The 2000s will go down as the decade where MMA made the leap from niche obsession to mainstream – well, if not complete acceptance yet, let's say "tolerance" and work from there.
How do you pick a "best" of the decade when the decade became such a huge chapter of mixed martial arts history? The men who took the torch from Gracie, Shamrock, and Severn brought new levels of talent to the sport. Anderson Silva tore a path of destruction from Brazil to Japan to the United States. Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre were rock solid at the top of the UFC's welterweight division, holding the belt for an astonishing 93 months out of a possible 120. In May of 2000, a Russian fighter with sambo and judo skills started his MMA career. Did Fedor Emelianenko have a good decade? How does 31 wins in 33 fights sound?
That's just in the cage. Outside it, almost every state sanctioned MMA under the Unified Rules codified by the New Jersey Athletic Commission in 2000. Major television networks, including CBS, Showtime, Spike, and Versus, brought MMA to the airwaves. YouTube and viral video spread the gospel of MMA in ways tape-traders never could and made stars of jiujitsu legends and Miami street fighters alike. And behind most of it were Dana White, the Fertitta brothers, and Zuffa LLC. They took a struggling promotion, rode out a flood of red ink for a couple of years, and then found themselves rewarded for their faith and patience when the UFC broke big and made them all very rich.
My best thing of the MMA decade wasn't the most important fighter or personality – although he's certainly up there.
The Matrix and new Star Wars trilogies let us down this decade, but the Couture-Liddell rumbles never did.
I've always considered myself more of a fan than an expert, so I don't think I'm qualified to tell you who the absolute best of the 2000s was. Instead, I'll present to you the fighter who turned me from casual observer to cage junkie (and erstwhile blogger). He's the man who refused to tap out to the most relentless and savage of a fighter's opponents: Father Time. At an age where NFL running backs are all long retired and even baseball players have lost a step, Randy "The Natural" Couture was winning his second heavyweight championship and getting ready to show a new generation of fans that just once in a while, a fighter does know when to hang up the gloves – and when not to.
A 12-8 record during the 2000s isn't eyepopping, but like Forrest Gump, Couture managed to find himself in the middle of some of the most pivotal bouts in UFC history. Brutal matches against Pedro Rizzo and Ricco Rodriguez compelled Couture to drop from 245 to 205, but the move suited him. Already "the Natural" after serving Vitor Belfort's youth in 1997, he added "Captain America" to his list of nomenclature when his signature ground-and-pound style finished Chuck Liddell in 2003. Two weeks later, Couture turned 40. Over the hill? Not remotely. On the contrary, the elder statesman had the stature to give bad boy Tito Ortiz just the spanking he needed – literally – when Couture beat him to unify the light heavyweight title.
The rest of Couture's decade would contain ups and downs, multiple retirements and subsequent un-retirements. Yes, Liddell would take the next two matches from Couture. But not before the coaches helped train up a pair of young studs named Griffin and Bonnar for a 2005 classic that topped the UFC's 100 Greatest Fights list, capped a season of The Ultimate Fighter that likely saved the UFC from financial ruin, and made the Natural and the Iceman pop culture figures in their own right.
In 2006, Couture was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. Michael Jordan recently lamented that his Hall of Fame induction was a sad time for him, as it meant his career was well and truly over. When Couture announced a return in 2007 to fight Tim Sylvia for the UFC's heavyweight title, the conventional wisdom was that Couture was too old, too slow, too small – especially for a return to a division that he couldn't hang with once before.
How long did it take Couture, upon returning to the cage, to answer his doubters? One punch. It was a right hand that floored Sylvia under a minute into the fight. 25 minutes later, Couture had himself a unanimous 50-45 decision and another hunk of leather and gold to add to his trophy case.
We as fight fans can't be blamed for worrying about Randy every time he announces another matchup. We've seen this movie before. We've seen it with Sugar Ray, with Ali, with Tyson. But the cage door never closes on the Natural. I doubted him yet again in August before his long anticipated matchup with Big Nog. Couture didn't win, but he did put on one of the best and toughest performances this year. Not for a second did he look like a man that didn't belong in the fight. Watching him walk to the ring, I envied a physique that – at 20 years my elder – was far beyond that which I could ever hope to attain. (May you all look as good a decade from now!)
By 2019, when Randy is enjoying his AARP discount, I assume we'll all be celebrating some name we haven't heard of yet as the best of the 2010s. This decade, however, did not belong to the young. It belonged to the Natural. Like Roy Hobbs finding Wonderboy, he managed to become a legend instead of a lost cause. I'll still worry just a little every time he walks out of the locker room, but I think he's more than earned our trust in his judgment.
Randy Couture will let us know when he's ready to hang up his gloves again. He's the one who's always understood the best.
Image from MMAConvert.com