Randy Couture goes by a few nicknames: The main two, "The Natural" and "Captain America," are well-placed nicknames. Any fan who has been watching Couture for any period of time knows he could easily go by another nickname as well: "The Magician."
That's because Couture has pulled a rabbit out of his hat so many times we're starting to lose count. During this seven-part series leading to his fight with former light-heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida at UFC 129, we'll take a look at all those times Couture has pulled the rabbit out of his hat while becoming one of the most beloved fighters in the history of the sport and ask if he can do it again as he enters yet another fight as a heavy underdog coming up in less than two weeks at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario.
Today, we look at the moments that shaped the early part of Couture's UFC career — his first four fights inside the Octagon and rise to the UFC heavyweight championship.
The moment: Couture bursts onto scene with UFC 13 heavyweight tournament win
It took Couture all of 4:09 to win two fights and become the UFC 13 heavyweight tournament champion, quickly submitting Tony Halme (who many of you might know as former WWF wrestler Ludvig Borga) and stopping Steven Graham with punches. The tournament win set Couture on a collision course with the next big thing, Vitor Belfort, who, after Couture's tournament win, walked through Tank Abbott in 52 seconds to move his record to 4-0 with four quick stoppage wins.
Why it was important: You have to get started somewhere. While you can't comment on the opposition (you could stretch and say Couture retired both Halme and Graham, as they never fought again), Couture was no doubt impressive in making his MMA debut. Prior to that, Couture racked up accolades on the amateur wrestling scene, becoming a three-time Olympic alternate and three-time NCAA All-American.
This is also noteworthy because Couture made his MMA debut at the age of 33, less than a month shy of his 34th birthday. Let's put that in perspective: As of right now, both Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Wanderlei Silva are 34. Belfort just turned 34 earlier this month. Think about all they've been through and how old they seem in your mind and tell yourself Couture didn't even make his MMA debut until he was a year younger than they are now.
The moment: Couture shocks the world for the first time, stops Belfort
Belfort was nicknamed "The Phenom" for a reason. He was walking through everybody in incredibly stunning and convincing fashion. Couture, the already aging 34-year old wrestler, was expected to be no trouble for Belfort, the 20-year old physical specimen.
"I don't think anybody's challenged him on the mat yet," Couture said in his pre-fight interview. "Nobody's really challenged him and tried to take him down. And obviously I'm a wrestler, so that's going to be the first and foremost thing in my mind and that's to take him to the mat and we'll see what happens from there."
Couture came to the Octagon but Belfort was nowhere to be found. Couture stood in the cage for about three minutes before Belfort finally made his way from his trailer to the arena. The graphic listing some of Belfort's attributes ended with this: "No known weaknesses."
Couture showed signs of why he would go on to be known as MMA's greatest game planner by circling away from Belfort's powerful left hand in the early going. Couture worked a lot in the clinch with his soon-to-be signature dirty boxing and took Belfort down and started wearing him out. Belfort was able to scramble to his feet but Couture started landing knees and quickly got the clinch back and started working Belfort over with shot after shot. "Couture has landed a bunch of punches to the face of Vitor," play-by-play man Bruce Beck exclaimed. Belfort would fall to the mat where Couture would pound away until referee John McCarthy stepped in for the save.
"A stunning upset!" - Beck
"Randy Couture has shocked the mixed martial arts world. This is as big of an upset as Maurice Smith/Mark Coleman, maybe bigger." - Jeff Blatnick
Why it was important: The win showed Couture was here for real and also set the wheels in motion for many of the things he'd be known and beloved for in the future: The strategy, the dirty boxing, the ground-and-pound. The win earned Couture a shot at UFC heavyweight champion Maurice Smith, who defeated Abbott later that same night.
Stay with us after the jump for Couture's fight against Smith...
The moment: Couture does it again, wins first heavyweight title
The UFC's next show saw them ship the Octagon across the Pacific Ocean to Japan for "Ultimate Japan," the company's first show outside North America. On a show that featured Frank Shamrock, Kazushi Sakuraba and Abbott, Couture and Smith met for the heavyweight championship in the evening's main event. The fight itself was nothing to write home about, as Couture was able to land takedowns and control the fight positionally en route to a majority decision win after 21 minutes of action.
Couture got his first takedown less than 40 seconds into the fight and it was a sign of things to come. Couture put Smith on his back and kept him there, as the kickboxer couldn't do anything about it. The 15 minute regulation period ended and Couture had Smith on his back again 15 seconds into the first overtime period. Smith was able to land some shots to start the second three-minute overtime period but Couture ducked under and secured a takedown 38 seconds into the period and kept Smith on the mat until the final buzzer. One judge saw the fight as a draw while the other two scored the bout for the new heavyweight champion of the world, Randy "The Natural" Couture.
Why it was important: Couture captured his first heavyweight title with the win, but due to various factors, including a contract dispute, would not return to the UFC for nearly three years. The win cemented Couture, at just 4-0, as a force in the sport and continued a trend set by Mark Coleman that continues to this day: Wrestling is the most dominant base in MMA.
In the next installment of "The Magic of Randy Couture," we'll take a look at Couture's second UFC run, including his contract dispute and what kept him away from the Octagon, to his fight with Randleman to his memorable bouts with Pedro Rizzo.