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 411mania » MMA » Columns

The Rear Naked Column 05.06.11: The Natural’s Defining Moment
Posted by Samer Kadi on 05.06.2011

"This is gonna be the last time you see these gloves and these shorts in this Octagon. I'm retiring tonight…"

These were the words uttered by an emotional – and potentially concussed – Randy Couture following his knockout loss to then UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell. Couture had split his two previous meetings with "The Iceman", after upsetting the odds in their first encounter only to get separated from consciousness in their rematch. In the rubber match, Couture would once again come in as a heavy underdog. And yet, many hoped that Couture, as he's accustomed us throughout the years, would be able to pull off another rabbit out of his hat.

After all, he had given an old fashioned beat-down to Vitor Belfort when the Brazilian used to strike fear in the hearts of every opponent. He had somehow survived an onslaught of leg kicks from Perdo Rizzo in their legendary contest to win the decision before stopping "The Rock" in his tracks in the rematch. He also had shocked the MMA world by out-striking Liddell in their initial fight, and literally spanked Tito Ortiz into tears to become the undisputed light heavyweight champion.

However, this wasn't to be. Age, as it became apparent, had finally caught up to Randy Couture. At almost 43 years of age, "The Natural" was making a wise decision. This was a bridge too far for Couture, and even he couldn't muster up another miracle at such an advanced stage of his career. A few months later, he was inducted in the UFC hall of fame, as he had accomplished everything a fighter could dream of. Couture had nothing left to prove, and more importantly, he no longer had the ability to…or so we thought.

In a surprising turn of events, Couture announced his return from retirement in January 2007. That, however, was hardly the shocking part. The UFC confirmed that Couture would be returning to the heavyweight division – the weight class he long abandoned due to his size – to take on the champion Tim Sylvia. The reaction among the MMA media was overwhelmingly dominated by a sense of concern for Couture's health and wellbeing.

So much happens in the world of MMA that it forces us to have short memories. It is easy to look in retrospect and forget the rage directed at the UFC for putting this matchup together with total disregard to a legend's safety. The main narrative was that the UFC was bringing in Couture to give Sylvia – whose reign would make those complaining about Georges St-Pierre relish the opportunity to watch "Rush" in action – a much needed high profile win; likely in violent fashion. After all, not only did Couture leave the heavyweight division due to being outsized, but he had been twice knocked out by Chuck Liddell. Tim Sylvia was one of the biggest heavyweights around who also happened to have more than enough power to end Couture's night.

The night was March 3, 2007. The place was the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. As the returning "Captain America" came in to "Back in the Saddle" by Aerosmith, 19 079 fans – which to date remains the biggest MMA crowd in the history of the US – greeted him with one of the loudest ovations you'll ever hear.

"Welcome back, the former two-time UFC light heavyweight champion…the former two-time UFC heavyweight champion…the legendary UFC, hall of fame, Octagon warrior..."

The electric atmosphere was further intensified by Bruce Buffer, who delivered an introduction worthy of its celebrated subject. And yet, as Buffer almost ran out of breath listing Couture's achievements, and the audience left no doubt – as if there was ever any – over who their sentimental favorite was going to be, you couldn't help but feel a sense of inevitability: Once "Big" John McCarthy pronounces his famous catchphrase, Couture, the crowd, and over 500 000 people watching at home would be in for a rude awakening.

"Welcome back, Randy Couture. This fight brought to you by…"

As Mike Goldberg reminded the world that Mark Wahlberg's "Shooter" would be in theatres the upcoming Friday, one of the greatest moments in MMA history unfolded: Eight seconds into the fight, an inside leg kick-overhand right combo sent Sylvia crashing to the mat, and with it came a deafening roar that may well have shaken the Octagon. Mike Goldberg inexplicably continued reading his scripted line, while Joe Rogan's understandable uncontained excitement was dwarfed by the crowd reaction. What started as a potential massacre of a 43 year old man turned into a truly hair-raising legendary moment that may never be topped.

That now legendary combination marked the beginning of a truly surreal twenty-five minutes which will go down as some of the most magical to ever take place inside the Octagon. Suggesting that the crowd "made" the fight would be an insult to Couture's sublime performance, but the atmosphere they helped create turned an already memorable performance into something utterly sensational.

As Couture proceeded to run a clinic on Sylvia, which included standing toe-to-toe with him for the entire third round and absolutely battering him, fans cheered in jubilation with each punch that Randy landed, and perhaps even the ones that didn't. In fact, it was likely the only time you'll encounter a referee getting booed for standing fighters up rather than fighters getting jeered for perceived inactivity.

For once, Goldberg's "there is not one fan sitting" statement was quite literal. To his and Joe Rogan's credit, their commentary – save for the first eight seconds as far as Goldberg is concerned – was quite up to the magnitude of the occasion. Quite understandably, they turned into complete Couture cheerleaders as the fight progressed, but if you have a heart, you can't realistically fault them. They were watching with amazement like the rest of us and could only react to the stunning events before them.

"43 year old guys are not supposed to dominate in combat sports" marveled Joe Rogan, as Randy Couture continued to lay a beating on Tim Sylvia, which prompted his play-by-play counterpart to answer back with "this is not any 43 year old guy…this is Captain America."

Hyperbole isn't something the UFC commentating crew is stranger to, but this is perhaps the perfect exchange to sum up Randy Couture in a nutshell. For virtually his entire career, Randy Couture was "too old" to compete at the highest level. In fact, he made his MMA debut at the advanced age of thirty-three. To put this in perspective, with 23 bouts to his credit, current UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre is twenty-nine years old. At that same age, Couture was four years away from making his professional mixed martial arts debut. And yet, he somehow managed to defy the odds time and time again.

If Couture pulled a rabbit out of his hat for his previous upset wins, he pulled a dinosaur for this one; no pun intended. The final twenty seconds of the fight never fail to give me goose bumps. Dana White, Joe Silva, and virtually everyone in the crowd got to their feet with ceaseless applause, while Mike Goldberg and the rest of the audience counted down the remaining seconds."…at 43 years of age, Randy Couture is once again, the UFC heavyweight champion!" proclaims Goldberg, as Couture laughs in the face of father time once more.

Rapturous celebrations erupted, Bruce Buffer made his official announcement, and Dana White put the belt around Couture's waist with complete awe. Joe Rogan walked inside the Octagon to interview the once again champion, and "The Natural", like only he can, gave the entire ride a climactic and fitting ending:

"Not bad for an old man."

Not bad indeed.

That will do it for another week of "The Rear Naked Column". As always, feedback is greatly appreciated. You can send in your comments, e-mails (at the address below), or you can follow me on twitter right here for all things MMA, video games, sports, and other nonsense.


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