To the extent it is even possible to narrow it down to one achievement for a fighter with a résumé like Randy Couture’s, UFC 43 is the night that established him as a legend more than any other. Going into the fight—his first foray into the light heavyweight division—and taking on a man in Chuck Liddell who was seen as the champ in waiting whenever the Ultimate Fighting Championship finally managed to get him and Tito Ortiz into a cage together, Couture was not only an underdog but a bit of an afterthought.
While he was understood to have some prodigious strengths, as color commentator Joe Rogan noted when he asserted that Couture was the best wrestler Liddell had yet faced, even those strengths seemed to line up disadvantageously with Liddell, who was already regarded as the premier sprawl n’ brawl practitioner in the sport. Worst of all, Couture was coming off two straight TKO losses at heavyweight and was about three weeks away from his 40th birthday. The fight had been booked as an interim title bout when the UFC had been unable to make an Ortiz vs. Liddell fight happen, with the idea that the winner—presumably “The Iceman”—would have a unification bout with Ortiz later in the year.
In hindsight, what is most shocking about Couture’s third-round TKO victory is how little it looks and feels like an upset. It was mildly surprising that Couture was able to score numerous takedowns on Liddell, including a couple of powerful double-leg slams, but he was understood to be a powerhouse wrestler. What should have been more surprising is the way Couture’s takedowns set up his striking, as he moved forward fearlessly—usually a death sentence against prime Liddell—to land his own punch and kick combinations. Liddell seemed off-balance and out of sorts all night, as he began to bite harder on Couture’s feints, making the striking as well as wrestling play out even more in Couture’s favor. By the time “Big” John McCarthy stopped the fight late in the third, with Couture pelting Liddell with punches from full mount against the fence, it was hard to fathom that Couture had been a steep underdog a half hour before; he had made near-total domination look like the most normal thing in the world.
Couture went on to unify the belts by spanking Ortiz a few months later, becoming the first fighter to win undisputed UFC titles in two different weight classes. However, the shocker at UFC 43 still might remain the most impressive outing of his hall-of-fame career. In that way, he and Liddell seemed to need each other, as Liddell’s victory in their second fight is perhaps the best single performance of his own career.