I even took it a step further in my regular recap feature 10 Things by saying that Couture's next fight will be for the light heavyweight title.
That statement was met by everything from laughter, acceptance, confusion and questions of my sanity. Admittedly, those are all pretty solid reactions and serve as the basis for breaking out the crystal ball today. There is method to my madness and a path to my prediction of "Captain America" being "the challenger" in his next trip to the cage.
Two fights will help determine what happens next at 205 lbs: the early May rematch for the Light Heavyweight title between Lyoto Machida and Mauricio Rua, and the late May (and long overdue) battle between TUF 10 coaches and archenemies Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson.
Couture's future can be broken down independently of those two fights, at least in part. There are three options: (1) fight for the title, (2) fight another middle-level guy or (3) fight a top contender. Here is how I see each scenario, in reverse order.
For the sake of this piece, let's use Thiago Silva as Couture's opponent in Option 3. The Brazilian is the only contender at 205 lbs. who currently is without a scheduled fight and is coming out of the main event at UFC 108. So his marketability has never been higher.
While winning this fight would silence a lot of the "Couture doesn't deserve a title shot" talk, a loss ends what could be the last possible run towards a title for the long-term poster boy (poster man?) of the UFC.
Spinning Couture into a title shot after a loss to the guy who lost to the guy who lost the title to Lyoto Machida would be extremely difficult. The UFC might try, but even the staunchest supporters and blind faithful would have to call shenanigans on such a move.
With Option 2, a win over a guy like Rich Franklin might not quiet all the complaints, but it would give Couture three wins in a row in the division, and all three would have been main events that received good coverage and reasonable ratings.
Of course, a loss to Franklin would be worse than a loss to Silva, as few consider "Ace" a challenger for the title.
The Spin Police would be all over the UFC if they then tried to market Couture as a contender after losing to a guy who has been fighting catchweight bouts with middleweights.
Which brings us to Option 1: Couture fights for the title.
The UFC is never going to be able to market Couture better than right now.
Controversial win over Brandon Vera and the age of Mark Coleman aside, "The Natural" has back-to-back wins at 205 lbs., has "only lost twice [in this division]" as Dana White said, and is Randy friggin' Couture.
Sure there are going to be more deserving fighters (and we'll get to them shortly), but are any of them Randy Couture?
For anyone who is readying a "Being Randy Couture shouldn't get you special treatment" type argument, let me stop you.
I agree, it shouldn't...but it does.
If everyone else has to fight their way up the ladder, Couture should too...but he doesn't have to.
Merit is beaten down by marketability all the time in the UFC (and combat sports in general). It's why Frankie Edgar is fighting B.J. Penn and not Gray Maynard, and it's the reason Brock Lesnar fought for the UFC Heavyweight title after going 1-1.
If I'm learning to deal with it, you need to too.
So with the reasoning behind Randy's inclusion in the next UFC Light Heavyweight division title fight figured out (or at the very least the case for such an inclusion well-stated) let's shift our focus to the four men making up the two big fights on the horizon.
Four fighters, four possible outcomes.
Since Lyoto Machida is still the champion, we'll begin with him winning the rematch at UFC 113. There has to be some kind of perk to being champion...
Scenario #1: Machida vs. Rashad Evans
Yeah, we saw this fight a year earlier, and it ended with Rashad Evans immortalized in one of the greatest knockout faces of all-time. Unless steeped in controversy, the UFC doesn't do quick rematches. Essentially, wins for Machida and Evans make a Randy Couture title fight all the more likely.
Scenario #2: Machida vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson
This fight could most certainly work, as some would argue that Jackson never should have lost the belt that is wrapped around Machida's waist in the first place. However, by the time Jackson takes on Evans at UFC 114, it will have been well over a year since "Rampage" last fought and won against Keith Jardine, and that win was ugly.
Personally, I don't think White will want to do much more to annoy B.A. Baracus, and denying him a title shot following a win over the former champion would fall into that category. But there is only so much time left on the "Randy Couture as Contender" clock. As good of a draw as "Rampage" is, he's no Randy Couture.
Promise a victorious "Rampage" the next shot, maybe even make it the return trip to Memphis, and let him film a movie in between. Chances are he'd still be fighting Machida anyway, so why not take a few extra months to try and figure out "The Dragon" and his elusive style?
Scenario #3: Rua vs. Evans
To me, this one holds the least interest of any of the possible permutations. Evans was picked apart by Machida, who was then (twice?) picked apart by Rua. Following the flow, what then would make you think that Evans wouldn't suffer the same fate?
Of course, we all know MMA math doesn't work (Chael Sonnen confirmed that again Saturday). Evans is a much different fighter than Machida, but the initial reaction could fall somewhere in that territory. With Evans' much-maligned performance against fellow Muay Thai practitioner Thiago Silva at UFC 109, it might take more than a championship belt to raise the level of interest in this fight.
Bringing Couture into the mix, the UFC would certainly play up the "Shogun was considered the best 205-pound fighter in the world before coming to the UFC, while Randy is an icon in the sport and has always been great at this weight" angle. Or they use the "Evans lost bad to the dude Rua just beat (twice)" argument.
Scenario #4: Rua vs. Jackson
Welcome to the one-and-only way Randy Couture does not fight for the Light Heavyweight title the next time he steps into the cage.
Quinton Jackson and Mauricio Rua have history. Violent history. Broken ribs and a series of soccer kicks to Jackson's bald dome violent history. The rematch sells itself and is only amplified by the title implications—pairing the man who beat the man who was thought (unreasonably) to be invincible and the guy who might not have lost the belt in the first place.
A win over Machida would certainly lift Rua's marketability, and there are already few who can trump Jackson in that arena. So the combination would be enough to make Couture take a back seat or another fight.
Even with the easy marketing of a Rua-Jackson rematch, that omnipresent clock on Couture's career that we keep expecting to run out continues to tick. The rematch might not have a very long shelf-life, but it would at least be longer than Couture's time as a contender.
At least you'd have to think that would be the case, but Couture has been proving us wrong his entire career.
On straight-up performance, Randy Couture hasn't done enough in his two fights since returning to the Light Heavyweight division to earn a title shot. Getting the nod in a difficult decision over Brandon Vera and beating down an all-but-finish Mark Coleman aren't No. 1 contender-worthy wins.
But performance isn't the only criteria under consideration, and in every other aspect, Randy Couture comes up aces. He's highly-marketable, a pay-per-view draw and an iconic name in the sport. Guys like that don't take the backseat all too often.
Over the next few months, the questions surrounding the Light Heavyweight division and title will be answered. When the dust settles and Randy Couture ends up fighting for the title, remember who looked into his crystal ball and told you that was what he saw.
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