Randy Couture on the near-death of a sport, today's heavyweight division, and the night he toppled the giant

Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Faint grunts of desperation echo into the night as rain pounds down on a dimmed city parking lot. Bathed in streetlight, Randy Couture eats a pair of right hands from a 6-foot-5 blonde behemoth, then slams him on the pavement and seizes mount. The Swede gives up his back and a bloodied Couture slithers in a rear-naked choke, before catching a countershot and rolling into an omoplata.

It may not seem like retiree work, but it's all just par for the course for Couture, who's bombastic struggle with Dolph Lundgren highlights Ambushed, the former champion's upcoming Hollywood action venture. To call Couture a busy man these days would be a bit of an understatement. In reality the film is just the latest in an endless cascade of side projects, a media mixture which has the 50-year-old dipping his toes into everything from the silver screen to advertising to coaching, with a string of reality television gigs on Spike TV thrown in for good measure.

"I'm busier than I've ever been in my life," Couture laughs. "I kind of miss the simplicity of a 10 or 12-week training camp where all I did was eat, sleep or train."

It's been a little over two years since Couture danced his final dance in the Octagon. The shadow of his vast figure still looms over the sport in various facets, although traces of Couture are notably absent throughout the festivities taking place in Las Vegas on this 20th anniversary of the UFC.

It's not altogether surprising. That bridge burned down in late-January when Couture jumped ship from Zuffa to Viacom; a wound still recent enough to be tender. Yet as the organization he helped build creeps one year closer to America's legal drinking age, Couture's footprint still reverberates through MMA's legendary halls.

"It's interesting to see how far the sport has come, and how it's changed," he remarks. "Obviously over the course of my fighting career, I was one of the guys who transitioned from those old days and how things were with the tournament format. Seemed like a new rule every time we had a show; there was a new rule to fit into you training program.

"Back then when I was jumping in, UFC 13 and on through UFC Japan the first time, we were concerned this sport was going to die. There were political figures out there like Senator McCain that were trying to crush the sport and keep it down, get it banned and all those things that were going on. And they were fairly close to being successful."

Through perseverance, adaptation and a little luck, MMA managed to survive those dark years and flourish into the titan it is today. Along the way Couture was one of it's foremost figures, a three-time heavyweight champion, a two-time light heavyweight champion, and even an old-school tournament winner to boot. He coached opposite Chuck Liddell on The Ultimate Fighter's landmark first season, defended MMA's honor against brash over-the-hill boxer James Toney, and became the fourth member of the UFC Hall of Fame a year before winning his final title.

But even now, there's one moment for Couture that stands above the rest.

"I have several I'm proud of, but I don't think there's a more favorite fight of mine than the Tim Sylvia fight," Couture says after a pause. "Coming out of retirement after a year off, the stark contrast in mine and Tim's physicality, just the whole way that fight went down at that time, the North American record for attendance. There were just a lot of things that lined up for that particular night."

Indeed, that particular night, March 3, 2007 in Columbus, Ohio, will forever be remembered by those who lived through it. While he may be a punchline now, back then Sylvia was a daunting force. The 6-foot-8 thorn in the heavyweight division's side, whose command over the throne coupled with a six-fight win streak and seemingly insurmountable 80-inch reach to signal an unwinnable end for the 43-year-old Couture.

"There were a lot of questions," Couture says looking back. "Certainly at my age, coming out of retirement and facing a guy that was that big, there were a lot of people that thought I was crazy and should've just rested on my laurels and stayed retired. For me, I always kept it simple. Focused on the problems at hand, the tactics and the technique that I was going to use to defeat whatever opponent that was standing across from me, and Tim was no different in that regard.

"I felt pretty confident I had the answer for Tim. You never know, it's still a fight and a lot of things can happen. There's certainly been occasions where I thought I had the answer, and it turned out I had the wrong one. That was a night where everything just fell into place, and went exactly how it should've gone."

Couture was hardly given a chance against Sylvia, but it took just eight seconds for the universe of probability to come crashing down on its axis. Couture waded into the center of the cage, lunged forward with his left leg, then rocketed off a straight right. The punch collided with a satisfying thwack into Sylvia's jaw. From there, history was made.

"He was like a redwood at 6-foot-8. I was as surprised as, I think, everybody in the arena when he fell over," Couture laughs. "It took me a couple seconds to kind of catch up and realize what I was looking at. I don't think the crowds sat back down for the rest of the fight."

Even today, more than six years later, not a week goes by without Couture drowning in conversations and congratulations from overjoyed fight fans who can't believe the old man did it.

In many ways, it's strange to think back to that time now. Six years doesn't seem like much, but for a sport still in its infancy, it's a lifetime. In today's era of hyper-athletic, cardio-monster heavyweights, it's easy to wonder how a figure like Sylvia could become so menacing, so unbeatable, for even a short window.

"The heavyweight division has always kind of, certainly from the boxing days, been the marquee division. In mixed martial arts, I think that was a little different. It was the 205-pound division that tended to be more of the marquee division. I think that's starting to shift a little bit now," Couture says.

"The heavyweight division (now) is probably deeper than it's ever been. A guy that's average size, like myself, in the heavyweight division probably won't have the kind of success that I had, with the depth and the type of athletes that are in the division right now. These guys aren't just big guys. They're very well rounded, very conditioned fighters. Guys like Junior dos Santos and Cain (Velasquez) are kind of this new hybrid. I think Brock (Lesnar) was kind of the start of that trend in the division. So I hope that continues."

Even despite his split with Zuffa, Couture is one of the few originals to have parlayed his five minutes in the spotlight into a sustainable income. From one venture to the next, there's always something new on the horizon. It's a life Couture enjoys, and believe him when he says he'd rather be fending off the likes of Lundgren than the monsters of today's era.

But every once in a while, when the stars hit the Vegas strip and thrill of fight week bubbles to a rolling boil, he can't help but catch himself thinking about those old, unhinged days, when the outlaws of combat sports ruled from their grisly perch.

"I think in my prime I would've been able to compete with any of these guys (now) in either of the divisions, 205 or heavyweight," Couture finishes with a smile. "It's going to be a dogfight. They're very skilled fighters and they pose a lot of problems. But I think in my day, I could've hung with any of them and been successful."

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