Couture's journey a long, strange trip

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

His first UFC fight took place in front of maybe 1,000 fans in an old civic center in Augusta, Ga. The weigh-in was at the Holiday Inn. Almost no one showed up for it.

This was 1997 and Randy Couture's friends were confused why he was trying this "sport" they had never heard a good word about. His mother thought he had lost his mind. He tried to explain to everyone that this wasn't a Toughman contest, that it had progressed from its "human cockfighting" days.

In truth, he needed some money. He was 33 years old, had three kids and was working as an assistant wrestling coach at Oregon State. He had boxed during a six-year stint in the Army, been an Olympic alternate wrestler after that and had never been afraid of just about any kind of fight.

So this UFC thing? Hey, why not?

"Everyone thought I was pretty much crazy," Couture said of the days leading up to that first victory, submitting Tony Halme. "It wasn't even understood as a sport. They just thought I was flat nuts. They kept asking what had gotten into me."

That was small-time UFC 13. This Saturday, in a sold-out arena at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, is prime-time UFC 74.

Couture fought then and he'll fight now – this time defending his heavyweight championship against Gabriel Gonzaga.

Couture is now 44. Gonzaga is just 28 and coming off nearly knocking a guy's head off with one kick. So some are still questioning Couture's sanity.

In between then and now, though, both a sport and a legend were born. Couture, through his skill, power and everyman charisma, helped push a once back-alley operation into a growing phenomenon that has made him rich, famous and prescient.

"Mom doesn't miss a fight now," he noted.

Couture has had an incredible impact on the UFC's growth. He's held both the light heavyweight and heavyweight titles. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame even before his current title reign. His trilogy of fights with Chuck Liddell, his victory over Tito Ortiz and his against all odds, out of retirement decision over the hulking Tim Sylvia all rank among the greatest moments in UFC history.

Perhaps more than anything, whether pummeling or being pummeled (his record is 15-8 and some of the losses have been brutal), he took on all opponents of all sizes in big fight after big fight. At 6-2 and now 225 pounds, his style is about brawling, which has always endeared him to the masses.

Out of the octagon he relentlessly promoted the UFC as a real sport filled with real athletes. It's a big reason why 74 is nothing like 13.

"It's night and day," he said. "It's a little overwhelming. We'll fill half the stadium for a weigh-in now."

Couture thought he had retired back in 2006 after losing the rubber match of his series with Liddell; he ended up on the wrong end of a violent series of punches.

But when Sylvia gave him a title shot in March, he couldn't resist. Giving up six inches, 40 pounds and 12 years, Couture was supposed to get killed. Instead he almost scored a knock-out in the first 30 seconds before winning by decision.

And now, who knows how long this goes? He's the heavyweight champion of the UFC, by definition one of the toughest S.O.B.s in the world. And while Couture's prime conditioning means he can continue long past what would seem to be his prime, he knows nothing is easy.

Roger Clemens may still be pitching at 45 but if Clemens makes a mistake, a baseball gets whacked. If Couture makes one, his face does.

Saturday he takes on Gonzaga, this youthful Brazilian with the black belt in jiu-jitsu. Gonzaga is most famous for delivering a brutal kick to the head of Mirko "Cro Crop" Filipovic in April, knocking him out in one stunning strike.

Couture was working that night as a broadcaster and has since watched it "six or seven times" to make sure he is strategically prepared.

Couture being Couture, he isn't sitting around wondering what the heck he is doing taking on a guy 16 years his junior capable of kicking him into next week. He says he has no fear. He may be the only 44-year-old in the world who wouldn't be panicked.

"I pose some different problems and different things to Gabe," Couture said. "It will make it more difficult for Gabe to unleash that."

He paused and then admitted that at the very least he had to respect Gonzaga's skill.

"You have to be aware," he said. "You know he has that tool in his tool belt."

But Couture has his, too. More than a decade after giving this new experiment a chance he's the old hand, the living legend, the champion enjoying one more night on top.

Still as tough as they come, he faces a young, dangerous opponent, bright lights and big paychecks now, but all these days and fights later, it's still mostly the same old Randy Couture. He's still trying to prove he isn't nuts for just doing this.

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