It was the single greatest moment in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
It was March 3 at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, before 19,079 fans, the largest crowd up until that point in time ever to witness mixed martial arts in the United States.
On one side of the octagon was Tim Sylvia, a 6-foot-8 ogre-looking champion, who weighed in at 263 pounds the previous day, and was probably closer to 280 by match time. He had knocked out 16 of his previous 24 foes.
On the other side of the cage was Randy Couture, 43 years old, 222.5 pounds, and the most beloved fighter in company history, coming out of a 13-month retirement.
As the two squared off the day before at the weigh-in, it looked to be a slaughter.
Couture, a light heavyweight, was too old and too small, and didn't have the stand-up game on paper to even compete. The only reason the match was made was because Brandon Vera, who was in line for the title shot, wasn't available due to a contract issue with his management. The UFC had a big show, and no match that could draw on top.
Couture had two things going for him. He could draw as a sentimental favorite, and don't think the popularity of Rocky Balboa wasn't considered, and UFC had a ready-made legend who could come out of retirement and fill the role.
Plus, even with his age and size deficit, fans could cling onto something as hope. Couture had been the underdog in 10 of his previous 16 UFC matches, of which he won nine. That was enough for people to buy the premise of the fight.
At the seven-second mark of the first round, it was the dreamers who were right. Logic was out the window. Couture threw a low kick, and then came over the top with the hardest overhand right thrown in his entire career. Sylvia was knocked on his back. At the same moment, all 19,049 fans rose as one.
They never sat back down for the next half hour.
Five rounds later, with 10 seconds left, the crowd, in unison, counted down like it was New Year's Eve in Times Square. Couture won the heavyweight championship for the third time – a few months before birthday No. 44. The title win followed two previous reigns as light heavyweight champion. No other UFC fighter in history has ever won three championships.
Some day, there probably will be a great fighter who wins five world championships. Whether he has three title reigns in his 40s remains to be seen. And, despite a 16-8 record and losses early in his career in Japan to unfamiliar fighters, it's unlikely we'll see another Randy Couture.
Thursday, Couture and the UFC, the two entities who combined to give people that 30-minute thrill ride on pay-per-view seven months ago, parted ways in a business dispute.
There's no way to sugarcoat an impersonal fax sent to UFC president Dana White when he was on a media conference call and wouldn't be able to see it, just minutes before it was to publicly revealed. This was a strong message by Couture, and even the normally outspoken White will have a hard time delivering his trademark tongue-lashing comeback. "Captain America" would be a goofy nickname that would fail miserably if given to any other fighter. But with Couture, it fit like a glove.
Couture and Chuck Liddell were the two most important fighters in building UFC, but Couture felt management had lied to him when they insisted he was the second-highest paid fighter in the organization in a late-September meeting. He was willing to face Fedor Emelianenko, the consensus top heavyweight in the world, but as the bigger draw and champion, Couture wanted to make equal or more money than the Russian. The Cold War may be over, but Captain America vs. the Russian cyborg was a promoter's dream.
For Couture, the match fulfilled dual purposes. He had a chance to become the undisputed best heavyweight fighter in the world. And, given his contract called for a percentage of PPV revenue, he could share in what looked to be an event that had a chance to generate probably the most publicity, and perhaps the most revenue, in the history of the sport in the U.S.
When word got out Wednesday that Emelianenko was going to sign with the M-1 organization, Couture decided to make the break. Couture never mentioned retirement, even though the word has been thrown around since and may end up being accurate. The word he used was he resigned. With two fights left on his UFC contract, the meaning of the words are one and the same.
But there is a reason he chose the word he did. Retirement is when both sides smile, hug and reminisce about the good times. Resignation is a cold and calculated term, designed to send a message.
Everyone knew, at his age, that Couture's career was on borrowed time. It was more likely to end either in celebration after a final victory against all odds or, the clock would strike midnight on this fairy tale while he was in the middle of a match. No one would have predicted it would end with the buzzing of an incoming message on a fax machine.
But unless they can convince him to change his mind, UFC now has to crown a heavyweight champion.
Suddenly, the Oct. 20 Sylvia vs. Vera match in Cincinnati takes on more meaning. Two-time former champion Sylvia, Vera and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira look to be the top contenders. Former champion Andrei Arlovski would fit into that category, but he's in the midst of a financial dispute, and with one fight left on his contract, he's not getting anywhere near the championship picture unless he signs a new deal. Nogueira and Cheick Kongo, the recent conqueror of Mirko Cro Cop, are set to meet, probably in early 2008. Logically, the winners of those two matches would meet, probably in the spring.
Sylvia (23-3) is the biggest of the four. He's awkward to watch and difficult to fight. Sylvia was slowed during the Couture loss by a back injury, which required surgery. He says he's fully recovered and ready for a top fight that he expects to end with a knockout. He's a stand-up fighter who uses his reach to his advantage, and is often criticized for playing it safe in his matches. He's not a crowd favorite, and fights with the mentality of getting his hand raised, whether pretty or not, as the singular goal.
Vera (8-0), can do it all. He's good at wrestling, boxing, submissions and kickboxing. But he's a small heavyweight at 225 pounds, physically smaller than many light heavyweights who cut down for the division. He's also untested when it comes to pressure situations and top-caliber opponents. If UFC could pick a winner, he'd be the guy, but he comes into this filled with question marks.
Nogueira (30-4-1) is the opposite. He's performed on huge shows with the Pride organization. He has a resume of top international stars and legendary wars in the Japanese ring. He's often snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat. He was generally regarded as the top heavyweight in the world from 2001-03, as the Pride heavyweight champion.
Emelianenko dominated him en route to a pair of decision wins in 2003 and 2004. While only 31, there are questions as to how much those battles have taken out of him. Nogueira's technical boxing is good, he's legendary in his ability to handle punishment and his submissions on the ground are at the top of the class. His greatest skill is his heart, but a body can only take so much punishment and Nogueira has taken more than his share.
While he beat Heath Herring in his July 7 UFC debut in Sacramento, Calif., he was knocked down once and had Herring been more aggressive, there is a good chance Nogueira would be out of contention.
Kongo (21-3-1) is 6-4, muscular, and found himself in the title picture as he outstruck Mirko Cro Cop on Sept. 8. But his ground work isn't near championship level. The last time he faced a decent wrestler, a loss last year to Carmelo Marrero, it exposed a weakness. But if he can keep the fight standing, he has the potential to be competitive with anyone.
It's unlikely any of the four will be able to fill Couture's shoes as a heavyweight champion the public rallies behind with that level of fervor, so this is a significant business loss.
Former UFC champion Josh Barnett is the best of the free-agent outsiders, but he and White have had a war of the words. The division is up for grabs.
Someone will eventually take Couture's place and wear the belt. But no one's replacing him anytime soon.
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