When it comes to certain aspects of mixed martial arts, there are few better than Randy Couture. Wrestling, clinch work, ground and pound, ‘The Natural’ is the master.
But at the same time, Couture is a fierce competitor, one who always likes to push the limits. So while the angel on his shoulder is probably telling him to take three-division boxing champion James Toney to the mat in their UFC 118 bout Saturday night and pound him out, is the devil on the other shoulder tempting him to stand with “Lights Out”?
“I learned to put that devil in a box a long, long time ago and keep him locked up. He does not get out. I think there are a lot of people who would like to see me stand with James and punch him in his mouth, but I’m a lot more comfortable putting him on his back and punching him in his mouth there.”
Right there is the other part of Randy Couture speaking up, the master gameplanner, the tactician who can rip apart any fighter and come up with a solid plan to beat him. Against guys like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Vitor Belfort, Tim Sylvia, Gabriel Gonzaga, Brandon Vera, and Mark Coleman, that was relatively easy, given the fact that they were all mixed martial arts fighters. With Toney, who is making his MMA debut, it gets a little tougher, but Couture and his team have found a way to compensate.
“It’s been a little more difficult because there’s no MMA footage on James and we don’t know what kind of things he’s trying to train to do, and how much is he going to realistically be able to learn between when we started this and the fight,” said Couture. “So we’re predominantly going off his boxing style and technique, and if you take him at face value, that’s basically what he’s dragging up into the cage and he’s pretty confident that’s gonna be enough for him. So I’ve been working pretty diligently with Gil Martinez and Ray Sefo on the striking piece of this puzzle, and figuring out the distance and the angles and the best way to set James up. And obviously I’ve been working diligently with Neal Melanson on my ground game for quite some time now, making some changes and some big improvements in that area of my game. So I think both of those things are gonna come into play in this fight.”
It’s obvious from talking to Couture about the fight, that for him, it’s just another night at the office, a chance to compete and put another big name on a stellar resume that has already landed him in the UFC Hall of Fame. So there’s no pressure on him to ‘defend the honor’ of MMA against the boxing invader. In fact, he’s a big boxing fan himself.
“I’ve always liked boxing and been a fan of it,” he said. “I tried to box when I was a kid, but that was the one sport my mom told me I couldn’t do. (Laughs) Now she thinks that’s pretty funny. But I grew up during the heyday of Muhammad Ali when I was a kid, with (Joe) Frazier, (George) Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard and all those huge fights happening through my youth and teenage years.”
Now Couture’s the equivalent of an Ali, Frazier, Foreman, or Leonard for younger fighters and fans, a surreal place to be for the 47-year old native of Everett, Washington. But he also went through some role reversal recently when he was the new kid on the block around action film icons like Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, and Bruce Willis while on the set of his new movie ‘The Expendables.’
“I grew up watching Sylvester Stallone movies like Rocky, Rambo, and all those, so to be able to play a part in one of his movies, especially with that great cast of guys, is pretty cool,” he said. “It was certainly a pinch me moment walking on set, especially that first time in Rio when all The Expendables came together for those first scenes. The whole set was electric, and everybody was fired up about it, so it was pretty neat. It was definitely a unique experience for me.”
So here’s the dilemma for most people: if you have a solid role in a major motion picture like that and the possibility of more down the road, does it get harder to drag yourself back to the gym daily for hours of torture that will culminate in James Toney trying to punch you in the face?
Again, a laugh from ‘The Natural’.
“I haven’t found it difficult at all. It’s been a nice break from the normal grind of training camp, but it hasn’t been a distraction and hasn’t been difficult at all.”
What’s the secret of the hold that the sport has on Couture then?
“I don’t know, I think it just becomes part of you,” he said. “You don’t feel right and don’t feel comfortable unless you’re training and in that environment. I’ve kinda gotten used to grinding it out and banging it out. It’s become a part of my life.”
Yet while Couture is understandably comfortable within the confines of the Octagon, it’s his job to take Toney out of his own comfort zone Saturday night, and if he does, it’s going to be a rough night for the former middleweight, super middleweight, and cruiserweight champ.
“It’s real important to take him out of where he’s comfortable and certainly out of that range of exchanging and striking, and it’s not some place where I really want to play around with him,” said Couture. “Statistically, if you look at what he’s done, 80 percent of his knockouts occurred when he was under 200 pounds. He hasn’t had a lot of time knocking out big guys, and with the bigger guys he’s kinda gotten used to them coming after him because he is smaller, and that allows him to use his shoulder roll and his head movement and all the things that he’s known for – that uppercut, left hook, and right hand. It’s obviously a lot different in mixed martial arts for a lot of reasons, and I can’t walk out and come to him the same way I would with some of my other opponents. I’ve got to make him extend himself and make him come after me a little bit, which I think is gonna be something definitely new for him.”
That’s not the only new thing Toney will be dealing with. Just for starters, he’ll have four ounce gloves, no shoes, wrestling, takedowns, jiu-jitsu, and kicks to deal with. And while lifelong wrestlers have been able to adapt striking into their games (see Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard, and Cain Velasquez, to name just three), history has shown that it’s a lot tougher for strikers to pick up solid wrestling techniques – or better put, to implement solid wrestling techniques.
“Strikers are capable of learning the wrestling – it just takes time,” said Couture. “There’s a muscle memory that comes from years and years of wrestling and it isn’t easy to pick up. It’s one thing to learn the technique by the numbers, and another thing to be able to execute it in real time against a resisting opponent. It seems, at least from my experience, that wrestlers have a particular mindset that they’ve had ingrained in them from the time they were young and learning wrestling technique, and they’ve applied that same mindset to the striking. And it’s still different, even for a wrestler, to learn the striking, but it seems to come easier going that way than going the other way for some reason.”
Most strikers have taken years to make the attempt and they still get taken down by superior wrestlers. Toney has had a mere few months, making this, on paper, an open and shut case for Couture should he survive Toney’s initial onslaught and get him to the mat. It’s the perfect recipe for your typical fighter to get a little overconfident. But Randy Couture is far from typical.
“I’ve certainly looked at the tape and I realize that James poses some interesting problems and is going to be very dangerous early on in this fight,” he said. “And if I get careless or reckless or am overconfident, he’s got the tools and the power to end the night real quick. I give him respect for that and I take that very seriously. So I don’t think there’s any way I can get careless or be reckless or overconfident in this fight. I’ve got to be sharp and I’ve got to be ready to go.”
And he always is.