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UFC 129: Exclusive interview with Randy ‘The Natural’ Couture

couture blog pic 252x300 UFC 129: Exclusive interview with Randy The Natural CoutureEven before a punch has been thrown, it’s safe to say that Saturday 30th April will go down as one of the most notable dates in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s young history – for two reasons. The presence of 55,000 people defines one, the departure of one man defines the other.

UFC 129 is certain to be a record-breaker. The huge turnout at Toronto’s Rogers Centre to see Canadian hero Georges St. Pierre defend his welterweight title against Jake Shields, will be almost double that of the UFC’s previous P.B. (23,152 witnessed St. Pierre defend his title against Josh Koscheck in Montreal last November).

Almost 14 years ago, Randy Couture made his debut in front of an audience less than ten times smaller than the number of fans that will attend on Saturday. Ever since then, the legend of ‘The Natural’ has grown in unison with the evolution of mixed martial arts, and more specifically, the rise and rise of the UFC – from the 5,100 that saw Couture win UFC 13’s heavyweight tournament, to the promotional behemoth that it is today, capable of competing in the spectatorship stakes with the US’s leading sports.

Just over a week ago, Couture announced that his bout with Lyoto Machida on Saturday will be his last. Given his remarkable longevity in such a physically tolling, violent endeavour, the 47-year-old must be as used to fielding questions about retirement as anyone. Yet the press pack have been unrelenting in their efforts to lure Couture into revealing just the slightest possibility of a reconsideration, and I’m no different.

Speaking to Couture on Tuesday night, I asked if there was any scenario that could see him take to the Octagon one more time. For instance, if Saturday’s fight with Machida were to have a controversial or inconclusive outcome.

“No, I’m done after this fight,” Couture responded in a manner reaffirming an earlier assertion that I made to the veteran, that he was indeed sick of answering questions on his decision to call it a day.

Perhaps the incessant, “Are you REALLY retiring?” line of questioning stems from the fact that this isn’t the first time that Couture has arrived at this decision.

Following a second defeat to the heavy hands of Chuck Liddell in 2006, an emotional Couture announced that he was ready to move on from the sport.

Couture is keen to draw a distinction between the then and now, “I had a lot of personal things going on back then that led me to that decision, I just needed to take some time away and settle a little bit. That’s not the case this time around. Everything is going great. I think it’s the right time for me, the right fight, and I want to go out on my own terms.”

Somewhere, lost amidst the fog of Couture’s retirement talk, is his opponent Lyoto Machida.

Couture specifically went to UFC president Dana White and requested a date with ‘The Dragon’. Since dropping from title contention, Couture has sought fights that offer a separate intrigue or challenge away from the long climb up the divisional ladders that every other fighter is embroiled in. Couture tells me that Machida offers such a test, “I’ve wanted this fight for a couple of years. Watching Lyoto, I think I match up well with him and the icing on the cake is that it will probably be the biggest martial arts event that the UFC is going to hold in a long time. It’s going to be a blast!”

The challenges that Machida presents are indeed special. Machida is one of the most elusive counter-strikers in the sport. As an expert in the Shotokan style of Karate, Machida offers something different in the stand up realm, away from the more popular striking disciplines of boxing, kick boxing and Muay Thai that are the practice of most mixed martial artists.

Couture says he’s brought Shotokan specialists into his training camp to mimic Lyoto’s rare style. The plan is to cut the cage off, “hunt Lyoto down and get my hands on him.”

From there, Couture will look to utilize his patented brand of ‘dirty boxing’ against the cage – a physical mauling involving varied attacks to every part of his opponents body that Couture is legally allowed to target – or he’ll apply his wrestling pedigree to seek the takedown from where he can bully his rival.

Machida, of course, has other plans – Not only to spoil the retirement but to re-establish himself among the light heavyweight elite.

‘The Dragon’ has failed to live up to the lofty expectations that greeted him upon claming the light heavyweight crown in May 2009. Moments after Machida tore apart Rashad Evans with a volley of strikes in the second round, UFC announcer Joe Rogan hailed a new era for mixed martial arts, ‘The Machida Era’. Rogan wasn’t the only one who turned out be wrong on this. It is all too easy to succumb to the seductive mystique and awe of an undefeated champion, especially given their rarity in MMA. I hold my hands up too.

However, with words that may be applied as a warning to current 205lb king – and apparent UFC flag-bearer for years to come – Jon Jones, Couture expressed no surprise by what became only a brief reign at the top for Machida, “It’s a tough sport. The second you’re on top you have a target on your back and there are a lot of different ways to make a mistake – to get caught and to lose a fight. There’s been very few guys who have reigned supreme for a long, long time. It’s the nature of our sport.”

Couture has never himself ‘reigned supreme’ for all too long. In a remarkable five stints as a UFC champion (three times at heavyweight, twice at light heavyweight) the most number of defences that ‘The Natural’ has been able to string together stands at just two. Yet it’s been the way in which Couture has continued to come back as well as his constant evolution as a mixed martial artist – in a sport that is starkly different to how it was when he made his debut all those years ago, gloves weren’t even compulsory back then – that has found him a place in fight fans’ hearts all around the world.

There are plenty of things going on in Randy Couture’s life besides his own fighting career. Though he’s starred in various straight-to-DVD movies over the years, Couture’s Hollywood aspirations really took off in 2010 when he was cast alongside Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke in The Expendables. A sequel is due out next year.

Besides that, Couture will continue to maintain a healthy involvement in the sport. He has his own gym which is home to a wealth of  MMA talent – including his son Ryan is two fights into his own career – and we can probably expect to see Couture popping up in various areas of the media, commenting on all things MMA.

Then there’s the issue of fighter’s rights, an aspect of the sport that the Hall of Famer has been frequently outspoken about in the past, particularly in regards to the lack of health insurance and retirement plans that Couture feels leaves fighters vulnerable.

I asked, that given his stature in the sport and the fact that he’s one of only a few who have criticised the UFC so openly on these issues, if he feels any pressure to spearhead a movement towards the appropriate changes being made?

“I’ve always been my own person, there’s no pressure for me to do anything. I’m going to do what I think is right,” Couture responded, before adding, “I think the best thing for the fighters that are involved with the UFC to do, is just to sit down with each other and find a way of using the resources that Dana and Lorenzo [Fertitta, UFC chairman] have to solve the problems that the fighters have.”

Look up to Couture they may – encouragement and advise will always be on generous offer – but in order to drive the evolution of the sport even further, the fighters are going to have to get it done themselves, just like he has.

Nick Diaz to boxing?… “I wouldn’t recommend it,” warns Couture

I was interested to gather Couture’s thoughts on Nick Diaz’s apparent migration to boxing. The Strikeforce welterweight champion has called out various present and former world champions, such as current middleweight king Sergio Martinez and – more realistically – the faded forces of Fernando Vargas and Jeff Lacy.

Couture was involved in a ‘MMA vs Boxing’ contest of his own in Boston last year, when he easily dismantled the bloated and delusional motor-mouth James Toney. But Couture warns Diaz that going from MMA into boxing is a different matter entirely, “I didn’t have any illusions that I was a world class striker and wanted to fight James in a boxing match.

“I don’t know if Diaz would fare a lot better in a boxing match than James fared in MMA.”

A misguided move then? “I wouldn’t recommend it but Nick is his own man,” borrowing from his own mantra, Couture added, “He does what he wants to do.”

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