By John Silver – The Chicago Sun – Times
Six-time champion Randy Couture celebrates a
UFC heavyweight victory over James Toney
last August in Boston. | Gregory Payan~AP
In many ways, UFC 129 will be about firsts.
The first UFC event held at a stadium. The first time the Octagon visits Ontario. The first $10 million-plus gate and an expected record 55,000 in attendance.
But for one fighter, it will be about lasts. UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture will enter the Octagon as a fighter one final time.
“I realize I’ve pushed it a lot further than anybody is going to push it,” said Couture, 47. “I want to go out on my terms and not after one or two or three losses and have everybody else telling you that you should be retiring. I kind of want to do it when I want to do it. I think now is the time.”
The April 30 fight couldn’t present a more different atmosphere from what he experienced during his first fight at UFC 13. On May 30, 1997, before an estimated crowd of 5,100 at the Augusta (Ga.) Civic Center, Couture defeated two men who outweighed him by 100 pounds to win the night’s four-man heavyweight tournament.
This was during a dark period in the sport’s history — before it was sanctioned by any state and when Sen. John McCain took on MMA in an attempt to ban it.
Fast-forward 14 years: Couture is a legend in a swiftly growing, widely accepted sport that’s sanctioned in 45 of 48 states that have athletic commissions.
Great ambassador for MMA
Rare is the athlete who knows when it’s time to quit — or at least to permanently quit. Couture has done the Brett Favre-like dance with retirement before. He retired the first time after UFC 57 in February 2006 but was back a year later. He also quit fighting in October 2007 — “resigned,” not retired — in a dispute with the UFC.
This time he’s done. No, really, he’s retiring.
His remarkable longevity, coupled with starting later in MMA at 34, meant fighting well into his late 40s. He said he doesn’t have that much wear and tear on his body, he feels great and he’s as healthy as ever.
“I absolutely have the ability to continue to compete and compete at this level,” he said. “I don’t want to — I feel like I’ve stretched it and pushed it and don’t want to wait until I have those issues to think about.”
He’s arguably MMA’s greatest ambassador. His engaging personality works well in front of the media and during public appearances as he articulately and intelligently answers questions.
He helped move the sport’s image from barroom brawling and human cockfighting to a competition between skilled athletes. As one of the coaches on the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” he helped nurture the sport into a multimillion-dollar global juggernaut.
Couture’s six championship reigns (three-time heavyweight champion, two-time light-heavyweight champion, one interim light-heavyweight champion) are a UFC record. His battles with Chuck Liddell and Vitor Belfort will long be remembered for their excitement and pay-per-view appeal for the growing sport.
After returning from his contract dispute with the UFC in November 2008, Couture lost his heavyweight title to Brock Lesnar. It seemed the writing was on the wall. He’s 3-2 since returning (19-10 overall), but he hasn’t defeated a top-level contender in that time. He beat an inconsistent Brandon Vera, over-the-hill Mark Coleman and freak-show boxer-turned-MMA fighter James Toney.
Machida a real challenge
At UFC 129, his final test will be against an elite contender, former light-heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida. The Brazilian karate master has an elusive, unusual style that has proved to be difficult for fighters. But it’s that challenge that attracted Couture to the matchup.
“I’ve watched Lyoto for a couple of years now and am very appreciative of the way he competes, and he just has such a unique style as an athlete, and I like that,” Couture said. “Those are the kinds of fights that are intriguing and interesting to me for me to try and figure out and protect myself.”
Regardless of the outcome, Couture said it’s over — unless. . . .
“I’m sure they’re probably going to have ideas for other fights, they’re going to try to entice me into coming back and fighting again,” he said. “I anticipate all those decisions and that, you know, those thoughts. But we’ll see how that goes.
“It’s about where I’m at in my life. I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s about the journey; it’s about the performance. As long as I go in there and have a good performance, I will be satisfied.”