Randy Couture was the fighter who took MMA into the mainstream. Following his retirement, the real-life comic-book superhero speaks exclusively to Fighters Only.
Randy Duane Couture has a simple statement that sums up exactly how he would like to be remembered, ‘the best never rest.’ It fits the retired mixed martial arts icon and Hall of Famer like a velvet glove. A stand-out ambassador for the sport, from its turbulent infancy to an acceptance on the world stage, if longevity in elite sport is the sign of greatness then Couture, just starting his 49th year a few months after retiring, is surely peerless. His name is synonymous with mixed martial arts, while the man himself has become a brand for all that is good about the sport.
There are distinct periods in the life of Randy Couture: the carefree kid growing up with his mother Sharan and his two younger sisters in a single-parent household; the young man and high school wrestler seeking an inner confidence; the military period, when he learned discipline and a physical regime; the College wrestler and the Olympic years, an era when Couture was to learn that all things come to those who graft. Then the six years in Oregon, with Team Quest, alongside Matt Lindland and Dan Henderson, pioneering mixed martial arts against a volley of abolitionists across the United States.
Latterly, the Vegas years, and the adoration of the masses from inside the UFC Octagon. In Toronto, as befits a legend in any sport, we witnessed the fall of the theatrical curtain upon the final bow of the hero, fittingly in front of 55,000 fans in the first stadium event under Zuffa’s 10-year reign in bringing clarity to a sport and its protagonists widely misunderstood. Couture was beaten by Lyoto Machida in Canada, yes, but forgotten, never.
“I sometimes feel like I’m a cat, I’ve lived several different lives. I think each life kind of built on the other and I learned things that carried me into that next phase of my life, that made me successful, or allowed me to do the things I did in that next phase,” explained Couture in an exclusive, in-depth interview with Fighters Only. “’The best never rest,’ is how I’d like to be remembered in MMA.”
He admitted retiring after the Machida defeat had not been an easy decision. “Yeah, in some ways it wasn’t... I feel the fans still want me to stay out there, but at some level I had to draw the line and say, ‘Enough is enough’.
“It was a lot different the first time I retired. At that time, I wasn’t doing it on my terms. I was doing it because I felt like I had to. I had so much going on, I just didn’t feel like myself. I wasn’t training well, for example. In fact, I wasn’t doing anything well at the time. So it was a lot different circumstances then.”
That feeling in his bones is right… “Absolutely. I’ve kind of come to terms with it and I am definitely at peace with it. I know there will be offers and people are going to try and tempt me back and I anticipate those things coming… but I think I’ll be able to take them in stride and make the right choice.”
Modesty precludes Couture most times from talking of his own athletic achievements, but how would he like to be remembered in the Ultimate Fighting Championship? He was three-time heavyweight champion, and twice light-heavyweight champion. BJ Penn is the only other fighter to hold titles in two weight divisions in the UFC.
“I certainly hope that people recognize that I tried to keep it simple and be myself, and
I tried to represent my family and my original sport of wrestling and the sport of mixed martial arts with some integrity and do things right.”
What about the sobriquet ‘Captain America’ then? “Aw… it just makes me smile. It certainly doesn’t bother me. It’s almost tongue-in-cheek. I think people, the fans, are really often trying to understand how we do what we do and they try to put themselves in that position and that frame of mine. How would they be if they had to walk up in there and fight somebody in that cage? I think the most common question I have been asked these last 15 years is, ‘Do you get nervous?’ Not really, the preparation has been done… and it’s my job.”
Randy’s greatest achievements, he insists, are not in the Octagon, but at home. “I’m very proud of my three kids. Very proud of Ryan, and the person that he is, and my daughter Aimee, who is 26. They’re both very strong personalities, good kids and they’re good people. Despite me being divorced and all the things they’ve been through they still turned out to be great people. There’s a lot of pitfalls nowadays in life for kids the world’s a scary place to grow up and they navigated it pretty well.” His youngest child, his son Caden, is eight.
I have to push Couture on his athletic highlights – in three periods of his life. As a wrestler, as an Olympian, and as a mixed martial artist. “Winning the state championship in my senior year in high school was one stand-out moment. I set a goal. I’d quit my job – working at a grocery store stacking shelves and boxes, and loading carts – which had helped me to maintain a car at the time.
“I quit that job with the sole intention of winning the State title. I think that was the only time as a young man I ever really set a goal, got on a path, stepped up to it and was successful.” He had learned what sacrifice was all about.
Distinct periods in his life developed new facets in him. From the age of 19 to 25, he served in the United States military, in the 101st Airborne.
“My first station duty was in West Germany and in that time period was the peak of the Cold War in the ‘80s. It taught me the discipline and focus that’s required of you in service and in uniform.
“Probably the most important thing that happened to me during those six years was getting the chance to wrestle for the Army. I represented the Army internationally. I developed the confidence to realize that I could compete – and win – on an international stage.”
He learned leadership qualities, too. “I did go to the special military leadership school and some of the things there forced me to develop a command voice and make decisions and delegate authority. But I learned from the bottom up in the military.”
After that period, he attended College, in Oklahoma, where his wrestling began to elevate him. Eventually, the Olympic team beckoned. Three times – 1988, 1992 and 1996 – he made the Olympic Games wrestling squad, only to be an alternate, or reserve. “I never really put it all together at the right time in the right place to do it. I’d beat a world champion or I’d beat the Olympic champion at other events, other competitions, but never when it counted.
“I made the 1991 Pan-Am team, for example. We went to Cuba and the Cuban in my weight class was a Games silver medalist, a fantastic competitor. We’d had some close matches, but every time I’d wrestle him he’d beat me. In the finals at those Pan-Am Games, it was my second year on the national team, I beat him in his home town and I think it was at that point that I realized I could achieve it. I was at that level and I just needed to get the combination right.”
Couture still holds back from talking of his greatest mixed martial arts moments, almost modest about his achievements. But then boasting an unrivaled highlights reel, there is just much to choose from… Couture’s list of former opponents in the Octagon reads like a Who’s Who of modern greats. He’s been in there with the best from more than one generation. Take your pick: Vitor Belfort (three times), Kevin Randleman, Pedro Rizzo (twice), Chuck Liddell (three times), Tito Ortiz, Tim Sylvia, Brock Lesnar, Lyoto Machida…
Randy readily admits the Chuck Liddell trilogy is a series he remembers with great pride in his fighting resumé. Of course, he retired for the first time after losing to Liddell the second time. But he also defeated ‘The Iceman’ when no one expected him to, which is a streak running through the man himself.
You cannot afford to write off Randy. Few believed Couture would defeat Liddell in that first matchup, in Las Vegas in June 2003. “That first fight went my way. I hit him first and took him down and did all the things that I had to do to win that fight. He didn’t want that outcome the second or the third time. He was a moving target in those second two fights, so I had to fight a lot different fight both times. He changed his tactics. He won the fights.”
After the third fight, which he lost, make it 2-1 to Liddell in the rubber, Couture had announced he was hanging up his gloves. “It wasn’t so much the disappointment, it really had nothing to do with the loss. I mean… I’d lost fights before that. I’d lost the heavyweight title twice before that. The first Chuck fight they put me in the situation of changing weight classes – down to light heavyweight to try my hand there. I’ve lost plenty of times in my career in both wrestling and fighting and I think part of those losses is the character that it builds and you pick yourself up and dust yourself off and you keep going.
“The retirement was way more about the personal things I had going on. I was going through a divorce, I had a small son and all those things were way more pressure and weighing on me much heavier than the fight and the loss. I’d certainly made the decision before the fight with Chuck that I needed a break. Win or lose I was going to retire. I needed the time. It obviously didn’t go how I wanted it to go, but I prepared to win, and Chuck did what he does best.”
“Those last two times Chuck fought me, he was way more elusive. He moved and used way more footwork than he has ever used against anybody else. I think that was because of how the first fight went.”
Couture and Liddell, indeed, are the two mixed martial artists most revered in the United States. They have both done huge amounts – each in their own way – to put the sport on the mainstream sporting landscape. They’re also good friends. “Chuck and I get along great. I think we have similar personalities. We’re very laid-back guys, we’re pretty easy-going. I’ve never seen him pissed off or angry or upset or bad-mouth anybody. Yeah… I think he’s a pretty straightforward guy.”
Yet high into the annals of Couture’s personal highlights sits the contest with Tim Sylvia, when he won back the UFC heavyweight title. “I think the most memorable, for me, has to be the Tim Sylvia fight. The way the whole thing went down was just remarkable. It was just one of those moments. I just had a feeling. I knew what I knew. I knew that I was capable [of defeating him], I knew I could do what nobody thought I could do. That crowd, and everything from top to bottom was pretty amazing.”
The dominance of the Sylvia fight that stays with you so much? “Yeah, the physical size difference, the fact that I was, at 43, coming out of a year of retirement. All those things. That crowd at that time was the record crowd (March 2007, Columbus, Ohio, UFC 68) and they were as loud a crowd as I’d been in front of. The fight was so clear, everything about it, just as clear as a bell to me. That point in my career was very special, very special for me indeed.”
Indeed, there are few bad memories in his career. His worst memories are the fall-outs with Zuffa. “Those are things that I wish I had never experienced, but at the same time I learned a lot. I learned a lot about the business. I learned a lot about all kinds of things. It’s that experience that will help me I think, certainly as I transition into this part of my career and still being involved in the sport, supporting other athletes and working with Zuffa in the future.”
UFC president Dana White has already hinted that Randy has a future working directly with the sport’s leading organization. But what is clear is that ‘The Natural’ has immediate commitments away from the Octagon.
Couture’s acting has also been extremely successful, and the lure of Hollywood has undoubtedly played a significant role in him closing the chapter on his competition career. He has appeared in no less than 22 television series and films, and there are plenty more in the pipeline this year alone. “I’ve developed a real fondness for the process of it. I do like it. I’m having fun trying to square out these characters and find a way to relate to them, because if you don’t find a way to relate to them in some way it’s hard to tell the truth, it’s hard to say the lines and anybody buy it, or believe it. That’s kind of been the challenge and the fun part.” This year, he is expected to act in a sequel to The Expendables, having been in original blockbuster in 2010. But he also hinted there are several film offers on the table
As for the future, MMA’s leading ambassador believes that: “MMA has changed and I think it’s all been positive. Start with the rules. The rule changes have become way more viewer-friendly. It’s become a lot easier to watch and understand technically and tactically, and that translates to the fighters.
“Back in the early days you had to keep the fighters separated as well. They couldn’t ride in the same vans, you had to worry about them on stage, we didn’t do face-offs and a lot of that stuff because there were guys that would have punched the other guy in the face at the weigh-ins. They would have done those stupid things, and I think the level of athletes, the professionalism and the athletic ability has gone way up since those early days. I think the only thing we have to address right now is the judging and the judging criteria.
“Getting our pool of judges all on the same page, and really defining the criteria, especially with the fighters putting their careers and their belts on the line. I believe the judges should be rated based on their performance. If you come up with a crazy score on a card, you should have to defend that. Explain why it is that you came up, how do you call that that way? And at least defend yourself. I’d happily be involved in that process,” he explained.
Who better to start up a campaign to marshal fairness in MMA than Captain America himself? While we may never see Randy Couture in action inside the Octagon again, what is clear is that he will never be too far away.
The young Couture had a happy childhood. “I have two sisters – both younger – and it was a middle-class upbringing in a suburb of Seattle. I was very happy. My mom worked very hard – she was a single parent and had a couple of jobs and I don’t remember wanting or needing anything. She really took care of us.” Kid Couture’s sporting heroes were widespread. “I started skiing at five years old and Jean Claude Killy and Franz Klammer were sports action guys I looked up to. We’d jump off chair lifts, go moonlight skiing and head off the path and out in the woods. It was a blast.
“But I liked a few sports. I was a soccer fan. I’d watch the World Cup on TV. I went on soccer camps, I knew of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, Pele was playing for the New York Cosmos. I played half-back. I was a defensive guy who gave the offense support. I wasn’t the fastest…” But, of course, he had an engine, and was a team player.
While his mother Sharan brought the children up, what of his father, Ed Couture? “He wasn’t around. He was a welder and spent most of his time in Alaska working on a pipeline. I rarely saw him.” They had divorced when Randy was very young, forcing the young man to take on a protective role early in life towards the women around him.
“As the oldest of three kids I kind of became the man of the house, so to speak, and looked after my sisters.” He admits to being “very shy,” especially around adults, but always had that laid-back attitude. “People rarely got a rise out of me. At least I was rarely angry.” He excelled at several sports. “I played soccer, football and baseball and wrestling, obviously, and a little bit of basketball. But wrestling was the sport I seemed to excel at the most.”
In his senior year at high school, Randy was the best wrestler in the State in his weight division. “That was probably the first indication that I had more special abilities in that area. I went on to compete at a national and international level down the road.” At school, he insists he simply “got by” as a B-grade student, “without applying myself. I think I was capable of doing a lot more…”...