Randy Couture is one of mixed martial arts most enduring legends. He's a multi-time UFC champion. He's universally acknowledged to be the best game-planner and tactician in the history of the young sport.
He's also an excellent commentator with a gift for explaining the action inside the cage in such a way that anyone paying attention can follow what's happening.
But, like everyyone else he's also a flawed human being. And judging by the number of business relationships he's gone through in his career it would seem that Couture's flaws impact disproportionately on his teammates and business partners.
As we head into what might be his last fight against Lyoto Machida at UFC 129, I wanted to take a look at his reported history outside the cage.
MMA business history was made in the gym at the back of a car lot in Gresham, Oregon. It was there that Randy Couture gathered with fellow Olympic wrestlers Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland. As the three tested each other on the mat, they dreamed big about more than just athletic glory. In the sport of MMA, fame and fortune (especially fortune) didn't come easy. The picture above shows the trio when they were friends forming a business together and having fun.
If Couture wanted to succeed, he told Michael Straka on Fighting Words, he was going to have to use every tool at his disposal:
We started looking at it differently a few years ago. We formed Team Quest up in Oregon, looking at it more like a business instead of just a room where some guys could work out. And that started my mindset looking at brands, looking at logos, looking at all those things. It changed the way I thought...I started looking at myself as an athlete and a fighter a little differently. (Now I have) a clothing line, a supllement line, the books, the training centers, all these things...
Like many pro athletes, Randy has worked hard to get the best possible deal for himself and has seemingly gotten into contract disputes with most of the promoters he's ever worked with. Everywhere he's gone reports of conflict have followed.
Amazingly, through almost a decade and a half of bitter battles all over the world, Couture maintains his nice guy reputation. Despite multiple alleged betrayals of friends, spouses, and business partners, he's still Captain America.
According to many fans and reporters who've met him, Randy Couture isn't a warm and fuzzy kind of guy. Don't get me wrong. He's done some legitimately great things for our troops. But not everyone enjoys their time with Couture. FIGHT Magazine's Donovan Craig described a typical encounter with Couture in the magazine's March 2008 issue:
He stands ramrod straight and looks at me as if he's sizing me up through a pane of glass. His stare is piercing yet disinterested and his body language is cold. He speaks to me in a faint voice, as if he's thinking about a million different things. "We'll work it out," he says unconvincingly as he goes into the gym to begin his morning workout. I have traveled across the country to speak him, but when I catch him in the parking lot of his gym in the early morning; it is obvious to me that he is no mood to be interviewed.
...When his workout is over, he barrels past me into his office at the front of the gym. Every so often, I peek in to see if we can do the interview. I am either completely ignored or am met with the same icy glare I received in the parking lot. After a while, I give up. Maybe tomorrow, I think. I am disappointed. After all, I have been setting this up for months. He is supposed to know about it, and I have traveled across the country to talk to him. I will admit to being a little put out. But then again, for such a remarkable man as Randy Couture, one makes allowances.
From an allegedly contentious split with RAW (Real American Wrestlers), to his decision to hold out on the SEG era UFC and walk away from the UFC heavyweight title,Couture has always pushed hard for what he felt he deserved. As the UFC crumbled beneath a barrage of attacks from politicians and cable companies, "Captain America" was the only fighter to insist on his full paycheck -- even as the company stood on the brink of bankruptcy.
If you believe what you read in the press, it wasn't just business partners that saw the hard side of Randy Couture. His friends and teammates have also allegedly been left behind as his career took off. From the looks of it, the break with Team Quest after six years together wasn't particularly clean. Not only did Couture leave abruptly, he even returned to open a potentially competing gym just miles away from his former teammates. Years later, FIGHT Magazine asked the remaining Team Quest founders about the split:
"Randy kind of separated himself," Henderson says. "He broke off contact with us. It was a little weird for awhile."
Couture even opened a gym in Vancouver, Wash., 20-miles north of the original Team Quest gym.
"I was like, ‘What is he doing?' So I asked him and he said he thought it was far enough away it wouldn't affect our membership," Lindland says. "He was right. We didn't lose any fighters. It's not like he is a coach there. All the guys he coaches are in Vegas."
Lindland is being kind and gracious because he can be. Couture's gym failed in the marketplace and Team Quest is going strong. It's easy to forgive when the battle has been fought and won. But Lindland wasn't the only business partner Couture parted ways with under seemingly questionable circumstances
Former Xtreme Couture striking coach Shawn Tompkins was very diplomatic in his public statements when he parted ways with Xtreme Couture, but rumor has it that privately he was furious at having moved to Las Vegas with the expectations that he would be the lead trainer at the gym. Instead, he was pushed aside in favor of Neal Melanson.
Whatever the truth of their relationship, Tompkins certainly wasn't reluctant to coach Hall of Famer Mark Coleman against Couture at UFC 109.
In the next installment we'll talk about Couture's attempt to leave the UFC in 2007.