For Randy Couture his fight with “UFC vs. Boxing” superfight with James Toney was no sideshow, indeed it was the match that ended his first prolonged absence from being the centre of attention in the mixed martial arts world. The rapturous support he received from the Boston crowd, the saturation media coverage and the commonly made assertion that his fight was “the real main event” would have been all the sweeter after the tepid response to his previous two fights.
His return to the light heavyweight division at UFC 105 did a disappointing rating as a Spike TV special while his headlining match against Mark Coleman at UFC 109 was the least purchased non-international UFC pay per view of recent times. His performances also failed to fully impressed, with the British crowd tiring of his stifling Greco-Roman tactics against Brandon Vera and many booing Couture’s victory, believing that he had lost what was a very close fight. While he was comfortably able to defeat an overmatched Coleman, the contrast with his performances against Brandon Vera and Antonio Nogueria seemed to confirm many people’s suspicion that ‘The Natural’ had been struggling to overcome significant physical disadvantages. Some also started to argue that Couture was the beneficiary of sympathetic matchmaking from a UFC keen to have him fight for a sixth world title, however this is unreasonable given the limited options at Joe Silva’s disposal during last winter’s injury crisis. What couldn’t be argued against was that Couture’s star had fallen, with the five-time world champion struggling to capture the attention of a new generation of fans.
As smart out of the Octagon as he is in it, Couture sensed the way things were going and started campaigning for the chance to be the fighter to face former three-weight boxing world champion James Toney. Dana White not only obliged but made the two’s match the promotional centerpiece of the organization’s eagerly anticipated debut in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. The fans that had failed to respond to his most recent fights readily accepted Randy Couture as the homesport hero against Toney. And Couture did not disappoint, making short work of Toney, dominating him on the ground and choking him out after only three minutes.
The challenge for the UFC is to book a match for Couture that capitalizes on this resurgence. It had been widely assumed that Mirko Cro Cop would face Couture in the headlining fight of the UFC’s return to Germany. This would be the long awaited battle between the sport’s most successful kickboxer against its most revered wrestler. Both fighters are also extremely marketable in Germany, with Cro Cop attracting support from local and travelling Croatian fans while Couture speaks fluent German after being stationed there whilst in the American army. But there are significant problems with this fight including the possibility that Cro Cop won’t be able to fight just six weeks after facing Frank Mir at UFC 119 and the fact that it would require Couture to once again fight at heavyweight.
The last point is key; Couture has talked about wanting to have one last shot at a world title before he finally retires after a glittering career. Fighting Cro Cop does nothing to move Couture into world title contention, indeed a second heavyweight in succession would undermine Couture status as a leading challenger for the World Light Heavyweight Title. It is also clear that the fans are more interested in seeing Couture when he’s in a high stakes match. While ‘legends’ fights against both Coleman and Nogueria were eagerly anticipated by hardcore fans they failed to excite casual fans. This is particularly important given the fact that UFC 122 will be airing on Spike the same night that Manny Pacquiao faces Antonio Margarito, with the UFC keen to avoid a repeat of the disappointing performance of UFC 105 against Pacquiao vs. Cotto.
It is therefore time to put Randy Couture in the high stakes matchups that he thrives on and the fans respond to. With most of the top contenders tied up in the light heavyweight division there is one only big name opponent available for Couture, Rashad Evans. Evans would be a stern test for Couture, with the younger man being both quicker and stronger. He also incorporates many of the tactics that Couture brought into MMA, most notably his frequent use of the clinch against the cage as a tool to wear down his opponents. But it would be a winnable fight for Couture, with ‘The Natural’ well positioned to exploit Evans’ suspect boxing and poor conditioning. However standing in the way of the fight is the state of the world title scene at 205Ibs.
Evans earned a championship shot by defeating Jackson at UFC 114 but with champion Shogun Rua now unlikely to return until next summer he’s made it clear that he’s determined to wait until then rather than risk losing in a non-title fight. He has however made it clear that he’s willing to compete in an interim title fight. While the UFC is rightly criticized for being too quick to create interim titles, if Shogun really is out until next summer then they should move to crown an interim champion as soon as possible. A year is too long to let a division drift without direction, especially when the number one contender is refusing to risk his title shot. Evans-Couture would guarantee a credible, marketable interim champion that would be well placed to defend the title against a top contender in the spring before facing Shogun upon his return in the summer.
Randy Couture vs. Rashad Evans for the Interim Light Heavyweight Title is the right match for both fighters, UFC 122 and the light heavyweight division. It would ensure that the division doesn’t effectively spend a whole year ‘on ice’ with fighters having nothing to fight towards with both the champion and the number one contender both absent from the Octagon. It would ensure that the event has a high-profile main event that captures the attention of fans both in Germany and in America. Should Evans win it would give him even greater legitimacy in the eyes of the fans, while if Couture won it would be yet another magical moment in the legendary career of the most decorated fighter in UFC history.
Tags: Mirko Cro Cop, Mixed Martial Arts, Randy Couture, Rashad Evans, shogun rua, UFC 122, UFC Light Heavyweight division