LAS VEGAS – Randy Couture has listened for weeks to the talk about how badly he matches up against Gabriel Gonzaga.
And Couture, at 44 the UFC heavyweight champion for a third time, understands the risks he'll face when he defends his belt on Saturday against the highly regarded Brazilian at UFC 74 at Mandalay Bay.
He knows a mistake on the ground can mean a title-losing submission. He was octagonside in April when Gonzaga stunned the mixed martial arts world by knocking out Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic with a kick to the head.
Couture, more than anyone, grasps what he's up against. His margin for error is nil. "A talented kid," Couture says. "Real talented."
But Couture also knows that matchups on paper are very different than fights in the cage.
All the theory in the world means little when a highly trained and determined man begins to whack you in the face with his fists or an elbow.
And so while many think Couture will be loathe to hit the ground with Gonzaga for fear of being submitted, Couture says such is not the case.
His risk level will go up when he's in Gonzaga's guard, but a guy whose staple has been the ground and pound isn't going to abandon that just because he's facing a jiu-jitsu expert.
"It's riskier," Couture says of Gonzaga's guard. "He's pretty well known for his submissions. I have a pretty good idea of what he's going to want to do. He's probably going to want to operate from the half guard. I have some ideas. I've seen some of his grappling and I kind of know tactically what he likes to do.
"But it kind of changes when you can get punched and elbowed in the face. I expect I'll be able to take him down and put him there, but I have to be diligent and ready to go from (the guard) for sure."
Couture is the underdog again, though he says that his match with Gonzaga is different from his bout in March against Tim Sylvia.
He ended a brief retirement in that fight by moving up to heavyweight from light heavyweight and winning the championship despite giving up six inches and 40 pounds.
Gonzaga is bigger and stronger, as well, but Couture said there's been one noticeable change in the way people react to him since the Sylvia fight.
"Not as many people are as worried I'm going to get killed like they were then," he says, chuckling. "I had to tell everybody, ‘It's just a fight. I'll be fine.' "
But Couture admits it wasn't always that way. He was a former All-American wrestler when he was encouraged to try MMA in 1997 by his old college buddy, Don Frye.
"I wasn't sure what to expect and I think that fear of the unknown creates a little anxiety for anybody," Couture said. "The fans were rabid. Even though there were only about 1,000 of them, they were crazy, hanging over the fence, grabbing at you. We just don't get that sort of thing in wrestling.”
What he got himself into was a lucrative career that was far beyond anything he could have imagined when he walked to the cage that night pondering whether he should bolt. He has become one of the icons of the sport and is one of four members of the UFC Hall of Fame, along with Dan Severn, Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie.
And though his physical skills aren't what they were when he was 34, he's a more dangerous fighter now because he understands himself and the sport better.
"I have gotten smarter, both in my training practices and in listening to my body, but also in competition," Couture said. "I'm not frivolous with my energy. I know exactly where I want to be most of the time. I'm pretty diligent about staying there, getting there.
"I think I was more, if anything, overaggressive when I was younger. I can't afford to be that way now."
And though he's lost speed and strength, he's gained knowledge, confidence and wisdom. He seemed at his peak in 2003, when he defeated Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz in back-to-back fights in a three-month span.
But he said he thinks the 2007 version of himself would find a way to get past the 40-year-old who upset Ortiz.
"I'm a better striker now than I was then and I think I'm tactically better on the ground than I was then as well," Couture said. "That Randy would probably have taken this Randy down, but I think this Randy would have found a way to scramble back up and be effective."
And that probably characterizes the match on Saturday. The numbers – age and size – and the matchup tends to favor Gonzaga. But this is exactly the type of situation where Couture is at his best.
"When you think, 'Well, OK, it's been a great run, but there's no way Randy can possibly do this,' he goes out there and shocks you," UFC president Dana White said. "I've learned my lesson. No matter who I put him against, no matter if I throw him in there with King Kong, I'm not going to doubt him. Because when you do, he just makes you look like a fool."