09 March 2007

MMA: On Legends



Everybody likes a good legend; one of those near-immortals we can all look up to. Well, apart from those jerks who like banging on about ‘sacred cows’, but those people suck most of the time anyway. Yes, legends. A personal favourite legend is sprinter Michael Johnson. He was knocking about during my athletics-viewing life, and generally mullered all opposition while looking like he wasn’t breaking a sweat; comically straight back and all. He was like something out of the cartoons: he’d steam off like a pneumatic Chuckle Brother, leaving world class runners choking on the hypothetical dust there would be if professional running tracks were dusty.

He is a legend, one of those performers who stand almost larger than life, like Pele, Michael Jordan and Bjorn Borg. A legend is someone who not only excelled in his field, but to whom we tend to feel that extra adoration; they are less mortal men than they are tangible concepts of what the synergy of human body and mind can achieve.

Mixed Martial Arts is a young enough sport that discussion about ‘legends’ seems rather premature. That said, the last three or four years have suggested that a certain crafty veteran deserves no less nomenclature when discussing him. I am obviously referring here to one Randy Couture, an indubitable class act.

Much has been made of his status back in the day as simple placeholder opponent for Chuck Liddell, during the infamous contract negotiations of ‘fighters’ fighter’ Tito Ortiz. How the veteran who allegedly couldn’t cut it against the new breed of massive, skilled heavyweights took to school a man supposed to knock him out on the way to his inevitable title shot. Couture was doubted, and he responded by beating a surprised Liddell on the feet, before supplying massive takedowns and stopping the Mohawked one with ground and pound. When he then dominated Ortiz for twenty-five minutes, his legacy was pretty much sewn up on the spot.

That Couture also happened to be a quality commentator, incredibly well-mannered speaker and all round clean living man about town (there was that period when he only ate green things: spinach, kelp, plastic watering cans…) was a pile of awesome icing on the already excellent fighting cake. If, indeed, cakes could fight. His jaunt as coach on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) sealed the deal; his ensuing knockout loss to Liddell, while halting any talk of a Couture-Wanderlei Silva super-fight (how times change) did nothing to tarnish his status as beloved elder statesman. If anything, such a display of Octagon mortality endeared him more.

Then, as the unwashed MMA masses like to say, Father Time did a number on ‘The Natural’. He looked slightly laboured in his win over Mike Van Arsdale (but let us never forget the glory of that opening round – such a display of wrestling quality), and another knockout loss to Liddell sent him to retirement.

Or so we thought!

Yes, it turned out that after keeping his hand in competition in a grappling contest against Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, the lure of the Octagon, and its associated PPV bonuses, were too much for Couture to resist. Rather than make dollars against the Switchyard Sullivans and Boxcar Fritzes of this world, Couture opted to face heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, a man much bigger and punchier than the Barnetts and Rodriguezes who sent him packing in the first place.

The ostensible absence of logic in such a decision has been covered, at length, everywhere, as has the result (for those in the dark: Couture, by constant humiliation). What heartened me about the result of the UFC 68 main event was the fact that, though we all doubted him, Couture prevailed. While I had some concern about his future health going into this fight, I rationalised his decision with the knowledge that it’s not like he had never been knocked out before. In his career, Couture has been stopped hundreds of times. Thousands.*

No, my entirely selfish concern was about his legacy: it stood to reason that a man twice stopped by a light-heavyweight puncher would get stopped by a puncher a half-foot taller and sixty pounds heavier. Of course, someone like Muhammad Ali is blatantly a legend, in pretty much every sense of the term. Still, we’d all rather he’d not had that last comeback in 1980. UFC 68 seemed to signal the beginning of an unnecessary, potentially toe-curling career postscript.

Imagine my infinite shades of relief then at the victory, and such a dominant, well-planned and well-executed victory at that. Not only was the legacy intact, but we are seemingly at the beginning of a new chapter of fighting fecundity from the man. While Couture seemed to tire by the mid-point of the last fight, he was assertive enough that Sylvia was utterly unable to take advantage of that.

Indeed, mid round belching and wondering aloud which round was next were the greatest of the now ex-champion’s accomplishments on that night. Well, apart from making the crowd hate him even more by mentioning his injury (legitimate though I am sure it is) in the fight’s post-mortem. I have also to admit that, as much esteem as I hold for Sylvia, Couture as champion certainly makes the heavyweight scene that bit fresher.

In the middle distance is a showdown between Couture and Mirko Filipovic, and again the legacy is on the line. Not quite to the same extent, it has to be said, because a loss to ‘Cro Cop’ is a very real and likely proposition for most fighters. However, this is another fight in which Couture can shock the world.** Who knows what the man might achieve against excellent, and reasonably similarly-sized, opponents like Brandon ‘Contract Negotiation Kid 2007’ Vera and Andrei Arlovski. Conversely, how much career redemption a win for Arlovski over ‘The Natural’ would be.

Having signed a two-year, four-fight contract, perhaps this era of Couture will turn out to be a mid-life crisis… for his opponents. But seriously, one thing is for sure: it is great to have our legend back, with all the stress, hopes and fears that accompany such status. These are interesting times indeed in the world of MMA.

* * *

*Not really. It’s a Seinfeld reference.
**I wouldn’t bet on it though.

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