Friday, April 29, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
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Randy Couture jogs into the middle of a sea of nearly 50 flying fists and immediately adds two more.
It’s the start of evening practice for a handful of professionals and hopefuls at Xtreme Couture gym in Las Vegas, which means a round of shadowboxing is in order for everyone to get loose.
Couture’s punches glide through the sultry air with more purpose and direction than those thrown by teammates as much as 25 years younger than him. He shuffles his feet quicker than almost everyone.
This doesn’t look like a man who’s set to retire from his fighting career, but that’s what the 47-year old Couture says he plans to do after his bout against Lyoto Machida Saturday at UFC 129 in Toronto.
“My body is absolutely healthy,” Couture said. “This is on my terms. I want to go out when I want to go out, and nobody else is going to tell me when it’s going to be. I feel like now is the right time.”
Couture’s decision assures that, win or lose, he’ll exit near the top. Unlike so many athletes before him, Couture won’t allow a string of subpar performances taint his legacy.
In the last two years, he’s put together yet another renaissance in a career that’s been defined by them. Couture has won each of his last three fights to set up a showdown with the 32-year old Machida, one of the most dangerous strikers in the world and a man who held the light heavyweight title less than two years ago.
“This guy is one of the top 10 in the world,” UFC President Dana White said of Couture’s standing in the 205-pound weight division. “I don’t care what anyone says, he can go out there and beat someone in the top 10 on any given day.”
That’s part of the reason why White isn’t totally convinced Couture will never step into the octagon again. “The Natural” loves fighting and still has the ability to do it at the highest level, so why would he leave?
White also references Couture’s brief retirement in 2006, which came after a knockout loss to Chuck Liddell at UFC 57 and lasted less than a year.
“I’ve heard this before and I’ve actually seen it before,” White said with a smirk.
“Will Randy Couture retire win, lose or draw in the fight? We’ll see.”
Couture doesn’t flinch when he says he won’t be back. He also offers an explanation for the first retirement, citing a turbulent time in his personal life.
“I went through a really bad divorce,” Couture said. “My family and a lot of my business partners, my friends, everyone was kind of heaping on me. That’s why I moved here to Vegas. I needed to get away and get some separation and sort things out. I didn’t feel like myself.”
Couture enjoyed one of the most memorable stretches of his career upon return from that break. He took down then-heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in August of 2007 to win back the UFC heavyweight title and followed it with a defense against Gabriel Gonzaga.
He’s gone 5-2 in all since his first retirement and credited the success to developing a new mindset during the hiatus.
“It wasn’t really about fighting particular guys or making another bid for the title or any of those things,” Couture said. “It was the ability to do what I love, which is train and compete.”
Couture will go out with possession of a number of UFC records, including his five championships accounting for the most of all time. His 15 title fights, where he posted a 9-6 record, are also the most in the history of the organization.
He became the first fighter to win championships in two different weight classes, holding the strap in both the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions. All Couture’s achievements have made him a beloved figure among fans.
“He has built this sport and taken it to new levels,” said Gil Martinez, Couture’s boxing coach. “He is one of the guys who has built the UFC. I don’t know, to this day, if there is someone who has more fans than Randy. No matter where we go, the crowd just erupts for him.”
Couture will always be inexorably linked to Liddell, his light heavyweight rival. Couture and Liddell had a trilogy of fights that started seven years ago when the UFC was first surging in popularity.
Couture won the first with Liddell taking the last two. But it was Liddell’s fights against his last three opponents that may have made the biggest impact on Couture.
Liddell suffered three knockout defeats in a row, which got everyone including White chatting about how he needed to walk away from the sport. It was the exact scenario Couture wanted to avoid.
“To see that come about the way it did, it solidified in my mind what I already thought: I don’t want people behind me talking about me like that,” Couture said. “I don’t want to wait until I sustain an injury that takes me out of the training regimen I know I need to do to compete.”