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Veteran's day

Couture, 44, says his experience will trump the enthusiasm of challenger Gonzaga, 28

August 25, 2007|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

It was the most surprising, devastating blow of the year so far in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Randy Couture, 44, was sitting ringside for it, well aware that he was next.

On April 21 in England, little-known UFC heavyweight Gabriel Gonzaga delivered a powerful right kick to the side of favored Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic's head, rendering the top heavyweight contender unconscious.

The fight was over, and the bull-framed Gonzaga charged around the Octagon as if he had just won the heavyweight belt.

He hadn't, of course.

That award belongs to Couture, the UFC Hall of Fame inductee and the organization's five-time champion who has weathered 10 years of mixed martial arts battles. In doing so, he has built a tolerance to any intimidation the slightly favored 28-year-old Gonzaga will carry tonight into the Octagon inside Mandalay Bay's Events Center in Las Vegas.

"I'm not terribly concerned about the kick," said Couture, who weighed in at 228 1/2 pounds to Gonzaga's 252. "Mirko's fighting style allowed that to happen. If Gabriel tries that with me, he'll be on his back quickly.

"This is a sport where experience matters. I've been in a ton of five-round, [tough] fights. He hasn't been in any. That's an advantage."

Couture, nicknamed "The Natural," has been fighting at this advanced level since UFC 13, a May 1997 event back when the organization scheduled fighters for two bouts in the same day. This week's Las Vegas event is UFC 74.

A linchpin member of UFC's so-called Generation One, Couture caught early mixed martial arts fans' attention with two same-night dismissals of fighters above and near 300 pounds. He later delivered a stunning technical knockout of the favored Vitor Belfort in a UFC heavyweight tournament championship fight. Couture then briefly proceeded on to a Japanese fighting organization that put him in a tournament that required three fights in the same night.

"The tournament format was tough," Couture said. "You could prepare for the guy you'd fight first, but you didn't know who was coming next. Another thing that made it tough was the fatigue factor if you had to go the distance your first fight, but your opponent had a first-round win. And there were fewer rules back then. We've eliminated some forms of striking, the head-butts, some kicking, and kneeing a guy's head on the ground. It was tough."

Couture counts among his five greatest fights a June 2003 victory over recently defeated UFC light-heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell. Couture won that fight in a third-round TKO and then won a unanimous decision over Tito Ortiz three months later to become the first and only man to win UFC belts in two weight classes. He lost and recaptured the belt in consecutive 2004 fights against Belfort but then was defeated twice within a year by Liddell in 2005 (Couture's first knockout loss) and again in early 2006. Couture announced his retirement after the second Liddell loss and could have settled into a UFC television commentator role. Less than a year later, however, Couture decided to fight 6-foot-8 heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia. His first punch decked the champion and Couture cruised to a unanimous decision.

"It wasn't about winning another belt," he said. "It was me knowing physically that I had more competition in me. I had gotten through a divorce and found I had the itch to compete. I had done some grappling on the side, and when they offered me the chance to fight Tim, I took it.

"Sometime, Father Time's going to catch up with [me]. So far, he hasn't."

Couture's endurance -- he is an Army veteran and three-time U.S. Olympic wrestling team alternate -- has won him high regard among MMA fans devoted from the combat sport's roots, and the growing fan population who first saw him fight in March.

"He's a student of the game," Liddell said. "He's always been a tough guy, but he keeps getting better at picking his opponents apart. I saw the Gonzaga kick, but Randy always fights hard and I can see him wearing Gonzaga down."

Said Couture: "I've taken a humble approach to the sport. I'm not brash or flashy. I'm generally a laid-back guy, and even though that may not coincide with what some think of our sport, the fans can relate to my personality. They know I've been around 10 years, and win or lose, I'm going to represent the sport in a positive way."

He's capitalizing on his popularity and that of mixed martial arts by landing film roles such as one as an MMA commentator in the upcoming David Mamet film "Redbelt" and another that will take him to South Africa for filming throughout October.

Couture also owns MMA gyms that will be in seven U.S. cities, including San Diego, by the end of the year.

"It's a trend; people are moving away from karate dojos, and looking for a more complete, fitness-oriented place where they can learn mixed martial arts," Couture said.

It all started with a first-round submission win before an Augusta, Ga., crowd in 1997.

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