Kevin Randleman was one of MMA’s Incredible Hulks, so when he had died on Feb. 11 at the age of 44, it was a shock. The mixed martial arts community was quick to pour out its love for the man known as “The Monster.”
A two-time NCAA national champion wrestler at Ohio State University, Randleman touched off his mixed martial arts career in 1996 under the Universal Vale Tudo Fighting banner in Brazil. He competed in three vale tudo tournaments covering eight fights during the first eight months of his career. The Sandusky, Ohio, native made his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut in 1997 and claimed a unanimous decision over Maurice Smith at UFC 19. Randleman then captured the heavyweight crown with a five-round verdict over Pete Williams at UFC 23 a little less than nine months later. He defended the title once -- he defeated Pedro Rizzo at UFC 26 -- before surrendering it to Randy Couture in November 2000.
Randleman surfaced in Pride Fighting Championships in 2002 and loss seven of his 11 fights within the Japan-based organization. His run included wins over Mirko Filipovic and Murilo Rua. Randleman also battled Quinton Jackson, Kazushi Sakuraba, Mauricio Rua and Fedor Emelianenko in Pride. He fought for the final time on May 7, 2011, when he tapped to a first-round armbar from Baga Agaev at a Far Eastern Federation of Modern Pankration event in Khabarovsk, Russia. “The Monster” was a long way from the Octagon.
In wake of Randleman’s death, Sherdog.com staff members and contributors weighed in with their most vivid memories, reflections and appraisals of his trials, triumphs and importance to MMA:
MIKE FRIDLEY: As a proud Ohio State Buckeye and a native of Columbus’ east side borough Reynoldsburg, I have been aware of Mr. Randleman since he donned a singlet and won two national titles at OSU. However, years before he made his mixed martial arts debut, a high school teacher put his name in my ear as a potential great in a new sport.
Mr. Arp was a strength and conditioning coach at Reynoldsburg High School, and a fan of the very early UFCs. I remember working out after class the week succeeding UFC 4 circa December 1994. While discussing the pay-per-view event that I watched with my old man the previous Friday, Mr. Arp overheard a conversation I was having with a lifting partner. It seems like yesterday that I heard the prophecy escape his lips:
“You guys ever heard of Kevin Randleman?” he asked. “He’s intense; a physical and nasty wrestler that’s much more gifted and technical than Dan Severn. This guy would be great at this. I bet he could be a champion.”
A few years later in 1999, those words proved true when Randleman became the fifth UFC heavyweight champion.
I had the pleasure of getting to know the man in that era, and I’m sure you’ll hear the same story from just about everyone that cross paths with him: Whether he was working out with a younger generation of fighters at OSU’s Steelwood Training Facility or working as a part-time bouncer at Columbus hotspot from yesteryear “Red Zone” on a Saturday night, Randleman was always intense.
If you needed anything, he was the first guy to step up and give you a hand. On that same note, if you were looking for trouble or acting out of line, he was the first to separate alpha male from boys in a hurry. Randleman was a man’s man. Respect that.
MARCELO ALONSO: I followed Kevin since Mark Coleman brought him to debut in Brazil in a Universal Vale Tudo Fighting 4 tournament back in October 1996. At a moment when few foreigners would accept real vale tudo fights in Brazil, he came and destroyed three opponents, Luiz Carlos and UFC veterans Dan Bobish and Geza Kalman.
“Isn’t Rio Jiu-Jitsu Land?” Randleman asked after winning. “Where are the jiu-jitsu black belts to face me?”
Six months later, he was back for UVF 6, where he beat Ebenezer Fontes Braga over 20 minutes, defeated Mario Neto in 11:24 and then battled Carlos Barreto for 22 minutes before getting caught in a triangle. Randleman fought 54 minutes and still didn’t tap out to “Carlao,” receiving huge recognition from Barreto’s trainer, the legendary Carlson Gracie, who helped christen Randleman after the fight.
“This guy’s a monster!” Gracie told me for a Tatame cover story. “Huge heart. He didn’t tap; he slept.”
Today, Randleman could never fight three fights over 54 minutes with a busted face with an athletic commission around, and if he had sustained that sort of damage in one fight, he would face some serious medical suspensions. Yet, he was back in Brazil three months later in another one-night vale tudo tournament, where he’d suffer the second loss of his career to the enormous Tom Erikson, who had nearly eight inches and 50 pounds on Randleman.
Randleman’s career started in Brazil, and he really showed the world everything he was capable of in those tournaments. He fought the best heavyweights and light heavyweights in the UFC, Pride and Strikeforce. No matter if it was Fedor Emelianenko, Randy Couture, Mirko Filipovic, Mauricio Rua, Kazushi Sakuraba, Chuck Liddell or Pedro Rizzo, they all had to respect that anything could happen when they were in a ring or cage with “The Monster.”
For all he did in the last 15 years, Randleman’s is a name I’d love to see in the UFC Hall of Fame and maybe someday an MMA Hall of Fame.
KEITH MILLS: I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Kevin Randleman, just as I do for Randy Couture. Their heavyweight title clash at UFC 28 was the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event I photographed, with the end of the bout coming just three feet in front of my face.
UFC 28 in November 2000 was aptly called “High Stakes,” as it was the first show provisionally sanctioned by the New Jersey Athletic Control Board. At the time, Semaphore Entertainment Group still owned the UFC, with the founding of Zuffa and the NJACB’s “unified rules meeting” still over a month away. Going into that event, the big buzz centered on the fact that it was the first UFC show to take place at the Trump Taj Mahal, which is a little silly in these days, with talk of Madison Square Garden. The UFC’s return to pay-per-view was still 10 months away, with most fans having to buy pirated VHS copies of the six UFC’s per year on the Internet and get them shipped by snail mail.
Randleman was making his second title defense against Couture in the main event. Stepping into the Octagon, Randleman was 9-3, having defeated Pete Williams for the belt before defending it in a unanimous decision over Pedro Rizzo five months prior. Couture was returning to the UFC after spending three years fighting in Japan. Watching Couture defeat Randleman cageside at the time seemed like a passing of just the title. What it turned out to be was a turning point in the history of MMA, as the “Dark Ages” drew to a close and a new era of both popularity and skill was ushered in with the Zuffa buyout and the sanctioning by athletic commissions.
Now, not a week goes by without some article on Ronda Rousey or Conor McGregor; it’s clearly a new era. However, Randleman was there from nearly the beginning, a champion in the vale tudo era and the dawn of the sanctioned era.
JEFF SHERWOOD: As I sit down and write this, I keep thinking how crazy life is and how often we take things for granted. I had just seen Kevin at the World MMA Awards on Friday and talked to him at length about old times and what he had been up to lately.
As radio listeners know, back when he was preparing to fight Quinton Jackson at Pride 25, Randleman had gotten wind of something he didn’t like on the Sherdog forums and let it be known he would “kick my ass” when he saw me. Randleman banging on your hotel door and yelling at you with his finger pointed in your face is a pretty scary situation, but Mark Coleman brought some humor to by poking his head out of the hotel room and making sure it didn’t get out of hand. After Randleman’s rant, Coleman mumbled, “Sorry about that.”
I was close with Quinton, as we both lived in Huntington Beach, California, at the time. He wanted to step to Randleman before the fight because of the incident, but I talked him out of it. In the end, “Rampage” knocked out Randleman, walked over to me ringside, pointed to the Sherdog patch on his shorts and said, “That was for you.”
The best part: After all that, later that night, Randleman burst into my hotel room and rushed at me while I was sitting out on the balcony, 30-something floors up. He came straight toward me and then gave me a big hug. “What I did was wrong,” he said. “I’m very sorry, and if you hate me for life, I wouldn’t blame you. One more thing, your boy ‘Rampage’ hits pretty damn hard.” Then he smiled and walked out, and we were always the best of friends after that trip to Japan.
Up until the World MMA Awards, I had never asked a fighter for a picture, but after reminiscing about him trying to kill me in a Tokyo hotel prior to Pride 25, I thought, “I should get a picture with the both of us smiling and having a good time and tweet it out. Radio listeners who know the story will get a kick out of this.” Six days later, he was gone.
I’m sure newer fans will look at his record and think he was no big deal, but Randleman was a true monster. I’m glad I got that picture.
TOM HOGAN: I’ve always been a Randleman fan, but my fondest memory will always be predicting the left hook knockout of against Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic the night before, only to have my Sherdog forum PM box flooded after the fight. I almost choked on a ham sandwich and Heineken, Mama Cass-style, as it happened.
Thanks for the intensity and excitement you brought to the ring and the cage. Seeing your name on a card was always a big push for me to buy, regardless of the opponent. “Monster” really does cover it. Rest in peace, Mr. Randleman.
MIKE SLOAN: It goes without saying that Kevin Randleman was a unique individual. Like his nickname suggested, the Ohio native certainly was a monster inside the cage and ring. He was a frighteningly powerful fighter who could throw his opponents over his head almost at will. He had ferocious punching power, as well, and he used it more often than most remember.
I met Randleman only a handful of times, and while I had heard the stories of him rampaging through a Japanese hotel in search of my boss, he was constantly in a festive mood and was always especially cool with fans. Considering all of the memories he created throughout his storied career, there is one moment that stands out above everything else.
It was April 25, 2004, and I was at my brother’s apartment watching the first round of Pride’s heavyweight grand prix. Randleman was considered washed up at the time, and though he was a former UFC heavyweight champion, virtually everyone expected him to get his head smashed in by Mirko Filipovic. “Cro Cop” was poised to eventually challenge Fedor Emelianenko for the Pride title. What happened just under two minutes after the bell rang was something I’ll never forget.
“The Monster” had feinted and shot in a few times, forcing the Croatian to sprawl. Then, in the blink of an eye, Randleman deftly faked a shot and floored the lethal striker with a perfect left hook. “Cro Cop” was badly rocked but able to pull guard. Randleman quickly rained down a frightening volley of left hammerfists, knocking Filipovic cold.
It was the last time Randleman ever scored a win of that magnitude, as he went 2-9 from that point forward. It remains one of the most shocking wins in MMA history. Whenever his name is mentioned, the “Cro Cop” knockout is the first thing I think of. I doubt I’m alone in that regard.
BRIAN KNAPP: As I approach my 38th birthday, 44 doesn’t sound so old. In fact, it sounds really, really young. It’s never easy when someone dies, but when they’re young like Kevin Randleman, it somehow seems doubly difficult; and despite what people tell you, time does not heal all wounds. For those closest to him, this one will bleed forever.
I could have made this about Randleman’s mixed martial arts career. There’s certainly enough material with which to work. Who could ever forget “The Monster” -- Is there a more fitting nickname in MMA? -- dumping Fedor Emelianenko on his head in Pride, only to fall prey to a kimura moments later? How about the knockout of Mirko Filipovic or the three vale tudo tournaments in which he participated in less than an eight-month span in Brazil? Unfortunately, Randleman will be remembered as much for his failures as his triumphs. The same man who knocked “Cro Cop” senseless and nearly broke Emelianenko in half also lost to Ron Waterman, Kazuhiro Nakamura and Mike Whitehead.
I thought of none of those things when I learned of Randleman’s death. I thought of his wife and his kids and the shock and sorrow they must be enduring, and then I thought about my wife and my kids and what their world might look like if I were here one day and gone the next. Yes, 44 is far too young. I took the short walk down the hallway, turned to the right and peaked inside the bedroom where my two sons -- one 9, the other 7 -- were asleep without a care in the world. I then did something I should do more often and took a minute to be thankful for what I had. Cling to your loved ones while you can. As the late great Kirby Puckett once said, “Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone.”
DANNY ACOSTA: The Adonis frame, “Demolition Man” blonde hair, shoulder-blade tattoos and giant eyes that took on a life of their own. Two NCAA wrestling titles at Ohio State, a UFC heavyweight champion, the fast-twitch muscle. “The Monster” always stuck out in one’s mind as exactly what his nickname suggested. However, over the course of his career, Randleman’s competitive and personal struggles would always leave you wondering why he never quite turned into the dominant champion he could have been if he had been able to put his controversial decision loss to Bas Rutten in 2000 behind him.
How could he sleep feared striker Mirko Filipovic with a left hook and hammerfists, only to later succumb to a standing guillotine from the K-1 fighter? How could such a great wrestler be so easily outgrappled by Kazuhiro Nakamura? There’d be no more “Cro Cop”-thwarting left hooks. Watching him writhe in pain to a Mauricio Rua leg lock when Pride came stateside, it was clear that Randleman was running out of the explosive, athletic magic that kept him relevant.
By the time he turned up in Strikeforce, it was difficult to believe he would be able to overcome his submission defense deficiencies to make a run, even while getting a new lease on life in Las Vegas. He took on one of the best grapplers in history, Roger Gracie, and it just wasn’t meant to be. Randleman was on the receiving end of a rear-naked choke, his Achilles’ heel jumping up to bite him once again. He’d fight, and lose, just once more.
Randleman died at just 44 -- another victim of MMA’s later-years purgatory that can come at an early age. At least now he’s on his forever path, free from the stresses of a hard life and brutal fighting career. Rest in peace. You were a true pioneer.
TODD MARTIN: When discussing Kevin Randleman’s career, it’s hard to avoid addressing the reality that he was an underachiever who lost way too many fights that he should have won. With that said, for some underachievers there’s a feeling of frustration that they did not accomplish more. For Randleman -- and the Hammer House team in general -- there isn’t really that feeling. There was a charm to the way they never picked up submission defense.
Failing a drug test isn’t entertaining; failing it because you may have supplied horse urine to the tester is. There was the great backstage segment from Pride in which Randleman got into a staged argument over lingering animosity over a decision fight against Bas Rutten in the UFC. What was the only UFC main event to be cancelled the night of the fight because a fighter accidentally knocked himself out backstage? Randleman’s, of course. His career wasn’t as successful as it could have been with better training methods, but I’m glad he was a part of the sport and it’s terribly sad his often wild life didn’t last longer.
JORDAN BREEN: Upon hearing of Kevin Randleman’s death, I had a sudden, rapid flashing of all my recollections of his fights, personal interactions with the man and behind-the-scenes anecdotes with or without Jeff Sherwood being terrorized. I’d never really considered Randleman in totality, in the larger context of the sport. In fact, I was surprised about what a potent, imperfectly perfect symbol of MMA Randleman actually was and is, right down to the surreal hilarity of him slipping on some pipes backstage and canceling his UFC 24 main event with Pedro Rizzo on fight night. Randleman embodies so much about the sport, for better and for worse, about the pioneering and modern MMA eras.
Randleman was an athletic prototype for this sport; his intense and hypercompetitive disposition made him an even more ideal fighting prospect. On the other hand, much of his explosive persona was outgrowth of a brutal and traumatizing childhood, one of 11 children in a family tortured by sexual abuse, to which Randleman was no exception. It’s cruel and ironic that one of Randleman’s indelible MMA legacies is his legendarily terrible submission defense, since as far as life was concerned, he survived and triumphed in the face of real, intimate horror.
In concert with that submission defense or lack thereof, Randleman is often brought up as one of the biggest wastes of athletic talent. This seems harsh and dismissive, but it’s a sentiment informed by what a truly special, jaw-dropping specimen Randleman was. Prior to Logan Stieber winning four straight national titles, there was a legitimate argument that Randleman was the best wrestler in Ohio State history, with a national final appearance and two national titles. He did not even compete his senior season due to academic issues. Randleman has the fastest pin in OSU history at eight seconds -- eight.
At a different time in a different era, Randleman might have been a whole different story. This sport is far from utopia in 2016, but in general, fighters are treated as athletes. Imagine a young Randleman, not stuck in a charmingly-but-shockingly-stone-age team like Hammer House, getting to compete at 185 or maybe even 170 pounds instead of a juiced-up, steroid-addled 225. A real coaching and training system around an athlete like this, going through real training camps for well-chosen opponents, as opposed to wrasslin’ with Mark Coleman and then flying across the Pacific Ocean to fight whoever Pride decides on days’ notice? We’ll never know, and so Randleman remains a reminder in the history books that a great athlete may not always acclimate fully to MMA. Even if I believe that to be true, I don’t know if that’s actually true about Randleman, and that’s why I feel so awful about it.
It’s difficult to remember anyone as a “What could have been?” case, but with “The Monster,” it’s a testament to what incredible things he could do. He was a one-night vale tudo tournament winner, a UFC heavyweight champion and the author of one of the greatest upsets in this sport’s history against Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic.
I’ve heard dozens of variations of stories about Randleman, stories of escalating, potentially violent confrontations where Randleman would shout some variation of “I’ve been shot, stabbed and molested. You can’t scare me.” He spoke openly about death and lived fatalistically, but while he was here, for better and worse, Randleman mattered and occasionally amazed.
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