Natural Selection

Natural Selection

By Todd Martin Apr 29, 2011
Hall of famer Randy Couture will retire from MMA competition following UFC 129. | Photo:

As an elite athlete nears retirement, the natural reaction by fans and pundits is to celebrate and remember the highest points of a storied career. However, the exercise becomes clichéd and almost absurd in the case of a fighter like 47-year-old Randy Couture.

Speculation about Couture’s impending retirement first grew loud when he lost his second consecutive UFC heavyweight title fight, to Ricco Rodriguez, in 2002. When Couture steps into the Octagon for what will likely be the final time on Saturday at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, he will have fought a full half of his career under the specter of imminent retirement.

Fans by now know well the story of the fighter who went all five rounds with Father Time. They remember the shocking upset of Chuck Liddell, the spanking of Tito Ortiz and the returning triumph over Tim Sylvia. Couture’s career is as well-documented and analyzed as any in the young history of the sport.

With Couture announcing that his final MMA bout will take place against Lyoto Machida before some 55,000 fans at UFC 129, it is not time for yet another career retrospective. It seems most appropriate to do what Couture has been doing for quite some time: accept and appreciate the fight on its own terms. The fight is the thing.

Couture at this stage of his career can pick and choose which fights to take. Some potential bouts have grabbed his attention more than others, and Machida was a challenge Couture has long found compelling.

“He’s somebody I’ve always found interesting and intriguing stylistically,” Couture tells “I’ve watched him for a while and thought he had a great style of fighting. I said that I wanted to fight him. He’s kind of been that enigma that people haven’t been able to solve until recently.”

Neil Melanson, Couture’s jiu-jitsu coach, first discussed the potential fight with the hall of famer when Machida was the UFC light heavyweight champion. The fight did not come together at the time, but the idea never left the mind of “The Natural.”

“This is based off of respect,” Melanson says. “He wanted it a while ago when Machida was laying out everyone. Randy would see the way Machida fought, and Randy thought his style would be the best to get in his face and get a hold of him. You need to fight Lyoto in his face; you can’t stay outside.”

Since the time the fight was first discussed, Machida has suffered back-to-back losses. It is a development that has its pluses and minuses from Couture’s perspective. The problem is that the losses have taken some of the luster off Machida, and a Couture win over “The Dragon” would not be as spectacular of an event as it once would have been. On the plus side, Machida still has an aura, name and status in the sport. Moreover, Machida’s losses to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson offer some clues to Couture of how to solve the riddle.

Neil Melanson file photo

Melanson likes the Machida matchup.
“The big key was pressure,” Couture says of Machida’s past few fights. “They came forward, pressured Machida, cut him off and kept him moving backwards. It’s difficult to be offensive when you stay in proper range and keep pressure on the guy.”

Machida’s most recent loss to Jackson came via a somewhat controversial decision at UFC 123 in November. Watching the fight live, Couture gave the fight to Machida. However, upon reviewing the fight a number of times on DVD, he changed his mind. Couture felt that Jackson’s pressure in the first two rounds was the most effective work in the fight and that he deserved a 29-28 decision. “The Natural” will have to similarly exert effective aggression to score a win of his own over the Brazilian karate star.

Stylistically, Couture and Machida employ radically different approaches to MMA. Couture’s wrestling, clinching and dirty boxing rely on power and close distances. Machida’s karate utilizes speed, precision and space. Fighting in one man’s world necessarily
limits the effectiveness of the other man’s game.

To help prepare for “The Dragon,” Couture has utilized Vitor Belfort protégé Cesar Ferreira to mimic Machida’s unusual style. The emphasis has been on reacting to unique attacks, defenses and movements the unusual karate specialist employs.

Couture’s success at an advanced age has come in part due to unusual genetic traits and an intelligent approach to training. A large part is also his style, which naturally lends itself to longevity more than a style like Machida’s. Couture has always relied more on skills that diminish less with age.

He’s somebody I’ve always
found interesting and
intriguing stylistically.

-- Couture on Lyoto Machida

“I think the wrestling style in general allows for longevity because you’re not solely reliant on your ability to move your head and get out of the way of punches and kicks,” Couture observes. “That ability can change as you get older. Being able to tie up and grapple eliminates the necessity for some types of things. It’s a lot different than just getting your head out of the way of a big punch or kick.”

Even with that built-in advantage, fighting at age 47 is no easy task. Couture has three consecutive wins in the UFC, but none of those opponents were close to Machida’s level. Oddsmakers have made Machida the prohibitive favorite against Couture. It is a dangerous final fight and a formidable challenge for anyone in the light heavyweight division.

Continue Reading » A Fitting Farewell
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