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LAS VEGAS – There are plenty of similarities between Randy Couture and Mark Coleman. Each is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champ. Each is in the UFC Hall of Fame. Each was a decorated collegiate wrestler.
But the differences between them are what makes their bout in the main event of UFC 109 on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center so intriguing.
Couture is perhaps the UFC's most meticulous star. He's in tune with his body like few others. He often speaks of his body as a tool and has intently studied the intricacies of mixed martial arts.
Coleman is a carefree sort whose idea of training has been, for the most part, to leave the beer in the refrigerator for a week or so, lift a few weights and then go out and pummel someone.
Longtime fans have longed for a bout between them for more than a decade. For much of that time, Coleman was competing in Japan for the PRIDE Fighting Championships, building a reputation as a physically dominant man with a simple, but basic game, while Couture was helping to build the UFC into the powerhouse it has become.
Their paths never crossed, leaving a void in many fans' minds. Still, veteran trainer Shawn Tompkins insists the fight will be better now that each has evolved than if they'd met 10 years ago, a point with which Couture agrees.
But while Couture has become one of the sport's icons and great fighters, Coleman is still a relative unknown to many of the sport's newer fans, who haven't seen his legendary battles in PRIDE and in the early UFC.
UFC welterweight Frank Trigg now trains at Couture's haute gym, which is in the shadow of the famed Las Vegas Strip, but for years fought in PRIDE and got an intimate view of Coleman.
Trigg learned all he needed to know about Coleman following a conversation they had after Coleman won the PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix in 2000.
"I asked him after he won that, 'What did you do?' " Trigg said. "And he says, 'Oh, nothing. I just stopped drinking and worked on training.' I couldn't believe it and I laughed. He goes, 'I usually don't train. I just fight. But I trained for the Grand Prix and I won it.' "
Those kinds of stories are legendary about Coleman, who insists that at nearly 45, he's changed his ways and has taken Couture's approach to preparation.
Coleman's story, of not training, of not using a coach, of not preparing properly, serves as perhaps Reason 1,087,312 of Couture's greatness. Couture never took the short way out from the time he became a professional fighter. He was like a computer scientist poring over code, looking for the secret to make himself even more dangerous.
It's why, though he was extremely impressed by ex-Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker's MMA debut last week in Strikeforce, he said none of it had to do with age.
Walker is 47, but Couture didn't consider that in the evaluation when he assessed Walker. He was asked if Walker's conditioning was more remarkable given the fact he's bearing down hard on 50 and was barely breathing hard when the fight with Greg Nagy was over. "You're probably asking the wrong guy because I don't think age is an issue," Couture said. "It's about the individual who's standing there."
Couture remains an elite fighter at his advanced age because of his commitment to being the best athlete he can be. He missed out on a lot of parties and fun that guys like Coleman may have enjoyed over the years, but the payoff is that he's still one of the game's greats.
UFC president Dana White raved about Couture as a light heavyweight. And it's more likely than not that Couture will fight for the UFC's light heavyweight belt sometime later this year.
White said the differences between the men are very stark. He called Coleman "freakishly strong" and "one of the toughest [expletives] I've ever met," but he spoke in almost reverential tones about Couture and the way he prepares.
"Coleman is a guy who was never really focused and he got by on his natural abilities, which are tremendous," White said. "They're complete opposites. One guy is very serious, has taken very good care of his body, is always training, always in the gym, always trying to find a way to get better. Coleman is an extremely talented guy, but he lived a very hard life. He didn't train a lot of the time. He won fights on his strength and his heart.
"Randy is a very smart, very insightful fighter. He's known for always coming up with great strategies. He's a guy who didn't abuse his body. He took care of himself. There were no parties, no drinking, no drugs, none of that [expletive] for him. Couture is as square as you could possibly get, but it's why he's as great as he is."
Tompkins has coached Couture and knows full well the Hall of Famer's attention to detail. He's now coaching Coleman and concedes that the member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling team treated MMA as an afterthought for much of his career. But Tompkins insists that Coleman is in a different place now and realizes he still has a number of big fights available to him if he commits to training and being coached.
Tompkins said Coleman still has the ability to be an elite guy in the UFC because he has such terrific physical gifts. In essence, what he's saying is that Coleman has attempted to emulate Couture. Tompkins said Coleman trained for a January 2009 bout with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua for a week, with no coaching.
It wasn't until after that fight, when he was offered a bout with Stephan Bonnar, that Coleman came to the realization that Couture's way made sense.
"Mark had personal issues, family stuff he had to take care of, and that's what was important to him at that time," Tompkins said of Coleman's laissez faire approach to training. "I'm not saying necessarily that it was right. I don't think he does, either. But he's changed that. And I think now, some people are forgetting that he actually does have a coach. When you think about it, he pretty much taught himself and it's amazing to think he's accomplished what he has without a coach.
"Now that he has a coach and he's preparing the right way, he can do a lot of great things."
Couture is the standard, though, for all modern MMA fighters. Trigg said it never ceases to amaze him when he watches Couture prepare.
Everyone he trains with is younger than he is; many are younger than his 27-year-old son, Ryan.
Yet, it's always Couture who is in the best condition and it's almost always Couture who comes out on top, Trigg said.
"Younger, faster, stronger guys are coming along all the time, and let's not forget, Randy is ," Trigg said. "He's not 35, he's not 25, he's , but he's in better shape than most guys are when they're 20. Honestly. He's kicking the butts of guys who are 24, 25 years old.
"It's not like he's standing around doing nothing. He beats up guys who are literally half his age and who have more experience. Remember, Randy is a pioneer in this thing and those guys only fought once, twice a year. … It shows you the kind of guy Randy is that he's still pounding guys half his age with more fights than he has. Wouldn't we all want to be able to say we could do that?"