Show Business: Couture vs Sylvia

 Randy Couture, all smiles, climbed on the scale in front of a large crowd of cheering fans.

“222.5 pounds,” shouted announcer Joe Rogan. Couture, a natural light heavyweight, had bulked up for this fight.  The truth was that despite being a former Heavyweight Champion, Couture had probably always been too small to fight in that division and often when facing bigger men he ended up being manhandled.

Couture’s career was marked by extremes of both crushing defeats and scintillating victories.  This was a comeback for the 42-year-old MMA pioneer and if he lost, which is what most people in the know expected, it would most likely be his last fight.

Next the Champion, Tim Sylvia, lumbered from backstage to a chorus of boos from the fans in the arena.

“ No love for the big man?” Rogan egged the crowd before announcing“ 263.’”  When Sylvia stepped off the scale to face off with Couture he playfully extended his long left arm and put it on Couture’s shoulder to demonstrate two of his many physical advantages over the aging UFC legend—7 inches of height and 5 inches of reach.  Photographers snapped away and the two men slapped hands and hugged.  There was something about Sylvia’s body language, the way he carried himself, I thought as I watched from the press section: he was too friendly and lackadaisical, too unstressed and happy for the day before a big fight.

 

The night of the fight, the paid attendance was over 19,000, a record for UFC event.   Everything at the UFC flowed off the quality of their live shows.  They did something very smart, which boxing never wised up to, in regularly taking their product on the road.  They knew that with MMA if a person was curious enough to buy a ticket, once they’d seen it live, they stood a good chance of getting hooked.   UFC shows were very polished, with tight pacing, pitch perfect sound, and choreographed to keep the energy up throughout the event.  There were large video screens hung around the stadium, because if the action went to the ground it was next to impossible to tell what’s going on for the people sitting any distance from the cage.

The event would be 4 hours long and features 9 fights. The first 4 were “dark matches,” meaning that they would take place before the pay-per-view broadcast began.

Between the dark matches and the main card the lights went down and the opening chords of The Who’s Baba Oreilly started to play.  The jumbo screens played a highlight reel of some of the UFC’s greatest moments—Rich Franklin icing Nate Quarry with a straight left hand; Anderson Silva kicking some poor schmuck in the head from behind; and Matt Hughes’ comeback victory over Frank Trigg.   The song culminated with highlights from the three rounds of Griffin and Bonnar’s fight in 2005, a fight that was such a barnburner that people credit it with resurrecting the UFC and jump-starting the sport’s rebirth.

The song choice is an inspired one. Pete Townsend wrote it in 1971 about a Scottish farmer who traveling with his family through the wastes of a dystopian future England.  They’re heading for a mythical rock concert, which was somehow going to save everyone from spiritual indolence and social apathy. Experimental to say the least but I doubt the subject matter had anything to do with its selection. The important thing is that the tone of the song fit the sport, its athletes, and fans—rousing, working class, defiant.

 

The way the Sylvia vs. Couture fight was supposed to play out was that the aging former champion Couture would march out to a huge ovation.  He’d fight gamely as he tried to take Sylvia off his feet. Occasionally he’d get him down, which would illicit wild enthusiasm from the crowd, looking for any reason to cheer for its hero. The ever-tenacious Couture would put up a good fight for a round or two but then, once Sylvia began to exert his strength and size Couture would tire and slow down. Then it would just be a matter of time until one of Sylvia’s loose clubbing right hands touched the older man’s chin and ended it.

What actually happened was that at the opening bell Randy ran across the ring, threw an unexpected flipping lead kick at Sylvia’s ankle, followed by a right hand over the top that caught Sylvia square on the jaw.  The surprisingly aggressive punch knocked the bigger man down. Sylvia survived the opening onslaught but the fight would be go downhill for him from there as the wily Couture outwrestled and mauled him for 25 minutes, winning the Championship.  It was, as had been most of Couture’s victories, a deliberate grinding performance, but the crowd was on its feet the entire time.

There are three elements to the aesthetics of a fight.  The first has to do with the primal adrenaline rush of seeing violence. The second is how in a fight the nobler aspects of a person can be put on display for everyone to see. They become morality plays and when the right fighter wins it reinforces our images of the way the world should be.  The third is the appreciation of the athleticism, skill and technical prowess of the fighters.  Couture’s popularity was always due to the second category.  Watching him and seeing the reaction of the crowd to his victory, made me ponder the difference between talent and will. Talent can be remarked upon and admired but being, as it is, a kind of gift, it cannot be aspired to.  Talent worship was a fetish in sports journalism and was indicative of a widespread moral laziness in the society, I always thought.  It had little to do with the subjects I was interested in in my editorial work.   Acts of willpower, on the other hand, were something that everyman in his heart rightfully imagines himself capable of and it was these that were interesting to me.

 

A few days after the fight I got a call from Couture.  I’d left him a message congratulating him and asking him to call back.   I wanted him to be a contributor to Fight!

“I’m a huge fan of boxing and I used to love The Ring Magazine,” I told him. “I’m doing something like that but it will be younger and hipper. Imagine a smarter Maxim or a GQ with balls and based around MMA.”

He seemed to like the idea and we both agreed it was time for the sport and its athletes to be presented differently.

I told him I was only interested in what was admirable and worthy of emulation about the sport and its fighters.  He told me about an idea he had for a column called “Kinetic Chess” about the strategic aspects of grappling and how there was a defensive move to counter every offensive move and vice versa.   He’d clearly thought a lot about his sport and was just as eager as I was to show how MMA wasn’t just mindless brawling.  He mentioned the mental aspect of the game and how he could write about how positive mental frameworks can help not only in training but also in other aspects of life.  I agreed that it was a great idea and exactly the type of thing I was looking for from him. We talked about the MMA and its potential and how it could be on the verge of a big breakthrough.

“50 years from now, why shouldn’t you be considered a sports pioneer like Jim Brown, Babe Ruth or Jack Dempsey?”  I asked him.

“I’m going to have my manager call you and work it out,” Couture was apologetic pulling in his manager. “It sounds like a great idea but I hired him because I say yes to everything and there’s not enough time to do all the things I say yes to.”

I heard from his agent soon after and made him an offer but I guess it wasn’t enough because I never heard back from him or spoke to Randy again until I showed up at his gym two years later for a story.  By that time the magazine was making waves in its little corner of the publishing world and Couture was winding down his fighting career and breaking into movies.  I always regretted not having him on board with Fight! but would end up working with him on some other projects down the road.