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LAS VEGAS – Randy Couture will never forget his first mixed martial arts bout, which came at UFC 13 in Augusta, Ga., on May 30, 1997, and not simply because it marked the beginning of what would become a wildly successful and lucrative career.
The former collegiate wrestling star carries a memory with him about his walk toward the cage that night that he hasn't forgotten through five UFC championship reigns, including three separate stints as heavyweight champion and two as light heavyweight champion.
As Couture approached the octagon to face Tony Halme in front of roughly 1,000 rabid fans in the Augusta Civic Center, he wasn't sure he had made a wise choice and wondered whether he belonged in this crazy, hybrid sport.
He began to suspect he may have made a mistake leaving the relative safety of amateur wrestling for this mess.
"I just wanted to make sure I didn't pee my pants," Couture said, chuckling, at a news conference for UFC 91 Thursday in the lobby of the MGM Grand that attracted an estimated 1,500 fans.
Couture will defend his belt against one-time pro wrestling star Brock Lesnar on Saturday in a bout that is commanding international attention. Reporters from South America, Europe and Asia, as well as from around the U.S. and Canada, have been credentialed for a card that company president Dana White expects to sell as many as 1.5 million units on pay-per-view.
Couture will make a return after a 15-month hiatus because of frequently bitter legal wrangling between himself and UFC management.
And he certainly won't be worrying about urinating all over himself despite the prospect of facing the most physically gifted opponent he's ever met. Lesnar has to cut weight to make the UFC's 265-pound heavyweight limit, but has the athleticism and quickness of a much smaller man.
A fan who was allowed to ask a question at Thursday's news conference warned Couture about Lesnar's hands, noting they're about the size of cinder blocks, which isn't all that far off.
His entrance to the cage on Saturday will be very different than it was in those days, when it was largely an underground sport held in states without athletic commissions and kept alive by rabid fans who communicated via Internet message boards.
Then, Couture was in a foreign place and didn't know what he had gotten himself into. But on Saturday, despite the acrimony of the past year, despite the turmoil that has engulfed much of his life, he said walking to the cage to defend his belt will feel like "walking home."
"Walking out that first time [at UFC 13] and being overwhelmed by a thousand fans hanging over the fence trying to grab your clothes and trying to smack hands with you is a lot different than it is now," Couture said. "Walking in there on Saturday night, it's going to feel a lot like walking home."
Couture sent a letter to the UFC announcing his resignation in October 2007. The UFC contended he could retire, but he couldn't resign and walk away from his contract.
That led to a bitter and frequently acrimonious public dispute that wound up in the legal system. It was not only draining Couture's finances, but it was wearing on him personally.
He said somewhat like a leper, stashed off to the side and kept out of view.
"I felt for so long I had a black cloud following me," Couture said. "One of the things about me that anyone who knows me understands is that I'm a competitor. I love to compete and that was taken away from me.
"There are no hard feelings in this. Things got said, but the bottom line is, that's in the past. I choose not to let what happened in the past bring me down. Dana and I got together and we settled our differences. It's over and I'm looking forward.
"For the first time in a year," Couture added, "I can wake up in the morning and feel excited and look forward to the day knowing I have a fight coming up and not have to wonder what lawyers I need to talk to or what the court schedule is going to be that day."
Prior to the legal dispute with the UFC, he'd turned himself into a one-man marketing machine. He's opened a series of gyms around North America that carry the Xtreme Couture brand. There are Xtreme Couture nutritional products. There's an Xtreme Couture clothing line.
And all of those products, he knows, will get a boost if he manages to win a big fight.
Sitting in a lawyer's office with a deposition, his products tend to sit on shelves and move slowly. But win a big fight in front of millions of fans and suddenly, the Xtreme Couture brand is hot and product moves quickly.
He realized it was time to ditch the lawsuits and kick the one-man marketing machine back into action.
He's a fighter at heart and he's happiest when he's fighting. He's 45 and isn't sure how much longer he'll be able to do it, but said he's going to revel in the moment.
"I don't have time to be bitter or angry," Couture said. "I'm a positive person and I couldn't be happier right now. I'm getting to do what I love and our sport has grown immensely, beyond what so many of us could have ever hoped or wished it could, and to me, that's what I am excited about. That's what I choose to think about. I think about a guy like Brock and figuring out a plan to beat this guy. That's the kind of problem I like to have."