What’s Next for Randy Couture?

(Chuck Liddell eats a straight right from Couture.)

(Chuck Liddell eats a straight right from Couture.)

We know these things to be true – Randy Couture is 46 years old, he is coming off consecutive losses for only the second time in his storied career, he is a small heavyweight by current standards, and he is under contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship until 2012 or Judgement Day, whichever comes first. What we don’t know is what exactly the UFC plans on doing with him.

Couture is a special case, a UFC old-timer who has stayed relevant long after his younger contemporaries faded from the stage. He’s spent most of his career as a UFC champion or contender and he is one of the promotion’s most respected and beloved competitors so you can’t let him get his head beaten in over and over again. But by the same token you can’t throw him cans, either. He has to be in credible matches on the main card. Coming off two losses, Couture needs to string a couple wins together to be a credible title challenger again, which presents another problem – size matters in the heavyweight division now, so unless Dana White & Co. are OK with watching him get wrecked by guys who outweigh him by 50 pounds on fight night he won’t face off with Brock Lesnar or Shane Carwin depending on who wins that bout. But Couture has expressed disinterest in cutting to 205 as he ages. It’s a tough row for UFC matchmaker Joe Silva to hoe but this is how I see it playing out.

Taking all of the factors above into account, it’s safe to assume that unless Couture scores dominant knockout or submission victories in a row over two credible opponents, he won’t be sniffing the title anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean he can’t take meaningful fights, take home truckloads of cash, and help the UFC continue to grow. The way to do this is to match Couture with high-profile fighters who can afford to take a loss to him on the main card of fights in new UFC venues. There are several fighters at 205 and above who would be solid opponents for Couture, guys who are better than gatekeepers but aren’t title contenders, guys with enough name recognition to sell the fight in places the UFC is visiting for the first time.

For example, Mark Coleman fights at 205 but he could easily walk into the cage at the same weight as Couture. He’s good enough to win at the UFC level but he’s not going to challenge for any belt any time soon. Imagine the crowd response if those two guys squared off in Toronto, the largest market in MMA-crazed Canada. Like Couture, Brian Stann is an Armed Forces veteran, a tough light heavy who could fight as a small heavyweight. Put these two guys together in Germany or the Phillipines, places where thousands of American servicemen and servicewomen are stationed, and you put butts in seats. Put Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic in the cage with Couture anywhere in Europe or Asia and you have a Pride vs. UFC classic on par with Couture vs. Nogueira in the making. New York native Matt Hammill would be a great opponent for the first UFC event in that state, a quintessential nice guy with good power and wrestling credentials.

In each case, Couture is there to do press and promote the sport. The fight is an afterthought. Will any of these fights take place? Who knows. Will Couture push for the challenge of taking on the UFC’s bigger, faster, stronger heavyweights? I hope not. In the end, Couture’s real value to the company is as an ambassador of the sport. If the UFC can provide Couture with competitive bouts, he’ll continue to fight and people will continue to tune in. If he looks shot in his next couple of fights, White & Co. should think long and hard about sending him any more bout agreements.

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