Saturday, March 3, 2007

"The Natural" Gears Up for One Tall Task

By Josh Gross

He's crazy. He's going to get hurt. He's going to ruin his legacy. Don't worry folks, Randy Couture has heard you — he simply isn't listening.

"I've been the underdog plenty of times in some pretty big fights," Couture told last week after a hard night of sparring. "But now, it's almost to the point where they think you're crazy coming back at 43 in the heavyweight division against the biggest heavyweight we've ever had. They're like: ‘What the hell are you doing?' Like I've lost my marbles or something."

Has he? Or is this precisely what we've come to expect from the former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion?

The simple fact is Couture didn't need to come back after announcing his retirement over a year ago after Chuck Liddell put him down for the second time. His legacy wasn't in question. His standing as an all-time great and one of the most-liked mixed martial arts history was Rock-of-Gibraltar solid.

So, why did "The Natural" decide to step back into the Octagon to face UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia?

Perhaps it's important to understand why he walked away in the first place.

It began in Jan. 2005, when Couture started divorce proceedings to get out of a marriage that yielded four children.

"All my friends, my whole family, everybody was in an uproar about the whole thing," he remembered. "By April I moved out of Oregon and left Team Quest and relocated here to Vegas. That further sent everyone off into the deep end. I was basically doing what I needed to do to survive, frankly."

A week after the finale for the debut season of The Ultimate Fighter, for which Couture starred alongside Liddell as a coach, the then light heavyweight champion was knocked out for the first time in his career.

Personal problems with family, most notably a father that was not part of his life growing up, contributed to the downward spiral, which bottomed out after Liddell finished Couture a second time in Feb. 2006.

"I definitely felt like it was time to pullout, step back and regroup," said Couture (14-8-0). "I decided that I just had so much stuff I was carrying around. I just didn't feel good. I haven't walked around at 200 pounds since I was in high school. It was a mess. Physically I was OK, but I was just walking around besides myself, basically."

The past year has seen Couture rebound.

With the divorce settled, the decks were cleared for a return — if not to active competition then to a normal life. Following a 12-day trip to Iraq in July '06, Couture realized he wanted to marry his girlfriend Kim, which he did in October. Soon she, as well as his friends, started nudging him to comeback.

Having taken a step back to gain some much-needed distance, Couture took stock of himself and his personal issues. "I lined up ‘em and started dealing with them, knocking the ducks down in a row," he said. "Got to the end of the row and things kind of settled and started putting weight back on, started feeling better."

Had the UFC offered Couture a shot at Sylvia six months ago, he would have likely turned it down. But when it was offered to him "The Natural" found himself in a spot where the possibility of gearing up for a major title fight was not only feasible, it was downright intriguing.

Couture ceased fighting at heavyweight after a Nov. 2002 bout with Ricco Rodriguez. The 240-pound grappler handed Couture his second loss in a row, as well as a busted orbital bone.

The assumption was that Randy was done. Approaching 40, his best days were behind him.

He fooled us all.

"I'd thrown out there that I could make 205, but I wasn't pushing," Couture said. "I was going to fight. I'd signed to fight Andrei [Arlovski] at heavyweight — probably dodged a bullet, but who knows? So right place at the right time."

When the Belarusian busted his hand in training, the UFC offered Couture a chance to face Liddell for the light heavyweight interim title while the division's longtime champion, Tito Ortiz, played hardball with his contract.

Couture stunned "The Iceman." He's hoping to do the same in his return to the division that saw him twice hold belts.

Four years older. Victim of consecutive knockouts. Moving up in weight to fight a man who owns a 40-pound and six-inch advantage.

Crazy, right?

"If you look at those guys versus Tim, those guys are grapplers," Couture said of his last two heavyweight opponents. "They got great base. If you get underneath a guy that knows how to use his weight, hold you down and keep you there, I didn't have the technique or expertise to deal with that then. I've worked on that since the Barnett fight and through the Ricco fight. And continued to working on those skills. Looking at Chuck and analyzing how Chuck gets up influenced my way of thinking and what I was doing on the bottom. And so that has been an ongoing process, and now I think regardless of how big you are I think I have the tools and skills to get up from underneath you."

That likely won't be the difference tonight. Sylvia, a striker, has earned stoppages in 16 in his 23 wins. He's long and grapples more to stay on his size 16s than to secure an advantage on the floor.

Leaving little to chance, Couture employed big heavyweights for this training camp. "They're certainly more than happy to punch me in the face if I let my guard down," he laughed. "So it's been a challenge, but it's been good and it's been fun." UFC veterans Dan Christison (six-foot-eight), Wes Sims (six-foot-nine) and Eric Pele (300 pounds) worked hard to get "The Natural" ready to fight Sylvia to the canvas, which he'll need to do if he's going to win.

"Tim's not a grappler — he's a striker," said the underdog challenger. "He's not going to have that base. He's long, he's heavy, but technically I think if I do end up on the bottom I don't think it'll be an issue. I'm not going to hang around down there and find out how hard he can hit."

During his time away from the Octagon, Couture settled nicely into a role as color commentator during UFC pay-per-view broadcasts. It put him in position to call Sylvia's last title defense — a plodding five-round decision over Jeff Monson — and publicly launch the first verbal strike between the friendly rivals.

Suggesting Sylvia cares more about holding onto his belt than finishing opponents or putting on exciting fights, Couture, perhaps unwittingly, fired up the champ, who's said he will knock out "The Natural" early.

"I call ‘em like I see ‘em," Couture said. "I wasn't trying to push his buttons. That's the state of what it is. I'm not the only one making those comments about his performances in those two fights, so if that works in my favor, that works in my favor."

Could Sylvia, desperately hoping to ingratiate himself with UFC fans, forgo the smart game plan that would see him stay away, use his length and make Couture walk through fire to get inside?

"It only helps me if he does get pissed and plants his feet to come after me," Couture smiled.

The veteran doesn't expect Sylvia to answer him, even when given the rare opportunity punch a critic in the face.

"I don't care what he says, he's going to come out and try to win this fight," Couture said. "He's probably going to try and stay away, use his range, force me to hunt him down and I'm prepared to do that."

"I like a challenge," Couture finished. "It's boring otherwise."

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