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Couture's return to the ring is a big draw

He ends his legal separation from UFC and will face Lesnar, the next big thing in mixed martial arts.

November 14, 2008|Lance Pugmire | Pugmire is a Times staff writer.

It's being billed as the biggest Ultimate Fighting Championship bout in history.

UFC President Dana White is projecting the comeback of heavyweight champion Randy Couture against former World Wrestling Entertainment star Brock Lesnar on Saturday in Las Vegas will break the mixed martial arts record of 1.2 million pay-per-view buys, even in this economy.

"They want to see the new guy test the old guy," Lesnar, 31, said of Couture, 45.

The older guy, 6-feet-1, 225-pound Couture, is coming off a nearly 15-month layoff from his masterful title-defense destruction of bigger Brazilian contender Gabriel Gonzaga in August 2007.

Couture then sued UFC to escape his contract because the company failed to sign his dream opponent, Fedor Emelianenko, considered by some the world's most gifted mixed martial arts fighter.

"It was a business decision to leave, and it was a business decision to come back," Couture said. "When push comes to shove, I'd rather fight than wait around."

In September, Couture halted the legal separation and signed a new three-fight contract with UFC.

And with the 6-foot-3 Lesnar, White has a bankable pay-per-view star from his days as a WWE "champion." His crossover credibility three fights into MMA is based not only on his 2000 NCAA wrestling championship at Minnesota, but a highlight-reel knockdown and victory over UFC veteran Heath Herring in August.

That was an improvement over Lesnar's bout in February when he submitted before the first round ended against former champion Frank Mir.

Now, the UFC finds itself selling a major fight involving the popular "Next Big Thing" Lesnar and the interest in Couture's return. The Las Vegas host hotel's MGM Grand Race and Sports Book lists Lesnar as a slight favorite in the bout.

"The star power in this fight is so intense, there's buzz everywhere about Brock doing well in the UFC, and can he now beat Randy?" White said.

Lesnar said he's confident he can "reverse" Couture's knack for "getting guys on the ground and controlling them." Says Couture: "I have the skill-set to deal with his size and athleticism. I don't want to lay underneath him."

Couture says, "I don't have any concerns about the layoff because I've been very active for the last year and a half fighting guys in my [Las Vegas] gym," referring to heavyweight contender Wanderlei Silva and light-heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin, among others. "An MMA layoff isn't that big of a deal because our training is so close to real competition."

Couture insists he has no resentment toward UFC, even though he was highly critical of White and the organization's pay structure and health care.

"There's no way I can give less than 100% when I've got Brock ready to punch me in the face," Couture said. "He's a big, strong athlete. . . . It doesn't matter that he spent those years in the WWE. You still always saw a formidable athlete, and that remains impressive."

A Lesnar victory over Couture would be a powerful passing of the torch.

Lesnar is expected to clinch a sizable advantage at weigh-in, coming in at the 265-pound limit, and he is excited about fighting a real, not scripted, main event.

He joined WWE barely removed from his amateur wrestling acclaim. "What the company asked, I tried to do to the best of my potential. It was a win-win," he said.

But he found the toll of an extended life on the road grueling and unsatisfying.

"I had to make a decision," he said. "I was an entertainer, but I was always a competitor and I was missing that. . . . It was hard. Here I was, guaranteed a multimillion-dollar contract, but I wasn't happy. I wanted a change."

After a failed bid to land on an NFL roster, Lesnar said he's confident he's found the right competitive outlet in MMA.

"He's an incredible athlete, and I'm glad we could make this fight. I have no clue who's going to win," White said.

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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