Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The MMA Files – Part 3: The Greatest Mixed-Martial Artist of all time is….

Chapter IIi: The case for (and against) “Captain America.”

While Fedor was beating the best and the less of the MMA world, Randy Couture himself was reigning, for a third time, as the UFC heavyweight champion, having won the title from (guess who?) Tim Sylvia, and defending it successfully against young-lion Gabriel Gonzaga. But Couture was essentially on the crest of a wave that would come crashing down when he met the force of nature that is Brock Lesnar. The dawning of the Lesnar-era has meant a tidal shift in the UFC’s heavyweight division. With few exceptions, the UFC’s heavyweight champions have been far under the 265 pound weight limit placed on the class (the UFC has no “super-heavyweight” category, as other promotions do.), allowing many fighters to compete in two divisions. And, indeed, Couture has spent enough time in the UFC’s light-heavyweight division to win that belt a total of three times. After being steamrolled by Lesnar, Couture bolted from the heavier division, which had began to be populated by monsters the likes of Shane Carwin, Junior Dos Santos, Cain Velasquez, and an appreciably bulked-up Frank Mir. The new paradigm, underscored by the UFC’s choosing to focus on heavyweights for their 2009 season of The Ultimate Fighter, suggests that while Couture could continue to fight in the UFC ranks as a heavyweight, he would be smaller than the new breed, and while he has fought big men before, they weren’t the caliber of today’s heavyweights.

Couture has been in professional MMA long enough to have witnessed many of the sport’s major developments. Depending on where you place his ascendency, Couture is either a “late-early” or an “early-middle” generation fighter. He started his career with the UFC at the company’s thirteenth major event in 1997 and became its third heavyweight champion, beating kick boxer Maurice Smith a scant six months after his (Couture’s) debut . The move from pure Greco-Roman wrestling (Couture was a gold medalist at the Pan American games in 1991) to MMA might almost seem an afterthought considering Couture’s amateur hey-day was essentially the early part of the decade. But for an ambitious and still-young athlete like Couture, the UFC was the only viable option for a legitimate professional athletic career.

American wrestlers, whether they be Greco-Roman or Freestyle competitors, have historically had only two routes for follow after their amateur careers had concluded: couching or “professional” wrestling. Not having the desire or requisite showmanship for the staged theatrics of the WWF, Couture coached for much of the 90s until a viewing of a UFC event convinced him that he could make a go in the fledgling sport. The money could supplement his training for amateur wrestling events and he would have a natural advantage over other opponents without a base in wresting. Sure enough, his first match saw him take down and choke-out a 6’3”, 300 pound Finnish bruiser named Tony Halme, himself a pro wrestling veteran, in exactly one minute. That victory was followed an hour or so later with Couture taking just over three minutes to dispatch of Steven Graham to win the heavyweight tournament. Subsequent events saw more victories in the UFC cage (including securing the heavyweight belt from Maurcie Smith) followed by a pair of losses in Japan.

The early back-to-back losses, coming after a spate of massive, dominating success, is the pattern of Couture’s career. He is that classic athlete who seems to need a goal in order to perform at the highest levels. (Couture originally trained with Team Quest MMA camp.) After the UFC stripped him of his title for fighting for a competing promotion, Couture scored two back-to-back wins in Japan before returning to take the heavyweight belt back from Kevin Randleman. with less than a month’s rest between matches. Another Japanese tournament with RINGS in 2001 was the last anyone would ever see of Couture outside the UFC. Except for a year-long legal wrangle between the promotion and it’s champion, Couture has been loyal to the UFC contract employee ever since.

This has turned out to be a blessing for Couture’s career because it has meant an essentially uninterrupted string of stable, high-caliber opponents at or near the top of the card. The vast majority of his fights have been main event, championship bouts with either Couture winning, losing, or defending a belt. His most recent matches since losing the heavyweight title to Brock Lesnar in 2008, have all been main event bouts, including a fight-of-the-night “dream match” loss to “Big Nog” Noguiera, and rather sad, dominating win over one-time UFC heavyweight rival, Mark Coleman.

Couture’s record of 18 and 10 obviously therefore does not tell the whole story of the fighter’s career. A near-40% loss rate would be a stunningly poor showing for any other competitor. and indeed, Couture has never managed to win more than four bouts in a row. From this perspective, Fedor bests Couture with a 94% win rate. But if Fedor’s critics can attack the Russian for the lack of depth on his fight resume, Couture advocates can look to a staggering list of top-flight competition to defend the argument that “The Natural” is the “greatest” mixed martial artist in the sport’s twenty-plus year history. Couture hasn’t just fought the big names, he has fought those big names in their prime.

The trilogy of fights with Chuck Liddell are considered legendary. Liddell was on the ascendency, and very often seemed to have a precognitive striking ability. Couture has also fought Vitor Belfort (three times), Jeremey Horn, Kevin Randleman, Pedro Rizzo (twice), Ricco Rodriguez, Josh Barnett, Tito Ortiz, Gabriel Gonzaga, Brock Lesnar, Brandon Vera, Noguiera. The variety and breadth of legitimate competition is staggering. From Brazilian BJJ experts, to freestyle wresters, to catch wrestlers, to dominating strikers, Couture has consistently challenged himself against the best of his contemporaries. With the exception of his first professional match, and his unfortunate decision to fight aging boxer, James Toney in the Summer of 2010, detractors cannot make the claim that Couture has ever had a soft match. Even his 2005 post-championship match against fellow “senior” fighter, Mike van Arsdale was a gamble, with van Arsdale coming to the UFC with a four-fight winning streak behind him. (Couture would win that match with a rare display of his submission skills.)

The 2008 match with Lesnar suggested there may be an upper-limit to what Couture is capable of. Although he has beaten big men in the past, he has seldom met with someone with Lesnar’s credentials as a wrestler. The enormous strength advantage coupled with uncanny speed and destructive punching ability was simply too much for Couture in 2008. Other losses never seemed to be existential defeats. MMA is very often a sport of capitalizing on opportunities as much as skill. Couture’s defeats are usually the result of mistakes rather than indicative of a problem with his skill set. But against the 6’3”, 300 pound man-monster, the margin of allowable errors seem to be non-existent.

Can Couture beat Brock Lesnar? (Or Shane Carwin, or Cain Velasquez?) It remains to be seen. As is often noted, many have gone broke betting again Couture’s ability to comeback from defeat. And Lesnar, despite his impressive skills, is far from a perfect fighter. Couture, after all, did give Lesnar some problems in the first round of their match. But Couture is known as “Captain America,” not Superman. Age and wear are cruel adversaries of ambition.

Which brings me to the final question… what more does Randy Couture want? He’s had the most title reigns (six times) and is the first to hold belts in two weight divisions. He, along with Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Forrest Griffin, helped to launch the very notion of a mainstream professional MMA bout through their charisma and promotional acumen. He is arguably the most respected fighter in MMA history and one of the most recognizable faces of the sport. His skills seem undiminished and there still remains a variety of intriguing matches, especially at light-heavyweight. Rashad Evans, “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Wanderlai Silva, CroCop, Dan Henderson, and perhaps even a run at the current champion, “Shogun” Rua, all worthy main-event level matches. All, in some form or another are “dream” matches on the cards of many long-time fans.

But the upcoming bout with James Toney has all the makings of a sad spectacle. The 41 year old multi-time world boxing champion (he is the current IBA world champion) is a devastating boxer, and perhaps one of the very best of all time. But he has never trained in MMA. Has no ground game. No ground defense. Has never kicked before. Has never dealt with a cage. In truth, Toney would lose badly against Kimbo Slice, a recent UFC brawler who learned MMA from the ground up over the course of three years. His first MMA fight was against another boxer, Ray Mercer, who he choked out in the first 72 seconds of their match. Kimbo is not Randy Couture, and James Toney is not Ray Mercer (who, by the way, knocked out Tim Sylvia in 9 seconds at their match. I don’t know what this says about Mercer, but it says a lot about Sylvia. Is he the Kevin Bacon of combat sports?). While it is possible that Dana White may know something about Toney that the rest of the MMA fan community doesn’t, conventional wisdom and common sense suggest that the Couture/Toney match will be the most embarrassing moment in MMA in 2010, a year that has already seen its share of cringe-worthy in-ring nonsense. Win or lose, Couture has little to gain except a lucrative pay-day.

One blemish on an amazing career. Hopefully, he can recover from it.

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