Friday, March 2, 2007

Randy Couture hopes for an aggressive Sylvia

By Elias Cepeda

It wasn’t very long ago that retired former two-time light heavyweight and heavyweight champion Randy Couture insisted he had no plans to come back to professional fighting. In February of 2006, Couture lost for the second time by knock out to UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell and promptly announced that he would be retiring from fighting.

How quickly things change. Less than a year after he announced his retirement, Couture announced that he would be coming back to challenge UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia for his belt on March 3rd at UFC 68 in Columbus, Ohio.

Zuffa (parent company of the UFC) president Dana White insists that he knew Couture’s retirement was “bulls_t” from the start, but in talking to Couture immediately after he retired and several times after that, the last time in mid-December, it wasn’t that hard to believe that he was sincerely retired from fighting. Sure Couture always said that he was confident that he was still physically able to compete and that if the right opportunity presented itself he would be open to fighting again.

But he also jump-started several new businesses including a franchise of gyms and a nutritional company, got re-married, moved from one city to another and trained fighters. Couture had plenty on his plate during his “retirement” and seemed genuinely content with his lot in life. In fact, he said that if he were to get into fighting, he may have to put off a lot of projects that he was spending his energies on at the time.

Then, all of the sudden Couture was back in dramatic and characteristic form, as an underdog and emotional favorite opposite a younger champion. What made this fight against Sylvia “the right opportunity” and how has he managed to put all of those other projects on hold while he’s been preparing for his upcoming fight?

“Fortunately I haven’t had to put too much on hold. My wife has helped me clear my calendar by taking care of a lot of things. The opportunity to get back and fight for the heavyweight title is a pretty big deal. With ‘CroCop’ and Heath Herring it’s a pretty interesting division” says Couture.

Couture dove right back into a full training camp for this fight with Sylvia. He says that last week was his last “hard week” of training for the fight this Saturday. With a slew of training partners larger than him, Couture’s camp consisted of two-a-days, with a two-hour session at 9am and a second two-hour session at 4pm, and he feels everything has fallen into place.

“Things are going good. I’ve got Wes Sims in camp Dan Christison in camp. Frank Mir and Eric Pele have been a big help, a couple of great big guys to push around. Training is going excellent, I’m on track. Conditioning is right up where it should be. I’m weighing about 228 lbs and everything is coming together. So I hope Tim is ready to go” Couture says.

With that, let’s jump right into the match-up between Sylvia and Couture, as Couture sees it. Couture has likely been an active competitor for longer than Sylvia has been alive, and though money, fame and legacy may be icing on the cake for him, Couture wouldn’t be coming back if he didn’t feel that he matched-up favorably with the champion.

The last time Couture fought as a heavyweight, it was against two significantly larger opponents in Ricco Rodriguez and Josh Barnett, and he lost both times after being overwhelmed on the ground with strikes. Sylvia is bigger than both Rodriguez and Barnett. .Why then, will Couture’s fate be any different this time around against the bigger foe?

“There are a couple of things” answers Couture.

“First of all those fights (with Rodriguez and Barnett) were five-six years ago (both fights happened in 2002). I’m a lot better fighter now. I have a lot more skills than I had then, especially from the bottom on the ground, being able to get out from underneath someone. Also, those two fighters were very accomplished grapplers with good wrestler’s bases. Tim’s not a grappler. Even if he does get on top of me, he doesn’t have that wrestler’s base to make him work as effectively” Couture surmises.

Couture is also confident that he will be able to close the distance on Sylvia and take him down to the mat. Though Sylvia has expressed confidence in his take down defense abilities, no doubt bolstered by his success in defending Jeff Monson’s shot attempts this past November during their UFC 65 title bout, Couture believes he will be bringing something different to the table.

“Tim has good takedown defense to some extent. He prepared for the open shot for guys like Ricco and Jeff Monson. But they were scared to get in that range that you need to. I won’t be. Tim is long and heavy and has got a great sprawl. You’ve got to get in the clinch with him” says the Greco-Roman wrestling stylist Couture.

Couture believes that defending the upper-body, high clinch takedowns that he is known for as opposed to some of the long lower-body shots that Sylvia has faced in the past are “definitely are another skill set” all together.

“How he (Sylvia) will prepare for it and how well he will handle it remains to be seen” Couture believes.

Given that he is confident that he will be able to get Sylvia on his back, how then, does Couture estimate Sylvia’s ability to fight offensively off of his back, as he did with some considerable success against Monson once Monson had taken Sylvia down? Again, Couture believes that Sylvia has something to work with there, but he’s intent on not playing into his hands, or in this case, legs, as he feels Monson did.

“He’s (Sylvia) done a better job of trying to be effective from the guard, using his long legs. But Jeff let him do that. Tim’s long so if you sit in his guard you will have trouble hitting him. The first thing you have to do is pass (the guard) and move to a better position. You have to force Tim to scramble and move. You stand up in his guard and do different things” asserts Couture.

After noting his previous difficulties handling bigger opponents in his last two heavyweight bouts, the next thing that stands out are his last two losses at light heavyweight. They were both knock outs at the hands of champion Chuck Liddell. Liddell is a devastating striker, and Sylvia, despite a recently developed and unfair label as a “boring” fighter, has one of the highest finishing-percentages throughout his career of any top-level fighter in the world. But though on the surface both Liddell and Sylvia can be viewed as dangerous strikers, Couture says they are vastly different in their styles and abilities.

“Certainly Tim is a very good striker, and a big striker. I don’t care who you are, you don’t want to stand in front of him. And I don’t intend to stand in front of him. The difference between the two is mobility. Chuck is a much more dynamic striker whereas Tim’s pretty straight ahead. He’s a big guy but he’s not very agile. Basically if you are a target for him it’s dangerous, but I don’t intend on being that target. If he thinks he’s the kind of striker Chuck is he’s crazy. He’s big and hits hard but he’s very different” says Couture.

With two straight decision wins, the popular thing for fans and pundits to do is jump on Tim Sylvia and criticize him as too “cautious” among many other unsavory adjectives. Since announcing the fight, Couture himself has fanned those flames. Essentially saying at times that he made his decision to come back after watching Sylvia defend his title against Monson, and believing that Sylvia did not do all he could to finish the fight.

“I’ve enjoyed watching Tim come up as a fighter and beat the guys he has to win the title. He was going after them. But lately he has kind of been sitting on it and conservatively getting the wins” Couture says.

It’s notable that Couture is criticizing Sylvia of being too cautious and defensive when Couture also seems to believe that the way Sylvia can beat him is by keeping him at bay with his long reach and picking his shots. In short, the type of fighting that Couture is criticizing Sylvia for is probably the approach that would give Sylvia his best chance at beating Couture.

Is this a coincidence or could the savvy competitor Couture be trying to goad Sylvia into fighting the type of aggressive “go get ‘em” style that could play perfectly into Couture’s game plan of closing the distance and getting the takedown?

The guy knows how to compete, after all, and so he knows that a lot of psychology goes into competition. It’s not likely that, in addition to his two-a-day training, that Couture has neglected the psychological component of trying to best his opponent.

“I’m not trying to goad him into anything. I’m not criticizing him. I like Tim tough he’s a tough competitor. I know I’ve got my work cut out for me. I have to prove that I’m not crazy to be fighting at 43. I hope he comes after me so that I can close the distance. He’s probably studying the last two Chuck fights to try to find a way to land those long shots. There’s a little bit of psychological war fare going on, but regardless of what anyone says, we have to get in the cage and fight.”


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