On a bright, windy June afternoon, two middle-aged men pop out of a gargantuan Ultimate Fighting Championship promotional trailer in the parking lot of the Palms and instantly begin bubbling like a couple of star-struck teens.
They’re old enough to have abandoned hero worship years ago, but the two are in a tizzy, having just met one of the most promising young stars of mixed martial arts at today’s UFC promotional event. Fan No. 1 is built like a linebacker, with slicked-back dark hair and a T-shirt that ominously reads “Annihilation.” His buddy, who looks to be about the same age, is slightly less beefy and sports a similar hair set-up but no intimidating wardrobe choices.
These two would look more at home on a golf course, or shopping together for cement at Home Depot. The fact that they are, instead, comparing their new, glossy, autographed photos of UFC up-and-comer Ryan Couture is both funny and a bit perplexing. What is it about this young fighter that’s dragged these two average guys out of the suburbs on a day when most men their age would take advantage of the great weather to play with the kids, shop with the wives or squeeze in nine holes?
Mr. Annihilation, as if on cue, inadvertently explains in a husky voice to his friend and anyone else within earshot.
“That dude is so for real.”
“He’s got some guns on him, now,” agrees Less Beefy.
“Guns? They’re bazookas, dude!”
“He’s gonna fuck up that guy he’s fighting next, how much you want to bet he won’t?”
“I’m not taking that bet. Ryan is gonna destroy him.”
Fifteen minutes later, the 28-year-old Couture takes a break from signing autographs and walks out of the trailer to chat with a reporter. The intense, subsurface slow burn that normally characterizes Couture’s features breaks into a wide smile when asked if he’s gotten used to affecting fans, many of them middle-aged dads, like this.
“I love the fans,” he says … and that’s it. Couture just stands there and smiles, waiting for the next question. Hmmm. It’s obviously going to take a little more to get this guy to open up. Time to downshift into personal history.
Asking about his former life as a banker in Bellingham, Wash., when he was fresh out of Western Washington University with a newly minted degree in mathematics, seems to do the trick.
“Growing up, I always had a knack for it. I always enjoyed math. But after I graduated I got a job in a bank there. After about three years of doing that, I was feeling a little stagnant and wanted a change of pace. I’d taken up jiu-jitsu as a hobby and was starting to get into training. Obviously, with Dad being so big in the sport I was a fan, so …”
So, the 5-foot-10 Couture, who weighed about 200 pounds back then, in 2008, left his Washington bank job and moved to Vegas to train at a local gym owned by his dad, who also helped launch his son’s professional fighting career. That sounds cool enough before you realize “Dad” is Randy Couture, the 47-year-old mixed-martial-arts legend and UFC Hall of Famer who has held the UFC heavyweight title three times and the light-heavyweight championship twice.
The younger Couture, who wrestled in high school, says his dad never pressured him to become a fighter. Randy, who’s also a former wrestler and college wrestling coach, he says, gave him enough space to make his own decisions about how to live his life. “He never wanted to be the dad who was pressuring me to do anything or pressuring me to follow in his footsteps. He’s made it very clear that he’s there, available and happy to help if I have any questions, but he leaves it to me to come to him.”
Father and son have remained close throughout Ryan’s life, he says. Even after his folks split when Ryan was in the sixth grade and he stayed behind in Washington state with his mom, Couture says he and his dad kept in close contact. Ryan has told reporters before that he knew Randy as just Dad, not as a major fighting star. The family moved around in Ryan’s youth, from Germany to Oklahoma to Washington state, but Ryan says his dad was there as much as he could have been, goofing around with his son during down time from the road. Now that father and son are together again, both have had time to catch up.
“We always kept in close touch, but living here in Vegas has given us the chance to reconnect,” he says.
Although Randy is often out of town gilding his already illustrious credentials, Ryan says they spend time together as much as they can. He says he never thinks about his dad the way the fans do, but he’s learned from Randy how to handle his newly chosen career and the glaring spotlight that comes with it.
“I’ve never known any different. For me, he’s always been Dad. Because people didn’t always know who he is, it’s been interesting to see his transition, and that’s given me tools to deal with what I potentially have in store with my career,” Ryan says.
Although at vastly different stages of their respective careers, Ryan says he and his dad share a lot, namely a trademark family passion they bring to the sport.
“He’s always been a competitor, he was a wrestler growing up, so in that regard his approach has always been very intense,” he says.
Intense just like the son.
“Yeah, I think we have a lot of similar traits. I’m a pretty intense competitor, too, but in life we’re both pretty laid-back guys.”
Randy agrees with Ryan’s characterization. His voice swells with pride as he talks about his son.
“I think personally, we’re very similar. We’re very laid back, not high-strung individuals, and we both have a diligence about us, a work ethic. It’s how we’re hard-wired, I guess, so those are definitely traits we share,” says Randy, taking a break from a business trip in Los Angeles.
Ryan obviously loves sharing so much with his father: the intensity in their training, the commitment to winning every bout, the father-son time Ryan’s move to Vegas afforded them. He again breaks into a grin as he talks about how he thinks his dad sees him.
“I think he likes to see I’m in the gym putting in the hard work, and as long as he sees I’m doing things the right way, he [doesn't offer advice],” he says.
That right way of doing things has served both Coutures well. In addition to his titles, Randy enjoys an 18-10 professional record while Ryan is, so far, 2-0. Come June 24, Ryan will face undefeated fighter Matt Ricehouse at an event in Kent, Wash., sponsored by UFC affiliate Strikeforce.
“I’ve been doing two-a-days getting ready for the past five weeks, and my training has been really sharp, really great,” he says. “I like the way I match up with Ricehouse. We have similar styles, we’re both kind of long-ranging and well-rounded fighters. It’ll be a good test for me, but I think I’ll be able to isolate him,” Ryan says.
As the two have grown closer in the past several years, as the father has imparted his body of hard-knock knowledge to his up-and-coming son, Randy says he, in turn, has learned important lessons from Ryan.
“I think Ryan seems to be a little more calculating than I was. I was a little more rash when it came to some things, but he is a little more reserved. I’ve watched him, and I’ve learned from him,” says Randy.
No matter what happens on June 24, win or lose, Ryan says he’s not going anywhere. Mixed martial arts, not the daily grind at some bank, is what feeds his soul. That’s most important, says Ryan: doing what you love.
“I never was too keen on a 9-to-5 life,” Ryan says. “I always loved getting into the gym and sweating and pushing myself. I just want to realize my potential and keep doing this. I love it.”