Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Couture's back with UFC

Randy Couture finally figured out the grass isn't always greener on the other side.

In Couture's case, the other side of the MMA fence featured struggling groups that just didn't have the money or clout to put together a dream fight between the reigning UFC heavyweight champ and the consensus best pound-for-pound fighter in the division, Russian superstar Fedor Emelianenko.

At 45 years old, Couture's shelf life was getting smaller by the day and his quest to face the best competition was overshadowed by the opportunity for a big pay day.

So, Couture, who hasn't fought since a third-round TKO victory over Gabriel Gonzaga in August 2007, made nice with Dana White and is now ready to return to the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

As part of a new three-fight deal with UFC, Couture (16-8) has agreed to defend his championship against the popular but inexperienced Brock Lesnar (2-1) (left) on November 15 at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas.

The winner of the bout will move on from there to face the winner of December's Antonio Nogueira, the UFC's interim heavyweight champ, - Frank Mir fight.

"I am happy to announce that UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture will be returning to action," White, the UFC president, said. "He's a legend in the UFC, and one of the fighters that helped build this sport."

The bad blood between Couture and UFC hit the headlines nearly a year ago when the champ "resigned" with two fights left on his deal, citing issues over his pay and the company's inability to sign Emelianenko.

Couture was after a potential bout with Emelianenko outside the UFC's auspices and signed a contract with Mark Cuban's Dallas-based HDNet Fights in February of 2008.

Cuban quickly filed suit against the UFC on Couture's behalf in Dallas district court, hoping to pressure the UFC into releasing its second largest pay-per-view drawing card.

Instead, fearing a possible Couture-Emelianenko bout in a fledgling promotion, Zuffa LLC, the parent company of UFC, made a sound business decision to fight the contract impasse in court, believing if Couture decided to fight, his next two matches belonged under the UFC banner.

In August, a Texas appeals court ruled in favor of Zuffa and essentially brought Couture back to the negotiating table.

As a concession, UFC will attempt to put together a bout between Couture and Emelianenko in 2009.

"We're gonna do everything we can to make that fight happen," White said. "Emelianenko's under another contract right now to another promotion (AFFLICTION) and if we can work it out with the other promotion we will, but we're not going to screw around with another contract."

However, White reiterated he would not be open to a co-promotion effort with any rival organization.

"I think a lot of compromises were made on both sides," Couture said, "but we're both ready to try and move forward. We've cleared the air and we're both in different places than we were a year ago. Sitting last year in legal fights was not something I've enjoyed."

A three-time All-American wrestler at Oklahoma State, Couture made his MMA debut at UFC 13 in May of 1997, where he won a heavyweight tournament.

From there, Couture emerged as one of the most popular and successful mixed martial artists in history, and became the first UFC fighter to win championships in two weight classes (light heavyweight and heavyweight).

Of course, age is the ultimate equalizer in combat sports and will eventually catch up to the most accomplished fighter. The 260-pound Lesnar, a former NCAA heavyweight champion at the University of Minnesota, will enter the matchup with a huge advantage in both power and quickness over Couture.

"I have a lot of respect for Brock as an athlete and a collegiate wrestler, but I know exactly where he's at, he's trying to make the transition from a wrestler to mixed martial arts," said Couture. "I've been there, done that, and I know what the pitfalls are."

Whether Lesnar, a virtual novice on the ground with few submission skills, is able to hang with Couture is a compelling story, and UFC expects the fight to draw one of its largest pay-per-view buy rates in history.

"It's an honor to fight Randy Couture, he's a legend in this sport, and to get the chance to test myself against him is a gift," said Lesnar. "A lot guys would love to have this opportunity, Randy is the UFC heavyweight champion. There is one goal that I've had since I started training in MMA and that is to capture the title. Now that I'm getting the chance, nothing is going to stop me."

Win, lose or draw, it will be nice to see Couture back where he belongs...in the Octagon...an almost unthinkable conclusion just a few months ago.

"I have always said that wrestling is one of the best bases you can have in MMA and not only is Randy a top level wrestler but his opponent is as well," White said. "Brock Lesnar showed the MMA world that he is for real in his last fight, dismantling the far more experienced Heath Herring.

"His combination of speed and power was absolutely devastating. It is a fascinating matchup: the crafty, multiple-time heavyweight champion versus the younger, bigger, and stronger challenger. This is one that will go down in the history books."

-photo courtesy of UFC

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