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Remembering Kevin Randleman as both unique character and maybe UFC's best all-around athlete

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Esther Lin

Kevin "The Monster" Randleman, who passed away on Thursday from heart failure while on a business trip in San Diego, may have been the best all-around athlete ever to compete in the organization.

Randleman, who was 44, was voted the greatest wrestler of the 20th century in the history of Ohio State University, where he was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004.

He was a three-sport star at Sandusky High School in Ohio, where he went to the state finals in track, was state champion in wrestling, and started four years in football.

But it’s not the on-paper credentials that made him a freak athlete, as much as watching him. The young Randleman had a ridiculous physique, competing at 5-foot-10 and 228 pounds when he was UFC heavyweight champion. He had the type of frame and large muscle bellies that would make a competitive bodybuilder jealous.  He had a small waist, huge shoulders, arms and legs. But his muscles functioned athletically, as opposed to being simply looking impressive. Before his fights, he’d wow the audience jumping high into the air while warming up, with his massive thighs looking like somebody inserted springs in them.

While he was an early UFC heavyweight champion, his two most memorable fights were undoubtedly in Pride. Both took place in 2004, at a time when he was past his peak. They were a win over Mirko Cro Cop and a loss to Fedor Emelianenko in that year’s Pride heavyweight Grand Prix tournament.

In the former, on April 25, 2004, at a sold-out Saitama Super Arena, Randleman, a heavy underdog feinted for a takedown. He then came over the top with a left hook, which knocked Cro Cop silly. He then finished him with punches on the ground in just 1:57.

Cro Cop was the most popular foreign fighter in Pride at the time, and the tournament was put together to build to a Cro Cop vs. Emelianenko showdown. Randleman’s left hook spoiled those plans and delayed that match by a year.

Still, there have been far bigger upsets in the sport’s history. What led to this leaving such an indelible mark, was Randleman’s reactions and the English call of the match by commentator Mauro Ranallo.

A stunned Ranallo screamed, like an announcer calling the winning shot at the buzzer in the seventh game of the NBA finals, saying  "Kevin Randleman has knocked out Mirko Cro Cop! The Monster has knocked out Mirko Cro Cop! Kevin Randleman has knocked out Mirko Cro Cop!"

Ranallo, who has called some of the biggest boxing matches, MMA fights and pro wrestling matches in recent years, noted that as what he may be most remembered for.

"I’m stunned and deeply saddened at the passing of Kevin Randleman," wrote Ranallo on Twitter.  "He was responsible for the most memorable call of my 30-year-career."

Immediately after knocking Cro Cop out, as a confused Cro Cop recovered, Randleman went over to console him and kissed him on the side of the face.

Randleman then told the audience, "If you did not think I was scared coming out here fighting this man, you are wrong.  I’m human, just like everybody.  But I’ll go to Hell and back to fight for you guys."

With the health issues he suffered over the next few years, he in fact, did go to Hell and back, and continued to fight.

Randleman, who has lived in Las Vegas for years, had complained of shortness of breath and flu-like symptoms, and then collapsed on Thursday. Paramedics transported him to Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside, Calif. The medical staff performed advanced cardiac life support measures Randleman didn’t recover, and was pronounced dead due to heart failure.

The news shocked the MMA community. As a young sport, the community has rarely had to deal with deaths.

Randleman is only the second champion in UFC history to have passed away. The other was former middleweight champion Evan Tanner, more than seven years ago, who passed away from heat exposure while in the desert.

After the Cro Cop win, Randleman’s next fight, eight weeks later, at the same Saitama Super Arena, was against Emelianenko in the loaded tournament. Randleman picked the Pride champion up and delivered a twisting back suplex, dropping him almost on his head. Despite the move looking like it could have broken Emelianenko’s neck, he was actually unharmed. It was just seconds later that Emelianenko had submitted Randleman with a Kimura.  But it’s as devastating looking a throw as took place in Pride during that era. It created the story of the "Randle-plex," which became part of the myth of Emelianenko from taking the move and then recovering and submitting his foe in seconds.

And that really told the story of Randleman’s MMA career, which ended in 2011 with a 17-16 record. The record is misleading as Randleman was a major force in the sport through the end of 2002, but went 3-11 over the next nine years.

There were a number of issues that plagued the latter part of his career. The sport evolved, Randleman often fell victim to submissions in fights he was winning, and his career was derailed even more due to an assortment of health issues.

He had a serious lung infection in 2005, and followed with kidney problems and a terrible staph infection over the next few years. He also had an assortment of injuries. Randleman failed a drug test after a 2006 fight with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, where his test submitted to the Nevada State Athletic Commission contained no hormones. That exposed it as fake urine, which resulted in a suspension.

Bas Rutten fought Randleman in what was probably Randleman’s third-most famous fight, a UFC title bout in 1999, and later became best friends with him.

"For some reason, you don’t want to believe this," wrote Rutten in a Facebook tribute. "I mean, this is a guy who survived everything, like his head got split open and a car, a truck, landed on him which he pushed simply off. He had a staph infection that was too crazy to look at. I mean he had a hole in his chest, like a circle two inches wide and more than an inch deep."

Randleman was a personable guy, who even though all his health issues always seemed upbeat and jovial.

He was the second youngest boy in a family of 11 children.

"For me, I wrestled, and it was definitely a vehicle for getting me out of bad situations which I would have been in," Randleman said in a 2013 interview at MixedMartialArts.com.

After winning the Ohio high school wrestling championship in 1989, finishing his high school career with a 122-11 record, Randleman went to Ohio State University. You could make a strong case he was the greatest wrestler ever to attend the college until Logan Steiber and Kyle Snyder came to Columbus in recent years.

Randleman posted a 111-7-3 record as a Buckeye, a record that included scoring four of the ten fastest pins in school history.

In 1991, as a freshman, competing at 167 pounds, he went 42-6, won the Big 10 title, and placed second in the NCAA tournament.

As a sophomore, in 1992, he went 42-0-3.  He scored three pins, two in less than one minute, in winning the NCAA tournament at 177 pounds.

He was plagued by injuries as a junior, suffering both a broken jaw and a torn knee ligament that he competed with. But he still missed only limited time and had a 27-1 record,.

In his second match in the 1993 NCAA tournament, against Mark Frushone of Central Connecticut, he suffered a dislocated jaw. In an amazing case of grit and determination, he popped the jaw back in place and continued the match. With the injury, he won four more matches and became the first two-time national champion in Ohio State wrestling history.

However, Randleman said that he couldn’t deal with the pressure. He stopped going to class, making him ineligible for his senior year. Even though he had Olympic potential, he never wrestled another match.

Mark Coleman, who was a member of the 1992 Olympic team, was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State, while Randleman was there. Coleman failed to make the 1996 team at 220 pounds, in the spot won by Kurt Angle, who ended up winning a gold medal. Afer not making the team, Coleman started in the UFC that summer.

In a 2013 interview with MixedMartialArts.com, Randleman described his entree into MMA in 1996.

"I was sitting at home in Sandusky, Ohio, and I had my oldest son, Calvin, with me, and we were watching the WWE SummerSlam or something," he said.  "Mark Coleman called me and asked me if I wanted to fight, and I said, `Nah, not really.’ And then he said, `$30,000.’ So I said, `Oh s***, who I go to kill?’ He said, `No, you just got to win three fights in one night.’ Well, that’s what we used to do in college. We fought a lot. It’s not like we fought on campus, but we would go off campus and I literally fought every weekend."

Randleman showed up as part of Coleman’s entourage in Augusta, Ga., on Sept. 20, 1996. Coleman won his first two fights in an eight-man tournament and due to injuries, there was nobody left to face him in the finals.

Coleman called Randleman in the ring and the two did a wrestling exhibition for the live audience in lieu of the tournament championship fight, throwing each other all over the place.

Word quickly spread that the guy with the bleached blond hair who was even more muscular than Coleman and was one of the nation’s most dominant college wrestlers a few years earlier.

Armed with little more than his wrestling skills and some street fighting techniques, Randleman went to Brazil a month later, this time with Coleman in his corner.  Randleman took three opponents down and punched them in the head until two submitted and a third was knocked out to win a tournament on October 22, 1996.

Once Coleman signed with Pride, UFC brought in Randleman in 1999 as part of a four-man tournament to crown the heavyweight champion after Randy Couture had left over a contract issue.

Randleman made a statement in his debut with Maurice Smith on March 5, 1999. Smith was a former world champion in kickboxing, who had upset Coleman in 1997 to become UFC heavyweight champion, before dropping it to Couture.

The idea that Randleman would outwrestle Smith and take a decision wouldn’t have been a surprise. And that was largely the story of the fight. But a lot of the fight was standing, and even with limited technique, Randleman was able to stand with Smith without getting hurt.

This put him in the tournament finals on May 7, 1999, in Birmingham, Ala., against Rutten, in a fight heavily debated to this day.

Randleman took Rutten down and destroyed him on the ground for the first five minutes of the fight, breaking Rutten’s nose and cutting him up badly. Randleman kept him down the majority of the rest of the fight, but didn’t do any significant damage over the last 16 minutes.

Rutten did more damage than Randleman after the five-minute mark. Rutten was still on his back most of the fight, throwing elbows which cut Randleman up. But Randleman did far more damage in the early minutes than Rutten did the remainder of the fight. At the time, with no rounds, judges only ruled on who won the fight overall. Visually, it looked like Randleman had destroyed Rutten. Two of the three judges, who evidently broke the fight up into rounds like they were doing boxing, voted for Rutten. It was often considered the worst judging call of that era of UFC.

Rutten noted that the two met for the first time in the hotel the day before their fight.

"I am by myself, the door opens, and there is Kevin, also by himself," Rutten wrote. "I get in with him, the door closes and there is this awkward moment. We both look at each other and smile.  I tell Kevin, `Well, good luck tomorrow.’  He says, `Thank you, you, too.’"

Randleman then joked to him, saying, "If you don’t kick me, I won’t take you down." Rutten responded, saying, "Okay, that’s a deal."

Of course, in the fight, Rutten kicked him and Randleman took him down. But the two became great friends after spending time together the day after the fight, where they compared all their various cuts and stitches.

Rutten noted it was Randleman who came up with his nickname, "El Guapo."

The Dutch fighter retired after that fight due to an assortment of injuries, although he did fight once more many years later.

Randleman then won a five-round decision over Pete Williams on Nov. 19, 1999, at Tokyo Bay NK Hall, to capture the vacant UFC heavyweight championship. What’s notable about that fight is it was the first UFC heavyweight championship fight fought with five-minute rounds and modern style round-by-round judging.  Randleman retained the championship, beating Pedro Rizzo, before losing via third round stoppage on November 17, 2000, in Atlantic City, N.J., to a returning Couture.

He remained with UFC until early 2002. He dropped to light heavyweight, but was knocked out by Chuck Liddell. He won via decision over Renato "Babalu" Sobral in his last UFC fight.

"Short and sweet, I was in jail," Randleman said the MixedMartialArts.com interview. "It was baby mama drama. She wasn’t a very good mother and I loved my boy. I was in jail because I told the judge off. I was never known for my patience. I think Dana White would have understood, but cell phones weren’t like they are now. When I got arrested, I had like two seconds. And then I was in jail for 35 days. I didn’t have any numbers whatsoever and none of my people had any numbers. When I got back, I called Mark (Coleman) and Mark said that I got released."

He moved to Pride in Japan that year, where he was a regular until the promotion closed, and later fought for Strikeforce.

While fighting for Pride, he also dabbled in pro wrestling, a venture that if he had the right breaks in, he had potential to be a major star in. Randleman had tremendous potential for pro wrestling, considering his physique, look, athletic ability and he had a natural charisma and talked well.

He did pro wrestling in Japan throughout the Pride years, often in a tag team with Coleman, or another former NCAA champion wrestler, Sylvester "The Predator" Terkay. With his leaping ability, he could do amazing things in the ring when it came to leap frogs and a variety of flying moves off the top rope to go along with suplexes. In 2007, with the Hustle promotion, he played a masked super hero called Randle Man, while Coleman wore a mask as Cole Man. But he came at a time when American promotions were not actively recruiting top athletes like they are today, and he never wrestled in the U.S.

"Behind the man was a gentle soul and loyal friend who will be missed by many and who loved him behind the cage," said his wife Elizabeth Broglia in a statement. "The Ohio State University, UFC, MMA and Sandusky, Ohio communities share in the loss of Kevin’s passing. Life without The Monster will never be the same."