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The Natural: A retirement tribute to UFC Hall of Famer, Randy Couture, and his four greatest moments

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His longest winstreak? Four fights.

Number of times he’s been finished? Nine.

Decision wins out of 19 victories? Eight.

From a pure numbers perspective, it's kind of odd that people call Randy Couture one of the best ever.

Well, there’s much more to the epic mixed martial arts journey of "The Natural" than wins and losses.

Heavyweight title defenses? Three (tied for most all-time).
Approximate average age gap between him and his opponent? Nine years.
Number of times he’s been the younger fighter? One.

So much has been said about the greatness of the former two-division champion that it seems almost redundant to look back on his fantastic career. That's because almost every fight he’s been in has had some fantastic story behind it.

I could rave about each and every one of his amazing skirmishes, save perhaps the James Toney circus act, but I will simply examine the four fights that made Randy Couture one of the greatest legends of mixed martial arts.

Follow me after the jump as we go back in time follow Couture's very excellent adventure:

UFC 15: "Collision Course"
Randy Couture vs. Vitor Belfort

It is the night of October 17, 1997, and MMA has found its Mike Tyson. A young Brazilian fighter, sporting a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under the venerable Carlson Gracie (that he has yet to use), stands ready to battle for a shot at the UFC heavyweight title.

He turned 20 just six months ago.

On the other side waits a grizzled wrestling veteran in only his third bout as a mixed martial artist. Four months ago, he celebrated his 34th birthday. He is not supposed to win tonight.

The excitement is palpable as ferocious Vitor Belfort and a "young" Randy Couture, sporting a full head of hair, step toward the center of the cage. The announcers talk about how Belfort’s boxing trainer, who has worked with the likes of Oscar de la Hoya, has compared his protégé’s hands with those of the legends under his wing.

To get an idea of the power possessed by the young juggernaut, in four fights, he has spent a grand total of three minutes and four seconds actually throwing down. It took Couture nine seconds longer than that to defeat Stephen Graham alone.

Couture plods forward in orthodox stance, while Belfort slinks in spring-loaded southpaw. "The Phenom" has his hands cocked and low, pure offense on his mind. The reason for this soon becomes clear, as a quick left straight kicks off a vicious combo that sends Couture backpedaling.

Thirty seconds in and Belfort explodes with a winging left, driving him into the clinch. Seizing the moment, the Greco-Roman expert turns while they stumble and attempts to take his dynamite foe to the mat.

The two fall to their knees, but no lower, as Belfort shoots in. Couture’s halfhearted guillotine does nothing to deter The Phenom, but they separate after Belfort finds no success. Another tentative exchange drives them together again, where the Brazilian jacks his foe’s head up with short uppercuts.

So far, the fight is distressingly predictable: Couture has scored no offense and the announcers are making it very clear who they favor. All the wrestler has accomplished is surviving longer than any other poor soul with the misfortune of being within distance of Belfort’s deadly hands.

Things go off the rails about two-and-a-half minutes in, as Belfort overcommits on a one-two and is dumped on his rear by a double-leg. Not a big deal, think the announcers, because now we can see that black belt everyone was so crazy about.

Couture moves into side control, content to be well away from the sledgehammer fists of Belfort. He transitions into a scarfhold, landing a brief bevy of short punches.

Belfort explodes, nearly reversing Couture before winding up in guard. Still sedate, Couture leisurely batters his opponent until Belfort throws his legs up, gets nothing, and attempts to roll out, giving Couture a front headlock and the fans the soon-to-be-beloved PRIDE knees.

Belfort escapes, sluggish as his invincible aura crumbles into dust. Couture locks up the clinch yet again, whomping Belfort with a right and unleashing his vaunted dirty boxing. Belfort’s heart is gone, as are his legs, he falls over seemingly of his own accord as Couture batters him from a collar tie.

The knees and punches that officially end it are almost perfunctory.

In a mind-boggling upset, the creaky old wrestler has finished the unstoppable upstart. He wins the title two months later, while Belfort’s glory goes up in flames. Though the ashes will, at times, coalesce into something resembling their old form, as when he rampages through Wanderlei Silva or when a fluke cut grants him victory over Couture, they again scatter just when success is at his fingertips.

Couture wasn’t any sort of "Phenom" going into that night, but he proved to be a "Natural" nonethless.

UFC 43: "Meltdown"
Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell 1

Fast-forward six years to 2003 and a much-changed MMA landscape.

Following his win over Belfort and subsequent defeat of Maurice Smith for the heavyweight title, Couture has gone a measly 6-5 over his last 11 bouts, succumbing to the grappling prowess of Enson Inoue and Mikhail Illoukhine overseas.

Though he regained the UFC title at the expense of Kevin Randleman and defended it twice against the murderous power of Pedro Rizzo, he is on a two-fight skid, the Rizzo fights his only wins in his past five.

After losing the title to Josh Barnett, the latter’s penchant for PEDs gave Couture a chance to retrieve the now-vacated title against Ricco Rodriguez, but a vicious elbow to the eye socket forced him to submit with less than two minutes remaining. Cognizant of the size gap between him and the increasingly-massive heavyweights, he has dropped to 205 to test the waters and earn yet another crown.

There’s a potbellied, mohawked, and hideously powerful obstacle to overcome, however, named Chuck Liddell.

Despite the gold around Tito Ortiz’s waist, there’s a new sheriff in town at light heavyweight, one who has run roughshod over the likes of Kevin Randleman, Murilo Bustamante, Guy Mezger, Jeff Monson and Renato "Babalu" Sobral. Ortiz cites "scheduling conflicts" and bravely runs away, away from Liddell, leaving the UFC little choice but to schedule an interim title bout.

And who better to showcase this new destroyer than some old man who has beaten one guy in the past two years?

The result seems obvious: Couture will, like so many others, try to take the "Iceman" down, fail and get pummeled into oblivion. Tito Ortiz, put on the spot, will return and get dutifully manhandled, giving the UFC an incredibly marketable champion at the expense of an arrogant jerk and a has-been.

What could go wrong?

The two combatants mosey toward the center of the cage, Couture in the same tight boxing stance he used against Belfort and Chuck in his traditional hands-down brawling style. Randy pushes forward, looking for the clinch, and manages to land a quick knee before LIddell backs off and the ass-kicking can proceed as scheduled.

Things go wrong a bit faster this time, as Couture lunges in off of a Liddell leg kick, lifts him off his feet, and mercilessly slams him to the mat. In true Liddell fashion, however, the beleaguered brawler gets to his feet, escapes the clinch and tries to establish his dominance on the feet.

Which, he quickly discovers, he doesn’t have.

Couture is pressing forward, forcing Liddell to back up. Chuck can’t even let his hands go, as Couture proves by taking him powerfully down near the end of the round. The bell rings with a flustered Liddell and an unfazed Couture, both well aware that things are not going according to plan.

The second verse is the same as the first, Couture’s straight blows getting through to a retreating Iceman who is quickly showing signs of fatigue. A spectacular leg sweep from the Greco-Roman gladiator confirms it:

Chuck Liddell is getting his ass kicked.

Though he reverses and ends up on top to close out the round, nothing is going right for Liddell. He enters the third hurling slow punches with all his might, desperate to end it as quickly as he can. He even goes for a takedown of his own.

Not good enough. The "best takedown defense in the UFC" is once again shredded, Couture going to mount this time. It doesn’t take long after that.

Three titles in two divisions. A lesson is learned by all: When dealing with a Randy Couture fight, leave any and all logic at home, because he can and will punch it in the face.

UFC 68: "Uprising"
Randy Couture vs. Tim Sylvia

Jump forward once again, this time to 2007, a glorious time where Tito Ortiz has been throttled down the road to irrelevance, Mirko Filipovic has finally joined the UFC and the heavyweights need a hero.

Like some great, lethargic ooze, Tim Sylvia has doomed the 265-pound division to what seems an unstoppable reign of jabs and decisions, simply too large for anyone to beat.

Andrei Arlovski and Monson have already fallen in incredibly boring fashion, and it seems no one remains that can defeat him.

Save, perhaps, a retired old soldier.

Following the final bout of his legendary trilogy with Liddell, which saw Couture knocked out for the second time, "The Natural" announced his retirement, using his now-ample free time to pursue honorable endeavors like participating in a Rob Schneider movie.

But just when he thought he was out, they brought him back in, as he signed on to fight Sylvia at UFC 68.

Few fights since the PRIDE era have, at least by sight, looked more like a mismatch. Sylvia stands six inches taller than Couture and around 60 pounds heavier. Plus, he’s 13 years younger and holds the most heavyweight title defenses in UFC history.

This is going to end badly for someone.

The crowd erupts for Couture as he is introduced and viciously boos the reigning champion. The two men, thought to be icons of separate ages, meet in center ring. Couture steps forward and wings a monster of a right hand.

Sylvia falls to his backside, spinning just in time for Randy to get his back. Joe Rogan screams so loudly that he is inaudible through the static, the audience even louder. For the heavyweight division, Randy Couture has just ruined everything in the nicest way.

Unfortunately, Sylvia does his thing and vacuums up the excitement, content to latch onto the challenger’s wrists and wait out the four-and-a-half minutes. As the bell rings to end a round that started amazingly, but became unbearable, something incredible happens:

The audience cheers. It cheers for 270 seconds of boredom.

The second round begins with Couture proving that the knockdown was no fluke, dodging the tentative blows of Sylvia and landing huge overhands reminiscent of old foe Liddell before getting the clinch and forcing the giant to the ground. After several minutes of ground-and-pound, referee John McCarthy separates them.

For all that can be said about it, what most perfectly encapsulates what Couture represents to the public is the audience’s incredible, unprecedented response: They boo a stand up.

Couture takes him down at the bell, prompting yet another burst of appreciation from the audience.

The third takes place entirely on the feet, what should be a dream for the champion.

Precise head movement from the aging vet, as incredible to watch as it is to consider, shuts Sylvia down completely as Couture avoids the pawing shots of the goliath and uses his momentum to land wicked overhands.

Couture is not just beating a man over a decade younger, half a foot taller, and 60 pounds heavier: He is completely outclassing him in every single aspect of mixed martial-arts. It is reminiscent of the Liddell fight, an entirely unexpected destruction of a man thought to rule a division.

The fourth and fifth almost don’t need to happen, as Sylvia is too afraid of the takedown to commit and Randy is too good to give Sylvia breathing room. To get an idea of the sheer dominance of Couture, even Cecil Peoples gives him every single round.

Not bad for an old man.

UFC 102: "Couture vs. Noguiera"
Randy Couture vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira

Our final jump, this time to 2009.

Couture, just deposed by upstart Brock Lesnar, is staring down one of the greatest mixed martial artists to ever live, a fallen king with unbeatable heart, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who most likely deserves a special of his own.

It is interesting to see them standing next to each other; both look like they should have left the ring years ago, and were someone to tell you that Couture is by far the older of the two, you would laugh him out of the room. Nogueira looks less a man than he does some weathered statue, covered in crags and the remnants of his old wars.

It may seem odd to include this bout, as there is no title on the line, but to see two of the greatest warriors of our age, stalwart as the cage in which they fight, is awe-inspiring.

The fight begins with the two trading punches, the boxing that slew Vitor Belfort clashing with hands precision-honed by the Cuban national boxing team. The two break even, Nogueira looking for a takedown and unsuccessfully resorting to pulling guard.

This continues, the two trading technical combos, until Couture leaves his left hand down during an assault and is met with a wicked salvo from the Brazilian legend.

He falls, clearly hurt as "Minotauro" applies a D’arce choke that looks like it would as soon crush Couture’s neck as cut off his bloodflow. For 10 seconds, Nogueira grimaces as he puts everything into it.

But he’s fighting Randy Couture, and Randy Couture does not go down. He escapes, seemingly none the worse for wear. They continue their stand up showdown, Couture finding his range. With a minute to go, both men grab one-arm collar ties.

To raucous applause, these two old soldiers re-enact Frye-Takayama, battering one another with their free hands before moving to the fence. The round ends with a delighted roar from the audience.

The second round sees them trade once again, punches amazingly sharp and precise for men with such great mileage, before Couture, wobbled by Nogueira, goes for a takedown. Minotauro latches onto a guillotine, but loses it and falls to his back as Couture decides to test the greatest guard in MMA history.

This proves a mistake, as Nogueira rolls into mount almost effortlessly and locks up an arm-triangle. Unfortunately for the Brazilian, he runs into the same problem that kept his D’arce from ending it:

He’s fighting Randy Couture.

The crafty vet survives and frees his arm, escaping from under the submission magician with just over a minute left. He manages to tag "Minotauro" several times, to thunderous cheers, before the round ends.

As the third begins, the only possible complaint one could have with this battle is that it isn’t five rounds, and so we have only five more minutes to watch these legends.

For about 30 seconds, the tempo remains unchanged, Couture lunging in and landing while the patient and steady hands of the Brazilian find their home, until Couture eats one shot too many and backs away, wobbling. Bravely continuing to throw, a right hand catches him in the light switch.

He "stanky legs" his way to the canvas, "Minotauro" trying desperately to finish him.

But he cannot.

Nogueira is forced to sit in a recuperated Couture’s guard. He quickly moves to side control, but can generate no offense until his foe, attempting to return to his feet, gives up his back and is caught in yet another tenuous situation.

But Nogueira is too high on Couture’s back, and the crowd explodes as the UFC Hall-of-Famer takes top position with 90 seconds to go. Impressive though it may be, it is too little, too late; he cannot get the finish he needs from inside Minotauro’s guard.

The decision victory goes to the Brazilian.

Why does this fight define Couture? It wasn’t a title fight, it wasn’t a rivalry match, and it wasn’t even a win. But it was one hell of a fight ... and that’s more than enough.

What Couture has accomplished cannot be overstated. One’s grievances may include his repeated title shots, his questionable win over Brandon Vera, or his financial spats with ZUFFA, and one would be entirely justified.

But while I was thinking of how to write this piece, I heard a lovely, sad little song called "Deadman’s Gun" and realized something:

We’re shit outta heroes.

Every baseball player is under scrutiny for steroids, the NBA is full of primadonnas, and the NFL superstars are presently engaged in a slapfight with the owners. Even the "real" heroes are falling around us: Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, was recently outed as at least a partial fraud.

And here we have this old man, who likely never fought in what could be considered his physical prime, who stepped in and destroyed men younger, bigger and stronger than him on a regular basis. I think that’s one hell of a story.

Don’t you?

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