Couture finishes career with head held high

TORONTO – The cheers came raining down from three packed decks of the Rogers Centre, 55,000 fans screaming goodbye to Randy Couture. He’d just been flattened by Lyoto Machida courtesy of a flying kick to the face that knocked both him and one of his 47-year-old teeth out. It was one last, violent sign that it was time to retire.

Randy Couture and Lyoto Machida share words after Machida defeated Couture in the latter's final bout at UFC 129 on Saturday.
(Getty Images)

The fans weren’t letting go easily. Couture had gotten up and done a post-fight interview. Now they weren’t letting him walk out of that Octagon for the last time in shame. It was never really about wins and losses with Couture, whose legacy far surpasses his 19-11 record.

So they kept stamping and chanting for everything else – for what he meant, for what he gave, for what he represented to a sport they had come to love along with him.

Couture’s first MMA fight came in 1997, at UFC 13, in front of maybe 1,000 people he said in an old civic center in Augusta, Ga. The night before they held a public weigh-in at a Holiday Inn and Couture isn’t sure a dozen people showed up.

The sport doesn’t get here to UFC 129, in a rocking stadium, with a $12.1 million (US) gate and a worldwide pay-per-view audience, without Randy Couture.

And everyone here knew it. So no one wanted the moment to pass.

Machida cut short his post-fight interview to declare Couture a “hero.” Ring announcer Bruce Buffer bowed to him. The Octagon girls were clapping. From all over the floor seats, fighters were standing and cheering, from old rivals to young phenoms, there was no mistaking what Randy Couture meant.

“It was awesome,” UFC president Dana White said.

“That ovation,” Couture said, “was very special.”

Couture is retired now and he says it’s for good this time. This isn’t 2006, when he last called it quits. He has plenty of ways to make money outside the Octagon – in movies, with endorsements, as a trainer. There is no need to deal with these assassins two decades his junior. He could’ve, and probably should’ve, shut it down a while ago.

This was a curtain call though, which, since it is still cage fighting, means he wound up in the hospital. All things considered, it was a fitting conclusion. “He went seven minutes with Machida,” White noted, and yes, he had a point there.

“This is it,” Couture said immediately after the fight, promising his career was over. True to form, he quickly broke into a joke, “I think the last time we had this conversation I had all my teeth.”

Machida had drilled him with a straight kick to the left side of his mouth, a move inspired by one of Machida’s corner men, actor Steven Segal. It came so fast, Couture thought it was a punch. After the doctors revived him and got him to his feet, White approached him to judge his condition.

“I said, ‘You all right, you all right?’ ” White said. “[Couture said] ‘Yeah, he hit me in the tooth.’ And his tooth fell out as he was showing me.”

Couture was still quick enough to catch it and laugh. White could only shake his head at the memory. “[I said] ‘That’s all right, we’ll get you a better one than that when we get back to Vegas.’”

Couture got into MMA for a simple reason, he needed the money. He was 33 years old, had three kids and was working as an assistant wrestling coach at Oregon State. He had boxed during a six-year stint in the Army, been an Olympic alternate wrestler after that and had never been afraid of just about any kind of fight.

So when he heard of this UFC thing, he figured why not?

“Everyone thought I was pretty much crazy,” Couture said of the days leading up to that first victory, when he submitted Tony Halme. His mother told him he’d lost his mind. His friends thought it was a Toughman contest.

“It wasn’t even understood as a sport,” Couture said. “They just thought I was flat nuts. They kept asking what had gotten into me.”

It’s all different now. Now these guys train for years, hone their skills, raise their games. No one attempts it on a lark. Everyone realizes its big business.

It’s the sport Couture helped create, powered now by the generations of fighters he helped inspire around the globe.

His triology of fights against Chuck Liddell from 2003-06, drove MMA to a then-unheard of level of popularity. His 2003 grudge-match victory over Tito Ortiz, his stunning 2007 upset of the hulking Tim Sylvia (complete with his classic “Not bad for an old guy” line afterward) and his upset defense of the heavyweight title against Gabriel Gonzaga all pushed it further.

Mostly he was the bridge from the old days to these days, from when this was an outlaw deal to a multi-billion dollar enterprise.

He was the clean-cut hero, nicknamed “The Natural” and “Captain America.” He’d fight anyone, anytime. His win-loss record isn’t much to look at, but a record 15 of those fights were title bouts. He won the light heavyweight belt three times and the heavyweight belt twice. He won maybe a dozen times as a significant underdog, always at his best when everyone had counted him out.

In the meantime he invested in the sport. He has a clothing line. He’s trained hundreds of fighters and even NFL players. He’s appeared in over two dozen movies and television shows. He wasn’t afraid to fight for what was best for himself and, by proxy, other fighters – even getting into contract disputes and legal wrangling with White and the UFC.

It was just one more battle in a career of them. White doesn’t hold a grudge.

“He’s an incredible human being,” White said. “He’s been a great ambassador for the sport. He’s been great for the brand. Yeah, I love Randy Couture.”

They all loved him Saturday in Toronto. This wasn’t just a fight card for the UFC. It was a milestone, the promotion’s first stadium show. For the fans it was a night to celebrate what MMA had become: this rollicking, traveling circus they no longer have to apologize for loving. This is mainstream, a long way from those humble days of near-empty Holiday Inn ballrooms.

So it was a night for Randy Couture, who lost a fight, lost a tooth and stood in the middle of all those thundering cheers anyway, waved back at the crowd and smiled a big, now-broken grin.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, May 1, 2011