The first time the words 'UFC' and 'MMA' were introduced to me, was when a friend described a fight he watched last night. He talked of twenty thousand roaring spectators, an eight-sided steel cage, and two combatants inside, face to face with no one else separating the two except one lone referee. None of this really captivated me until he mentioned who they were: one, a behemoth of a man, the UFC champion and the other, a fourty-four year old, just out of retirement. What he then described put me in awe. Though I was ignorant of the sport, it seemed unbelievable that a fourty-plus athlete could be doing what he was describing. And so I went home and decided to watch for myself.
True to my friend's word, the fans were wild, and as this "old man" walked out from within the tunnel, the arena amped up in volume. Amidst the screams, claps and catcalls, the announcers introduced him as Randy Couture a "legend" and "The Natural" repeatedly mentioning his age and his recent return from retirement. As he stepped into the caged Octagon and found his corner, the arena lights dimmed off. A pause, and his challenger emerged: Tim Sylvia, a beast of man, not as well-received as Couture but infinitely more than intimidating, carrying a 6-fight win streak, and an unbelievable size advantage. Even though I already knew the outcome of the contest, as I watched their staredown, and marvelled at their difference in size, i wondered, 'How the hell is this old guy gonna win?' I had no idea and neither I nor I'm sure many in the arena that night, had any idea that they were about to watch something amazing.
Sure enough, eight seconds into the fight, Couture plants his feet and throws an overhand right that lands so perfectly and soundly that it throws Sylvia into the fence. There's a single infinitesimal moment of silence, an intake of breathe. Then the arena explodes. Everyone is on their feet. The noise is so deafening it becomes difficult to hear Rogan and Goldberg. My jaw drops and it stayed dropped for the next half hour as I watch Randy Couture hit Sylvia with that same overhand right over and over again, the same one which Ray Mercer would drop Sylvia with years later. I watched as Randy nailed single legs and double legs at will, and when on the ground, brutalize Sylvia with the same signature ground and pound that he would employ in so many of his other fights and in so many fights prior.
To me, this fight was significant not only because it introduced me to MMA, but because of the landscape of the heavyweight division at the time. Tim Sylvia was coming off two consecutive lacklustre title defences over Jeff Monson and Andrei Arlovski, and prior to that, the sport had seemingly lost one of its greatest pioneers in 'The Natural'. There were no more worthy challengers to the heavyweight belt, long considered the jewel of all combat sports. Fedor was still fighting overseas, Nogueira had yet to establish himself in the UFC, Cain had only two pro fights under his belt, no one had ever heard of Junior Dos Santos and Brock Lesnar was only just experiencing his first taste of MMA over in Japan.
Couture's return set off a new excitement in the UFC heavyweight division which would rival even Pride's. He is set to return once again, this time not to a division floundering, but to prospering one. Though the odds are against him once again, it's worth remembering his first return, and no matter what happens against Lyoto Machida, Randy Couture should forever and always be remembered as an athlete that not only transcended MMA, but time itself.
Here's to you Randy, all the best and thanks for the memories.