competitive was the knowledge he really wasn't better than anyone else, and his success came by working harder than his competition. And these last few months in training, when his body was telling him he couldn't work harder, he listened, and worked smarter.

To the people who saw it, it was one of the greatest fights of all time. Unfortunately, it's one of those things that could only be fully comprehended in the moment they took place. People will tell their kids, and grandkids about this one night, and this normal man who did things that weren't normal, and this unreal night where a movie script nobody would dare write happened in real life. Undoubtedly, there will some day be a movie chronicling this story about the 21st century "Cinderella Man."

Of course, the real fight and real night will be easily accessible on a DVD, or whatever technology will exist in those days. People will watch it, and unfortunately, it's very doubtful they'll be able to even come close to understanding what the fuss is all about.

Sure, the crowd was going crazy for the match, but why? Why was Couture already a Hall of Famer when he only had a 15-8 record? They may even see it as a boring match. Aside from that first punch, there were no telling blows, no near submissions, and not even any true reversals. Couture was never in trouble, but after the opening seconds, Sylvia was never in danger of being finished either. It wasn't even close going down the wire. One guy was old, although he was in great shape. The other was just goofy looking. Sure, the announcers were putting it over as something unreal and the fans seemed to think they were seeing something special. But people looking back won't understand, and think it just shows how little the fans in 2007 must have understood the sport.

Of course, those of us who saw it will never be able to fully explain it. But we'll know it has something to do with concepts like time and context, and the moment. In 2007, there was this movie. And there was this match to take advantage of the movie. And there was this normal man, whose main talent is that when the odds say he can't possibly win, he almost always does. There was this sport at a crossroads, that could have either gone up or down depending on what happened. There was this giant opponent. And there was this night. And there was this crowd. And there was this fear that this legend's comeback was going to be embarrassing, or worse, he'd get badly hurt.

And there was this moment, when an overhand right connected. And for the next half hour, it was all euphoric magic. And everyone celebrated until 3 a.m. And they woke up later in a stupor, still not being able to fully grasp what they just saw happen and why they were feeling the way they were feeling. But they knew that for the rest of their lives, that moment would be etched in their memories, and frozen in time.

Dave Meltzer is the creator and author of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, a leading publication in coverage of pro wrestling and mixed martial arts. For more information, go to

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