UFC 105 win shows Couture won't be too exciting
The big debating point after Saturday's UFC 105 was Randy Couture's
controversial victory over Brandon Vera and what the future holds
for the multitime UFC champion. In his first fight outside of North
America in almost a decade, Couture managed to earn a close fight
by unanimous decision despite Vera, UFC commentator Joe Rogan and
many in the crowd believing that Vera had done enough to defeat the
This was Couture's return to the light heavyweight division and was his chance to prove that away from the super-heavyweights that increasingly dominate the heavyweight division he could still be a contender within the UFC. The move down in weight was a tremendous risk as he would lose the speed and conditioning advantage that had helped him defeat Tim Sylvia and Gabriel Gonzaga. Against quicker fighters such as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria and even Brock Lesnar, Couture had struggled as he couldn't use his speed and footwork to effectively work in the clinch or the pocket while avoiding getting hit. A move down to light heavyweight means Couture fighting against even faster opponents and having to change his style to mitigate his opponents' speed advantage.
And Saturday, he did precisely that although even he had to admit that his tactics were not entertaining to watch. As he had hinted at in his prefight interviews, Couture focused on using his wrestling to wear down Vera. The second there was an opening, he was going for the clinch or takedown, pushing up against the cage and just wearing Vera down. Now that is a tactic that Couture has used repeatedly in his previous fights but the extent to which he avoided the striking game in the first two rounds and his failure to remain active in the clinch was different. And whereas usually Couture's charisma and fan-favorite status stops the fans getting bored, the Manchester fans tired of these tactics by the second round and repeatedly called for the fighters to be separated.
The problem is that Couture can't win any other way. He is 46 years old and he cannot risk getting drawn into a brawl because he no longer has the speed or the resilience to stay out of his comfort zone for long. Like Lesnar and Nogueria, Vera was able to get hard shots in on Couture throughout the fight and really should have finished him when he got the knockdown off a knee to the head in the second round. Unlike the other two, he wasn't able to dictate the pace of the fight or control where it took place. The consequence of that failure was that Couture was able to wear Vera down to the point where in the third round he finally felt confident enough to put some boxing combinations together and become more active in the clinch.
When the buzzer went at ringside, my snap judgment was that Couture had lost the fight by 29-28 with the last round being very even and being decided largely on Vera getting the one takedown of the round. However taking the fight as a whole I am struck by the coherence of Couture's strategy and the single-minded way he implemented it. Vera did cause more damage but it was Couture who dictated where the fight took place. And toward the end of the fight, Vera was the one who was visibly tiring, suggesting that the wrestling that had so infuriated the fans had been effective in wearing down Vera.
But as we look toward to the next Couture fight (which may well be a shot at the light heavyweight title) I feel increasingly uneasy. At his peak Couture was a rounded fighter who intelligently used his wrestling as the foundation to an effective and entertaining mixed martial arts fighting style. As his age finally catches up with him, he is becoming an increasingly limited fighter who cannot comfortably fight outside his ever-decreasing comfort zone. The whole evolution of mixed martial arts is of fighters becoming more comfortable in a variety of different styles and developing new ways to merge different martial arts into a coherent fighting style. At his best Couture was able to do that but now he is forced to fight a slow, Greco-Roman wrestling match to avoid his chin being tested by a fighter who hits harder or his conditioning being tested by a faster fighter. When it works its enough to keep him competitive with the very best but it hardly marks him out as a the elite fighter he once was.
Today's Randy Couture has the same grasp of strategy that he always had. He is the best in the world when it comes to thinking about a fight and developing a strategy that will get him the victory. But as we saw Saturday that strategy is becoming increasingly unappealing to mask his physical limitations. His fighting style is slipping dangerously close to self-parody as he threatens to become the limited, boring wrestler that his critics always accused him of being. I don't want to see any fighter end his career undermining his own legacy, let alone a fighter who has achieved as much for this sport as Couture. With his first victory in over two years, Couture will step into the octagon again, but perhaps he shouldn't.