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UFC fight is pumping ire

After turning off fans, 6-foot-8 heavyweight champion Sylvia has his reputation on the line in a title fight against the popular Couture.

March 03, 2007|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

He has been booed for fighting a boring title defense, criticized by his boss for raising a finger of disdain in the direction of fans, and now he finds himself challenged by a popular veteran who has come out of retirement.

Tim Sylvia, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's heavyweight champion, will leave the Octagon after tonight's title defense against 43-year-old Randy Couture in Columbus, Ohio, having either gained a much-needed measure of respect or been sent away a beaten man -- to the delight of most.

"This is a big, big fight for Tim," UFC President Dana White said. "Randy is one of our most popular fighters ever ... one of the pioneers of this sport and one of our greatest champions ever. Tim is a tough guy, he's knocked a lot of people out, but when you're flipping fans off, you're not going to have a lot of them."

Being ornery is one thing, but UFC fans who attended Sylvia's most recent fight, a five-round decision over Jeff Monson in November, showered Sacramento's Arco Arena in boos for the more serious sin of doing just enough to win on three judges' scorecards.

That kind of fighting doesn't cut it in the UFC, which has packed arenas with fight fans thirsting for more intense action and less of the punching for points that exists in boxing.

"If they want a knockout, give me a standup fighter," Sylvia said. "The guy [Monson] wasn't willing to fight. Those fans were booing the fight, not me. I think I have a lot of fans; hundreds, thousands of fans. I think what you saw [in Sacramento] were 500 booing it, but the rest loved it."

Couture viewed that fight, and disagreed.

"Tim had Jeff in trouble, he could've stepped up and been more aggressive to finish that fight," Couture said. "I didn't see that. The fans are on his back because of that and because of the way he's represented himself."

At least two people in attendance were so critical of Sylvia that he shot them the finger, in plain view of White at ringside. Sylvia explained this week that the dissenting fans were barking while sitting directly behind his father, and that bothered him.

Although the 6-foot-8, 255-pound Sylvia claims 16 knockouts in his 25-2 mixed-martial arts record, three of his last four fights have been victories by decision. He claimed the heavyweight title less than a year ago by recovering from a first-round knockdown to score a technical knockout over Andrei Arlovski, who had defeated Sylvia by submission in 2005. Sylvia and Arlovski fought for a third time last July, with Sylvia winning by decision.

The Sylvia-Monson fight in Sacramento wasn't even the main event; that honor went to Georges St. Pierre's welterweight title triumph over Sylvia's close friend and Iowa training-camp partner Matt Hughes.

Sylvia said he visited White after the Monson fight and urged him to "bring in more heavyweight competition."

"I told Dana I want to fight tougher guys," Sylvia said.

His wish was granted.

In Couture, Sylvia faces a UFC Hall of Fame inductee and former light-heavyweight champion who has defeated both current light-heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell and former champion Tito Ortiz. Couture signed a four-fight deal with UFC in January.

Sylvia said he's insulted that Couture, a respected wrestler, has opted to return as a heavyweight. Couture says Sylvia doesn't deserve to be UFC's heavyweight champion.

"He's coming in to take me down, but I'll knock him out," Sylvia said. "I'm at a different level in my striking ability, a totally different level. He's going to get hit, and he can't take the power I'm going to bring. We saw it in his last loss to [Liddell], Randy's lost a step. He hasn't gotten any better in the last three years."

Sylvia predicts victory will give him more fans who are currently on Couture's side.

A win also will leave him poised to fight a heavyweight widely considered more talented, the UFC's recently signed Croatian Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic.

If, as expected, Filipovic defeats Gabriel Gonzaga at the April UFC 70 event in England, he will fight the Sylvia-Couture winner for the heavyweight title, White announced this week.

Sylvia said he sat ringside at Filipovic's Feb. 3 destruction of Temecula's Eddie Sanchez in Las Vegas and maintains "Cro Cop" is "definitely beatable."

Personal popularity, Sylvia says, will increase as long as he continues to retain the heavyweight title.

"I have a problem with being very outspoken," Sylvia said. "I need to count to three before I answer questions sometimes, I guess.... My strategy is to keep winning. I do that, and the fans will come."

Said White: "Now that we're going global to get the best fighters in the world, Tim Sylvia will have his opportunity to prove he is the best in the world."

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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