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With little interest at age 44 of fighting anyone other than the man regarded as the best mixed martial artist in the world, UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture announced his retirement Thursday.
Couture, a five-time champion and UFC Hall of Famer, had hoped to land a bout with Fedor Emelianenko, the top-rated fighter in the Yahoo! Sports MMA poll of the world's best fighters.
But when reports surfaced Wednesday that Emelianenko had spurned the UFC to sign with the Russian-based M-1 Mix Fight organization, Couture opted to retire. The story was broken by Brian Knapp of The Fight Network, which has a business relationship with Couture.
"I'm tired of swimming upstream at this stage with the management of the UFC," Couture told Knapp. "It only makes sense at this point in my career to fight Fedor Emelianenko, and since he’s now signed with another organization, I feel like it's time to resign and focus on my other endeavors."
Couture's retirement stunned the MMA world, but not apparently UFC officials. Couture had breakfast several weeks ago with UFC president Dana White and owner Lorenzo Fertitta in which he indicated he would retire if he didn't get a match with Emelianenko.
"He told us he is at a crossroads and he said, 'Who else is there for me to fight?" White said of the meeting, which he said occurred around the time of UFC 76, which was Sept. 22 in Anaheim, Calif.
"He told us, 'If I fight anyone but Fedor, then I'm just fighting for the money.' Randy was never a guy who fought for money. He wanted the biggest and best challenges. He has movie deals, TV deals, a lot of (stuff) going on in his life. A lot goes into training for these guys and he just has too many other things going that he wants to deal with if he's not going to fight the best."
Couture's surprise announcement marks his second retirement. He retired after losing a rubber match for the UFC light heavyweight title to Chuck Liddell on Feb. 4, 2006, in Las Vegas.
But nine months later, after Tim Sylvia defended the heavyweight title by defeating Jeff Monson at UFC 65 in Sacramento, Calif., Couture called White and said he wanted to return to challenge Sylvia.
He dominated Sylvia at UFC 68 in Columbus, Ohio, in front of the largest MAA crowd in North American history, winning the heavyweight belt for a third time with perhaps the greatest performance of his career. He gave up more than six inches and 40 pounds to Sylvia, but knocked Sylvia down in the fight's first 10 seconds and pummeled him throughout the five-round bout.
Couture then defended it successfully against Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74 on Aug. 25 in Las Vegas.
He broke his arm in that bout, so the UFC had ticketed him next to fight at UFC 80 on Feb. 2 in Las Vegas. White said frequently that if he could land Emelianenko, he'd match him with Couture at UFC 80.
Couture reacted almost instantly to Emelianenko’s signing with M-1.
The swiftness of the move stunned even his close friends. Bas Rutten, Couture's business partner and also a one-time UFC heavyweight champion, did not know about the news Thursday until informed by a reporter.
"At 44, we knew he couldn't fight forever and you knew that sooner or later this day was going to come and he'd shut it down for good," Rutten said. "But to hear this right now, it is a complete surprise. I would have loved to have seen him fight Fedor."
White said he thought Couture would have easily defeated Emelianenko, saying he felt Emelianenko is vastly overrated.
"Couture would have eaten him alive," White said. "It would have been a big fight for us, because of the reputation that Fedor has, but it's not really deserved. Look what he's done: He beat Mark Coleman, who I think was probably 50 something years old and Matt Lindland, who weighs 185 pounds.
"It would have been a big fight, but believe me when I tell you that it would have been no contest. Randy would have destroyed him. Randy is the best heavyweight in the world." Rutten wouldn't go so far as White, but he said he felt Couture had the style to win the fight.
He said Couture would have been able to back Emelianenko up and take him down.
"Fedor's used to pressing the action, but against a guy like Randy, he would have been backing up and it's hard to fight going backwards," Rutten said. "Randy constantly presses the action. Fedor is a very, very good fighter, but he's had problems with Greco-Roman guys and I think it would have been a very good matchup for Randy."
Couture's retirement ends all association, for the time being, with the UFC. He has also decided to quit working on the UFC's television broadcasts, though White said he was only broadcasting to help him learn how to work on-camera.
"I never said no to anything Randy wanted to do," White said. "He wanted to do the TV because it was practice for his acting. I said yes. He wanted me to give his wife (Kim) a job and I said yes.
"Whatever he wanted, we did. Randy is a great, great guy and I have nothing but the most respect for him. He's one of the guys, along with Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes and Rich Franklin and Joe Rogan who have helped build this thing into what it is. He's a beautiful person and we're always going to feel like Randy is part of our family."
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