Waiting For Couture

AN INTRODUCTION OF SORTS

He stands ramrod straight and looks at me as if he’s sizing me up through a pane of glass. His stare is piercing yet disinterested and his body language is cold. He speaks to me in a faint voice, as if he’s thinking about a million different things. “We’ll work it out,” he says unconvincingly as he goes into the gym to begin his morning workout. I have traveled across the country to speak him, but when I catch him in the parking lot of his gym in the early morning; it is obvious to me that he is no mood to be interviewed.

When I follow him in, there’s a buzz around the front offi ce of Xtreme Couture, because they are putting the fi nal touches on a huge fund-raiser. In addition to a celebrity poker tournament, there’s going to be a silent auction featuring some of Randy’s MMA-related memorabilia, with all the proceeds going to the Xtreme Couture GI Foundation, which helps wounded veterans and their families. The staff is conferring about what the opening bid should be on the pair of shorts that Couture wore for his appearances on The Ultimate Fighter television show. They say that the ones he wore in the Gonzaga fi ght recently sold at a similar charity auction for $8,000. How much are these worth, they wonder. Everyone in the offi ce, including Randy, has been working very hard on making the event a success. Maybe that’s why he seems distracted.

Rather than badgering him, I opt instead to fi nd a seat in a deserted corner of the gym, and watch the world’s most famous mixed martial artist train. Over the next hour, he and his training partner, Phil Friedman, go through a brutal workout that includes weight lifting, plyometrics, and cardio exercises in quick succession. In between circuits, instead of resting, Randy and Friedman, a 265-pounder, practice clinch work, drilling the body mechanics back and forth.

Couture is a master of the clinch, and his major innovation in MMA has been the adaptation of the Greco-Roman style to the sport. In Greco-Roman wrestling, all throws are above the waist from a standing clinch. Because so many clinches occur in MMA, an expertise in the Greco-Roman style is a good base for a mixed martial artist to have. Couture added to his Greco, “dirty boxing“, which just means ways of delivering blows and strikes while controlling your opponent from the clinch.

Couture’s style of clinching, mauling, and grinding down his opponents requires that he be in phenomenal physical condition. He doesn’t get many early stoppages. To win, he typically has to wear down an opponent over several rounds.

As I watch him punish his 44-year-old body, I refl ect that here is a man who has created himself as an act of will. It is easy to see this in his athletic prowess, but I imagine that he has done the same thing with his mind. I suspect that without reshaping and strengthening his mind, at his age it would be impossible for him to make his body do the things it must do in order to compete. The psychological precedes the physical.

Couture doesn’t seem to function on the same level as the rest of us. In addition to being a champion athlete in college he was an academic All-American with a perfect 4.0 GPA. He began MMA at the ancient age of 35, and went on to revolutionize the sport, becoming its most beloved star. He has parlayed his success in the cage into a business empire, and was one of the fi rst mixed martial artists to realize the power of his name as a brand, upon which he has capitalized very shrewdly and successfully.

More recently, he has broken into show business in a huge way. I spoke to David Mamet, the famous director and playwright about him. Mamet, who directed Couture in the upcoming fi lm RedBelt, told me that Couture is a legitimate acting talent and that he is gifted with natural screen presence. In other words, Couture could end up being a big star. Athlete, intellectual, celebrity and maybe now also an actual artist? It’s astounding that someone could have such great success in so many varied fi elds.

What is to be made of a man who seems to operate on a plane of achievement so far above the rest of us? What can Couture really be like? That is what I came to fi nd out.

When his workout is over, he barrels past me into his offi ce at the front of the gym. Every so often, I peek in to see if we can do the interview. I am either completely ignored or am met with the same icy glare I received in the parking lot. After a while, I give up. Maybe tomorrow, I think. I am disappointed. After all, I have been setting this up for months. He is supposed to know about it, and I have traveled across the county to talk to him. I will admit to being a little put out. But then again, for such a remarkable man as Randy Couture, one makes allowances.

MEETING THE TEAM

Randy doesn’t seem interested in talking but the other members of the Xtreme Couture team go out of their way to make me feel at home, and to let me know how highly they all regard their mentor and coach.

It is rare that grown men, and especially the sort who become professional fi ghters, speak about someone with such unguarded adulation. Like any high school locker room, there is always a lot of joking around and busting balls amongst the members of the team, but when they talk about Randy, their attitude is one akin to hero worship.

“He’s a great athlete and a great coach,” Mike Pyle says. “He’s a great guy. A gentleman. He keeps everybody in a positive frame of mind.” When I ask him how exactly Randy does this, Pyle echoes a point others in the gym make to me. ”It’s just something about the way he is, this aura he has. He rubs off on you and you want to behave like him.” Even though they all know Couture and see him up close on a daily basis, they seem just as amazed by him as I am.

“He really is just so much better than everybody else,” Phil Friedman tells me, referring to Couture’s skills as a fi ghter. “You hear about it, but until you come down here and train with him you don’t get it.”

As much as they all love their coach, they’re unanimous in telling me that training with him is no fun. “If you are training with him, you are in a whirlwind. He has no mercy. He won’t pull any punches. The way he fi ghts in the ring is the way he trains,” Pyle says.

Gray Maynard lets me in on what it is like to be the victim of Randy’s infamous dirty boxing.

“If you’re in the clinch with Randy, he imposes his weight and his will upon you. As you are trying to carry his weight, it starts to chip on you, and then if you move wrong you’re going to catch an elbow. Then he will throw uppercuts and hooks in close. He’ll knee you in the quads. He pulls on your head. He just chips on you and by round two or three you’re so tired you can’t even block anything.”

I hear repeatedly about Couture’s ability to wear down opponents. Phil Friedman says, “He doesn’t just hold you and stand there. He’s constantly hitting you. He’s attacking your legs; he’s attacking your body, he’s always attacking. He comes at you from so many different angles that it is very diffi – cult to do anything but get tired. Then when he gets you tired, he just breaks you.”

he gets you tired, he just breaks you.” Couture’s work ethic permeates the gym. All the guys push themselves mercilessly. In the bathroom, there is a sign that reads: IF YOU VOMIT OR BLEED PLEASE CLEAN UP YOUR MESS Wow, that’s intense; I think when I read it.

Although they’re all friends, the team members follow Couture’s example and give no quarter in training. The reason that they‘re so hard on themselves and each other is so that what they face in the cage will be easy compared to the horrors of the gym. It’s a successful formula. Xtreme Couture is considered one of the top teams in MMA, and the gym is the place to train in Vegas.

The gym’s reputation has made it a Mecca both for young fi ghters wanting to train with the very best and seasoned professionals who are looking to round out their skills. Many of the newer guys end up getting run out by the brutal pace and takeno- prisoners attitude of Xtreme Couture. But the veterans, who fl ock in from around the world, know the value of such an uncompromising training environment. While I am there, I see the great Brazilian fi ghting legend Mario Sperry.

“I came in to get my ass kicked a little bit,” he says, only half-joking.

THE RIGHT KIND OF WELCOME

“You understand that this is a pro class,” Mike Pyle warns me, lacing the word “pro” with menace. I have been told that if I want to work out, I need to ask Pyle, who has been with the gym since it started and is a sort of second in command to Randy. “I understand. I’m pretty durable. I’ve already signed the waiver,” I reply. He shakes his head skeptically before abruptly turning away and saying over his shoulder, “All right, as long as you know what you’re getting into.”

I fi gured that if I’m not going to see Randy, I might as well train. I want to get some experience with the dreaded clinch that I have heard so much about. There will never be a better opportunity than now.

Shawn Tompkins, who has recently joined Xtreme Couture, runs the class. After an intensive warm up and half hour cardio session, we began sparring. We do a drill called big gloves, little gloves, where one guy puts on big 16-ounce boxing gloves, and the other guy puts on small MMA gloves. It’s the small gloved guy’s job to tie up, take down and submit the guy with the boxing gloves, who can do whatever he needs to do to in order to stay on his feet. I start with the large gloves, and pair off against Big Phil Friedman, the guy I saw Randy working with the other morning.

I think I’ll be good at this drill because I can load up on him and he can’t really hit me back, not hard at least. But I fi nd that it’s not that easy. Any time I set down to throw a punch, Phil reads how my body weight shifts, closes the distance and ties me up. He moves quickly for someone so big. Even though he isn’t throwing haymakers, he’s wearing me out in the clinch -pushing, pulling, shifting, and forcing me back to the cage that borders the mat.

When you are caught in the clinch like I am, what you want to do is create distance between yourself and your opponent. If your back is against the cage, a great deal of your maneuvering room is taken away. If you get taken off your feet next to the cage wall, then you’re really screwed, because you get pinned in between the cage and your opponent, who is probably slamming you with punches and elbows.

Although he is thoroughly dominating me and pushing me around, between rounds Big Phil is actually quite friendly. “Let me give you a little hint,” he says, as he shows me how to use my hips to spin off the cage and reverse positions. Then the timer sounds and he returns to mauling me.

After another round, as I am doubled over with exhaustion, he says to me, full of empathy, “You know what you’re feeling right now? This is what I go through every day.” Then it’s back to it for a third round of getting owned against the cage. Although he hasn’t been trying to kill me, Phil has made me carry all of his 265 pounds and the effects are dramatic. I am completely exhausted. Mentally and physically drained Just like they said I would be.

Tompkins tells us to switch partners for the fi nal period. Thank God! Get me away from this big guy.

For the fi nal period, Tompkins tells everybody to practice the ground and pound. One guy will be in the dominant position throwing blows, and his partner will start in the guard and try to survive any way he can.

“You come over here with me,” Mike Pyle says innocuously as he waves me over. He will assume the guard, and I will be the one in position to land the more serious blows. I know he’s good at Jiu–Jitsu, so I fi gure I will not even try to pass his guard. I’ll just posture and rain blows down on him for fi ve minutes. As long as I make sure to stay on top, I tell myself, it should be easy.

As soon as the period begins, Pyle wraps his legs around me like a boa constrictor, pinning my right arm by my side. Before I can react to this, he gets my left arm under his armpit, and just like that, I am trapped. He begins hitting me with steady right hands in a constant, deliberate rhythm. About once every second – pop, pop, pop. They start as nothing more than a nuisance, and I am really aggravated that I let myself get caught in such a ludicrous position.

“This guy can’t punch.” I say to myself with a boxer’s instinctive disdain for arm punching. Although they aren’t hard, I have no way to defend my face from the steady stream of punches. Pop, pop, pop, pop. It’s infuriating to be this helpless, and I struggle and squirm, trying unsuccessfully to keep my face out of the way of his right hands.

“When I get loose, I am going to put something on this guy,” I tell myself as I try futilely to defend myself. He is relentless. Pop, pop, pop. By now, the side of my face is getting sensitive and punches that had been nothing but taps are starting to sting. My frustration turns to rage and I get exhausted trying to blindly muscle out of the position. It’s no use. He’s got me.

“Maybe, he’ll try to submit me and then I can make a move.” I hope, but Mike is perfectly content right where he is, and my rage turns to despair. I feel like I am drowning.

He begins to turn his right hands over at the shoulder, giving them snap. They’re not so inconsequential now, and every once and a while he will really zing one in between the lighter shots. Pop, pop, BANG, pop, pop, pop, BANG, pop, pop…I realize that he can punch hard when he chooses to.

I start to get a little woozy. The horrible notion goes through my mind that I might become the fi rst person in history to get knocked out, in sparring, by arm punches from the guard. The thought of the lifelong stigma that I would carry from such a shameful distinction is too horrible to contemplate, and with the stubborn determination that God gives the stupid, I make it to the end of the period.

“I almost had you,” I say to him dazed, exhausted and thoroughly beaten. I wobble to my feet as sparring ends. In actuality, I have not landed a single blow on him in fi ve minutes, and have been lucky to just remain conscious throughout the whole tortuous ordeal.

Later, I ask him what I should have done to get out of the predicament I’d been in with him, thinking that there’s some secret technique or trick he’ll let me in on. He smiles and pats himself three times on the arm. “Tap out,” he says.

AN AUDIENCE

“Who beat you up? It was Pyle, wasn’t it?” Stephan Bonnar asks me when I meet him the next night at Randy’s big celebrity fund-raiser. After practice, my body is covered with welts and bruises, and the left side of my face is one huge abrasion, so that any one who looks at me can tell that I have come out on the wrong end of something. I nod my head ruefully.

“I knew it!” Bonnar explodes in laughter. “That’s great!” He slaps me on the back good-naturedly and makes his way into the tournament surrounded by a gaggle of friends all laughing with him. I feel like I should be laughing too, but I don’t know what the joke is. I fi nd out later that Mike Pyle is a sort of self appointed welcoming committee for those who dare to train with the pros at Xtreme Couture. In light of this new information, I’m glad to be only a little banged up.

There are all sorts of famous people at the event mulling around with everyone else. Montel Williams, Dean Cain, and David Wells are there, along with Scott Ian from Anthrax, who I recognize by his distinctive beard. There are several famous pro poker players. In the corner, I notice Jose Canseco talking intensely to beautiful Gina Carano, who seems unimpressed with whatever he is telling her. Some guys from the gym, Gray Maynard and Tyson Griffi n, are also there to help with the event. Xtreme Couture really is a team in the classic sense. The fund-raiser’s success is very important to Randy, so everybody is doing whatever they can to help.

About an hour before the event begins, I see Randy smiling and talking to everybody. He seems to be in a much better mood than when I had seen him at the gym. He’s hobnobbing with celebrities and regular people alike. I think that this might be good time to snag him, and it will be my last chance before I am to fl y home the next day. I approach him as he’s talking to two men. I don’t want to barge in on their conversation, so I bide my time. I admit to eavesdropping a little. As best as I can tell, they’re talking about the business environment in China. Go fi gure!

When he fi nally turns around, instead of the icy glare I expect, he smiles warmly and says, ”Come on, we’d better hurry up and do this because it’s going to get crazy around here in a minute.” It’s like he’s known me for years.

We take a seat at an empty poker table and he tells me about how he got involved with his charity. He got the idea when he and his wife Kim visited hospitals and saw the wounded vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom had families to support and were just 19 or 20 years old, like he had been back when he joined the Army.

I mention to him that he seems to have a good feeling about his days in the service and he agrees wholeheartedly, adding that it was in the military that he developed the mind-set and discipline which allowed him to achieve his goals later in life. His time in the Army really shaped him, he says. When he talks about US soldiers and the sacrifi ces they make every day, there is a little check in his voice. I fi nd it very refreshing to meet a man who is so up front and direct about his love of country. How the Army hasn’t put him in a recruiting fi lm yet, I’ll never know.

I ask him about the other members of Xtreme Couture, and he says that he realizes they look to him and he wants to lead them by example. He can’t expect them to push themselves if he isn’t out front doing the same. He talks about the importance of keeping himself and his team positive. “It’s not only the things that go in here,” he says, pointing to his forehead, “but also the things that come out of your mouth that determine the sort of mental structures you have. And those structures are a big part of what determines your ability to set and achieve goals in life.”

I’m fascinated. It’s not what he is saying, but how forcefully he says it. He is so earnest and committed to what he is telling me, that it seems like he’s the fi rst person who’s ever told me that it is good to lead by example, stay positive, and work hard.

We turn quickly to his own fi ghting career, and he says that he trains so intensely in the gym because he wants to push himself beyond the point where any opponent possibly can. If he does this, then he knows that he can set a pace that will eventually grind down anybody he faces. When I ask him about the clinch and wearing down opponents, he brings up his fi rst fi ght with Vitor Belfort.

“There’s a moment in the fi ght where you can feel the guy break,” he tells me, his eyes lighting up as he breaks an imaginary stick in the air. “It’s like a twig snapping.” I think that’s the coolest thing that anyone has ever said, and I sit there transfi xed.

He suddenly thanks me for coming and supporting his event, and that’s it, interview over. Before I leave him, I tell him about my guard disaster with Pyle, pointing to my wounds. “Pyle scratched you up did he?” he says approvingly. I tell him that the white FIGHT! T-shirt I wore while training with the team, and which is now stained with a good bit of with my own blood from the adventure, is one of my proudest possessions. He breaks out in a genuine and hearty laugh. It’s a cool moment in my life.

I see him about fi ve minutes later at the same table doing another interview with another reporter who is also completely enthralled. He will repeat the performance fi fteen or twenty times that night. Has he said anything to me that he hasn’t said to a thousand different reporters on a thousand different interviews? Probably not. But regardless, I’m psyched, feeling like I have been let in on the secret formula of how to succeed in life and be a badass all at the same time.

After the event ends I watch him leave, surrounded by a group of admirers, one of whom paid $10,000 at the charity auction for the privilege of having dinner with Randy and his wife. I refl ect on the good that has been done because of Couture. The event has been a huge success, raising over $90,000 for the families of wounded veterans; about as worthy a cause as can be imagined, and I am sure after talking to all of them, that the fi ghters at Xtreme Couture are not only better in the ring, but better in life, because of what they aspire to be because of Randy’s example.

Also, here is a man I note, who is unabashed about his Christian faith and who holds up the traditional values of patriotism, self-reliance, and hard work in a time and society where seemingly many others are suspicious about them. I think that people are often cynical about the things that deep down they want to believe in, so maybe that’s why he touches and inspires so many people. Many athletes blanche at the prospect of being a role model, but Couture seems to relish it and by all appearances is up to the challenge.

Who is the real Randy Couture? Who cares? Maybe it’s the man who mesmerized and exhilarated me during our brief interview, or maybe it’s the guy that gave me the cold shoulder at his gym. Maybe it’s neither of them, or some combination. It doesn’t really matter, because the most remarkable thing about Randy Couture, in fact, the only truly important thing about him, is the effect that he has on other people. So in that way, at least, he really is just like the rest of us.

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