The Breakdown: Randy Couture vs. Gabriel Gonzaga

The Breakdown: Randy Couture vs. Gabriel Gonzaga

UFC 74: Respect

If you’d have asked me what I thought the UFC Heavyweight Title fight on the August card would be at the beginning of the year, I would’ve said without a shadow of a doubt, Tim Sylvia vs. Mirko Cro Cop. Well, MMA is a funny old game, and in a year filled with stunning upsets, two of the biggest ones have come in the Heavyweight division, as first Sylvia lost his title in a lopsided decision against the 43-year old Randy Couture, while Cro Cop was knocked unconscious by his own weapon – a high kick to the head – by unheralded Brazilian Gabriel Gonzaga. And suddenly, we were left with a completely different, albeit just as interesting, title bout. So here’s the breakdown.

Name: Randy Couture
Nickname: The Natural
Born: Everett, Washington, USA
Fighting Out Of: Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
Height: 6’2”
Weight: 220lbs
MMA Record: 15-8-0
Style: Wrestling

Background: What can you say about Randy Couture that hasn’t already been said? A world-class wrestler, Couture has found more success since transitioning to MMA than arguably any other fighter originally from that field. Beginning his UFC career back at UFC 13 in 1997, Couture first captured the imagination of MMA fans by becoming the first man to defeat the ‘Phenom’, Vitor Belfort, later that year. Randy went on to win the UFC Heavyweight Title from Maurice Smith, and after a brief excursion to Japan that saw mixed success, he returned to the Octagon in 2000 and became the first man to capture a UFC title twice, as he regained his Heavyweight crown by stopping Kevin Randleman in the fourth round of their title bout. After two successful defences against Brazilian striker Pedro Rizzo, Couture would suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of a larger, equally skilled grappler in Josh Barnett. However, after testing positive for anabolic steroids, Barnett was stripped of the title and Couture would get a chance to regain it, facing off with Ricco Rodriguez. Another large, skilled grappler, Rodriguez was able to weather Couture’s early storm for the first two rounds of a titanic battle, and came back to stop Randy via strikes in the fifth and final round.

At thirty-nine years old and coming off two devastating losses, many fans saw the Rodriguez fight as the end of the road for Couture, but in the first of many points, Randy proved the doubters wrong. Always a smaller heavyweight at just over 220lbs, Couture cut down to the Light-Heavyweight limit of 205lbs midway through 2003 for a fight with the #1 Contender, Chuck Liddell. Most expected the dangerous striker Liddell to ‘ice’ Randy, but it was not to be, as Couture shocked everyone by showing a much-improved striking game, and took the fight to Liddell standing before stopping the kickboxer with strikes on the ground in the third round. With this win Couture captured the Interim Light-Heavyweight Title. A unification bout with the then-champion Tito Ortiz loomed, and as many doubters raised their heads again, but once more Couture proved them wrong, outwrestling and completely dominating Ortiz en route to a five-round shutout decision. Briefly losing the title via a fluke cut stoppage to Vitor Belfort did not slow Randy down, and in August 2004 he recaptured the gold, dominating Belfort as he had done seven years previous.

As UFC began to blow up into the mainstream pop culture in early 2005, Couture became one of the first fighters to step into the realm of superstardom. Coaching one of the teams on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter alongside old rival Chuck Liddell, Randy became arguably the most recognizable man in MMA. The first pay-per-view broadcast following TUF saw Couture defend his title against Liddell in a rematch, but despite smashing the UFC buyrate record at the time, the show was not a successful one for Randy, as he was knocked out by Liddell in the first round. Amidst a variety of personal problems including a looming divorce, Couture struggled to regain form in his comeback fight, needing two-and-a-half rounds to put away ageing wrestler Mike Van Arsdale, and in February, 2006’s rematch with Liddell, Randy was once again knocked out, this time in the second round. At fourty-two years old, Couture decided after the Liddell fight to hang up the gloves for good, and later in 2006 he was duly inducted into UFC’s Hall of Fame.

Following retirement, Couture eased into the role of a full-time trainer and colour commentator, but as in pro-wrestling, MMA retirements are never truly the end. When Brandon Vera’s contract hit a stumbling block in early 2007, Randy decided to do the unthinkable and return from retirement, stepping back into his old stomping ground of the Heavyweight division to take on champion Tim Sylvia. The doubters – including yours truly this time – again raised their ugly heads, questioning Couture’s judgement in stepping back into the heavyweight realm, especially against a man who, at 6’8” and 265lbs, was even larger than the men who had forced Randy down to 205lbs in the first place. But in one of the most unbelievable performances in UFC history, the fourty-three year old Couture was able to shock everyone by dominating Sylvia both standing and on the ground, claiming a five-round decision to once again take the Heavyweight Title. The only three-time Heavyweight champion, the only two-time Light-Heavyweight champion, and the only man to win titles in two different weight classes, Couture is as big an MMA legend as they come.

Strengths: Randy Couture is a world-class wrestler and uses his skill to full advantage in the Octagon. Unlike some other successful MMA wrestlers, Couture is equally skilled in both freestyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling, meaning that he can take an opponent down from practically any area, being as comfortable clinching and delivering a trip or bodylock takedown as he is shooting in from the outside with a double-leg. Couture has not yet faced an opponent who has been completely able to stop his takedowns, and once on the mat, Randy is brutal with his ground-and-pound, using a plethora of elbows, forearms and punches to damage his opponents. While Joe Rogan might insist that it is much better to pass guard in order to damage an opponent, Couture is one of those rare fighters who can do just as much damage inside an opponent’s guard, and he’s also dangerous with the front facelock position, throwing knee strikes to the body and shoulders. Randy’s submission game is a bit more of a question mark, simply because he rarely uses it, but he did use an anaconda choke to submit Van Arsdale, and he also held his own with grappling master Ronaldo Jacare in a pure-grappling match earlier in 2007.

Standing, Couture is also a surprisingly good kickboxer, often showing good footwork, timing, and angles, the best example of these being his first fight with Chuck Liddell. Randy also showed excellent head movement in his recent fight with Tim Sylvia, but his best weapon standing is the clinch game, as he is known to use a Greco clinch to open up with what he likes to call “dirty boxing” – short uppercuts, hooks, and rabbit punches from close quarters that wear down an opponent. This was used to devastating effect against Vitor Belfort. Couture’s cardio is known to be second-to-none inside the Octagon, and he has gone the full five rounds (twenty-five minutes) on multiple occasions with little difficulty.

Weaknesses: While Randy Couture’s actual skills are incredibly strong on paper, the question mark surrounding him is always going to be his advanced age. Couture will be fourty-four years old when he steps into the Octagon with Gabriel Gonzaga. While age won’t necessarily take away his wrestling skill or his mind for the game, it will almost certainly slow down his pace and dull his reflexes. This slower pace was the major factor in what allowed Liddell to knock him out in their last two encounters, and it was also the slower pace that affected him against Van Arsdale. Sylvia didn’t give him nearly as much problems as those two fighters did, but even against a man who’s sole offense in that fight was a heavy jab, Randy was exhausted by the third round and pulled through the final two with pure heart and the will to prevail. I have no doubt that Couture trained as hard as he ever has for the Sylvia fight; it was his advanced age that caused his cardio to be weaker than it has been in the past.

Couture’s other major weakness would appear to be with fighters who are naturally larger than him and who also have an equally strong grappling game. While Randy did have his moments against Barnett and Rodriguez, eventually the larger men were able to overpower him, put him in the bottom position where he is not really used to operating from, and from there they were able to pound Randy to a stoppage. Gabriel Gonzaga would fit the bill of said larger grappler.

Tactics?: Couture will most likely approach the Gonzaga fight in the same way that he approaches most of his fights. I expect him to look to wear Gonzaga down early by utilising the clinch and pummelling him inside early, before taking him to the ground and unleashing his ground-and-pound assault. Depending on how confident he is in his own conditioning, Randy may also want to weather the early storm and take Gonzaga into the uncharted waters that are the fourth and fifth – the championship – rounds.

Name: Gabriel Gonzaga
Nickname: Napao
Born: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Fighting Out Of: Ludlow, Massachusetts, USA
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 242lbs
MMA Record: 8-1-0
Style: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Background: One of the most accomplished grapplers in the world, Brazil’s Gabriel Gonzaga is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Wander Braga, and has seen success in many grappling competitions, being a four-time BJJ national champion, 2006 Mundials champion, and the runner up in the 2005 Abu Dhabi submission grappling tournament. Gonzaga made the transition to MMA in 2003, and put together a strong 5-1 record over the following two years, most of his wins coming in the Brazilian Jungle Fight promotion. In late 2005 he made his UFC debut, stopping Kevin Jordan in the third round with a superman punch, after one of the slowest and most boring fights in UFC history. After finding out about the horrible personal circumstances that surrounded Gonzaga’s debut (one of his baby twins passed away) most fans were willing to forgive the Brazilian’s lacklustre performance, and he performed far better the second time out, stopping fellow Brazilian Fabiano Scherner with strikes in the 2nd round of their undercard fight at last May’s UFC 60.

A scheduled September fight against UK-based Brazilian Mario Neto fell through, and the next time we saw Gonzaga was on the undercard of December’s UFC 66. There, he schooled undefeated wrestling-based Heavyweight Carmelo Marrero, stunning him with a left hook early before taking Marrero to the mat and running a BJJ clinic on him, eventually finishing with a textbook armbar from the mount late in the first round. ‘Napao’ was then given the unenviable task of facing former PRIDE superstar Mirko Cro Cop in his second Octagon appearance, with a shot at Couture’s Heavyweight crown on the line. In front of a sold out MEN Arena in Manchester, England, most expected Cro Cop to avoid Gonzaga’s ground skill and stop him on the feet, but instead Gonzaga surprised everyone, punishing Mirko on the ground with elbow strikes, before knocking him out standing with a right high kick to the dome, giving Cro Cop a taste of his own medicine. Suddenly Gonzaga became the new heavyweight to fear in the UFC’s once-shallow division.

Strengths: As I mentioned above, Gonzaga is undoubtedly a world-class submission grappler. Unlike Jeff Monson, for instance, who primarily wins his submission wrestling bouts by stifling his opponent’s game en route to a decision, Gonzaga is more of a submission-based player, and he’s tapped out the likes of Marcio ‘Pe De Pano’ Cruz in Abu Dhabi competition. In MMA he’s shown a very talented ground game, especially from the top position. He was able to absolutely own every aspect of the ground game against Carmelo Marrero, was tooling Kevin Jordan on the mat until he became fatigued in the second round, and before his conditioning betrayed him, was also having his way with the equally impressive grappler Fabricio Werdum in their 2003 bout. At 6’2”, 242lbs, Gonzaga is a large heavyweight and this makes him a powerful grappler who is difficult to shake once he gets the fight to the ground.

Of course, most recently Gonzaga has become known for his striking game. Training his Muay Thai game with Sityodtong’s Mark DellaGrotte, Gonzaga has looked skilled and dangerous standing in his UFC career thus far. Even before the Cro Cop bout, he had won two of his previous three fights with strikes, and his superman punch knockout of Kevin Jordan is one of the rare times I can recall that strike actually finishing a fight. He also picked apart Fabiano Scherner with relative ease, and then there is his latest accomplishment. While Cro Cop has been knocked out before, the way Gonzaga did it was as impressive as any knockout that UFC fans have seen – a whiplash right high kick to the side of the head that had Cro Cop down for around two minutes. Equally dangerous standing and on the ground, Gonzaga is a fully-rounded fighter.

Weaknesses: While I can’t recall seeing Gonzaga in trouble yet inside the confines of the UFC, his sole weakness would definitely appear to be his conditioning. His last three fights have ended before the six-minute mark, but in the fight before that, his conditioning looked extremely poor against Kevin Jordan, as he was sucking wind and looked exhausted halfway through the second round. Granted, you could definitely blame that on a lack of training following his personal tragedy, but it also stands that his sole loss in MMA, to Fabricio Werdum in 2003, was also down to poor cardio. Dominating early – Gonzaga even had Werdum mounted at one point – he ran out of gas and it was this that allowed Werdum to take over in the third round, where he stopped Gonzaga with strikes. With a larger frame that isn’t exactly one of the most ripped in MMA, against a known cardio freak like Couture Gonzaga could be in trouble if the fight reaches the fourth or fifth round. Tellingly, this is the first time that Napao will potentially go for the full twenty-five minutes.

And while his ground game is undoubtedly second to none in the grappling world, in MMA it’s a whole different ball game. We have yet to see Gonzaga on the bottom for an extended period of time, and against a wrestler the calibre of Couture that might change. It’s one thing to submit a man from your guard in submission grappling, but it’s another thing when that man is raining down punches and forearms onto your face.

Tactics?: Despite his recent success striking, I suspect Gonzaga will want to take Randy Couture out of his element, by using his superior size and strength to muscle the champion to the ground. From there, he will most likely use the same gameplan as Barnett and Rodriguez did – wear Couture down with strikes en route to a stoppage, or opening up the chance for a potential submission.

How It Breaks Down: Couture vs. Gonzaga is as intriguing a fight as any this year to me, primarily because it’s such a difficult one to call. In terms of sheer skill, things would suggest that Randy’s game plays right into Gonzaga’s hands. Gonzaga is a better submission grappler than Couture and he’s at least Randy’s equal standing. Being the larger man, he’s also one of the few people with the ability to put Randy on the bottom where he is at his most uncomfortable, and on past history Gonzaga fits the mould of the fighters who have given Couture the most problems. With Couture’s advanced age also a factor, it would appear that he has his work cut out for him. But that would be to doubt Randy Couture, which we have seen so many times in the past is a tremendous mistake.

Not only is Couture one of the most skilled fighters out there, he is also one of the smartest. Since when has Randy Couture come into a fight with a poor gameplan? The answer is never. Couture also has tremendous experience in the longer, more drawn out and tactical title fights. In fact just one of his previous twelve fights has been a non-title fight with the possibility of less than five rounds. With Gonzaga’s questionable cardio in the past, I have no doubt in my mind that if the fight goes into the fourth, fifth, or even the third round, it’s advantage Couture. A wrestler like Couture is also almost impossible to prepare for, as wrestlers of Randy’s calibre are so few and far between.

It’s a hard one to call, but I feel we’ll see it go one of two ways, that is if the fight ends before the third round, then it’ll certainly be Gonzaga taking it, either by striking stoppage on the ground or by submission. If the fight goes any longer than that, then I suspect it’ll be Couture’s hand that is raised in victory, either by a referee stoppage from strikes or a unanimous decision. My heart tells me not to bet against Couture, but in the end I’m going with my head. I think the larger, more powerful Gonzaga will force Couture onto his back early, where he’ll take over with strikes from the top en route to beating Couture into offering a submission late in the second round.

Verdict?: Gabriel Gonzaga by submission in the second round.

And, that’s that for the latest edition of ‘The Breakdown’. As always any criticism or feedback is welcome, and you can e-mail me at

Until next time….

Scott Newman