While Randy Couture is most closely associated today with his three fights with Chuck Liddell, or perhaps the light heavyweight round robin he authored with Liddell and Tito Ortiz, his rivalry with Vitor Belfort predates both and arguably constitutes MMA’s first great trilogy.
The first time “The Natural” and “The Phenom” fought, at UFC 15 in October 1997, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was still in its infancy. The heavyweight division had been instituted just three events before, and Couture and Belfort were two of its top contenders. Couture pounded out Belfort after eight grueling minutes, earning the right to challenge Maurice Smith for the heavyweight title, which he went on to win.
But the time they met again, six years later at UFC 46, practically everything had changed. Couture had abandoned the heavyweight belt for a sojourn outside the UFC, returned to the UFC, won it back, lost it, dropped to light heavyweight and won the title to become the UFC’s first two-division champion. In the first defense of the undisputed light heavyweight belt, he faced none other than Belfort, who was back after his first stint in Pride Fighting Championships.
Couture-Belfort 2 was over almost as soon as it began, as Belfort’s first significant strike opened a hideous gash on Couture’s eyelid, which necessitated a medical stoppage at just 49 seconds of the first round. There was nothing illegal or dirty about the punch, so Belfort was the new UFC light heavyweight champ. It was one of the most freakish and frustrating fight outcomes of all time, with nobody in particular to blame and not much to do but schedule a rematch.
The rubber match took place on Aug. 21, 2004, in the main event of UFC 49, which was quite appropriately subtitled “Unfinished Business.” However, the fight itself consisted mostly of Couture giving Belfort the business, as the third fight resembled the first rather than the second. In particular, it is one of the most exemplary displays of Couture’s tireless, grinding ground-and-pound. The ingrained idea that prime Couture broke younger, more talented fighters with sheer will and stamina stems from the first and third Belfort fights, but especially the third.
By the time the cageside doctor mercifully stopped the beating between the third and fourth rounds, it looked and felt as if Belfort had taken 10 rounds’ worth of punishment. Couture was once again the UFC light heavyweight champion, his rivalry with Belfort was settled, and his next title defense would be against his new nemesis Liddell—after they took six weeks off to film a new reality show that was about to change everything.