Exit the Legend

Randy Couture lifted MMA into the mainstream, and helped keep Las Vegas the fight capital when boxing hit the canvas

Every fight fan has a favorite Randy Couture story. It’s hard not to, considering the 14-year veteran and five-time UFC champion has seemingly been chiseled in as one of the faces on mixed martial arts’ Mount Rushmore since his first win, at UFC 13, in May 1997.

For Marc Ratner, the former executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, the signature Couture moment came on March 3, 2007, when a then-43-year-old Couture, coming out of his first retirement, stunned Tim Sylvia and a crowd of 19,000 in Columbus, Ohio, to claim his third heavyweight title.

“I’ve only seen this a few times in boxing and this is the only time I’ve seen it in MMA,” says Ratner, who is now a UFC executive. “Randy knocked Tim down and the whole crowd rose as one screaming.”

Couture says that his April 30 fight in Toronto will be his last. The fight itself—part of UFC 129—is compelling: Couture will take on Lyoto Machida, who has won 16 of his 18 fights. So the old gladiator is clearly not looking for an easy exit. But the real impact of the night—one that will be felt as much in Las Vegas as in Toronto—is that at fight’s end, the last icon of MMA’s breakthrough generation will step out of the Octagon and into history.

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Las Vegas was once a boxing town. Any other type of fighting was a curiosity at best. Then Couture came along.

“If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Ron Frazier, who is the head coach of Couture’s Xtreme Couture gym and a longtime boxing coach in Las Vegas. “I put him right up there with Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Durán, Marvin Hagler and Muhammad Ali. That’s how important he’s been to the UFC, getting it regulated, growing it in popularity and being an ambassador to the sport.”

Couture—a Washington native who made Las Vegas his adopted home in 2005 after filming the first season of Spike TV’s The Ultimate Fighter here—has fought 12 of his 29 career fights in Sin City. In 10 of those Vegas fights, titles were on the line.

“Just fighting in this town is unbelievable,” Couture says. “Seeing your name on the big-lighted billboards or the highlights on the video boards is just awesome. The town is abuzz, just anticipating the fight.”

Couture’s classic ground-and-pound style and charismatic personality helped Las Vegas keep its moniker as the “Fight Capital of the World” at a time when the last of boxing’s truly captivating U.S. heavyweights, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, were in the twilight of their careers. You can almost chart the rise of MMA in Las Vegas according to Couture’s biggest fights here: his heavyweight title defense against Pedro Rizzo in his first Vegas fight at UFC 34, his trilogy of battles with fellow UFC Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell, his victory over Tito Ortiz at UFC 44 in 2003, which made Couture the first man in the UFC to hold titles in two different weight classes.

Couture, who served in the Army, has been influential outside the Octagon as well, participating in numerous charities around town in addition to running his own Xtreme Couture GI Foundation, which aids wounded soldiers and their families.

Couture will be plenty busy when his Octagon days are done: Along with his Las Vegas gym, he has a dietary supplement line, a clothing line and upcoming movie roles in The Expendables 2 and Setup.

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Couture knows that boxing is littered with stories of false retirements and unfortunate comebacks—and he says his story won’t be one of them.

“I realize I’ve pushed it a lot further than anybody is going to push it,” says Couture. “I just feel like I want to go out on my terms, and not after one or two or three losses and everybody else telling you that you should be retiring.”

But former opponent and current Xtreme Couture team member Vitor Belfort is not so sure Couture is truly ready to throw in the towel.

“Randy is a legend, past, present and future,” Belfort says, “no matter what happens—or what he decides after next weekend.

“Randy’s only gonna retire when he doesn’t have the will to come to the gym. For this fight, he has had all the motivation in the world. That’s why I don’t think it will be the end.”