It is amazing how often sports come full circle.
UFC 109 won’t be the first time that Randy Couture and Mark Coleman have tested their athletic prowess against each other. They first clashed in a freestyle wrestling match at the 1989 Olympic Festival at Oklahoma State.
Yes, 21 years ago. Coleman won that contest by a single point.
Seven years later, Coleman was the Godfather of Ground and Pound, dominating this evolving sport called The Ultimate Fighting Championship with what was then a seemingly unbeatable a mixture of wrestling and ground strikes. His debut in the UFC was an unforgettable one, as he won three fights in a single night to become the tournament champion of UFC 10.
Couture made his UFC debut just under a year later. Coleman was, by then, the inaugural UFC Heavyweight Champion after having won a second tournament, this time at UFC 11, and then defeating Dan Severn at UFC 12.
Not to be outdone, Couture also won a tournament in his UFC debut, stopping two men in just over a combined four minutes at UFC 13. His style was somewhat familiar to Coleman’s because both men were crossover athletes with impressive amateur wrestling pedigrees, except that Couture mixed in much better boxing, executed most of his takedowns from the clinch, rather than shooting in, and did not have nearly as ferocious ground and pound.
Shortly after Couture’s debut, Maurice Smith snatched the title from Coleman at UFC 14 and then turned around and lost it to Couture at Ultimate Japan 1 later that same year. Thus, the stage was set for Couture to defend against Coleman in 1998. That bout was ultimately derailed due to injury and, for a myriad of reasons, their careers diverged at that point.
On Saturday night, Couture and Coleman turn the clock back more than a decade and finally square off in mixed martial arts’ ultimate proving ground—the Octagon. Oh yeah, this fight also just so happens to be the first bout in history between active UFC Hall of Fame members, so there is a little history to be made, as well.
Let’s take a look behind the numbers.
Ok, let’s deal with this one quickly and move on. Both men are in their mid 40s, with Couture clocking in at 46 and Coleman at 45. For the first time in quite awhile, Father Time will not be a factor for either man because they are finally competing against someone who is equally long in the tooth.
Nonetheless, if we look at how age has impacted their respective strengths and weaknesses, one must give the nod in this category to Couture, despite the fact that he is 18 months older than his foe. The reason is a simple one: Coleman’s game has always been predicated on double- and single-leg takedowns, which relies on explosion. Couture, by contrast, has always been a clinch-first fighter who takes down opponents with Greco-Roman throws and high-crotch takedowns, rather than shooting in from the outside.
Aside from that, age shouldn’t play any factor at all.
The bout is being contested at the light heavyweight limit of 205 lbs. Thus, the two men will be within a pound or so of each other when they step on the scales 30-ish hours before the fight. Regardless, size will likely be a factor in this fight.
Even in their heavyweight days, Coleman was a bigger, thicker fighter. His frame always carried much more muscle and weight, despite Couture enjoying the slightest advantage in height. That was an advantage for the powerhouse wrestler in his heavyweight days, but it could very well be a hindrance on Saturday night because Coleman has to work harder to make the weight. And for a guy who isn’t known for having the deepest gas tank, working hard to make weight could impact his performance.
Couture makes the light heavyweight limit without any trouble at all. He is an expert at cutting weight—something Coleman returned to in 2009 for the first time since his amateur wrestling days. That exercise will takes its toll more on Coleman than Couture.
On the surface, this appears to be a wash. Couture has 27 professional fights under his belt, including 21 trips to the Octagon. Coleman is a veteran of 26 professional fights, with 25 of those coming under the bright lights of the UFC or PRIDE Fighting Championships. His lone other professional fight occurred at Bushido Europe, which was essentially a PRIDE card.
That seems pretty even, right?
Yes and no. Yes, the two men have roughly equal professional experience, but Couture is a grizzled veteran at 205 lbs. He has competed eight times at that weight, including six championship bouts. He left the division in early 2006 after a knockout loss to then-champion Chuck Liddell—the second such knockout suffered at the hands of “The Iceman”—for a multi-year return among the heavyweights. To his credit, Couture kept his weight down as a heavyweight, basically fighting at his walking around weight from his light heavyweight days, so returning to the division against Brandon Vera at UFC 102 was no big deal.
Coleman made his debut at 205 lbs at UFC 93 on January 17, 2009, after a career spent at heavyweight. He quickly gassed in that fight, ostensibly due to the difficulties experienced from the weight cut, since he appeared very gaunt at the weigh-ins one day earlier. Nonetheless, the former champion put on one heck of a show, earning Fight of the Night honors in the face of a third-round technical knockout loss to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Coleman looked much better physically in his only other light heavyweight bout. His body looked like it had adjusted to the weight the day before his UFC 100 bout against Stephan Bonnar, and his performance benefitted, as he was able to control the former Ultimate Fighter star for three rounds en route to his first 205-lb win.
I expect Coleman to look even better at Friday’s weigh-ins than he did at UFC 100, and I think that his performance will improve even more. No matter, nothing makes up for actual experience, and Couture simply has more of it at light heavy.
Like with the other categories examined above, this one seems equal on its face. This time, however, the surface view is accurate.
Both men have three wins in their last five fights. Both competed at light heavy last time out and both got stopped in the bout before that, albeit Couture by Brock Lesnar in a heavyweight title fight and Coleman by Rua in a light heavy matchup. Both men are batting around .500 since their 40th birthday—Couture with six wins in eleven tries and Coleman with three in six.
There is no advantage here.
This is often a major factor in fights. Has a guy been away from the cage for too long, bringing cage rust into play? Did he balloon up in weight in between fights, taxing his cardio as he tries to cut the weight in the weeks, days and hours leading up to the fight?
Neither of those situations is relevant to this fight. That isn’t the end of the inquiry, though.
Let’s quickly dismiss Coleman’s rest period. When the action gets underway on Saturday, he will end a 210-day absence from competition. That is very typical break between bouts, particularly for a veteran fighter. Two to three fights per year is very normal.
There is nothing normal about Couture’s recent stretch, not for him, at least.
Couture will enter the cage 84 days after facing Vera at UFC 105, which just so happened to occur 77 days after he lost to Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira at UFC 102. Three fights in one hundred fifty-one days is the most active stretch of Couture’s 13-year career. It will be the first time that he competed on three different cards in five months.
Activity is good. Overdoing it is bad.
Couture took a beating against Minotauro. Did his body have enough time to heal and fully recuperate prior to the Vera fight? He looked great against Vera early, but faded down the stretch. The pace of that fight wasn’t anything unusual for Couture, so one must ask whether his decision to compete again 77 days after the Minotauro fight left his gas tank at something less than full. If so, adding a week to the equation won’t do anything to address that issue and it could adversely affect his conditioning come Saturday night.
Couture is a major favorite, both in the collective minds of the fans and also at the betting window, heading into UFC 109. It is easy to predict that he will prevail. Coleman hasn’t beaten anyone of Couture’s caliber in a long, long time. But if I’ve written it once, I’ve written it hundreds of times.
Styles make fights.
Coleman has the perfect style to score the upset, provided that he shows up in tremendous shape and remains focused on one goal—takedowns.
Aside from Lesnar, Couture hasn’t faced someone with Coleman’s wrestling skills since 2000 when he beat Coleman’s longtime friend Kevin Randleman. And if we are being perfectly honest with ourselves, neither guy wants to deplete their gas tank working to get up off the bottom following a takedown.
Coleman absolutely has the skills to put Couture on his back. He needs to do that early and often if he wants to win because “The Hammer” has never been known as a guy with dangerous standup skills. Couture isn’t going to be confused with Mike Tyson on the feet anytime soon; yet his boxing is extremely effective, especially in light of the threat of the takedown.
Coleman can take down Couture if he fully commits to takedowns from Jump Street. That means coming out and instantly shooting for a double-leg. Don’t waste time boxing with a guy who has better hands. Maybe he needs to throw a punch or three. Maybe he needs to eat a punch or three. Coleman’s chin is sturdy enough to do that. In any scenario, though, he needs to change levels at the earliest opportunity and get the takedown, no matter the cost.
Once on the ground, he needs to be very careful to maintain his balance and the position. Controlling Couture on the canvas is more important than pounding away with strikes. The multi-division champion doesn’t want to be on his back. He will work diligently to scramble back to his feet or sweep his former amateur wrestling conqueror. That will drain him physically and emotionally. Coleman can literally use that as his main weapon for the first half of the fight, and then begin working his patented ground-and-pound attack with vigor in the second half in search of a stoppage.
Couture, on the other hand, wants to keep the fight on the feet, at least for a period of time. He knows that he has a big advantage over Coleman in the hands category. He will press the action with his traditional high boxing guard and throw a lot of one-two combinations to work his want to the inside. From there, he will look to clinch, force Coleman up against the cage, work his dirty boxing and, when the time is right, take down his opponent.
Unlike Coleman, Couture does not need to focus principally on controlling the position on the ground. Coleman is a true wrestler in that he detests being on his back. He isn’t comfortable there, and it shows when he fights. He doesn’t have the same guard as Couture, so “The Natural” can look to pass and pound away. Of course, he needs to be very careful during the transition to the ground because Coleman remains an expert freestyle wrestler who can turn the transitional tides in the blink of an eye.
At the end of the day, Couture is the rightful favorite. I just don’t see this one being as easy for him as most believe, and I would not be at all surprised to see Coleman score an upset for the ages.
• 46 years old
• 6-2, 205 lbs
• 17-10 overall (14-7 in the UFC)
• 5-3 at 205 lbs
• 3-2 in last five professional bouts (last two at 205 lbs)
• 6-5 since turning 40
• Current layoff, 84 days, is the second shortest of the last decade (UD over Vera at UFC 105 on November 14, 2009)
• This will be Couture’s third fight in 151 days, despite not having fought in the Octagon more than twice yearly since 1997
• Longest UFC layoff since 2001 is 392 days (KO2 by Chuck Liddell at UFC 57 on February 4, 2006, UD5 over Tim Sylvia at UFC 68 on March 3, 2007)
• Oldest competitor to ever win a UFC fight (46 years, 145 days)
• UFC tournament winner (UFC 13)
• Two-time UFC Light Heavyweight Champion
• Three-time UFC Heavyweight Champion
• Only fighter in UFC history to win a championship after being inducted into the Hall of Fame
• First fighter in UFC history to win championships in two different weight divisions
• Most championship fights in UFC history (15)
• Won Fight of the Night in two of last five fights (TKO3 over Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74 and UD loss to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 102)
• 45 yrs old
• 6-1, 205
• 16-9 overall (7-4 UFC, 8-5 PRIDE)
• 1-1 at 205 lbs
• 3-2 in last five professional bouts
• 3-3 since turning 40
• Current layoff is 210 days (UD3 over Bonnar at UFC 100 on July 11, 2009)
• Career long is 819 days (sub2 by Fedor Emelianenko at PRIDE 32 on October 21, 2006, until returning with a TKO3 by Rua at UFC 93 on January 17, 2009)
• Former UFC Heavyweight Champion (sub1 over Dan Severn at UFC 12)
• Lost title in first defense (UD loss Maurice Smith at UFC 14)
• Two-time UFC tournament winner (UFCs 10 and 11)
• PRIDE Openweight Grand Prix Champion 2000
• Won Fight of the Night in 205-lb debut (TKO3 by Rua at UFC 93)