America’s athletic battlefields are littered with good-intentioned men who stuck around too long in their chosen sport, their eroding physical skills rendering them incapable of recapturing the glory of day’s gone by. Remember Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards uniform? Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield also spring to mind.
Though his legacy and place in the mixed martial arts pantheon are secure, Randy Couture does not want his name added to the list.
A 15-month layoff in tow, the ageless Couture will defend his heavyweight crown against former World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Brock Lesnar in the main event at UFC 91 this Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. At 45, he vows not to overstay his welcome in a sport for which he has done so much during the course of his 12-year career.
“I’m a pretty rational person,” Couture says. “I’ve set standards for myself, and I realize at some point I’m not going to be able to meet those standards physically. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that yet. I’ve got a close eye on all that. My body talks to me all the time, and I listen.”
Less than a decade away from senior citizen discount eligibility, Couture’s inner fires still burn with the intensity of a man half his age. The thrill of competition drives him back into the cage at a time when many of his peers find themselves in steep decline.
“It’s the greatest job there is,” Couture says. “I still enjoy competing and training, my body’s holding up and I’m still getting better.”
The two sides came to their senses in September, as the UFC brought Couture back into the fold and offered him the match with Lesnar. A young buck 14 years Couture’s junior, Lesnar had rapidly become one of the company’s main draws, and a fight between the two heavyweights made sense for all involved.
“I didn’t have to think about it long,” Couture says. “I was just happy to get a fight and put all that other stuff behind me.”
Lesnar (2-1) -- though his career as a professional mixed martial artist remains in its formative stages -- brings an amateur wrestling pedigree to the cage few can match. A four-time collegiate All-American, two-time Big 10 Conference champion and 2000 NCAA national champion, he has transitioned smoothly to MMA, save for his submission loss to Frank Mir in his UFC debut.
Couture (16-8) sees a lot of himself, minus the attitude, in the hulking Minnesotan.
“I have a pretty good idea, technically, of where he’s coming from because we share that similar wrestling background,” he says. “We both want to do some of the same things.”
Few secrets exist between the two heavyweights involved in what the promotion has labeled “The Biggest Fight in UFC History.” Knowing what he faces -- an agile opponent who will likely outweigh him by some 50 pounds when the bell rings -- Couture has done what he can to prepare for all possibilities, even though finding training partners who could mirror Lesnar was easier said than done.
“I had a lot of guys in camp who were big, many of whom were bigger than Lesnar,” Couture says. “Finding guys who are that big with that kind of wrestling base is tough, though. I think we’ve done a pretty good job the last 10 weeks.”
In his two heavyweight losses in the UFC -- to Josh Barnett at UFC 36 and Ricco Rodriguez at UFC 39 -- Couture was finished by bigger men with strikes from the top. Lesnar, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound blend of muscle, athleticism and arrogance, had no trouble scoring takedowns against his first three opponents. As a result, Couture was forced to brace for the real possibility he might wind up on his back at some point during their match.
“I just tried to get used to the weight, especially in worst-case scenarios where I end up on the bottom,” he says. “I worked on finding ways to create scrambles and get out from under there.”
The 31-year-old Lesnar showed marked improvement in his most recent outing, as he dominated veteran Heath Herring en route to a unanimous decision victory at UFC 87. Couture, like many, views the husky heavyweight as a future champion but believes he lacks the seasoning and wisdom to reach the top in his current state.
“I think he has a pretty good wrestling base,” Couture says. “I think that gives him a lot of potential, but I don’t think he’s reaching that potential yet. He’s a pretty straight-ahead fighter. He moves well for a 275-pound guy. He likes to establish top position. I think he gets over aggressive in places. That’s what got him in trouble against Mir.”
Experience figures to play a significant role in the fight, should the tide turn in Couture’s favor. In 12 of his last 13 bouts, he has either defended or fought for a championship. Furthermore, eight of the 19 men against whom he has battled wore UFC gold at some point in their careers. He plans to test Lesnar’s resolve.
“I think I’ve worked pretty diligently over the last 12 years to make myself a well-rounded fighter,” Couture says. “You look at Brock, and he’s a big, physical guy, but he’s still just a wrestler. He’s going to try and take me down, establish that base and hit me as much as he can. I see several opportunities for me to hit him and for me to kick him. I’m kind of hoping it frustrates him, makes him kind of lose hope and lose control of his temper. He seems prone to doing that.”