- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Two mixed martial arts legends and two fighters whose paths intertwined for a very important 90 seconds, will be competing over the next several months in what comprises the biggest heavyweight MMA tournament ever in North America.
At stake is the UFC heavyweight championship, which has been a matter of confusion over the past year.
Randy Couture was champion when he left the promotion last October over a money dispute. In his absence, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira defeated Tim Sylvia on Feb. 2 in Las Vegas to win what was billed as the interim title.
All UFC contracts have a championship clause, which ties the fighter with the company as long as they hold a company title unless they retire as champion. The clause is designed to prevent what has happened many times in the past, with a champion using the belt as leverage and threatening to leave.
When Couture and UFC were tied up in court, UFC never stripped Couture of the title, only because as long as he was technically champion, it strengthened UFC’s case.
It’s rare that a court case with a top fighter ends up benefiting the company in the long run, but this time UFC was dealt almost the perfect hand in revitalizing a heavyweight division that had little interest since Couture quit.
Under normal circumstances, a promotion would immediately match up a returning champion with an interim champ.
But not so fast. UFC had filmed a season of The Ultimate Fighter all summer with Nogueira coaching against Frank Mir, building to a Dec. 27 interim title match. This left Couture with no opponent. From a pure business standpoint, a Brock Lesnar vs. Couture match, title or not looked to be one of the most marketable fights in company history. UFC is promoting it with the idea it will be the biggest-money event in history, complete with a Spike TV’s first fighting miniseries ala HBO's De La Hoya-Mayweather 24/7.
A breakdown of the first two matches in the four-man tourney:
Randy Couture (16-8) vs. Brock Lesnar (2-1): Couture, 45, will be the crowd favorite no matter who he faces in the tournament, and even more so against Lesnar, who makes a great villain to MMA fans because he gained his fame as a pro wrestler.
With five title reigns, three as a heavyweight and two as a light heavyweight, Couture has captured more major titles than anyone in the history of the sport. More remarkably, three of those title wins came after the age of 39, a legacy that is not likely to be equaled for a long time. There is an axiom, that no matter what the odds are, when Couture is the underdog, you don’t bet against him. He’s been the 'dog 10 times in his UFC career, winning nine of them, eight of which were championship matches.
Currently, he’s a slight Vegas favorite over Lesnar, 31, in a match where fans seem split down the middle. Couture was counted out as too old and too small on March 3, 2007, when he slayed his last giant in Sylvia, but in that case, Couture was a far superior wrestler, an edge he won’t have here.
Others will point to Couture’s losses against bigger wrestlers like Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez, but those fights were also six years ago.
Couture is the master of the game plan. Lesnar will go into the cage with about a 55-pound weight advantage. Couture expects to come in at 225 and Lesnar will be right at the 265-pound heavyweight limit the day before when he weighs in, but Lesnar will be cutting to make weight and by the next day should be at about 280.
What we do know is Lesnar is not only much bigger and much younger, but he’s also much stronger and faster. Given the size and age differential, at this stage of the game he should be the better wrestler, at least early in the match. Couture’s edge in all but one of his upsets was his superior wrestling skill. Couture is experienced under pressure, and Lesnar, whose total ring time is less than 18 minutes in three fights, isn’t.
We don’t know is anything about Lesnar's stand-up game other than he hits hard. He knocked Heath Herring head-over-heels with a punch, decked Mir with a jab, and knocked Kim Min-soo out with only a few punches on the ground. It’s doubtful he’s got Couture footwork, head movement or overall boxing skill. But if Couture can’t stop Lesnar’s takedown, that’s immaterial. We still don’t know if Lesnar can take a punch or how he reacts to adversity. Couture is not a knockout artist and while he’ll have the skill edge, Lesnar undoubtedly hits harder.
A key is likely conditioning and whether or not Lesnar makes a mental error, as he did against Mir in a match he dominated until getting caught with a kneebar in 90 seconds.
Lesnar didn’t get tired in 15 minutes dominating Heath Herring. In his college days at the University of Minnesota, he was known for being one of the best conditioned heavyweights around. But this is 25 minutes, and Couture, when it comes to takedown defense, is in a completely different stratosphere than Herring.
Even if Lesnar can take Couture down early, it’s going to be harder and cause him to expend more energy. But even if Couture comes in better shape, he’s going to be pushing 280 and Lesnar is going to be pushing 225, and that makes a world of difference in the late rounds.
But the 25 minutes favors Couture. I expect Lesnar to win the early rounds, unless he makes an early mistake, in which case it’ll be over.
Lesnar has to avoid that mistake for 25 minutes, and win the late rounds conditioning battle. Couture needs to defend the early takedowns and expend a lot less energy than Lesnar, and use movement standing to take Lesnar out of his game, which will likely cause him to tire more quickly.
If not, he needs to weather the storm on the bottom and pray Lesnar tires first.
While some dismiss this fight as one of the great MMA fighters in history against a manufactured pro wrestling star, the most interesting thing is the vast majority of fighters I’ve spoken with favor Lesnar.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (31-4-1) vs. Frank Mir (11-3): UFC is billing this fight as the two best submission heavyweights in the history of UFC.
While there have been higher level sport Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters in UFC, the statement is accurate far as it relates to heavyweights using submissions within a fight.
On paper, this fight favors former PRIDE heavyweight champion Nogueira, and if he’s still at his peak at the age of 32, he should be the favorite in the tournament. He’s been in with better guys and beaten better guys than Mir has ever faced. Nogueira can make a strong claim to being the second best heavyweight in the history of the sport behind only Fedor Emelianenko. Mir, whose personal fighting idol is Nogueira, is really only in this fight because he took advantage of Lesnar’s inexperience in a fight that he got hammered in early, but had so many eyeballs watching that he made himself a star once again.
Nogueira has never been finished, either by knockout or submission, and is legendary for his ability to take punishment. Mir has explosive submissions, but Nogueira may be the best MMA submission heavyweight there has ever been. Mir’s stamina is unproven. He’s faded by round two whenever he was taken there. Nogueira’s isn’t. Mir did answer some questions about not mentally quitting under fire in the Lesnar fight, but when it comes to heart under adversity, nobody tops Nogueira.
The main question regarding Nogueira is the amount of punishment he has taken of the years. He appeared to have slowed down his reflexes and reaction time in his title win over Sylvia. Mir, 29, probably needs to take advantage of this early.
The finals: If Couture’s age doesn’t betray him against Lesnar, and he faces Mir, it’s likely not to betray him there either, as he’ll have superior wrestling, cardio and boxing on his side.
If Lesnar can get past Couture, then he deserves to be a champion and would no doubt be gunning for Mir. Mir, being better on his back than Couture, would pose different problems, and a rematch would likely depend on Lesnar’s learning curve. A Lesnar who doesn’t fall prey to an early submission beats Mir handily. But that's a big if.
Couture vs. Nogueira is a dream match of two guys who are both likely at the tail ends of great careers, and will at that point be for the mythical rung of second-greatest heavyweight in history. Nogueira would be favored, but if he can’t submit Couture, he most likely would lose on a decision as Couture would take advantage of his clinch work.
Nogueira vs. Lesnar favors Nogueira as well, particularly since 25 minutes gives him more time to find an opening. But if Lesnar can survive Nogueira, he’ll have proven he learned from his mistake with Mir.