LAS VEGAS – When 43-year-old Randy Couture won the UFC heavyweight championship in March by upsetting 6-foot-8 Tim Sylvia, many of his fans filled Internet bulletin boards with concerns for his safety.
Couture was expected to defend his belt against Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic in his first defense, a match many saw as one in which Couture could get hurt.
Couture is one of the most beloved figures in mixed martial arts and among its top draws. Even his most diehard fans weren't expecting good things in a potential bout with Cro Cop.
But Couture was never that worried about facing Cro Cop, a member of the Croatian parliament and one-time special forces police officer who is among the most feared strikers and kickers in mixed martial arts.
It had nothing to do with Cro Cop's skills and everything to do with his opponent April 21.
Couture was one of the few people outside of Gabriel Gonzaga's immediate family who picked Gonzaga to win the bout with Cro Cop in Manchester, England.
Couture concedes, though, that the way the fight ended was a major surprise.
"I was prepared for Gabriel to win the fight, so I was not shocked or surprised when he did," said Couture, who was ringside as an analyst for Spike TV. "I was absolutely dumbfounded when he won it with a head kick, though."
The head kick is Cro Cop's specialty. When he made his UFC debut in February against Eddie Sanchez, he said "With the right kicks, they go to the hospital. With the left, they go to the cemetery."
But for a split second after Gonzaga kicked him in Manchester, Cro Cop looked like he might be the one headed for the cemetery.
"I was really concerned for him, mainly because of the way he fell and it looked like he might have torn up his knee," Couture said. "Fortunately, he was fine."
And that stunning event robbed Couture of a high-profile fight that could have been the MMA equivalent of the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather Jr. boxing match.
Couture concedes a fight with Cro Cop would have been an easier sell at the box office, as well as a better style match.
But he'll have to find a way to neutralize Gonzaga's strengths. UFC president Dana White plans to match Couture and Gonzaga on Aug. 25 in Las Vegas.
Gonzaga is 240 pounds with heavy hands, but is one of the elite Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practioners in the world. Couture is a wrestler and always tries to take fights to the ground, but jiu-jitsu fighters live to get the match to the ground.
"He is the real thing, I'm telling you," Couture said of Gonzaga. "He didn't look like your typical jiu-jitsu guy trying to learn standup. He showed a refined technique and footwork and he threw straight rights that kept Mirko off.
"He brought the fight to Mirko from the beginning, which is what you have to do against him. He is a handful, no doubt."
Couture said he's beginning to enjoy the spoils of his title, the fourth he's won in a legendary career that has landed him in the UFC Hall of Fame. He held the heavyweight title once before and is a two-time light heavyweight champion.
He earned a part in an upcoming Sony Pictures Classics movie, "Red Belt" written by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter David Mamet. Filming will occur in June, he said, just before he begins training camp for the Gonzaga fight.
He's landed a sponsorship with 24 Hour Fitness and is speaking to Gatorade, Pepsi Cola and Tabasco about other endorsements.
"Those are Fortune 100 companies and it would be so huge for our sport to be able to get those kinds of sponsorships for fighters," Couture said. "Right now, Micky's, Xyience and Toyo Tires have kind of been the three companies that have taken care of our athletes in terms of sponsorships.
"I have been turning them down to try to get these big name companies, if I can, because that can only be good down the road for other fighters in our sport."
- Randy Couture
- Gabriel Gonzaga
- Cro Cop