Couture: The UFC’s Ultimate Threat

By Jake Rossen Oct 11, 2007
In an industry where every move is plastered over Web pages before gas has even entered the bowels, the exodus of Randy Couture (Pictures) from the UFC was a shocking, sudden jolt of news.

And though it wasn't unprecedented -- the fighter did, after all, bolt the UFC over finances once before -- it comes at a time when the promotion is flush with success, media attention and profits. Dangling from the UFC's media-glazed trademark, Couture prospered both financially and professionally.

"Captain America" was no longer the sole possession of Marvel Comics: The moniker also belonged to the UFC's most respected, most decorated athlete.

The publisher killed that character off earlier in the year; in bizarre parallel, the UFC's chairs have somehow managed to do the same thing to their doppelganger.

Talk abounds that Couture resented the huge dollar signs floated around talent like Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures), who has yet to prove himself a draw in the States. Other, less tangible reasons likely brew under the surface of that complaint. But however it happened, the current UFC regime finds itself forced to cauterize its most significant gaping wound since the promotion lobbied for athletic commission support at the turn of the century.

Of the UFC's numerous competitors over the years -- everything from Extreme Fighting to K-1 -- none had ever possessed the alchemy of presentation and talent that could pose a threat to their indentured brand. Pay-per-view numbers and television ratings have proven that mass audiences care little for MMA not labeled "ultimate fighting."

That public apathy helped bloat the ego of company chair Dana White, who has bragged on repeated occasions that his "competition" was nothing more than the bush Canadian league to their NFL. And for the most part, he was right. Stars like Frank Shamrock (Pictures) and Royce Gracie (Pictures) did little for bottom lines; attempts to proliferate new talent often died on the vine.

But one asterisk needs to appear on White's undefeated business record -- none of these promotions had ever promoted an athlete at the zenith of his UFC popularity. If EliteXC had somehow signed Chuck Liddell (Pictures) to a deal before his recent slide, you can bet their awareness among casual audiences would have skyrocketed.

Liddell is staying put, but Couture is not.

One strong possibility for the fighter is M-1, the same promotion apparently housing Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) and backed by an unnamed entity. If it happens. M-1 will have two of MMA's biggest commodities, one of which has headlined some of the UFC's highest-grossing events, and has been exposed to millions of people via "The Ultimate Fighter" and ceaseless amounts of press. Couture has been seared into the public consciousness on White's dime.

Couture's migration has fascinating potential for those who analyze MMA's business posturing. Will fans follow Couture to his new home, or is the UFC brand too insurmountable for even "The Natural" to overcome?

Couture, like Liddell, is one of the few names that earn marquee billing over the Ultimate label. His personality outshines the promotion.

Despite White's animosity toward Tito Ortiz (Pictures), the fighter was re-signed several years ago because White didn't want to give rivals that kind of ammunition. Now, they seem to have found the Gatling gun of combat attractions. Everyone is interested in Couture's story. Say Scholastic published six "Harry Potter" installments, but lost the final entry to Random House. Would sales drop?

Not by a single book.

Whether White's infamous smear campaigns will be directed at Couture is unknown, though it seems unlikely he'll go out of his way to praise the competition's talent. But the UFC should take solace in one detail: The very thing that makes Couture so compelling -- his age -- is also the affliction that will limit his ring appearances considerably. The trick for his new employers will be to piggyback on his fame and port attention over to their steadier attractions.

(By way of omens, WCW lured Hulk Hogan away from the WWF in the 1990s and enjoyed record ratings, but no one cared about their younger talent. The promotion eventually imploded.)

Though it's certain Couture will be compensated into Scrooge McDuck territory, he's essentially trading lump sums for the eternal public presence the UFC was likely to perpetuate on his behalf. He could've been commentating into old age. That door is now padlocked.

From a purely selfish fan's perspective, Couture's UFC future wasn't looking too compelling. While Cheick Kongo (Pictures) seems to have earned a title bid, he lacks the charisma to make for a strong fighting narrative. An excitable contest with Mirko Filipovic (Pictures) has suffocated under the weight of Cro Cop's career collapse.

The biggest possible bout in the sport remains Couture-Emelianenko, a battle between an ageless American icon and an unstoppable Russian fight-bot. It's "Rocky IV" without the birth defects. And if things unravel in the manner expected, UFC brass will be watching it from home.

With many apologies to Matt Serra (Pictures) and Gabriel Gonzaga (Pictures), the biggest upset of 2007 didn't take place inside of the ring. It happened at the negotiating table.

For comments, email jrossen@sherdog.com
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