At age 33, the perception of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is as the sport’s most deflated young old man, an athlete who has often failed to display some of the defensive posturing of jiu-jitsu and now appears to be paying the price.
He is one year younger than Randy Couture when Couture made his fighting debut in 1997.
If styles make fights, they can also make or break careers. Couture’s longevity in a job that grinds athletes into pulled meat is -- like Lyoto Machida’s karate efficacy and Anderson Silva’s faultless weaving -- a story that is unlikely to ever be duplicated. It is not a sport with a mortality rate, but it is a series of minor car accidents: Athletes come in looking healthy and exit as bloody, bruised and wobbly as if they had punctured a windshield. Give their bodies five years and they’ll grow haggard; 10 and you’ll begin hearing things like, “I don’t have an ACL,” and, “I need to drain this before dinner.”
Forty-six years old, Couture has outlasted most of his contemporaries and many of the men who followed after him. In 1997, Mark Kerr was king of the world. He’s now a regional attraction with the physique of a melted candle; Maurice Smith is gone. Ken Shamrock, run out of town. Chuck Liddell debuted, surged, became the most famous man in MMA, and then wilted, all during Couture’s tenure. And somehow, Couture remains a formidable headlining attraction, based in part on his skill and the seeming improbability he should be walking upright at his age, much less fighting.
Aged 39: Fans fearing for his life, he TKOs Liddell to claim the UFC’s light heavyweight title.
Aged 43: Chops down Tim Sylvia over five rounds.
Aged 44: Hands bigger, stronger, younger Gabriel Gonzaga his ass on a garnished platter.
Aged 45: Keeps a competitive pace with anthropomorphic Brock Lesnar.
This is the cherry on top of Couture’s career arc: He’s not only durable, but durable in a sport where slowed reflexes and heaving cardio can earn you assisted living.
There are a lot of intangibles with this kind of longevity, and there are a lot of components that are fairly obvious. As a wrestler first, Couture can dictate the pace and location of a fight. It’s hard to accept damage when you’re controlling from the top. He’s never satisfied himself by learning how to close distance and ignore the stand-up: He became a very credible, damaging and defensive dirty boxer. And he adapted. Fighting Pedro Rizzo for the first time in 2001, he was so battered by leg kicks that he could barely walk afterward. In their rematch a few months later, he tuned up. And while he was defeated several more times, it was never because someone chopped him down.
Those losses never affected Couture in the long-term, which is crucial: Most athletes begin doubting their place in the sport, their skills and their ability to withstand punishment. Fighters get skittish and nervous: lose two fights and you’re desperate not to lose a third. It changes your functioning. Couture ate consecutive losses to Ricco Rodriguez and Josh Barnett, then returned to stop Liddell; Liddell KOed him twice, and he dusted off to humble Sylvia and Gonzaga. This is not a guy who enjoys a lot of self-pity.
Nor does he seem to particularly enjoy the constant questions concerning his age and longevity in the sport. This is the perpetual story of his career: Is this the last fight? Or this one? Or that one?
Who can say? But in 25 career fights, Couture has rarely looked up at the clock. Maybe we should learn to do the same.
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