Two local ultimate fighters become more like gladiators
He uses the word 'pure' to describe his sport, and when people meet Randy Couture, they encounter an ordinary man in the most abnormal and pugilistic arena.
'You don't know what people are thinking sometimes É if they think I'm going to stare them down and bite off their ear or what,' he says. 'I probably freak them out when I'm a normal guy. It's odd to me. Makes me feel funny, all these people being nice and gracious.'
Indeed, Couture, otherwise known as the most prolific gladiator on the planet, may not be more out of place, personality-wise, than as heavyweight champion of Ultimate Fighting Championship. He struts down the aisle toward the UFC caged ring, face expressionless, muscles bulging, sweat beading on his forehead, staring down an opponent who wants to pummel him back. Calm overcomes Couture.
Cages are for animals, are they not? No, even a nice guy with the talent to physically beat up another man belongs in there.
'I get more nervous for my wrestling matches than fights,' says Couture, a former Oregon State assistant coach and Oklahoma State and national team star. 'Walking down the ramp, all the pyrotechnics going off and the lights, the pay-per-view audience Ñ and realizing you're going through a chain-link fence, and they're going to lock the door behind you.
'They look at the cage and say it's brutal, a cockfight and blood sport. But, me, I see it as the safest venue in sports.'
Two of the best UFC competitors live in the Portland area. Couture, of Gresham, is an assistant wrestling coach at Centennial High School. Matt Lindland, the five-time U.S. wrestling champion and Olympic silver medalist, lives in Oregon City and co-owns USA Auto Wholesale on Southeast Stark Street.
In fact, in a building on the car lot, extreme fighters gather nearly every day to fight. Lindland takes off his shirt and tie and dresses in UFC gear, donning a set of tight shorts, two fingerless gloves and a mouthpiece. And, in comes Couture for his daily training, muscles popping out of his skintight T.
Couture, 7-0 in UFC, defended his championship last fall, forcing Pedro Rizzo to submit after punching him and making him bleed. Lindland, 4-0, has a bout set for March 22 in Las Vegas' MGM Grand Hotel against Pat Miletich. If he wins, Lindland gets a title shot at his weight class, middleweight.
So, how does one become an ultimate fighter? A sport once dominated by boxers and kick boxers has evolved to favor the wrestling stars, with rules changes now prohibiting head butts, kicking an opponent when he's down and striking repeatedly without an official's intervention.
Once a wrestler has you in the 'clinch,' as Lindland calls it, forget about getting out. The goal would be to keep the clinch, administer a chokehold or reel off as many punches and elbows possible to make the competitor tap out. By tapping out, a losing or injured fighter can end the bout immediately.
But, as cruel as the sport sounds, it has been cleaned up. Lindland can remember his first bout, when he delivered blow after blow, including a knee to the head, and the guy never fell. Later, the opponent told him he couldn't remember the last 10 minutes of the fight.
Ultimate fighting now uses rounds, like boxing, and scoring, like boxing. There are blood tests and CAT scans and many rule changes. Fighters have to defend themselves 'intelligently,' as the rule states, or the fight ends. Good thing, Couture says, because the UFC image had prompted many states to outlaw it.
The 1997 Oregon Legislature passed a law banning 'no holds barred' mixed martial arts fights. A UFC-style fight took place in Portland last Saturday after a local promoter Ñ the Full Contact Fighting Federation Ñ created a loophole in the law by banning a limited number of holds.
'I came (into UFC) in 1997, and that fight I didn't wear gloves,' Couture says. 'They had just instituted time limits, but you could still head-butt and kick a downed opponent.
'From a public perspective, we had to evolve, had to clean up the sport, make it more understandable and accepted.'
Lindland says, 'It would have died without rules. I liked it. I didn't mind. You could hold his hands and smash him with your head until he submits. A lot of blood from that.'
A crazy living
Ultimate fighters are not enraged animals, fueled by anger, dueling to the death. Much the opposite because many are former wrestlers who have been taught to never lose their cool, no matter the situation. For Lindland and Couture, the big adjustment has been being allowed to punch, elbow and kick.
'I don't think I'm too crazy,' says Lindland, a red, white and blue mouthpiece exposed with his smile, as he claps his gloves together.
'To be able to punch somebody,' he adds. 'How many times have you wanted to punch somebody? It's kinda fun, and it pays all right.'
Yet, some people in the wrestling community are not happy with the pair's divergence into extreme fighting. Couture says OSU coach Joe Wells frowned on it and said his participation in the sport would hurt recruiting.
'What I don't like is knocking somebody senseless,' Wells says. 'Kids love it. Parents don't.'
Even Lindland's friend, Dan Russell, questions why Lindland would want to get involved in it.
'He's a sick puppy,' Russell says, jokingly. 'He's not afraid to take a licking.
'One of the sad things is, wrestling is never going to be something where you make a living. (In) ultimate fighting, there's money, but it's missing out on the sportsmanship that the Olympics and world championships can offer. But they have to support their families.'
Lindland just signed a three-fight deal with UFC promoter Zuffa, which could pay him $80,000, if he wins each bout. Couture made $125,000 in his last fight, and his next in New Orleans in May, as champ, will be worth '$100,000 for showing up and $85,000 more for winning,' he says.
And, although Couture has retired from wrestling at age 38 after being a four-time U.S. Olympic team alternate, Lindland continues to wrestle. Last summer, he placed second in the world championships at 187.5 pounds, a weight higher than the level at which he competed in the Olympics. He lost 2-1, in overtime.
'It excites him,' Lindland's wife, Angie, says of ultimate fighting. 'It's an obsession. If there was no money involved (in fighting), he'd still do it.'
Lesson from 'The Natural'
Lindland and Couture are both married, with two children each. Their fighting club, Team Quest, also includes dozens of kids who go to the car lot and learn about wrestling.
Lindland still covets a world title, but 'there's a world championship in this sport, too,' he says of UFC. 'I'm 31 and I have kids, and I need to spend time with them. I have less time when my plate is full.'
So, he plans to leave wrestling out, for 2002 anyway.
Lindland gives up 40 pounds to the 6-1, 220 Couture. When he wrestles Couture and pushes him up against the wall and gets to the point where he can strike him Ñ they shadow punch, elbow and kick in practice Ñ he's accomplishing something.
'I got it good,' says Lindland, a Gladstone High product who wrestled in college at Nebraska. 'I got to move back to my hometown and work out with the best guy in the world.
'Randy's unbelievable,' he adds. 'His nickname is 'The Natural.' For one, because he's not on steroids. For two, he has adapted wrestling to this sport.'
Recently, Lindland forced Couture to tap out for the first time in their sparring together. 'Last summer, I choked him unconscious, but he didn't tap out,' Lindland says. Couture says, almost defiantly: 'I've had to tap out before. There's no dishonor in that.'
Couture laughs off boxing and pro wrestling as gimmicky with pre-bout banter.
'Our sport is very pure,' he says. 'Not corrupted by money and endorsements.'
Yet, Couture has stood to benefit the most. He will be appearing in ads for the 24 Hour Fitness chain, and he has appeared in an HBO series.
And you may have noticed a recent Nike ad featuring the theme of athletic battle scars and a man with a puffy-looking extremity on the side of his head.
Looks like a cauliflower, they say in his business,
'That was my ear,' says Couture.