Randy Couture wound up in his first mixed martial arts match on a whim. “I saw the sport and said, ‘Oh my gosh, that looks like fun!’” He wasn’t sure, though, what was going to happen once he stepped into the ring. “It’s very surreal,” he says. “You walk up the four steps, and then you hear the cage door click behind you. Part of you wants to pee down your leg and climb that fence and get out, part of you wants to stand and fight.”
Obviously, the part that wanted to stand and fight won, the first victory in a legendary 14-year career that ended in 2011. Couture was one of MMA’s original superstars, winning multiple championships and spanning the sport’s evolution from an off-night, few-grand-in-a-suitcase cult to its current status as a multibillion-dollar industry with fights broadcast in more than 150 countries. Since his final exit from the cage, the Las Vegas resident has continued in the sport as a gym owner and fight trainer, sports commentator and reality TV star, as well as launching an acting career in flicks from David Mamet’s drama Redbelt to the Stallone/Schwarzenegger franchise The Expendables.
“I came in on the cusp of the end of the first generation [of MMA],” he says. “During the first generation, guys were out to prove that their fighting style was the best: Who’s gonna win? The karate guy or the boxer, the wrestler or the judo guy?” he says. It was a time when the sport had a whiff of those tiger-style -against-mantis-style battles in classic kung fu movies or the eternal Batman vs. Superman debates, “like people have been talking forever about at bars and domino tables around the world.”
Youth and collegiate wrestling had given Couture a strong MMA foundation, but there was still a lot for him to learn when he first entered the cage. “I recognized that as great as I felt, it was only a good starting place,” he says. “So I immediately started learning other skills. Each opponent poses different problems—it’s problem solving at its finest. You have to unlock those keys to win.
“It became apparent there was no one style or sport that encompassed all you needed to know for MMA. We all started cross-training,” he says. “Now we’re kind of in this third generation that grew up watching us. They didn’t care about a belt or background; they just wanted to be us, to get in there.”
“Randy was like the father figure most MMA fighters never had,” says Matthew Polly, author of the best-selling Tapped Out. “They all looked up to him.”
The sport has changed greatly since Couture’s early days, when Bill Clinton was still president and Victoria Beckham was still a Spice Girl. “It’s going through some growing pains now,” he says. “The market has become a little saturated, with fights every week on several stations. When I was coming through, there were only a few shows a year, and there was something special about those events. Today, there are so many fighters and so many shows and promotions on the grid.”
It wasn’t always that way. When Couture began fighting, many sports fans didn’t even consider MMA fighters athletes. Professional MMA fights were banned in a number of states. “It had this barbaric, ‘no man leaves alive,’ gladiatorial image,” says Joey Varner, a coach and training partner on Team Couture. Couture helped change that. “He was an Army vet, humble, quiet, well-spoken, but an amazing fighter,” Varner says. “He could change the public perception.” Couture also helped put MMA in the context of sport, rather than battle: “He explained that if you took all the combat sports in the Olympics—wrestling, boxing, taekwondo and judo—and put them together, you’d have mixed martial arts.” And as a three-time alternate to the U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team, Couture had credibility as an elite athlete.
Couture sees MMA’s blending of styles and skills as essential to its growth. “I think MMA will be the combative sport for this generation. It’s a little more intriguing [than boxing]—all the styles and ways you can win fights.” Meanwhile, boxing continues to deliver itself self-inflicted blows. “A lot of people are disenchanted with [boxing] decisions, with promoters who run everything and a top echelon [of fighters] that flaunts money and attitude. That’s not MMA. You don’t find many [boxers] out in the crowd, watching matches. But MMA athletes are engaged and approachable.”
As owner of Las Vegas’ Xtreme Couture gym, Couture, 50, has a stake in training the next generation of MMA fighters—a process that can be as harrowing as stepping into the cage. “You get way more nervous watching guys you worked with than when you’re going into the ring yourself,” he says. “There’s a loss of control, you see things and want things to occur that you can’t make happen. It’s up to the guy in the cage.” He notes that mixed martial arts is not necessarily a young man’s game. Fighting takes strategy—Couture describes it as “kinetic chess”: “As we get older, we get smarter. The mean age of the top fighters is 29 – it’s not 19- or 20-year-olds. Experience speaks.”
It certainly did in Couture’s career. “When he started out, he was too old, small for a heavyweight,” Varner says. “But he had this indomitable will, this drive. He defied the odds at every stage of his career. It was his mind, his ability to use strength against weakness.”
Couture sees the roots of that strength and focus in the years he spent in the military. From 1982-88, he served in the Army, attaining the rank of sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division. “The military was a formative time in my life,” he says. “I had no idea that 10 years later I’d be putting on gloves and fight trunks and stepping into the cage. It shaped a lot of my personality and my mindset, and it carried me through years of college wrestling [at Oklahoma State], MMA championships and retirement.”
Today, he’s trying to repay the debt he feels to the military through his Xtreme Couture GI Foundation. “I’m at a stage in my life where I can give back to those guys who are putting it on the line. Some of them are making pretty significant sacrifices. The first time I went to Walter Reed [Military Hospital] in Bethesda, Maryland, eight years ago, it solidified my desire to do something for them.”
The Xtreme Couture GI Foundation provides financial support and other resources for veterans. It isn’t a huge organization, Couture explains, but, like the man who runs it, it gives back as much as it can. “I have a small charity; gym staff and friends help me run it, so we have no overhead,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of what we make goes directly into the hands of soldiers.”
Fundraising events aren’t the usual dress-up dinners with awards and speeches, but rather paintball games, bike rallies, poker runs and Texas Hold ’em tournaments. The Under the Stars and Stripes show May 30 at the Sunset Station Amphitheater—featuring Gary Allan and Darryl Worley, among other country artists—will be the foundation’s first concert. “I want to create things that people want to do and spend their time and hard-earned money on,” he says. “Those fancy dinners and things aren’t that much fun. These are things the soldiers like to do, and we get the service members involved.” Couture wants to include as many vets as he can. “For an upcoming ride, we’re bringing in a Marine who served in Afghanistan and lost both legs in an IED explosion. Great kid; he rode a lot before his injuries. We’re trying to hook him up with a trike or wide-framed bike.”
Couture grew up in Lynnwood, Washington, in a single-parent household with two sisters. “My mom was a significant character in my life,” he says. “I saw her work ethic. She worked a few jobs, but she managed to make every soccer game and wrestling match.” She also helped inspire Couture’s second career as an actor. “Mom used to take us to the Lynn Twin Theater on Saturdays for the double feature. I’d get right up in front of the screen, sitting there, eating popcorn.”
Couture has now been on the other side of the screen for 11 years. “Athletics kicked the door open,” he says. His first role was as a cage fighter in 2003’s Cradle to the Grave. Since then, he’s done more than a dozen movies, playing ancient Egyptian warriors, coke-addled cops and, most notably, a mercenary with a flair for monologue in The Expendables series. “Being a part of The Expendables has been a huge step up,” he says. “It’s an intriguing process. Eventually I’d like to try directing and to get some producer credits for TV and movies on a smaller scale.”
It’s notoriously difficult to fight your way to the top in Hollywood. But you could say Couture’s been auditioning for the role all his life. “At 10 years old I developed a passion for wrestling, and it just carried me through every adversity and landed me in MMA, where I seemed to flourish.” And, from film to philanthropy, his post-cage career has brought more rewards—with fewer bruises.
“I can’t think of too many things I’m missing out on,” he says.