Couture keeps fighting back the years, winning


The interview was scheduled for noon, and the telephone rang at the precise second the big hand touched 12. That's how Randy Couture handles business. The precise second.

It speaks to his professionalism outside an octagon and to his longevity inside one.

He is 44 and tonight defends his heavyweight title against a man 16 years younger in UFC 74 at Mandalay Bay Events Center. They're always younger, stronger. They always seem to have solid stand-up skills and terrific submissions. They always seem to own a fighting style Couture supposedly will find tough to overcome.

He might be the greatest Hall of Fame champion of any sport whose career is mostly identified by an underdog role. He's Joe Namath in a cage.

Gabriel Gonzaga is the challenger this time. He has all the Brazilian jiujitsu skills. He is talented on the ground and skillfully mixes power with flexibility. He's just the latest one favored to beat the five-time UFC champion, the next guy expected to deliver Couture into retirement for a final time.

Don't expect him to go willingly.

"I think the heart is the best part of Randy," Gonzaga said

I think discipline is.

It is the same reason some 59-year-old grandfather can sit around drinking a few cold ones with his pals, start talking about how much he regrets not playing his final season of college football and go make a Division III roster. Everyone has goals, but few possess enough command of their lifestyle choices to accomplish them.

Few are ever mentally strong enough to continue electing for bodily improvement over natural decline, no matter how many birthdays have passed or how many opponents have tapped out.

But it's the reason Mike Flynt will wear a helmet for Sul Ross State in west Texas this season and why Couture still competes at his sport's highest level. They're rare individuals in a society characterized by concession when it comes to maintaining a superior physical condition.

In other words, they're not us.

"I feel pretty damn good," Couture said. "I feel remarkably good. I haven't really had any major issues, any joint surgeries. I've held up well. It's a matter of desire and having a passion for this and doing what I love to do. So that makes it pretty easy. I guess if I was feeling a lot of pain I could tell you, but I'm really not feeling a lot of pain.

"When I started out in this (in 1997), it was going to be a one-fight deal. Just give it a whirl and see what happened. But each athlete still brings new variations and little nuances. There are always different twists to any fight. That's why it's still fun for me."

This is what happens when you earn a permanent seat at a table of your sport's legends. Winning and enhancing your status become secondary objectives overshadowed by different ambitions.

You need to be motivated by more than titles to continue training and sacrificing and fighting people who still weren't born when you were searching for a date to the junior prom.

For a long time, Couture fought with the memory of the one prize that years before eluded his talent. He was an All-America wrestler at Oklahoma State and later won four national Greco titles. He then went to three U.S. Olympic Trials, always expecting to make the team, win a medal and get on with his life. He just never made the team.

But if the sting of not satisfying that one hunger helped induce his early UFC success, he discovered different forms of incentive as his titles mounted. One never has left him. The most basic one, more than championship belts, more than the security of clothing lines and plans for franchising MMA gyms across the country and movie roles.

It's the itch to fight, a yearning he never has completely found a way to scratch away.

Pioneers usually do everything imaginable to help a new venture explode into the mainstream, then depart the arena assured their involvement paid huge dividends. Couture did that with UFC over and over. Tonight, that journey amazingly continues.

"He's a very unique individual," UFC president Dana White said. "He's a freak of nature. The guy is, you know, not only an incredible athlete and an incredible fighter but also an incredible person and human being. I have nothing but respect for Randy Couture."

I'll second that.

In my business, telephones ringing at the precise second often trump even the best quote.

Ed Graney's column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

 

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