LAS VEGAS – When Randy Couture made the decision last November to end a brief retirement and make a run at the UFC's heavyweight title, the division was one of the company's weakest.
Just 10 months and two title victories later, the 44-year-old Hall of Famer sits atop perhaps the most stacked division in the game.
Men such as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and, perhaps soon, the finest of them all, Fedor Emelianenko, have come to the UFC and sit atop a loaded division waiting for a piece of a guy thought to be too old four years ago.
But on Saturday, after dominating Gabriel Gonzaga and stopping him at 1:37 of the third round of their title bout at UFC 74 in front of 11,118 at Mandalay Bay, Couture proved that it's not a stretch to think he'll still be an effective mixed martial arts fighter at 50.
After a recent workout in preparation for his demolition of Gonzaga, Couture shrugged his shoulders when asked whether it would be possible to still compete at 50.
He's closer to 50 now than he was to 40 when, in 1997, he first won a UFC belt. He's still as popular, still as well conditioned, but he's much smarter now.
"I've continued to learn and evolve," Couture said a few days before the fight. "I never wanted to feel like I stopped trying to get better. I always felt there were things I could improve on. I just like to compete and I like the kind of mental chess match you have to play to find ways to do old things better."
He was about a 6-5 underdog when the fight started on Saturday, doubted again despite a history that proves he's at his best when he's given the least shot.
Gonzaga outweighed him by 22 pounds, was 16 years younger and was a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. His skills seemed, on paper at least, to match favorably with Couture's, a four-time Greco-Roman national champion wrestler.
Couture, though, refused to be pigeonholed as one type of a fighter. He constantly added to his core skills and so made himself difficult for opponents to prepare to fight.
But perhaps his greatest skill – better than his mind-boggling conditioning, more than his overpowering wrestling – is his ability to analyze an opponent and formulate a plan.
“I didn’t see any weaknesses in his game,” said Couture. “I did see an advantage in that it was five rounds. I’m a smaller, faster athlete who can push him for five rounds. His standup skills are dangerous. He nailed me a couple times tonight.”
He joked that many of his friends feared for his safety when he sent a text message last November to White and told him he wanted to move up from light heavyweight to heavyweight for a crack at Sylvia.
Sylvia had six inches and more than 40 pounds on him, but Couture found a way to neutralize Sylvia's reach and punching power.
A hard punch and a long reach wouldn't mean much if Sylvia was laying on his back, so Couture punched and kicked his way inside, took Sylvia down and mauled him for five rounds to win the title.
On Saturday, it was eerily similar in the opening seconds of the first defense of his third reign as champion. Less than 20 seconds into the bout, Couture landed a wicked overhand left that sent the 252-pound Gonzaga wobbling back toward the fence. It was the first of many signs that this would be a long night for the promising Brazilian.
Couture took away Gonzaga's jiu-jitsu game by keeping the fight standing and pounding away in close. He used his strength and wrestling ability to keep Gonzaga backed against the cage, where he then landed a series of hard, short punches that left Gonzaga's face look like it had been through a meat grinder. Gonzaga suffered a broken nose when the two cracked heads on the way to the ground.
“The takedown was what broke his nose,” Couture said. “I heard it in my ear as we landed. I think from that point on it was harder for him to get focused. “
By doing that, he didn't allow Gonzaga an opportunity to grab an arm or his neck and go for a submission finish.
Gonzaga also tried the high kick to the head that knocked out Cro Cop and landed Gonzaga the title shot, but Couture clearly was ready for it. He caught the kick to start the second round and hung onto the leg, pushing Gonzaga back to the fence.
Gonzaga managed to partially land one in the third, but Couture got a piece of it and prevented it from being the highlight reel shot that the one to Cro Cop's head became.
The challenges are vast for Couture and it's unlikely he'll run off a long reign with the title. There are too many good fighters in the division and too many ways to lose a fight for him to hang on to the belt for too much longer.
But, there is no evidence that he can't, if he chose, to fight at the same level he's at now for six more years.
One of his trainers, Ron Frazier, said the day before the fight that Couture looked as good in camp as he ever has and was confident of a dominant performance.
Before long, he may become the first mixed martial artist to regain a championship after becoming a grandfather.
It sounds like a joke, but with Couture, if you don't realize that anything is possible, you haven't been watching the last 10 years.