Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko worked hard to promote a possible super fight that was never to be. Photo via Affliction.
In the first installment of this series I attempted to balance some of the hagiography of Randy Couture with a cup-is-half-empty look at the business side of his MMA career. The piece was rough because Couture has earned the love of fans through his many great athletic performances over the years and because his public persona is simultaneously charismatic, well-spoken, and knowledgeable about the sport to the nth degree.
I have to admit it. I love Randy Couture. I'm a huge fan of the man's work. I've also been very supportive in the past of his attempts to get the freedom to fight the fights he wanted to fight. But that's where I first really became aware of the cracks in "Captain America's" shield.
For all that Couture is a supremely likable public figure with an admirable body of work in his field, he has left a trail of media coverage that hints at a less likable business persona.
It was Couture's attempt to escape from his UFC contract in 2007 that epitomized this dichotomy.
MMAJunkie was one of many sites with a report that surprised the entire MMA world:
The shocking news comes from The Fight Network, with whom Couture has a longtime relationship. According to the website, Couture delivered his resignation with a letter to UFC President Dana White.
"I appreciate this opportunity the sport of MMA and the UFC has given me," Couture told the website. "However, I'm tired of swimming upstream at this stage with the management of the UFC. It only makes sense at this point in my career to fight Fedor Emelianenko, and since he's now signed with another organization, I feel like it's time to resign and focus on my other endeavors."
Emelianenko -- the current PRIDE heavyweight champion and the most sought-after free agent in mixed-martial arts -- reportedly inked a new deal with the Russian-based M-1 Mix-Fight Championship promotion in the past couple weeks.
Based on published reports the UFC beleived Couture owed them two more fights on his contract when he attempted to "resign". He seemed to believe that perhaps if he waited out the remaining nine months of his contract he would be free to fight elsewhere.
Kevin Iole from Yahoo Sports took a very critical view of Couture's motivations:
But though Randy Couture, the UFC's erstwhile heavyweight champion, insisted repeatedly that his resignation on Oct. 11 had nothing to do with money, he spent the better part of the news conference Thursday talking about that very topic.
History tells us that whenever athletes say it is not about money, it's about the money.
From the MMA Encyclopedia:
It was the perfect ending to a storybook career. Or it should have been. Instead, after winning a title defense against Gabriel Gonzaga, Couture entered into an extended contract dispute with the UFC. When the company couldn't come to terms with Fedor Emelianenko, Couture's heavyweight counterpart in the defunct Pride promotion, Couture wanted out. His time as a fighter was coming to an end and he wanted Fedor before he retired. A vicious battle took place, with dueling press conferences, unprecedented financial information leaked, and insults flying right and left.
This was an absolutely critical moment in the history of the young sport. Had Couture managed to get free of his UFC contract while still heavyweight champion and fight in a mega-fight against Fedor Emelianenko -- at the time the undisputed number 1 heavyweight in the world -- the sport would have never been the same. Couture vs Emelianenko had the potential to be the first MMA mega-fight in US history outside of the UFC.
Had that fight happened it would have shifted the balance of power in MMA away from the promotion to the fighters.
Why it didn't in the full entry.
It's possible that there is a scenario where by Couture could have fought out the remaining fights on his contract before trying to leave the promotion. That would have forced the UFC to defend its championship clause in court. That's the clause that says the fighter cannot leave the promotion while holding the UFC title, even if he has completed all the other terms of his contract.
That sort of thing has been banned in boxing for decades now thanks to the Muhammad Ali Act.
But alas, Couture made his move while he still owed the UFC fights on his contract. Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, beat him in the courtroom and in the public relations battle when they produced pay stubs that seemed to contradict Couture's account of his payment by the promotion.
Despite Couture appearing in the ring at an Affliction pay per view event for a post-fight photo op with Fedor Emelianenko, it was not to be. The fight never took place. Couture abandoned his legal fight and returned to the UFC where he lost his title to Brock Lesnar.
Couture and the UFC have since been able to work together for a number of fights but he is no longer featured as a commentator on their broadcasts.
More importantly, no fighter since has dared to challenge the UFC and its system of contracts.
It would appear that Couture got some really bad advice.
I thought this comment in the previous post from a BE reader provided a good explanation of how Couture operates and why there is such a split between his beloved public persona and his controversial business history:
He's genuinely a very nice guy who seems to love training and the camaraderie that goes along with it. He always seemed to be very well respected and even admired by his training partners (check out his demeanor while cornering Gina Carano during the Cyborg fight for a glimpse into this side of his personality). If I had to define a flaw, it would be that he has trouble knowing who to trust and when. I've personally seen the offputting, mumbling Randy as described above, and have seen it in certain interviews as well. If he doesn't know you or doesn't know if he can trust you he will put on that front. By the same token, however, I have personally seen him overly trusting of what I took to be obvious shysters, opportunists, and hangers-on. I recall Dana White saying during the UFC retirerment fiasco that Randy was being taken advantage of by some shyster Hollywood agent or something like that. I don't know any details, but I suspect Dana was spot-on with this, as it seems like the exact situation Randy could and would fall into.