Last Saturday night I sat among family and friends, most of them only casually acquainted with the UFC, let alone the larger world of mixed martial arts, and we watched Randy Couture and Mark Coleman. At 46 and 45 years old respectively, both are former champions of mixed martial arts, both should be key figures in any history of the sport and both are, decidedly, past their prime. My guests wondered aloud: what are those old men doing in the cage? Who is Mark Coleman? Why is this worn-out heavy in the main event? Is this a title fight? And when that answer was “no,” then finally: so what’s the point, what’s at stake? Without being obsessed with the history of the sport, without being enraptured by the drama of the fighting man, they couldn’t know. That Mark Coleman had defeated Couture in collegiate wrestling years before. That he is the UFC’s first heavyweight champion, or that he gave us the game-changing martial style of ground and pound. They didn’t know that Saturday night might have been the last time Mark Coleman fought in the UFC. Maybe the last time Mark Coleman fights, period. I should have told them but, caught up in the popular current of apathy that was running through jaded “hardcore” fans in the weeks leading up to this event, I failed to recognize what was so important about last Saturday night. Were my head not so far up my ass, had I not been so eagerly cynical, I could have told them what was at stake. Damn near everything.
Randy Couture and Mark Coleman take to the cage on February 6, 2010 for a serious discussion. A debate made of straining muscle, lactic acid and burning lungs, okay, crackerjack timing, or as near as you can get, and some 20 bulging knuckles. Between Mark Coleman and Randy Couture are the questions of age and will, legacy and future. A climate of pathos and desperation. In all things human, rarely does it get more meaningful than that. And while all fights (all human endeavor, one might argue) are tinged with such consequence, no other fight on the card so palpably embodies the anxiety of tomorrow—what it brings, and how, then, we will be seen. Strange, then, that this fight has been so readily dismissed by the public as a waste. Cruel, I think, that Coleman, the man for whom the most is at stake, should be derided by so many as the most inconsequential part of the whole thing—between these two men, surely Coleman’s struggle to solve those riddles is the more pressing of the two.
With no movie roles, no clothing line, and no training center bearing his name, Coleman, in some considerable contrast to Couture, still makes his living purely by the long minutes in the cage. And while Couture has established himself as an enduring asset to the UFC, Coleman has yet to recapture the imagination of the fans such as he possessed it during his first championship run in the organization over ten years ago. There are no impassioned cheers for Mark Coleman. None readily apparent on the broadcast, anyway, and certainly none to rival those that follow Couture into the Octagon. And yet there are no boos or hisses for Coleman, either. Just relatively subdued, obligatory applause. Bad news for someone looking for a foothold in the UFC. If you’re a Coleman fan, the bad news doesn’t stop there.
Randy Couture emerges from his corner looking especially fleet of foot. Mark Coleman, by contrast, appears a little flat, stiff and uncertain in his movement. Rather than gamble that his wrestling has surpassed Coleman’s in the years since their first, collegiate meeting, Couture looks to put his relatively impressive footwork to use, and box. Though Couture’s own chin is suspect, weakened from years of fighting, Coleman never finds a chance to test it. He is beaten to the punch every time, unable to employ any of the feints or combinations that, surely, he drilled with his new coach, kick boxer Shawn Tompkins. Persistently out of sorts, especially compared to his last, rather impressive appearance, he seems over-trained; his body sluggish from excessive drilling and his mind encumbered by one maneuver too many. Like a deer in headlights, which refuses to bound away though it is built and bred for it, Coleman doesn’t tap his instincts, and so he freezes up and suffers a beating. He endures the first round and goes down in the second, submitting to a rear-naked choke.
This may have been the last time Mark Coleman fights in the Octagon, wherein his career was born, but his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan is woefully unceremonious. The evening ends and, though I am assuredly a Couture fan, I’m stuck with a nagging sense, a little anxiety, a little guilt and sorrow.
Mark Coleman was cut from the UFC following that defeat. It seems unfair—with a victory over Stephan Bonnar splitting his losses to Mauricio Rua and Couture, he deserved another chance. Yet, having appeared so helpless against a man of his own generation, one shudders to think of the savagery that Rashad Evans or Rogerio Nogueira, men plenty younger than him, would inflict upon Coleman’s venerable head. And though there are a few in the light-heavyweight division against whom I would give Coleman a fair shot, there are none against whom he could be marked as an overwhelming favorite—better to go out losing to Randy Couture than Brian Stann, I’d think.
Ultimately, though, it’s not Coleman’s exit from the promotion that hounds me so much as it is the way he was ushered out. The UFC’s fighters, once they reach a certain age (ring age, if not biological) tend to be treated by most with a sort of sobriety and honor acknowledging their ever more imminent withdrawal from the ring. Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, and Couture himself have all gotten the treatment, addressed in tones bespeaking reverence and farewell. I suspect a fighter in the moment might bristle at the implications, though I imagine such decorum might in retrospect prove a compliment.
That Coleman was not offered such custom is (those words again) strange and cruel. Tragic, even, given his contributions to the UFC and to MMA generally. And this is unfortunately appropriate, as Coleman’s career seems to constitute, in nearly the most classical meaning of the term, a tragedy—a man of great potential and bright future brought low. By a little bad luck, maybe, and by the shifting favors of the world and, yes, a bit by his own hand, as well. August as any man he’s ever had the pain or privilege to fight, Coleman is nevertheless dismissed and made sport of by some of those who owe him most: the fans. Maybe it’s that hang-dog expression of his, or the brutish way he has about him. Maybe his frank desperation discomfits people. Maybe this is why some of us like him better.
For those of us turning over the image of the defeated Mark Coleman in our minds, surely the idea of his retirement preoccupies us. As a fan I’m not sure what I want. For him to be healthy, I guess, and strong and sharp and able. Yet, if that should indeed have been Mark Coleman's last fight, then he certainly deserves a champion’s send-off. Slight an offering as this is, I’ll hope instead that he cracks a skull or two more.