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Randy Couture: Before he was known as ‘The Natural’

Pacific Northwesterners remember Couture for more than his UFC career

Randy Couture Work Out

Justin M. Bowen

Randy Couture answers questions at his gym Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas Thursday in preparations for his upcoming fight against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Portland, Ore on August 29.

Randy Couture Workout

Randy Couture works out at his gym Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas Thursday in preparations for his upcoming fight against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Portland, Ore on August 29. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

There is one simple fact that seems true regarding all levels of UFC fans — chances are they probably remember the first time they saw Randy Couture.

For casual fans, it’s likely one of the three wars he waged with Chuck Liddell. Newer fans might have seen him for the first time last November as the 45-year-old man who stood up to Brock Lesnar. But for the most dedicated mixed martial arts followers, it might have been his earliest fights in Japan or perhaps even as far back as 1988 when he was an Olympic alternate for the U.S. wrestling team.

The first time Shay Thoelke, a now-retired history teacher from Lynnwood, Wash., had the chance to see Randy Couture compete was in 1977, during his freshman year on the high school wrestling team.

And it’s something she’s never forgotten.

“The first time I saw him was as a high school wrestler. I know it sounds strange for a history teacher, but I was a fan of wrestling and what I saw was so much incredible heart in a young man, I can’t even put it into words,” Thoelke said.

“They always say that men don’t cry, but when he got his white lettersman jacket in high school, he got tears in his eyes. I won’t ever forget that.”

Thoelke and long-time Couture fans like her will receive their first opportunity to see Couture return home when he fights Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 102 in the organization's first event in Portland, Ore., Saturday night.

It’s an opportunity Couture has looked forward to ever since the original plans to host UFC 91 at the Rose Rose Garden Arena last year fell through.

“They talked about doing it for the Lesnar fight but it got so big they had to move it to Las Vegas,” Couture said. “When that happened they promised me the next opportunity I got to fight they would move it back here. Portland was where I lived for 14 years. We worked hard to get the sport sanctioned in the state of Oregon and now to see the biggest show headed there is pretty exciting.”

Couture’s legacy looms large in both Washington and Oregon where he spent his adolescence and later transitioned to the sport of MMA from wrestling.

A framed picture of the senior state champion still hangs from the walls of Lynnwood High School, which, according to athletic director assistant Lisa Gordon, has become one of the main attractions on campus.

While most high school students will have lost touch with former teachers 12 months after graduation, Thoelke was one of Couture’s biggest supporters, making the trip to Concord, Calif., for the Olympic wrestling trials when he was a favorite in 1992 and 1996.

To this day, Thoelke is bothered by what she swears was poor officiating that kept Couture from representing the United States in the Olympics as more than an alternate.

“He took it with far more honor than even the people who were there to watch him,” she remembers. “Randy just came over and gave each of us a hug.”

His support in Portland comes from hours of work as a former assistant wrestling coach at Oregon State, which ended in 1996.

According to Couture, the decision to stop coaching was actually one that former OSU head coach and longtime friend Joe Wells forced him to make.

Although Couture didn’t give up on his hope of making the Olympic team until after finishing as a semifinalist in the 2000 trials, he says letting go of coaching gave him the time he needed to make the successful transition into MMA.

“That’s where I first saw tape of the UFC was coaching at Oregon State,” Couture said. “Less than a year later I got the opportunity to fight at UFC 13. It caused kind of an uproar with the head coach. He thought it was bad for the university. He kind of forced me to make the decision between being a coach or being a fighter.

“At the time I was a little upset about it but looking back on it, I’m glad he made me do that. I would have been trying to juggle both and I don’t think it would have worked out.”

Wells remembers a similar story, but also recalls how once he saw Couture’s interest in the new sport, he knew he had lost his assistant coach.

“He was a smart guy, he understood what he was getting himself into,” Wells said. “Who was I to tell him he couldn’t do it? He thought it was a valuable entity — all it needed was some organization and a thought process behind it. He really had ideas on how it would work and the safety of it.

“That was actually one of the contentions I had about it. I didn’t know if it was a good deal to have an MMA fighter sitting there with mom and dad trying to convince them their son needed to come work with us.”

Couture made an immediate impact on his new sport and wasted no time in using that influence to help get the sport sanctioned in Oregon and open an MMA training facility called ‘Team Quest’ with former wrestling teammates Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland.

His accomplishments in the UFC since then have only pushed his popularity in the northwest region. According to Thoelke, his decision to come out of retirement at 43 after previously saying goodbye following a loss to Liddell in 2006 might have meant the most.

“When you look at it, you tend to think that heroes know when to retire,” Thoelke said. “When he went back again, that surprised everybody. Once you’ve had that championship belt, it’s pretty easy to sit back on your laurels. I can’t tell you how much that meant to everyone when he went back at that age. It was remarkable.”

It's been 28 years since Couture’s last championship fight in the northwest, when he won the 1981 state wrestling championship for Lynnwood High School. But much like he’s been able to do to for his large legion of UFC followers, few fans who watched Couture at even a young age have been able to forget him.

“He has a certain presence, it’s unique — I’ve never seen anybody else like it,” said Couture’s 26-year-old son, Ryan, who grew up in Woodinville, Washington. “He leaves an impression on people and that’s why people talk about him after the fact for so long.”

Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected].

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