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Blink of an eye

• It takes years to train for a championship, and 48 seconds to lose Local hero, Ultimate Fighter bets on fluke-free replay

LAS VEGAS, Nev. Ñ It's 1:51 a.m. Sunday, and two empty beer bottles sit in front of Randy Couture, as he relaxes with family and friends.

A partyer only in days gone by, Couture had promised to have one beer after his Ultimate Fighting Championship title bout against Vitor Belfort at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

Well, one Heineken turned into two, which anyone could understand after the turn of events a few hours before.

One eyeball oozes disappointment. A patch on the other eye says it all.

'It's not about the title,' a forlorn Couture says. 'It's about how it happened. It was a fluke thing. It's like sinking a 500-foot putt. It never happens.'

All the hours training, all the days thinking about Belfort, all the buildup, all for naught. A punch by Belfort -48 seconds into the fight grazed Couture on the left eye, scratching the cornea and cutting the lower eyelid. The fight started at 9:08 p.m. Saturday, and two minutes later Dr. Margaret Goodman stopped it.

At that point, boos cascade down from many of the 11,405 in attendance. One senses the collective curse of the estimated 150,000 who purchased the UFC pay-per-view. And how many gamblers saw their thousands disappear in 48 agonizing seconds?

Angst crosses Couture's face, but not for long. He approaches the exuberant Belfort, hugs him and raises the hand of the new UFC light heavyweight champion. Bad luck, yes. Gracious warrior, always.

Couture trains in Portland and lives in Clackamas County with his wife, Tricia, and young son, Caden. A nicer, more respectful and classier athlete you might never meet.

It's 2 p.m. Friday, the day before the fight in Vegas, and the 16 fighters who will compete on the UFC card attend the weigh-in at the Luxor Hotel. The predominately macho and bodacious fans ogle their stars.

Off go the sweats, and up to the scale steps the sculpted Couture, the 40-year-old marvel fresh off losing 8 pounds in 50 minutes to make weight, under 205 pounds. No kidding. A UFC veteran and world-class wrestler, he knows how to do it properly.

Couture, with matted hair, stares straight ahead, and the penetrating, gladiator look does not escape you. He flexes muscles for effect, titillating the fans. Couture doesn't get into the showmanship, the hype or the Vegas scene, but he plays along.

'He's such a pro,' says Matt Lindland, his friend and training partner. 'Nothing throws him off.'

Friends gather for action

A pilgrimage of well-wishers visit Room 7334 at Mandalay Bay on Friday afternoon, and phones ring about every five minutes. Couture loves the company. He had spent all week training and doing interviews. On 'Jimmy Kimmel Live,' the host teased him about his cauliflower ears, saying, 'Looks like there's some broccoli in there, too.'

Jeff Lind, one of several friends who grew up with Couture in suburban Seattle, came from McCarran Airport, where he ran into Belfort fans. Lind good-naturedly jawed with them, and talked about when Couture beat Belfort, then 19, six years ago. 'They said Vitor's a lot more mature now,' Lind says. 'And I said, 'Yeah, but it's not like Randy's at home eating Cheetos.''

Indeed, Couture twice won the UFC heavyweight title after that. And he pretty much immortalized himself in the fight game by besting favored light heavies Chuck Lidell and Tito Ortiz after going down in weight class in 2003.

Still, buddy Rob Anderson reminds him of their youth. 'You know the only thing I can kick Randy's ass in?' he says. 'Back then, if there were 20 guys in a race and I finished 19th, he'd be 20th.'

Couture, an All-American wrestler at Oklahoma State and four-time Olympic alternate wrestler, erupts in laughter. Good therapy, laughter is.

The affable athlete

His cell phone rings, and Couture answers it. 'Hey, Dustin, what's going on?' he says. He chats, and then hangs up. 'I have no idea who that was,' he says.

It was a fan. Couture did not lip off. Didn't hang up. Just chatted. 'Best part of the business is getting to meet people,' he says.

It's Saturday, fight day, and Couture munches on spinach leaves, downs a supplement drink and gets a massage from longtime friend and chiropractor Ryan Parsons. He got massages every day, sometimes two a day, for two weeks leading up to the fight.

'I'll go home Sunday and go through withdrawals,' he says.

Parsons says Couture's body and conditioning haven't changed in the eight years he has known him. 'He's a freak,' Parsons says, echoing what most people say about Couture. 'He's the way every man should be, but most athletes don't take care of themselves.'

Tricia Couture watched her husband go from poor amateur wrestler to somebody who made more than $500,000 in his most recent UFC contract. His next, three-fight contract Ñ two guaranteed Ñ could pay him $675,000. He will fight again; his eye injury should be better by week's end.

Couture made $120,000 for Saturday's fight and would have earned another $80,000 by winning. He jokes that he wouldn't fight for free, after wrestling for free for years.

His wife shakes her head when talking about his calm demeanor, in and around fights. 'He's been in so many big matches,' she says. 'It's not that he doesn't take it seriously É but he takes the emotional element out of it. You can't rattle his cage.'

Couture doesn't let the title 'champ' go to his head. 'His perspectives haven't changed at all,' Tricia says. 'He's one of the gentlest souls I've ever met. He just loves to compete. That's all it is.'

Odds meet with equanimity

Couture and his crew make their way to the dressing room. He thanks the elevator operator, he thanks people for opening doors for him, he greets strangers.

Moments before, one of his entourage, lets loose a secret. 'I put four grand down on Randy,' he says. In the gambling Mecca, Couture hardly pays attention to odds and wagers, but he does hear an oddsmaker on television pick the much younger Belfort, 25, to win, despite 2-1 house odds on Couture.

'Damn it,' Couture says, mockingly heartbroken. 'They've never said that before.' His buddies laugh.

For 3 1/2 hours before fight time, Couture watches other bouts on in-house TV and rarely speaks. His eyes are piercing, sometimes soft, as when Kyle Maynard enters the room. He's in a wheelchair, with deformed legs and no arms below his elbows.

'Randy's my hero,' the Atlanta teenager and prep wrestler says. 'There's nobody in the world who has more intensity and heart.'

'Freakiest thing'

It's 9 p.m., and Couture struts down the aisle, followed by Lindland, Dan Henderson, Robert Follis and Nate Quarry. He waves to the crowd and smiles Ñ just having fun, as always. Belfort enters the ring, wearing a T-shirt memorializing his sister, Priscila, who has been missing since Jan. 8 in their native Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Ñ feared kidnapped. Belfort will fight in her honor.

The fighters meet with referee John McCarthy. Couture winks at his combatant. Chuck Norris, among the Hollywood stars in attendance, looks on. A frenzy builds. The crowd favors Couture, the grizzled old pro. The bell rings. The fight, scheduled for five rounds at five minutes per, is under way. Most anything goes, other than head butts, eye gouges, biting, spitting and a few other acts.

Couture punches and kicks to attempt to set up a hard right hand, but Belfort quickly counters. His left hook clips Couture in the left eye, and he pushes Couture against the cage.

Couture hangs on to avoid any other punishment, wincing and trying to blink. Something's wrong. His left eyelid stops working. McCarthy notices the injury and halts the action. In an instant Goodman stops the fight.

'Freakiest thing I've seen happen in our sport,' McCarthy says.

Belfort accepts the championship belt and then says: 'I feel bad. Wasn't his fault, wasn't my fault. Randy's a champion and will always be a champion.'

Couture hustles back to the dressing room, and pandemonium ensues as his people get him prepared to go to the hospital for stitches. A seam on Belfort's glove did the damage. 'He got me right in the fold of the eye, a critical place,' Couture says later. 'If it wasn't stitched up properly, it would damage the eyelid and it wouldn't close properly.'

Because Belfort struck with a punch, the bout could not be ruled a no-contest, Couture says. But everybody conceded the fluke factor involved. The UFC already has talked about a rematch, probably in June.

'You train that hard and feel you're prepared, and then something silly happens,' Couture says, showing rare frustration. 'But the fact that I'm getting a rematch. É I'll start thinking about that right away.'

Before he leaves the Mandalay Bay, Couture gets another visit from Belfort. 'I don't feel like I deserve this. I don't feel like I'm winning,' he tells Couture.

'It's all part of the game,' Couture tells him. 'Anything can happen. Best of luck.'

Contact Jason Vondersmith at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..