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History in the Making: Randy Couture outlasts Pedro Rizzo at UFC 31

 

Randy Couture is a freak of nature.

At near 50 years of age, he shouldn't be able to compete at the highest level of mixed martial arts. Yet, here we are, two weeks away from UFC 129: "St. Pierre vs. Shields" where "The Natural" will compete in his thirtieth fight, a career that spans three decades.

He never should have won the fights he did. After Maurice Smith had destroyed Mark Coleman to win the heavyweight title, it was ludicrous to think another wrestler would fare any better against the kickboxer. And when everyone thought Kevin Randleman was a stronger, better version of him, Couture finished "The Monster" in three rounds.

He continued the trend against Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Vitor Belfort, and Tim Sylvia. Just when you thought Father Time had finally caught up with him, he came roaring right back.

In the weeks leading up to the major pay-per-view (PPV) event, I'll take a look at the six men in the highest profile fights. The two title fights atop the card, as well as the 205-pound clash between Lyoto Machida, who I discussed earlier in the week, and our subject today, UFC Hall of Famer, Randy Couture.

Does "Captain America" have one more trick up his sleeve? Or will "The Dragon" finally put to rest his brilliant career?

In a career filled with historical upsets, we'll take a look at yet another -- his date with Pedro Rizzo:

Randy Couture was enjoying his second stint as the king of UFC's heavyweight division. The first time he won the belt was against Maurice Smith in Japan. He ended up vacating the title due to a contract dispute (that sounds familiar) and ended up staying in the Land of the Rising Sun.

His next four bouts were in Japan, mostly for the RINGS organization. A fun bit of trivia is that during this time, Couture entered the tournament that hosted the oft-mentioned Fedor Emelianenko "loss." The Russian's first defeat was due to a glancing elbow (illegal in RINGS) but the tournament format needed a clear-cut winner. So Tsuyoshi Kohsaka advanced to take on Couture.

But by late 2000, Randy was back in the UFC and was penciled in to fight for the belt he never (technically) lost. He fought and defeated then-champ Kevin Randleman to become the company's first two-time heavyweight champion.

His first defense was against former contender Pedro "The Rock" Rizzo. The Brazilian had come up short the first time he fought for the title but in the time since, had leg kicked Dan Severn into oblivion and dropped Josh Barnett in what is the best knock out of the post-Dark Ages/pre-Ultimate Fighter Age period.

Their fight at UFC 31 was a back and forth battle that ended in controversy. Many scored the bout for the Brazilian and when the Team Quest fighter's arm was raised, even he seemed a bit surprised.

Did "The Natural" do enough to earn the nod? Was Rizzo robbed? 

Let's take a look at this classic match.

Even in 2001, Couture was the elder statesman, being a solid decade older than his Brazilian rival. Today, 37 seems terribly old. That was 10 years ago for "The Natural."

Insane.

Couture opens with an inside leg kick and tries to clinch up, an attempt Rizzo shrugs off. They circle, Couture lands another leg kick and again clinches up. Rizzo tries to break away and lands a shot that opens up his American opponent.

Even back then, you can see Couture utilizing his patented dirty boxing. Shoving his opponent's head down with one hand while attacking the body and landing uppercuts and short hooks with the other. "The Rock" is able to break away but the champion is relentless and drives in for a takedown that finds Rizzo on his back and against the fence.

From there, it's all Randy. Using the fence to his advantage, he impedes Rizzo from any kind of movement and lands brutal ground and pound. A cut opens up on the challenger's face during the onslaught, an attack that is only stopped by the end of the round.

With a minute into the second, Couture shoots in but is stalled by a Rizzo kick. That allows the challenger to to sprawl and avoid the same fate as the first round. 

The Brazilian shrugs off another take down attempt and lands a solid uppercut when the American closes in to clinch. It's a recurring story throughout the round; Couture attempts to close the distance and Rizzo makes him pay with perfectly timed punches.

With less than two minutes left in the round, "The Rock" begins to open up with his paralyzing leg kicks. He lands one, then another, and then another. Couture's nose is now busted, blood running down his chin, to his chest, and even onto his legs.

As dominant as the first round was the champion, the second was as much for his heir apparent.

The third round starts and both fighters are showing the wear and tear of a brutal 10 minutes of fighting. Couture is able to land some shots on his feet but is still unable to finish a takedown. Rizzo knows that he will lose the fight if he's on his back.

A quick cut check stoppage gains the champion a minute of breathing time which apparently helps because he immediately shoots in and follows through on a takedown. From atop his opponent, the Team Quest fighter begins to grind elbows and land short punches. He isn't nearly as active as he was in the first, though. You know that fatigue is a major factor now.

As the fight enters championship rounds, there is no clear favorites. The fighters easily split the first two rounds and the champions squeaked out the third but his conditioning is questionable. They clinch up early and each land punches before breaking up.

Rizzo finally returns to the leg kicks after a five minute reprieve forcing Couture to shoot in after eating just one. I've read that a Pedro Rizzo leg kick is akin to having a Major League slugger taking a baseball bat to your thigh. Couture fails on his first attempt but is eventually able to put his opponent on the mat and finish the fourth round like he did the the third.

In the last round, the champion is being cautious. He isn't staying in the pocket -- the next kick that slams into his leg might be the last -- but he is trying to stay close enough to land efficient takedowns. He succeeds in the first goal but Rizzo is still able to shove off and sprawl any attempts to take the fight to the mat.

The two fighters finish the fight patiently exchanging punches, neither wanting to throw away a fight each feel they've done enough to win. Randy's thigh is bruised beyond belief, a purple, swollen mess.

When they announce Couture as the winner, the Atlantic City audience cheers alongside the champion's corner. "The Natural" is a bit more subdued. He may have been the victor but he certainly didn't feel like a winner. Just like Rizzo, who fell short, didn't feel like a loser. Many felt "The Rock" had done enough to wrest the title away from the American and in fact, the two had an immediate rematch at UFC 34, a fight Couture decisively won.

"The Natural" has gone on record that only a handful of fights interest him this late in his career. Title fights, obviously, would be a financial coup for the UFC Hall of Famer. But one opponent he also mentioned was Lyoto Machida.

Yes, Machida is a former champion himself but not exactly the pay-per-view draw that would flash dollar signs in Couture's eyes. It doesn't seem like he's taking this fight at UFC 129 for the money but rather for the spirit of the competition.

You might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks but there's certainly still some fight left in this old boy.

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