|UFC hall of famer Randy Couture meets the press at the River Cree Casino March 19, 2010. (JORDAN VERLAGE/QMI Agency)
There are fighters with better records. There are better sluggers and, yes, even better wrestlers.
But when Randy "The Natural" Couture hangs up the half-gloves and board trunks for the final time after his UFC 129 fight in Toronto this month, the UFC will have lost its greatest ambassador.
It's not the first time Couture has retired. But with his 48th birthday just two months away, it seems certain the era of the college wrestler who helped propel the UFC from bar-brawls-for-the-curious to a bona fide sport, will be officially finished. The April 30 bout with Lyoto "Dragon" Machida will be his 30th fight as a pro mixed martial artist. His record of 19-10 is decent, but hardly a standout.
But for a sport fighting for legitimacy, the soft-spoken, eloquent, former college wrestling coach and military man became the face of the UFC.
A three-time Olympic team alternate, Couture helped lay the foundation on which today's UFC is built.
He defended the sport from the great unwashed who used words like "human cockfighting" to describe the UFC.
Along the way, he's given fans some memorable moments. Here are five defining moments in Couture's career:
It was May 30, 1997 when Couture made his debut at UFC 13 in Augusta, Ga., against 300-lb. Fin Tony Halme. At the opening bell, he shot a double leg takedown, worked the ground until he took Halme's back and cinched a rear-naked choke within one minute. In typical Couture style, he shook his opponent's hand when the fight had ended.
It was Aug. 25, 2007 and fresh off a retirement-comeback victory against Tim Sylvia when Couture took on Gabriel Gonzaga. While blocking a high kick from the Brazilian, Couture broke his left arm. He ghting and was able to earn a TKO due to punches despite having one of the bones in his forearm clearly snapped.
It was March 3, 2007 and Couture's first fight back since retiring the previous year. Much was made of the 43-year-old restarting his MMA career so late in life. Sylvia -at 6-foot-8 -towered over the aging Couture. With his first punch, Couture dropped the Maine giant and s dominance for all five rounds. He won every round on the judges' cards and made history as the UFC's first three-time champ.
It was UFC 44 on Sept. 26, 2003 and the former heavyweight champ decided to move down to 205 lbs. to take on Tito Ortiz. Couture owned the trash-talking Ortiz for five rounds and in the closing moments of the fight, turned Ortiz over and spanked him -much to the crowd's delight.
The Couture/Chuck Liddell trilogy will forever hold a place in UFC history. With each fighter having taken one fight, the rubber match was -at the time -the most hyped UFC event in history. UFC 57 took place in Las Vegas on Feb. 4, 2006. Liddell knocked Couture out in the second round and in his post-fight interview, Couture announced his first retirement.
There are plenty of other highlights, most from outside the Octagon. He broke ranks with the UFC in late 2007 and was involved in a heated war of words with president Dana White over fighter pay and the fight club's inability to sign Fedor Emelianenko -at the time considered the greatest heavyweight on the planet.
But outside of that dark period, Couture will always be remembered as a gentleman.
He was always agreeable to an interview. He always engaged fans and took the time to sign autographs and pose for pictures.
For those lucky enough to have spent even a small bit of time around the UFC's greatest ambassador, he can best be summed up in two words: Pure Class.
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ON THE CARD
* A sold-out UFC 129 goes from Toronto's Rogers Centre on April 30 with Georges St. Pierre taking on Jake Shields for the welterweight title. Champ Jose Aldo will meet Canada's Mark Hominick for the featherweight belt and Randy Couture will take on Lyoto Machida.
* UFC 130 goes from Las Vegas May 28. The main event will feature a rematch for the lightweight title between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard and Matt Hamill will take on Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. The event is available on pay-per- view.
* The Ultimate Fighter 13 finale will go June 4 featuring a fight between Clay Guida and Anthony Pettis as well as the TUF 13 finalists. The event will be aired free on Spike-TV and Rogers Sportsnet.