Nine times out of 10, a fighter's debut on the MMA regional scene can be a jarring experience. It's a rite of passage, in a way; a tradition causing jittery teenagers and future superstars alike to lose their lunches in darkened backrooms since the sport was in its infancy.
But for Ryan Couture, the 31-year-old son of MMA royalty whose pro career began in the big show, thrived in the big show, and ultimately slumped in the big show, meeting little-known Kyle Sjafiroeddin next Saturday in the heartland of the Midwest is going to be... well, "it's going to be interesting."
"This is my first fight in a long time that hasn't been run by Zuffa," Couture said of his headlining bout at Battlegrounds MMA 3, which takes place January 18 in Norman, OK.
"I got really used to their fight week routine, same every time out. It's going to be kind of a trip to see what's different about the lead-up and the whole process of fight week, but I'm excited for something new."
After kicking off his career under the Strikeforce banner, Couture surprised many by stringing together a 6-1 record within the promotion, which he eventually parlayed into a UFC roster spot once Strikeforce closed its doors in early-2013. Couture's first Octagon opportunity was a big one, too, as he was immediately slotted into a co-main event spot opposite TUF 9 winner Ross Pearson at UFC on FUEL TV 9.
But all that good fortune derailed quickly. Couture followed up a second-round TKO loss to Pearson with a listless decision loss to Al Iaquinta, and before the calendar year was over, Couture had been handed his UFC release.
"I think that first fight out against Ross, maybe the learning curve got a little to steep for me," he admitted. "The level of competition had been ramping up fight after fight, and up to that point I had been passing all those tests, and, I think, surprising everybody by getting by a couple of those guys. Just kind of finally ran into one that, it wasn't my day.
"I think a combination of a lot of things -- the pressure (and) the nerves flatlined, a high quality opponent -- everything just stacked up and got the better of me that night.
"And then with Al, he showed up and he was better than I anticipated," Couture continued. "I thought I matched up well against him on paper, but he came out and outperformed me that night. That was a learning experience, too."
Following the two lackluster performances, as well as a bitter war of words between his father and the UFC, Couture admits, he wasn't surprised by Zuffa's decision to let him go.
"I think really for anybody to show up and go 0-2, especially with as little experience prior to that as I had, I expected that I would be released -- especially with the added issue of dad (Randy Couture) having a big falling out with them," Couture said. "I didn't figure that'd give me any favors to get another shot. But I think it was really because I didn't show up to perform, so I wasn't surprised and wasn't upset."
Instead of jumping right back into the fray following his release, Couture took some time to rest and begin considering the next stage of his life, "come to terms" with the reality that 15 more years of fighting probably isn't a viable career option anymore.
Still, it didn't take long to realize that, at least for now, the drive still burned inside him. As long as Couture enjoyed the grind and felt like he was progressing, he wasn't yet ready to turn his back on the sport of MMA.
He admits, though, that a third consecutive setback against Sjafiroeddin could alter his plans.
"I think, especially with a guy that not a lot of people know about, that doesn't have the best record -- that puts more pressure on me to go out and really put on a show and have a dominant performance," Couture said. "I can't just go out there and squeak by him. That doesn't do me a lot of good. So I've really been training hard and focused and motivated through a lot of changes to show that I belong at a high level and I'm relevant to the conversation. You've got to go out and perform. It feels like do or die almost."
Should fortune turn back in his favor, and Couture emerge from Saturday night with a win, he expects to have several options regarding his future moving forward.
In an ideal world, Couture hopes to fight four times in 2013, with his ultimate goal being a return to the UFC. But if the path proves itself too unlikely, Couture may look towards alternative avenues with which to shop his talents -- including potentially joining his father in Bellator.
"We'll have to see which path makes the most sense," Couture said in closing, "Whether we keep looking for one-off deals and hope the UFC comes calling again, or whether it's time to think about going to some of these other promotions. That could potentially be a longer road, if at all, leading back to the UFC. I know they don't have the best relationship with Bellator and WSOF, necessary, and for guys to go from one of those back to the UFC is a trickier route.
"But we're just going to have to win this fight and see what options we have after that; decide at that point what makes the most sense. Ideally I want to be fighting high-level competition again and working my way towards a title somewhere, so it kind of depends on what I'm able to do [next] week."