On November 15, UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture is set to make an Ali-like return to face Brock Lesnar in the main event of UFC 91. UFC president Dana White has already promised this “will be the biggest fi ght in UFC history.”
GRAPPLING FOR ANSWERS
The 45-year-old Couture’s scheduled return will be his fi rst action since August 2007 at UFC 74. There, Couture defended his title against Gabriel Gonzaga. Couture won by TKO in the third round, but came away with a broken left arm from blocking a kick. Following the fi ght, Couture announced his “retirement” from the UFC. The resulting dispute lasted fourteen months, until the UFC announced on September 2 that it had resolved all issues with the estranged champion and re-signed him to a new three-fi ght deal.
Sporting a 16–8 MMA record (13–5 UFC), Couture is one of only two MMA fi ghters to have held a title in two different divisions and is the UFC’s only fi ve-time champion. Already a member of the UFC Hall of Fame, Couture displays decent standup skills with good head movement. He is most dangerous from the clinch, where he is equally likely to punish you with dirty boxing or dump you to the ground. Once he has you down, Couture holds top position and depends on ground-and-pound rather than submissions.
Ring rust is obviously a major concern, but Couture has not been particularly active in the latter part of his career to begin with. He fought only twice in 2005, once in 2006, and twice in 2007.
Couture is listed at 6’1” and 228 pounds. His opponent stands 6’3” and has to cut 15 pounds to make the heavyweight limit of 265 pounds, giving Lesnar a realistic 40-pound weight advantage on fi ght night.
Lesnar made his MMA debut in K-1 in June 2007 against Min Soo Kim (3–6 MMA), winning by TKO with ground-and-pound. In February 2008, Lesnar made his big stage debut at UFC 81 against former Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir. There, Lesnar secured an early takedown and looked to be overwhelming his opponent but was deducted a point for hitting Mir in the back of the head. Following another takedown by Lesnar, Mir secured a kneebar and forced a quick submission. Lesnar rebounded by defeating Heath Herring by unanimous decision at UFC 87 in August, bringing his MMA record to 2–1 (1–1 UFC).
Lesnar and Couture were both accomplished amateur wrestlers. Lesnar fi nished his career as a four-time All-American and the 2000 NCAA heavyweight champion with a record of 106–5 overall. Couture was an All-American “only” three times with two second-place NCAA championships fi nishes. Couture was a more internationally decorated wrestler—a three-time Olympic team alternate and a semifi nalist at the 2000 Olympic Trials. Lesnar went straight to the WWE after college, so it’s hard to say what he could have done internationally.
More importantly than credentials is the immediate impact of size and strength on grappling skill. While there are some techniques that are impossible to power through, size and power go a long way and it’s hard to imagine that Couture isn’t at a serious wrestling disadvantage as a result. It could also be argued that Couture struggled with larger wrestlers in his career: for example, consecutive losses to Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez in 2002. Strengths and Incredible Strength
This fi ght presents several interesting dichotomies: age vs. youth, strategy vs. aggression, and veteran vs. rookie. To me, the most relevant comparison is not where the fi ghters differ, it’s where they are the same. It’s easy to enumerate Brock’s inexperience against Couture’s fantastic game planning, or Lesnar’s incredible speed against Couture’s age. More overlooked are that Couture’s typical strengths—speed, wrestling, and physical power—are all areas of weaknesses when compared against Lesnar. Lesnar is insanely fast, amazingly strong, and, thanks in no small part to that speed and strength, possesses top-notch wrestling ability, including explosive takedowns and a dominant top game (what we’ve seen of it).
Conversely, Lesnar’s main weakness is not Couture’s area of strength. We know that Lesnar is not exactly a submission defense expert. However, Couture only has two submission victories to his credit in an eleven-year career: a victory via anaconda choke over Mike van Arsdale (1–4 UFC) at UFC 54 in 2005 and a victory by rear naked choke over Tony Halme (0–1 UFC) in his UFC debut in 1997 at UFC 13. Coincidentally, Halme wrestled for the WWF as “Ludvig Borga” from 1993–94, making Couture 1–0 so far against former professional WWF/WWE wrestlers.
Most relevant is that Couture didn’t show any signifi cant submission offense against Tim Sylvia, despite controlling him in dominant positions the entire fi ght. Sylvia presents an attractive submission target and is much less capable of reversal and escape compared to Lesnar’s phenomenal explosiveness and wrestling skills. Couture also didn’t display strong submission offense in his fi ght with Tito Ortiz, unable to apply a rear naked choke despite taking Tito’s back. Mir’s kneebar aside, I think Couture will have a hard time submitting Lesnar without getting reversed, especially given the amount of time and training Lensar’s had since the quick tap against Mir.
Assuming Lesnar has the wrestling advantage, if he can put Couture on his back, what about a submission from the bottom? Couture has almost never been put on his back, so his submission skills from there are unknown. Wrestlers aren’t typically comfortable from their backs, so despite Couture’s experience, I can’t expect he’s going to show up as a submission specialist from his back. His entire career gives no indication of being strong in submissions from dominant positions, let alone defensive ones.
Couture has respect in the grappling world, stemming from a scoreless draw in a 2006 grappling match against Ronaldo “Jacare” de Souza, one of the top grapplers in the world. Couture had a signifi cant size and strength advantage on 185-pound Jacare and spent most of the match on the defensive, so the scoreless draw isn’t a reason to upgrade his offensive submission skills—defensive, sure, but that’s not so relevant here.
For perhaps the fi rst time in his career, Couture is at a disadvantage in quickness, wrestling, and strength. While you can never count Couture out, it’s hard to see where Couture has an edge outside of his legendary game planning and experience.
EXECUTING THE GAME PLAN
It’s probable that Couture will have an edge in cardio, but that too comes from experience: the wily veteran knows to pace himself for the championship fi ght. Lesnar demonstrated a frenetic pace in his fi ghts, but trainer Greg Nelson will surely have him prepared for an appropriate pace as much as theoretically possible. We also can question Couture’s cardio, with concerns of ring rust, age, and that he’ll be dealing with 280 pounds of muscle on top of him the entire fi ght.
Couture’s victory over Sylvia at UFC 68 has been given as reason why he should succeed against Lesnar. This is a very bad comparison: Sylvia, while large in stature, isn’t solid muscle, isn’t highly athletic, and doesn’t have a worldclass wrestling background. Sylvia was also hampered in their fi ght by a back injury. In short, Sylvia is no comparison to Lesnar.
Couture has the best ability of anyone to come up with a game plan, so he’s hard to predict. Still, we can assume he wants to use his wrestling to try to keep the fi ght standing and probably will take the fi ght to Lesnar, but mostly will try to drag Lesnar into “deep water,” to test Lesnar’s cardio.
However, thanks to the factors outlined above, I believe Couture is going to be put on his back, and isn’t likely to threaten with submissions once there. It’s certainly possible that Lesnar will indeed gas in the latter rounds, but I expect, instead, that we see Lesnar win a dominant fi ve-round decision in the neighborhood of 50-44.
I believe Lesnar should be a moderate favorite over Couture. The betting line for this fi ght opened at Couture (-160), Lesnar (+130) on a major sportsbook. As I quickly posted in the MMAjunkie.com forum, I predicted that money would come pouring in on Lesnar. As of the time of writing, that prediction has born true, with Lesnar dropping to (-115) on the same book…a move of 45 points! I believe the true line to be even farther off, closer to Lesnar (-140). However, understand that this fi ght represents a high-volatility outcome: even if I am precisely correct and Lesnar is exactly a (-140) favorite, he would win this fi ght only 58% of the time, making it obvious that there’s a high percentage chance for Couture to walk away still champion.
There is also an interesting prop bet available: Couture/ Lesnar Fight goes 2:30 of Round 3 at (-260) Couture/ Lesnar Fight does not go 2:30 of Round 3 at (+200)
I like the over, fi guring that Couture’s game plan is going to be to drag this out as long as possible, and that Lesnar is likely to adopt a similar game plan as in his victory over Herring. I expect the line to continue to improve (the public loves “unders”) and hope to get it closer to (-230).
The winner of this fi ght will go on to fi ght the winner of Nogueira vs. Mir at UFC 92 (I believe “Minotauro” wins handily) to unify the interim title, making this effectively a four man tournament for sole possession of the UFC’s heavyweight title. If that’s not a storyline written for an ex-WWE superstar, I don’t know what is.