UFC 68: Pure magic
If you were to pick the greatest fighter in UFC history up to this point in time, the favorite should be Randy Couture.
Couture was not the most well-rounded. He was not the biggest, strongest, fastest or most skilled. He doesn’t even have the best won-loss record.
But he captured five world championships in two different weight classes. Nobody else has ever won more than two. Some day, someone probably will equal that mark.
He was also a three-time champion after the age of 40. I don’t believe we will see anyone equal that in our lifetimes.
The night that best exemplifies Couture’s career, and you could argue the emotional pinnacle of UFC’s existence, was UFC 68 on March 3, 2007. A few months shy of 44, the aging David, before what was then a UFC record crowd of 19,079 fans at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, slayed the Goliath, Tim Sylvia, without the aid of a slingshot.
Couture, who had announced his retirement after losing to Chuck Liddell 13 months earlier, had been knocked out twice as a light heavyweight in his three previous fights. He had not fought as a heavyweight in four-and-a-half years. By all rights, from a pure ranking standpoint, he had no business in a championship match. But the people didn’t care. It was one of the most anticipated matches in company history.
After Brandon Vera turned down the title shot in an ill-advised contract ploy, the only viable contender was Gabriel Gonzaga, who at the time nobody knew or cared about, and Sylvia-Gonzaga would have bombed at the box office and on pay-per-view.
Ticket sales skyrocketed when Couture went on television and officially announced he was coming out of retirement for the show.
There have been many MMA fights that have produced incredible atmospheres over the years, including the second Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz in Las Vegas, Frank Shamrock vs. Phil Baroni in San Jose and Georges St. Pierre beating Matt Serra in Montreal, where the crowd was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think. But it is generally conceded none of those matches had a crowd reaction to compare with this one.
Couture gave up seven inches in height, 12 inches in reach, and probably 60 pounds once he walked into the cage.
As the two squared off before weigh-ins, this looked like a one-sided slaughter was about to take place. And that is what happened.
What many call the most exciting fight in UFC history opened when Couture, not known for his punching, knocked Sylvia down with a monster overhand right at the seven second mark of the fight. For the next 25 minutes, he dominated Sylvia, winning a unanimous decision and taking his fifth championship.
Going into the fifth round, when it was clear Sylvia needed a knockout, Couture could have simply stalled out the round and been guaranteed the win. Couture, instead, moved forward. This was MMA’s equivalent of Ted Williams with a .400 average going into that final doubleheader on the last day of the season playing both games. He took Sylvia down, spun into side mount and started throwing knees to the ribs. Then he got full mount, threw punches and swelled up Sylvia’s left eye. Sylvia desperately tried to get out for one last shot at winning, and just as he got upright, Couture took him down again. With 10 seconds left, the crowd, in unison, counted like they were in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
This was not a back-and-forth slugfest. Two years later, watching on tape, it looks like a completely unremarkable fight. Exactly what made it special is hard to explain. It has something to do with concepts like time and context. There was a guy whose main talents were that when the odds were against him, he almost always won. There was a sport still at a crossroads, that could still go either up or down. There was a giant opponent, who nobody liked or wanted to see win. And there was the fear that a legend could get embarrassed, or worse, hurt badly. Then there was a moment when the overhand right connected. And for the next 25 minutes, it was euphoric magic.
The first UFC event in Ohio did a $3,014,520 gate, the largest indoor gate for any event in the history of the state, breaking a record set by the Rolling Stones. It was 10 times larger than the largest boxing gate ever in the state. Also in a first, UFC completely sold out every item of merchandise brought to the arena.
Few remember much of the undercard. Matt Hughes won a dull decision over Chris Lytle by taking him down and controlling him. Local fighters Rich Franklin and Matt Hamill both scored impressive wins. Franklin was pounding Jason MacDonald when MacDonald’s corner threw in the towel at the end of the second round. Hamill faced 1992 NCAA wrestling champion Rex Holman, a legend in Ohio State wrestling circles, but the younger Hamill got Holman’s back and threw punch after punch before it was stopped.
Current Strikeforce light heavyweight champion and former UFC top contender Renato “Babalu” Sobral was upset by Jason Lambert in the second round. Sobral dominated most of the first round, got tired, and was decked at the end of the round. Lambert took advantage of the tired Sobral, taking him down, and bloodying his left eye. Lambert then crushed him with a left to the jaw to finish.
Jamie Varner def. Jason Gilliam, submission (rear naked choke), 1:34 R1
Gleison Tibau def. Jason Dent, unanimous decision
Jon Fitch def. Luigi Fioravanti, submission (Rear naked choke), 3:05 R2
Matt Hamill def. Res Holman, TKO, 4:00 R1
Jason Lambert def. Renato Sobral, KO, 3:36 R2
Matt Hughes def. Chris Lytle, unanimous decision
Terry Martin def. Jorge Rivera, 0:14 R1
Rich Franklin def. Jason MacDonald, TKO, 5:00 R2
Martin Kampmann def. Drew McFedries, technical submission (arm triangle choke), 4:06 R1
UFC heavyweight championship: Randy Couture def. Tim Sylvia, unanimous decision (Couture wins tit;e)
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