PORTLAND, Ore. – Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is one of the most accomplished veterans of mixed martial arts. He's fought just about everyone who has been anyone in the game, from the fabled Fedor Emelianenko to the legendary Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic and just about everyone else in between.
It seems he's been around forever, yet Nogueira only recently passed his 33rd birthday and he's only six years older than Couture.
Ryan Couture, that is.
Ryan Couture is the 27-year-old son of Randy Couture. And it's Randy Couture who on Saturday, two months past his 46th birthday, will face Nogueira in the main event of UFC 102 at the Rose Garden.
"If I wasn't fighting him, I'd be rooting for him," Nogueira said, chuckling. Couture is not only one of the greatest stars in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but he also must be considered among the greatest over-40 athletes in professional sports history.
Couture is only 5-4 since he turned 40 on June 22, 2003, but that could easily be a 6-3 record since one of the losses was a complete fluke. He suffered a serious cut on the eye in the first minute of a fight against Vitor Belfort in 2004 when he pulled back from a punch and the seam of Belfort's glove raked across his eyelid, forcing ringside physician Margaret Goodman to recommend the bout be stopped.
He went on to dominate Belfort in a rematch and probably would have won that first fight had the ending not come so strangely.
There have been successful athletes over 40 years old in virtually every sport. Nolan Ryan went 71-66 with a 2.91 ERA, 1,437 strikeouts and seven shutouts after he turned 40. He also threw two no-hitters.
Jerry Rice caught 92 passes for the Oakland Raiders as a 42-year-old in 2002. Phil Niekro racked up a 121-103 record after his 40th birthday en route to a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Gordie Howe scored 15 goals in the NHL as a 51-year-old.
Boxer George Foreman went 17-3 with 12 knockouts and won the heavyweight championship at 45 years old by knocking out Michael Moorer in one of the stirring moments in the sport's history.
Yet, the majority of Foreman's post-40 victories were against second-tier opposition. Couture, on the other hand, has fought virtually nothing but elite fighters in his plus-40 run. Only Mike Van Arsdale, whom Couture submitted in a 2005 match in Las Vegas, wasn't considered a top 10 opponent when he met Couture.
The remarkable thing about Couture is that he seems to be getting better as he gets older. Ryan's post-40 performance is stunning, but he was only 10-14 in his last two years and his ERA rose nearly two full runs a game from his mark of 2.91 when he was 44 to his 4.88 in his final season at 46.
After catching 92 balls at 40, Rice dropped to 63 at 41 and just 30 in his final season as a 42-year-old.
Couture hasn't had any such visible decline and remains one of the top 20 pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. He returned after a 13-month retirement at UFC 68 in 2007 to win the heavyweight championship from Tim Sylvia at 42, taking all five rounds in a unanimous decision.
"I feel I'm the best athlete I've ever been right now," said Couture, who was an alternate for the U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team in 1988, 1992 and 1996. "I can't explain that other than that I've managed to keep a fairly high fitness level and stayed focused. As we get older, we tend to get smarter and eliminate a lot of things that are distractions and refine tactics and techniques. That's what I've been focused on."
Couture will have one fight remaining on his contract after Saturday's bout with Nogueira, but said he's in discussions with the UFC about a long-term extension, a deal that could take him close to the Gordie Howe range.
It's all but inconceivable that a man could compete in a sport as physically demanding as MMA within sight of his 50th birthday, but UFC middleweight Chris Leben, who was once managed by Couture, said nothing Couture does would surprise him.
"If anyone is fighting in the UFC at 50, it will be Randy," said Leben, who meets Jake Rosholt on Saturday. "He's like a freak of nature, and I mean that in a good way."
His body has held up remarkably well considering the abuse he's taken over a lifetime of competition in a demanding contact sport. He had arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow after losing to heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar in November and said he's not immune to the aches and pains that become a part of life for most middle-aged men. Yet, he looks from the neck down like he's 26, not 46, and he moves with the grace of an athlete in his prime.
"We use our bodies as a tool and tools tend to get wear and tear on them," Couture said. "I have some of (the aches and pains associated with middle age), but it doesn't take me 10 minutes to get out of bed in the morning. I definitely feel things differently in some regard, but at the same time, I still feel great. I feel like I'm as fast and as explosive as I've ever been."
He's been a champion on a record five different occasions during his UFC career. And while he's likely to get another shot at Lesnar if he defeats Nogueira on Saturday, collecting more belts isn't at the top of his priority list.
He'd like another shot, because he feels like he could reverse the outcome against Lesnar, but he's also intrigued by potential bouts against fighters such as UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva and light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.
He's interested in what he called "exciting fights" and in challenging himself and testing his limits.
One of the reasons for his greatness is that he's always been willing to take a risk and to see what he could do. He said he's far better today than when he turned 40 in 2003.
"Somebody asked me the other day, 'How long would the Randy Couture of even six years ago last with the Randy Couture of today,' and I really had to think about that," Couture said. "But (the Couture of six years ago) probably wouldn't last very long. I think both tactically and technically I've gotten a lot better.
“I'm a more fit athlete than I was when I started this 12 years ago. You can see that in my physique. The change in diet, the understanding of nutrition and the things I put into my body, the whole foods and alkalinity and those sorts of things I've kind of learned over the years have allowed me to recover and have allowed me to compete and train at a high level."
If he regains another championship or knocks off a guy like Silva, it will be hard for anyone to keep Couture off the list of the three- or five-best post-40 athletes in history. After years of watching him deliver one surprise after another, one learns to expect the unexpected from him.
And that's why, despite the incredible growth of MMA and the improvement of the athletes who are joining the sport, it would be no shock if Couture were a champion as he hits 50.
As Leben said, the man's a freak.
- Randy Couture
- Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira