The UFC heavyweight champion Randy “The Natural” Couture was once the face of that organization, a gentleman/ambassador that its president Dana White was delighted to have folks associate with his product.
No, the clean-living family man Couture has never gotten caught up in a scandal. He has never embarrassed himself or his bosses, or fallen out of favor with anyone to speak of.
Quite the opposite.
The legend of the 44-year-old, age-defying mixed martial artist just continues to grow.
Thus, it seems that he’s outgrown his role as UFC poster boy. (That is, if you can call a balding, middle-aged, craggy-faced father of four a “boy”?) He’s even begun to transcend MMA itself, and is approaching the status of a bonafide American icon, a regular pop culture phenomenon.
Now, thanks to his appearances as a coach on Spike TV’s The Ultimate Fighter, if you say the name “Couture” to the average sports fan, there’s a strong chance he or she will know who you’re talking about. But it also is due to what he achieved last March 3rd in UFC 68: The Uprising.
It was David v. Goliath, as Couture gave up six inches in height, 40 pounds in weight, and 13 years in age to then UFC heavyweight king Tim Syliva.
To put it bluntly, Randy whipped his tail for the five-round distance. And the wrestler did it by out-striking the man with some of the heaviest hands in the game. Almost no one besides the fighter and his team saw this occurring before they entered The Octagon. For this, the achievement became an instant modern classic.
It was akin to George Foreman’s unforgettable 10th round KO of Michael Moorer in 1994. And although it may not be a perfect analogy, comparisons can be made to another aged Iron Horse, Cal Ripken Jr., and his MLB streak of 2,632 straight games played, which he achieved when he was 38 and a 16-year veteran.
By turning back the clock and rising to the occasion in ways that almost defy nature, these athletes showed regular folks that anything’s possible. (Let us not dwell on the fact that most of us lack their tremendous work ethic, determination and freaky genetics.) In facing such outsized odds, they’ve become all the more beloved.
On August 25, in UFC 74: Respect, Couture gets another chance to prove his greatness when he takes on Gabriel Gonzaga, a superlative grappler who checks in at a solid 242 and is 15 years Randy’s junior.
Many knowledgeable MMA fans and experts believe that this represents a stiffer test than Couture’s conquest of Sylvia.
Jonathan Brown, one of the keener observers of the sport and a writer for FightBeat.com, says, “I like Gonzaga in this fight by KO or submission. First, Randy has always had trouble with grapplers who were bigger and stronger than him.”
Couture made light heavyweight (205) as recently from 2003-2006, and is small heavyweight, usually weighing in the mid-220s.
“In the past,” Brown explained, “both Ricco Rodriguez and Josh Barnett were able to neutralize Randy’s wrestling advantage and stop him with strikes. Now, at 44, Randy will be facing by far the best heavyweight grappler in MMA. Gonzaga was the Mundials champion in 2006; the heavyweight BJJ Black Belt Grand Prix 2004 champ; the ADCC Trials Brazil winner; a four-time BJJ national champion; and a five-time Sao Paolo state champ. I just don’t think Randy will have any breathing room in this fight.
“On their feet,” Brown continued, “Gonzaga has proved himself a devastating striker after his knockout of Mirko Filipovic. If they go to the ground, Randy will not only defend submissions but wicked strikes from the top. If Randy puts him on his back, he will constantly be fending off submissions.
“Randy’s only advantage in this fight will be the ability to take him down in a clinch, but when he gets him there, what’s he going to do with him?”
Yikes! If Brown is right—and I consider him my de facto MMA Nostradamus—Couture is in for a long night.
But, being the living legend that he is, Couture has made a career out of proving doubters wrong. And MMA is nothing if not the theater of the unexpected.