New arena brings fighter ultimate reward
Special to The Seattle Times
His wife was sick to her stomach as she sat at ringside. His mother was crying as she watched from home.
Randy Couture wondered, "What have I gotten myself into?"
The 1981 Lynnwood High School graduate had made a name for himself as one of the country's finest Greco-Roman wrestlers, but on May 20, 1997, he entered a totally different ring. Couture was competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
There was no easing into the sport. His opponent, 300-pound Tony Halme, vowed to "rip his arms off." At the time, UFC billed itself as "the world's most violent sport" and had few rules to prevent him from trying to carry out his promise.
"I was scared to death that night," recalled Couture's mother, Sharan Courounes, of Mill Creek. "I was hyperventilating. I was listening to what his opponent was saying and it really shook me up."
But Halme's bluster was mostly just that. Couture won by submission and, in the process, discovered he had a gift.
Fast forward. It's Nov. 2 and Couture has just defended his heavyweight title in Las Vegas by beating Pedro Rizzo by TKO. The money's good — he earned $125,000 for the championship — and he gets noticed. During an Ultimate Fighting bout in September that he attended as a fan, he attracted as much attention as any celebrity — including Mike Tyson and Carmen Electra — in the audience of the sold-out event at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
"I didn't make much money in wrestling," said Couture, a 38-year-old father of two. "I'm making a decent living now as a fighter. This is what I do with my life now."
When UFC began in 1993, it was little more than a back-alley brawl. The rules? Only eye gouging and biting were out. The sport, which has become popular on pay-per-view television, has evolved and now has less gore and requires more skill.
"Ultimate Fighting is very technical, becoming more about skill all the time," said Couture, 7-0 in UFC. "It's about being able to defend yourself."
Ultimate fighters can win by knockout, submission, having a referee or doctor stop a fight or by judges' decision. There are five, five-minute rounds in championship fights.
Couture's heart is still in wrestling. He's an assistant coach at Centennial High School in Gresham, Ore., where he lives with his wife and daughter. He also teaches wrestling and martial arts at night.
"Is he the greatest assistant coach in the world in high-school wrestling?" said Vern Olsen, Centennial's former coach. "If he's not, he's awfully close.
"Back in the old days, when the coach told you something, you did it," Olsen said. "Kids now want to know why they are doing it, and Randy has a ready answer. He brings new cutting-edge stuff to young wrestlers."
"You go to clinics to watch what Randy brings to our program every day," said Trent Kroll, Centennial's first-year head coach.
Couture also trains and teaches at the Team Quest Combat Club in Gresham. The club, a converted garage with a few mats thrown down, is dark, damp and light on frills. Some Centennial wrestlers get in extra training there.
"He'll spend forever working with you," said Brody Porterfield, a Centennial wrestler and one of Oregon's top 189-pounders. "He gives you all the time he has to work on your wrestling."
He's a wrestler right to his cauliflower ears, which he wears proudly.
"In some countries, they (cauliflower ears) get you to the front of the line," said Couture. "I could get them fixed, but there's a status thing to show you are a warrior."
After graduating from Lynnwood, Couture spent six years in the Army, where a coach got him hooked on Greco-Roman, a style of wrestling that focuses on the upper body.
He moved on to collegiate power Oklahoma State, where he was a three-time All-American, finished as a NCAA runner-up twice and was part of two national championship teams. He went on to win four national Greco titles. The Olympics appeared to be a good bet.
In 1988, '92 and '96, Couture went to the U.S. Olympic Trials. Three trips, zero spots. The 1996 shortfall proved devastating because he was favored to make the U.S. team.
"I expected to win in 1996," said Couture. "I was ready to go to the Olympics, get my medal and move on with my life. It was a real disappointment."
Couture often questioned himself about falling short in 1996. He decided to push on for one last try, aiming for the 2000 Sydney Games. But Greco-Roman had to share time with Couture's new meal ticket, Ultimate Fighting. Couture won four fights in 1997, capturing the heavyweight title when he defeated Maurice Smith by majority decision in December 1997 in Japan. He was named Full Contact Fighter of the Year.
He wouldn't return to the UFC for nearly three years, concentrating instead on wrestling. But the Olympic dream died for good when Couture lost in a wrestle-off to Jason Klohs in August 1999.
Couture returned to the UFC on Nov. 17, 2000, defeating Kevin Randleman when the referee stopped the fight.
"It was great to be back," said Couture. "I knew it was time to move on and make the transition into full-time fighting."
Couture's No. 1 weapon is to take opponents to the mat, where he introduces them to his wrestling skills. But one-dimensional fighters are quick road kill in the UFC.
He's earned the nickname "The Natural" because he quickly learned the skills of mixed martial arts. He has thunder in both hands when he punches. As a kid, he would sneak over to the Lynnwood Elks Club to box. His introduction to the "Sweet Science" was short.
"My mom made me quit," said Couture. In the Army, he said he laced on the gloves for all of three weeks.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Couture has made several opponents submit through his punching prowess. But Couture largely credits his mental approach to his UFC success.
"It's about being relaxed, focused before a fight," said Couture. "You are already jacked up by the nature of the sport."
Couture's new life has grown on his family.
"I still get scared when he fights, but being a former athlete helps me," said Tricia, a nurse practitioner who met her husband while playing volleyball at Oregon State, where Couture was an assistant wrestling coach from 1993 to 1998.
"The competitive side in me comes out and I want him to win."
Couture's children have inherited some of his physical prowess. His son, Ryan, a 135-pounder from Woodinville, placed third two years ago in the Class 4A state championships and is now a sophomore at Western Washington. Aimee, 17, teaches martial arts at the Team Quest Combat Club.
Couture says he will likely not compete professionally again before June but is content to spend time with his first love.
"Coaching at this level is a refreshing change," he said. "The kids get so excited to wrestle every day."