Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
SANTA MONICA, Calif. --- The way Randy Couture sees it, signing on to serve as a coach in Spike TV's upcoming reality series "Fight Master: Bellator MMA," was simply a matter of stepping up and taking on life's newest challenge.
The mixed martial arts legend, who is five months short of his 50th birthday, has never been afraid to follow his own path. The former Oklahoma State wrestling great first gave MMA a shot back during a time in which the amateur wrestling establishment shunned the fledgling sport. He retired, returned and won the UFC heavyweight title at age 43. He decided he wanted a fight with Fedor Emelianenko and tried to get out of his UFC contract, then returned when he couldn't.
Now, just when fans had gotten used to the former five-time UFC champion's presence as an analyst on FOX events, comes Couture's latest headline-grabbing shocker, making the decision join Bellator's reality series, in which he, Frank Shamrock, Greg Jackson, and Joe Warren will coach welterweight fighters in a tournament format.
In an exclusive interview with MMAFighting after Bellator's press conference at Viacom's West Coast headquarters, Couture said that joining Bellator was a matter of staying true to himself.
"I think it's just kind of the way I'm wired," Couture said. "I never shied away from trying something new, and you see the things that you want to do to contribute to this sport I've had a passion for. And I've had a passion for this sport for a long time. It's a simple opportunity, and I'm a simple person here."
Couture's decision to move to Bellator and Viacom marks the latest dramatic turn in his on-again, off-again relationship with UFC president Dana White. Saturday night in Las Vegas after UFC 156, White said in no uncertain terms that Couture was done with the UFC for good, and strongly implied Couture isn't the man fans have come to know over the years.
"I don't respect him at all," White told reporters. "Not even a little bit. Randy Couture, the only time Randy Couture is a man is when he sets foot in the cage. As soon as his big toe steps out of that cage, he's the furthest thing from it. That's it, that's the way I feel about it."
At Tuesday's press conference, Couture played White's line for laughs, thanking him for drumming up publicity for the new venture.
"In a lot of ways you have to thank Dana White," Couture said. "He made this transition back to Spike very, very good, and very easy. Gosh, the media storm sensation has been wonderful, we appreciate that. I have to thank him for that and you have to respect his passion for what he does, and that's admirable."
After the press conference, Couture went into more depth on his thoughts on his once again ex-boss.
"You know I heard all of that second hand," Couture told MMAFighting. "I don't read any of the newspapers or the media stuff, positive or negative. Certainly I hear about it, I hear the buzz, I get asked questions about it all the time. it is what it is. It's another predictable response from him and I think everyone sees clearly and understands clearly what that's all about."
Couture has seen it all in an MMA career which dates back to 1997. He's seen more than his fair share of promoters enter the business, make brash claims, spend tons and tons of money, then end up out of business just as soon as they've arrived.
You don't survive as long as Couture has without a keen sense of who can back up their talk and who's simply talking. And as far as Couture sees it, Viacom's professionalism will make the difference between Bellator and all the other promotions which have come and gone over the years.
"Meeting the people in charge is what sold me on this," Couture said. "No one is making brash comments or poking Zuffa in the chest and I think that's been the common mistake in a lot of those organizations. [Bellator is the] only one interested in doing what's right for the sport and the athletes and the promotion, they don't make it about ego and these other things. I don't think that's the idea here."
"I think the idea is to do some different things that are significant to the sport and that's a big part of my decision," Couture continued. "I want to do something significant for the sport and they're taking the right approach to doing that. They've got a strong background and Viacom is very serious about what they're doing and they're making a commitment, so it's going to be interesting to see what they do."
It also helps that Bellator's parent corporation, Viacom, has a history in the sport, as Spike TV was the cable network which gave the UFC an opportunity with "The Ultimate Fighter" back during a time when no one else would touch MMA.
"Spike frankly had the balls to put this on television when a lot of others, when nobody else would, when everyone else was pushing back on this sport," Couture said during the press conference. "In a lot of ways, that changed the landscape for MMA for the better, it's a behind the curtains look at the preparation, the training, the dedication and everything. It was a look like, it's not crazy, it's what we do. The first series was instrumental in that. Now we have an opportunity to do in a lot of ways the same thing. Its a watershed moment to create for Spike another opportunity to give opportunities for more fighters in mixed martial arts."
For Couture, new opportunities aren't just about turning the page. They're the very fabric of who he is. As the camera crews packed up and went home on an uncharacteristically gray Southern California day, Couture philosophized on what's brought him to his point.
"I'm like everybody else, I have my challenges and tests in the journey of life and you know, you figure out how to overcome those things, and rationally, you figure out that you're a better person because of the adversity you've gone through. It's probably a fighter's mentality and a wrestler's mentality that I learned along the way."
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