Randy Couture looks to pull one more legendary upset
Posted: Wednesday August 22, 2007 4:59PM; Updated: Thursday August 23, 2007 11:36AM
If it wasn't for the chiseled physique or the nicknames like Captain America and The Natural, Randy Couture wouldn't be the most convincing UFC Heavyweight Champion before entering the ring. But behind the warm smile and polite demeanor, the 44-year-old is one of the sports toughest champs. Saturday night at UFC 74, Couture will look to pull off yet another improbable victory.
Outward appearances aside, his biggest victories have come much to the surprise of UFC insiders. A three-time NCAA Division I All-America and three-time Olympic team alternate, Couture was an accomplished Greco-Roman wrestler before he started training in MMA. But wrestlers like him failed in the past when they tried to convert to the MMA-- more successful Olympic wrestlers like Kevin Jackson and Townsend Saunders tried their hand at MMA at the same time, leaving the sport quickly after demoralizing losses.
But Couture proved different. His first high profile fight was against "The Phenom" Vitor Belfort at UFC 15. Groomed as the top star at the event, Belfort took a combined three minutes and four seconds to finish his first four opponents with explosive punching power. His jiu jitsu was supposed to be even better than his standup. Couture, the underdog, shocked Belfort and the UFC by defeating Belfort in 8:17 of the first round. "I was being set up to be Vitor's victim," he remembers. "Nobody knew who I was. I heard [then-UFC president] Bob Meyrowitz was jumping up and down in the trailer when I won. That was his poster boy, who knew no weaknesses."
Couture went on to win the UFC heavyweight title, but couldn't leave his underdog status behind. In 2003, UFC was looking to make a fight between top stars Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell. Ortiz wouldn't agree to terms, and Couture was brought in as a replacement opponent. A 39-year-old who had lost his last two fights, Couture's underdog status was obvious as he entered first, to little fanfare. Then came the UFC golden boy. Liddell was introduced by an over-the-top video package and a new Vanilla Ice song. "Chuck's entrance was pretty extravagant, and obviously the fight didn't go so well for him," Couture says.
Not so well? Couture beat the kickboxer Liddell standing, took him down and finished him in the third round of the scheduled five-round fight.
It was that fight that made Couture into an iconic figure among fight fans, but it would still not be his biggest upset. Couture lost a pair of rematches to Liddell before retiring briefly in 2006. A year later, he decided to return. "I was kind of harassing [UFC president] Dana White. I made some offhand comments, and he took me seriously," Couture says. "Two weeks later they made me an offer to face [then UFC heavyweight champion] Tim Sylvia."
His opponent? A champion who was six inches taller, 40 pounds heavier and 13 years younger than him. But none of that mattered to Couture. He caught Sylvia with a hard punch at the beginning of the first round, knocking him down. From there, it was pandemonium. "It was absolutely the craziest crowd that I can remember," Couture says. "Nineteen thousand screaming people, and after the knockout in the first 15 seconds, I don't think anyone sat down for the rest of the five-round fight." Couture won a unanimous decision and was again champion.
Saturday, Couture looks to prove the critics wrong one more time, as he takes on tough Brazilian Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74. Gonzaga is coming off a spectacular knockout of Mirko Cro Cop, and presents a tough style matchup for Couture. Gonzaga is bigger than Couture, and has excellent submissions. He also has solid standup.
The fight is similar to those Couture had with Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez, both bigger heavyweights with solid submissions and good wrestling (Couture lost both ). But he doesn't expect similar results against Gonzaga. "I think I'm a completely different fighter than I was back then," he says. "I've got improved skills on the ground and standing. I learned a lot from those two fights and made adjustments accordingly."
Couture is counting on his conditioning and experience against the highly skilled Gonzaga. "I think I have an advantage in experience. Gabe's never been in a five-round championship fight like this," Couture says. "I have to push the pace early and force him to work."
After this fight, Couture's future is uncertain. He will be filming a Scorpion King prequel for four weeks in South Africa. (Fighters such as Lennox Lewis and Antonio Tarver have had trouble returning to competition after filming movies.) He has two more bouts on a contract that he wants to fulfill, but age and injuries could be a concern for Couture. Then again, the underdog champ has never let precedent get in his way.