Off The Hook #3
Randy Couture becomes the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion
Hello again. For those of you who have read either of the previous columns, you will probably know who I am, but for those who haven’t, I’m Joe Reilly and welcome to the third instalment of my new column ‘Off The Hook’. In each column I delve into the world of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), which is the most skilful and exciting combat sport in the world. The column is normally part educational and part news based, so I do hope it appeals to both hardcore fans and newcomers to the sport.
Before I delve into this edition of ‘Off The Hook’, I would first like to apologise to both the readers and the staff of this site regarding the frequency of my column. Originally, my intention was to update the International Scene section of this site with a new column every week. The reason I haven’t been able to do this so far is that I have been working abnormal hours due to shift work, but that is all about to change as I am due to start a new job, which is regular 9 – 5 type hours. So, I assure both the readers and staff of this site that I will neglect my writing responsibilities no longer. With that malarkey out of the way, let’s get on with the column.
In this edition I will be reporting the news as always. However, the main focus of this issue is a different one, although I assure you I am not trying to overshadow the other parts of this week’s column.
The main topic I want to cover this week is UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Randy ‘The Natural’ Couture. The main reason why Couture is the main focus of this column is because I am quite simply in awe of this man and his accomplishments in MMA and given that he is due to step back into the Octagon anytime now to defend his UFC Light Heavyweight belt against Vitor ‘The Phenom’ Belfort, I figured that it is now an appropriate time more than any to take a better look at this phenomenal athlete.
For those of you out there like myself that pride yourself on your MMA interest this man needs no introduction and what I’ve said already as well as what I’m about to say about the man should be fairly obvious, but for any of the newcomers just discovering this sport I shall continue.
Like many of the fighters that represent Team Quest in MMA, Randy Couture is a typical example of what this team is all about. That is a hard worker, excellent Greco Roman wrestler, well-rounded fighter and a true sportsman. In case you are unfamiliar with the style of Greco Roman, it is very old Olympic form of wrestling that mainly focuses on upper body clinching, takedowns and control. In fact, Randy does not only personify the ethics of his Team, but he personifies what I believe this sport is all about and that is someone who is a well rounded fighter, who is respectful in defeat while very classy in victory and he constantly seems to reinvent himself while staying true to his wrestling roots.
One quote that springs to mind when I think of Randy Couture and how he has reinvented himself is the following: “To judge a character of another man, you judge how he comes back from hardship”. Let’s delve into how exactly this quote represents the current Randy Couture that we see fighting today.
If you go back a little bit in time Randy Couture was at the top of his game, but the only difference then was that he was the UFC Heavyweight Champion rather than the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion like he is now. If you go back to this period, he showed that he was beating expert wrestlers such as Kevin Randleman and expert strikers like Pedro Rizzo. The guy was truly dominant. Basically, he could outwrestle anyone with his expert clinching and so fourth, but he also showed that he could go the distance with the younger guys.
He showed great stamina against Kevin Randleman and Pedro Rizzo. When he fought Randleman, Randleman got him to the ground early, but Couture showed some really good Jiu Jitsu skills staying calm and neutralising pretty much all of Randleman’s offence form the top. Couture went on to reverse Randleman and explode on him with some punishing ground pound strikes. He then went the distance with Pedro Rizzo. He was able to withstand the strikes of Rizzo and come back to warrant a judge’s decision victory, although I must admit that I thought Rizzo won that fight, Couture still showed that he could take Rizzo’s best strikes.
After the controversy of that decision, the pair would soon fight again and Couture came back with a bang proving to any doubters that he was the top heavyweight by decisively finishing Rizzo in their rematch with some hard hitting ground and pound offence. So, if you were not following the UFC closely at that time, you may ask what went wrong? Did Randy suddenly lose his lately acquired striking skills, his long time wrestling ability of did age simply catch up with him? Absolutely not, he was still constantly improving in all areas. So what happened?
Well, the opposition simply got bigger. Even though the UFC can pride themselves on having definitive weight classes to make the competition as fair as possible, the Heavyweight division allows a bigger gap in weight (205 lbs – 265 lbs). That is a huge gap. The fact was Couture was steadily around 225 lbs or so for most of his fights at this weight, but Couture himself admits that even though he had been fighting larger opponents his whole life and beating them, the fact was that there had been no huge fighters that dominated the UFC, as generally the bigger guys wouldn’t have the pace, technique and skill of their lighter counterparts.
However, these larger than life guys soon emerged. Some specifically had really good striking skills, while others had more solid grappling games in wrestling and Jiu Jitsu, but the fact was these guys were now coming in more well rounded and developed than before. Guys like Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez, who could weigh anywhere between 240 lbs and 265 lbs suddenly started dominating the world of Heavyweight contenders.
Barnett punishes Couture from top position
Both of these solid fighters had the Heavyweight gold in their sights, but it was Barnett who got his shot first. Both guys brought it and Randy even started off the better, but in dramatic fashion Barnett soon turned the ties and Randy found himself put on his back and becoming a victim of his own poison, that being some vicious ground and pound attacks. So, Josh Barnett then took the Championship indeed making a statement. Couture was classy in defeat as always. However, soon after it emerged that Barnett had tested positive for Steroids and the Nevada State Athletic Commission stripped Barnett of the title. Simultaneously, it seemed that relations had strained with Barnett and Zuffa (UFC owners) and Barnett walked away from the organisation failing to reach an agreement to renew his contract.
Immediately, there were cries such as “reverse the decision” and “Give Randy his belt back”, but the Nevada State Athletic Commission would not overturn the decision of the fight, which meant the championship was vacant. Therefore Zuffa took Ricco Rodriguez, who many believed deserving of a title shot and took Randy Couture and set up a bout at UFC 39 between the two Heavyweight warriors for the vacant championship.
Ricco Rodriguez becomes the UFC Heavyweight champion after defeating Couture
Both fighters went into the fight with great respect for each other. However Ricco thought that Randy’s age was finally catching up with him while recognising Couture’s previous accomplishments. Couture felt that Rodriguez’s one problem was that he cowered away from getting hit and that he would exploit this by getting in Ricco’s face. Randy felt the reason that he had lost his previous fight was that because he had got more comfortable on his back due to improving his Jiu Jitsu skills. Randy said “I worked on my jits for the Randleman fight and it worked, but I started relying on it too much trying to turn weakness into strength, but when Josh got me on my back everything went wrong. You have to work on everything, but I have to remember that I’m not a jits guy”
So Randy went into this fight with Ricco Rodriguez with the game plan of getting in Ricco’s face and taking the fight to him. The fight as a whole turned out to be a very hard fought battle of wrestling exchanges mainly. Randy being the superior wrestler took the fight to Ricco early just as he had planned and scored several takedowns on Ricco and controlled the best part of three rounds. In the final two rounds it became visibly noticeable that Randy was beginning to tire from controlling the early rounds, while Ricco still had more gas left in his tank and he started to get the takedowns and control the fight more. Eventually Ricco got Randy firmly on his back and Randy had tired badly allowing Ricco to capitalise and win by a punishing ground and pound attack causing Couture to verbally tap out.
As 2002 came to a close, the UFC were just coming off one of their most successful and groundbreaking shows ever. It was the most successful show under Zuffa management. Most likely Zuffa were on a high after UFC 40: Vendetta and its success, which can mainly be attributed to the Tito Ortiz/Ken Shamrock bout. With that show, Zuffa hoped that this show would kick off a new era of going about conquering the mainstream market. So, it seemed like Randy Couture had just narrowly missed out on reaping some rewards from this exposure, now that he was just another former champion.
For the first four months or so of 2003, there was little to no talk of Randy Couture in regards to his future in MMA. Eventually, when the UFC where starting to put UFC 42 in April together, there was some talk of Randy Couture making his come back at that show to face the Andrei Arlovski. Soon after this possible bout was mentioned, it was revealed that Arlovski had picked up an injury in training and therefore the possible Couture/Arlovski bout at UFC 42 had become impossible and Couture was told to wait on the sidelines until UFC 43. Meanwhile, while the Heavyweight division seemed to be quick to move on without Couture moving with it, the UFC Light Heavyweight division seemed to be clouded with doubt and uncertainty.
At this time ‘The Huntington Beach Bad Boy’ Tito Ortiz was the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion. As mentioned earlier in the column, Tito had been victorious in his last defence of his title against Ken Shamrock at UFC 40 back in November 2002. The problem was that ‘The Iceman’ Chuck Liddell was the number one contender, who happened to be well due a title shot, but it appeared Tito Ortiz was trying to hold up proceedings with various claims.
After Tito beat Ken at UFC 40, Jeff Osborne asked him where he stood with Chuck Liddell regarding Chuck’s title shot. Tito was hesitant to shed light on the situation and claimed it was a difficult situation having to fight Chuck, as they were friends. The minute UFC 41 in February came rolling round Zuffa tried to use all the angles in the book to finally get the match sealed.
They had Chuck Liddell do an interview calling Tito out for UFC 42 to fight. However, Tito claimed that he had various injuries preventing him from fighting. When Tito was asked about fighting at UFC 43 in June, he claimed he had entertainment commitments. Also, during this time Tito and Zuffa seemed to be having contractual disagreements. Zuffa wanted Tito Ortiz to fulfil his contract by defending his championship against Chuck Liddell, while Tito wanted his contract re-evaluated, as it was speculated that Tito was angry with Zuffa for signing the likes of Tank Abbott to lucrative contracts, who was most likely being paid more than Ortiz.
Tito claimed that because he was a champion, he should be treated like one. I will admit that I was not Ortiz’s biggest fan at this point, but I did see his point, as it’s not good if an actual champion gets paid less than a washed up fighter, who most believed could not compete with any modern day UFC Heavyweight.
Now, to get back to how this whole story relates to our subject at hand Randy Couture. The bottom line was that Zuffa were not able to get Tito to defend his championship for UFC 43. Here they had their champion unwilling to defend his championship, but because of technicalities they couldn’t strip him. However, Chuck Liddell up until now had done the right thing and stepped aside at times to let other people challenge Tito first. Chuck had grown impatient at the fact that he was still being denied his title shot and the fact was that the UFC needed a championship bout to headline UFC 43.
So, Zuffa asked Randy if he would be willing to cut weight and drop down to 205 lbs to fight in the Light Heavyweight division. Randy said he would. Therefore Zuffa set up a UFC Interim Light Heavyweight Championship match between Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture meaning Tito Ortiz would have to fight the winner to prove he was still the champion.
It seemed obvious that if all else failed if Zuffa was able to bring Tito Ortiz’s status as champion into doubt it would force him into a position to fight the winner of Liddell and Couture. At this stage it’s fair to say that at this time many fighters and fans had grown tired of Tito’s political stances behind the scenes and many just disregarded his position as champion and considered the match between Liddell and Couture the match that would decide who the real champion was. The fact that can never be disputed is that Chuck was the number one contender and while Tito wasn’t prepared to face Chuck when he was asked to, Randy was.
When it came down to the fight between Liddell and Couture, Liddell was heavily favoured and I will admit that I predicted Chuck to win. Most thought it would be too much for a fighter who was cutting down a weight class to beat the best guy in that weight class. Also, Randy had lost his two previous fights at Heavyweight, which meant everyone was willing to write him off.
However the thing that perhaps Liddell, Zuffa, all the fans and myself included never considered was that we were basing Couture on how he was as a Heavyweight and many of us forgot to look at a valid point and that was that Randy’s two previous losses where to much larger fighters, which took its toll on Randy’s conditioning. It seemed we overlooked the fact that Couture was going to be fighting a guy who was basically his size.
Couture dominates Liddell
So Couture went in as the underdog and entered the Octagon all smiles, which had most of us wondering what Couture knew that we didn’t. Well, we soon find out exactly what he was thinking. Couture went straight for Liddell without relenting and several nice takedowns. To Liddell’s credit, he was able to do what few had ever accomplished and that was scramble back to his feet after being put on his back by Couture, but after three rounds of expending a lot of energy doing so, Couture eventually got him down and took full mount to pound away for the TKO victory.
Couture now had not only won the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship, but he became the first fighter to win a title in two different weight classes. Liddell, Zuffa and all of us were left shocked eating our words. So the MMA world had been turned upside down by a shock result and it was not only the result that was shocking, but also how dominant Randy was throughout the entire fight. Now, if you’re sitting here reading this you’d think all of us learned from betting against Randy. Well some of us did including myself, but many believed that things would go differently if Randy were to fight Tito.
Straight after Randy’s victory over Chuck, Randy openly challenged Tito to fight him. Randy said “Hey Tito, I don’t know if your in the house, baby, but if you want this belt you better come in here and take it”. Then in miraculous fashion suddenly Tito Ortiz suddenly came back out under the public microscope once again being his brash old self and signed for the match pretty much straight away, which left Chuck Liddell and many fans I’m sure feeling hard done by.
Even though the long awaited Tito/Chuck match seemed a long, long way away now, many expected UFC 44 to draw well because it didn’t matter if you loved or hated Tito, you would buy that PPV to either cheer him on or see him get his ass kicked. Tito really got the pre fight talks going with claims that he was disgusted that the UFC had created an Interim title and that he was the real champion, while the belt Randy had was a joke.
However Couture countered Tito’s bold statements by emphasising the fact that he stepped up to fight the number one contender while Tito didn’t, therefore he was confident the fans would recognise him as the true champion. Well, regardless if most did or not, the bookmakers again made a big error of judgment once again by putting Tito down as the favourite and to this day I’ll never understand why.
When it came down to fight time the card was labelled as UFC 44: Undisputed, really bringing to light that there was no clear champion. I actually remember Joe Rogan made a very definitive statement, which you’d either agree or disagree with. Joe Rogan said “Tito believes that to be the man you have to beat the champion and I agree, I would actually consider Randy the number one contender”. Well, Joe Rogan may have had a point, but I for one had to disagree thinking to myself that part of the Champion’s job was defending his title, which he failed to do earlier that year, therefore he vacated any claim to that championship by allowing Randy and Chuck to fight instead of stepping in himself.
Now we could argue all day justifying both arguments, but when it came down to the actual fight between Randy and Tito, here’s what happened. The match opened with a long enough clinch exchange between both fighters with Randy eventually just edging the first round. However, once Randy had shown that he was the better wrestler of the two it seemed to just up his confidence level round by round and round by round Randy seemed to dominate Tito more than the previous round.
Randy dominates Tito
Tito found himself in trouble during a few spots in the fight. Randy had his back twice, but Tito managed to get out due to Randy not securing his second hook on both occasions. Also, when Randy got full mount at one stage in the fight John McCarthy looked seriously close to stopping it, but to Tito’s credit he hung in there and escaped the position. In the closing moments of the fight Tito tried to roll for a kneebar and steal the fight at the last moment, but Randy defended his leg well and used the strange position both fighters had ended up in for his amusement and ours by repeatedly spanking Tito’s ass to rub in the humiliation of his defeat.
In the end the fight went to decision and Tito wept as he awaited the obvious decision. Couture was announced as the Undisputed UFC Light Heavyweight Champion and Tito again to his credit showed some class by putting the belt around Randy’s waist. Randy was as classy as ever in victory by giving Tito credit for hanging in there.
Now, we come back to the present. Since that show it has been announced that Randy will defend his title in a rematch against Vitor ‘The Phenom’ Belfort at UFC 46: SuperNatural on January 31st, which happens to be Randy’s second title defence in reality, even though in theory it’s his first defence of the Undisputed Championship. Also this PPV will be live on Setanta Sport for everyone in Ireland and the UK. Again I urge everyone in this part of the world to order the show, as it may be the last UFC show to be shown on PPV over here depending on the buy rates. I will certainly do my part by ordering the event, I hope you all do to.
I wish both Randy Couture and Vitor Belfort the best of luck in this fight and I also thank Randy Couture for the inspiration of this main piece for the column. Before I sign off this edition of ‘Off The Hook’, here’s a brief rundown of the latest news items. Most notably in the lightweight division, Yves Edwards won a decision victory over Deshaun Johnson at the latest WEC event, as he remains on course for his quest to be the UFC Lightweight Champion before this year is out. Also at UFC 46 there will be two lightweight bouts on that card that will most likely shape the future of that division. Renzo Gracie Jiu Jitsu black belt Matt Serra will try and re-catapult his claim as a top UFC Lightweight contender as he takes on an equally dangerous Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black Jeff Curran.
Hermes Franca also wishes to better his already impressive 2 – 0 – 0 record in the UFC lightweight division, as he takes on tough wrestler Josh Thomson, who is 1 – 0 – 0 in the UFC. Many believe that the winner of this particular bout will legitimately have their name at the centre of the UFC Lightweight Title picture.
On to the Welterweight division, the main fight of interest in this division is also a feature bout at UFC 46 at the end of this month, that being the UFC Welterweight Championship match between defending champion Matt Hughes against the top guy in the lightweight division BJ Penn. BJ will be bulking up to 170 lbs for this fight and is a heavy under dog.
Also Carlos Newton will try and capitalise on his last victory in PRIDE over Renzo Gracie by establishing some good form by hoping to defeat Renato ‘Charuto’ Verissimo, who is believed to be a well rounded fighter that is equally dangerous standing up and on the ground. A win for Newton should keep him in the top five of the division for the foreseeable future.
Also Karo Parisyan is hoping to follow up on his impressive debut submission victory over Dave Strasser back at UFC 44 by taking on Canadian newcomer George St. Pierre. St. Pierre is coming off any impressive submission victory over Pete Spratt, which makes this an interesting clash.
In the Middleweight division, the most eagerly awaited bout is again on the great UFC 46 card approaching when we will see one of the top UFC Middleweights in Jorge Rivera taking on a rising Middleweight from England in Lee Murray, which many believe could steal the show and we may see a KO victory here, as both fighters are renowned strikers. Rivera is coming off an impressive UFC debut by beating David Loiseau, while Lee Murray is coming off a huge KO victory over José ‘Pele’ Landi-Jons from Chute Boxe Vale Tudo.
Also of note in the Middleweight division is that David Loiseau is set to defend his TKO Middleweight Championship against world class Jeremy Horn next month in the TKO promotion in Canada. It is believed that if the winner is impressive they may get a call from the UFC to fight in their Middleweight Division in the near future.
Most notably on the horizon for the Light Heavyweight division is the main event of UFC 46 were UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture will again defend his title, but this time against Vitor Belfort, who is coming off an impressive KO victory over Marvin Eastman at UFC 43.
Last, but not least, the main match up to look out for in the Heavyweight division is another bout at UFC 46, which is a rematch between Frank Mir and Wes Sims. Their last fight at UFC 43 ended by disqualification after Wes Sims illegally stomped Mir in the face. Now, Mir wants to win decisively by submission while Sims wants to prove that he can beat any top Heavyweight in the UFC.
That clears up most of this week’s news and I thank all of you for reading this edition of ‘Off the Hook’. One thing I apologise for is having no updates on the European MMA scene this week, but I assure you that there will be a proper section dedicated to the European MMA scene next week. So, until next week, take care and as always support MMA.
[Note: All pictures credited to Sherdog.com]