"The Natural's" era, though, is now over. Years after most pro athletes retire, Couture was still competing, excelling in a young man's game, but no more. His epic run came to a definitive close on Saturday night, overshadowing everything in its path, including UFC 129, the 55,724 filling the Rogers Centre in the biggest MMA show in North American history, as well as Georges St. Pierre's sixth consecutive title defense. It ended with the legend going out on his shield.
Facing a fighter 15 years his junior, the 47-year-old Couture struggled to implement his traditional game plan of closing the range, initiating the clinch, and taking his foe to the ground. Instead, Lyoto Machida used his brilliant footwork to keep him at distance and capitalized on a decided speed advantage to pepper the former champ with power strikes. Then in the second, Machida emulated his teammate Anderson Silva, using the same front kick Silva used to knock out Vitor Belfort earlier this year to flatten Couture. Machida finished with strikes from the top before ref Yves Lavigne pulled him off at the 1:05 mark.
After nearly 14 years of action, after 30 fights, five UFC championships and numerous memories, Couture said that indeed, it was finally, inarguably time to hang up his gloves. "No, you're not going to see me again," Couture said shortly after the fight. "This is it."
As Couture stood in the cage for the final time, the record crowd chanted his name, and Couture waved good bye. He rode off not in a limo or in any stylish ride, but in an ambulance, sent to the hospital for precautionary tests.
Couture, who retired with a record of 19-11, lost not only his final fight, but one of his front teeth, knocked out of his mouth as a result of the kick. Even in defeat, he laughed at his plight, telling UFC commentator Joe Rogan, "I think the last time we had this conversation, I had all my teeth."
The stunning knockout not only ended Couture's career but lifted Machida from a rough streak in which he suffered the first two losses of his career. While Machida was thrilled at the victory, jumping atop the cage afterward, he also saluted his fallen foe, paying tribute along with the rest of the crowd.
"It's well deserved," he said of the ovation Couture got while walking from the cage. "For everything he's accomplished in the sport and done for the sport, it's completely well deserved."
Couture was said to be in good spirits despite the disappointment. While Couture had been adamant that this was it win or lose, others had not been quite so sure. Among them was UFC president Dana White, who all week long voiced his doubt about it.
By the end of Saturday night though, White had changed his mind, admitting it was probably the right time for him to exit the sport which he helped build.
White said he didn't have a chance to share more than a few words with Couture before he left, but hoped fans would recognize his immense contributions in the cage and out.
"Before the pre-fight press conference, I said I don't think we celebrate Randy Couture enough," White said. "Everyone went crazy when George Foreman KO'd Michael Moorer. Randy's 47 fighting with 20-somehtings. He's an amazing human being. To see him end like this ... you know what I was saying before the fight. I think he should retire, too. He went out on a high. He went seven minutes with Machida, and that's still a big deal."
Couture has retired one other time of course. In Feb. 2006, he said he would never fight again after being knocked out by Chuck Liddell. More than one year later, he returned and shocked the MMA world by thrashing Tim Sylvia en route to the UFC heavyweight title, a win that made him, at 43 years old, the oldest champion in UFC history. He retires with several records, including participating in 15 title matches, and he also boasts career wins over ex-champions Liddell, Sylvia, Tito Ortiz, Vitor Belfort, Kevin Randleman, Mark Coleman and Maurice Smith.
Couture will now move on to Hollywood, where he is in demand, with roles in two upcoming action films.
His legacy was safe before he ever stepped in the cage, but the end was not the way anyone would have liked it. Couture had left many fighters the same way he found himself. To him, it was always respectful athletic competition, and it was that attitude that helped soften some hard stances towards MMA from mainstream media and government officials. For those who didn't understand the sport, it never seemed to make sense how Couture could transform from a gentleman outside the cage to a relentless champion inside it. That chameleon-like ability, along with his amazing story of extended success was one of the keys to MMA's rise over the last decade.
Out of respect, the Rogers Centre crowd stood and applauded the legend. It was Machida's win, and it was St. Pierre's night, but when it came to a single theme that will be recalled years from now, it was Couture's moment, the night a legend said a sad good-bye.
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