We knew it was coming. We'd seen the announcement and heard the volatile reaction to the news by UFC president Dana White. Still, it was disconcerting when the Spike series Fight Master made its debut on Wednesday night and there, front and center, was Randy Couture.
The man who eight years ago helped pioneer mixed martial arts reality television as a coach on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, the show that propelled the UFC out of obscurity and financial instability and into the mega-business and big player on the sports scene it has become? On a Bellator MMA television show?
How'd this happen? How does a UFC Hall of Famer, a three-time UFC heavyweight champion and two-time light heavyweight champ, a man who was in a record 15 UFC title fights, end up working with a rival fight promotion? It'd be like "Captain America" going to work for the other side.
The disharmony has been brewing for years, actually. The most visible evidence came back in 2007, during his third reign as heavyweight champ, when Couture walked away from his UFC contract, citing dissatisfaction with his pay as well as other complaints. There were court battles. There was a year-long retirement. Finally, the UFC announced it had signed Couture to a new contract and was matching him against Brock Lesnar. Couture lost his title in that fight but remained with the UFC until his retirement, at age 47, following a knockout loss to Lyoto Machida in 2011.
By then, Couture had already begun the process of transitioning to the next stage of his MMA life, working with athletes as a trainer at his Las Vegas gym, Xtreme Couture. He'd also begun building a name outside the sport, playing a significant role in the 2010 film The Expendables and in last year's sequel, too. Fight Master is just the latest illustration that "The Natural" is moving on.
Of course, breakups can be bitter. "I'm happy that he's gone," Dana White told reporters shortly after Spike announced its deal with Couture. "I'm happy that he's gone forever and that he's with them. I don't respect him at all, not even a little. The only time that Randy Couture is ever a man is when he steps foot in the cage. As soon as his big toe steps out of the cage, he's the furthest thing from it."
Couture, who turns 50 on Saturday, sat down with SI.com to share his perspective on White's resentment along with his thoughts on his latest venture into MMA reality TV, in which he coaches teams of inexperienced fighters alongside fellow UFC refugee Frank Shamrock, the estimable trainer Greg Jackson (no Dana favorite, either) and former Bellator featherweight champion Joe Warren. The twist this time is that the coaches don't choose their fighters. The fighters choose ... which seemed like a good jumping-off point for our conversation.
SI.com: My first reaction upon watching Fight Master was this: What fighter in his right mind would choose to be coached by Joe Warren rather than you or Greg Jackson?
Randy Couture: [Laughs.] Having four coaches involved, all from varying backgrounds and skill sets and experience levels, creates a whole other layer of interest for the fans. We're all so different. You talk about Joe Warren. He was a world champion wrestler and a world champion in the Bellator cage. He's relatively green and new to the coaching experience. But Joe's kind of a nice surprise, kind of the wild card of the bunch. He's got such a gregarious personality, and it comes through in everything he does.
SI.com: Yeah, but if you have to choose a coach ...
Couture: It comes down to what works for a fighter. I'm a little more conservative and a little more refined, through 15 years of experience in mixed martial arts and coaching. Frank Shamrock has a unique approach to things. And then there's Greg Jackson, who's coached several champions in the sport and runs a very successful training center in Albuquerque. Greg is certainly a strong philosophical presence. So there are a lot of contrasts between the coaches.
SI.com: Contrast but no conflict, interestingly. Unlike your stint on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, you're not splitting your focus between training these fighters and also preparing to fight the other coach, Chuck Liddell. On Fight Master, your full attention is on coaching.
Couture: Yes, but that doesn't make it any less competitive between coaches. All of us are competitive people. Are we going to be stepping into the cage and punching each other anytime soon? Probably not. But we don't like to lose at anything we do. That's just kind of how were wired, and that comes out on the show. We're all confident in our abilities as athletes and as coaches, and we're all in this to win it. We all want to have the last guy standing.
SI.com: Even with the differences between shows, does this experience have a familiar feel?
Couture: Yeah, absolutely. I recognize a lot of the Spike staff and production people. Fight Master is a proving ground for young, aspiring fighters who want a chance to play on a bigger stage. That's something it has in common with The Ultimate Fighter, which has always been like a farm league for the UFC, a place to develop new talent. You look back, especially to that first season, and just about all of those guys went on to compete at a high level. A lot of these guys in Fight Master will compete in Bellator and in mixed mart arts for quite some time.
SI.com: Having the athletes choose their coaches forces them to take responsibility from the get-go. So can we assume that Fight Master won't devolve into the immature reality-TV antics we've seen over the years on TUF from guys like Chris Leben?
Couture: [Laughs.] Yeah, Chris was one of my guys from Oregon. I knew Chris well. I think there'll be very little of that behavior on Fight Master. It's genuinely focused on the tactics, the techniques, the progression of these athletes and how these four coaches can help them move forward. I don't think you're ever going to get away from some of that posturing, some of that psychological warfare and verbiage. Some of these guys are just wired that way. So it's going to come out a little bit. But it's definitely not the focus of this show.
SI.com: After seeing you in the UFC for so many years, it was surprising for many of us when you left for Bellator.
Couture: I actually signed my deal with Spike. Fight Master is a show that Spike came up with. Obviously, Spike has a vested interest in Bellator, which is filling a void that was created when the UFC and The Ultimate Fighter left and went to Fox. I think this fills a huge piece of the puzzle for the folks at Spike, in terms of demographics and what programming they like to do. For me, it was about continuing to develop my brand and being involved in a sport that I've loved for a long time. I wasn't getting an opportunity to do that at any significant level with the UFC, and when this opportunity came along, it felt good to me. It felt like the right thing to do.
SI.com: You're in the UFC Hall of Fame. You build your legend in that organization. How did the relationship fall apart?
Couture: I've had issues with the company almost from the start, with regard to ancillary rights and contracts and whether I was getting a fair shake and whether I was being told, accurately, where I stood with regard to the company. We've had our issues in the past, for sure. I don't really want to go over that. It's old news.
SI.com: But Dana White has said ...
Couture: Dana has said his piece, and the issues really are his. It's like a marriage. There's always what happens onstage in front of the curtain, and there's a whole bunch of stuff that happens behind the curtain that the general public and even some of your closest family members don't know about. So sometimes it's surprising when some of those things go public -- when a couple breaks up, when there's a divorce. People are like, 'Oh my God. I thought they were happy. Things seemed so good.' It's never reality. There are always two sides to the story. But this is kind of old news, as far as I'm concerned. I'm staying positive, moving forward, doing the best that I can do for my career.
SI.com: Business arrangements fall apart all the time, but when Dana White talks about this he's so charged up, ranting about you as a person. It's not just that you're no longer doing business together. How has hearing his bitter reaction felt for you? I hate to use the term "hurtful," because it seems ...
Couture: Of course it was hurtful. That's how Dana operates. That's the sword that he wields. That's how the Fertittas use him. They know how he's going to react. They know he's going to say the things he's going to say. He goes out of his way to be hurtful, to be insulting, to drop F-bombs and try to push buttons. That's how he operates. He's very predictable in that regard. At the press conference for Fight Master I thanked him for creating such a media storm for the brand new show. And since then we haven't heard a word from him.
Couture: Well, he did create a media frenzy with his antics and comments about me personally and by dragging my family into this situation. It's unfortunate that my son Ryan is caught up in it a bit. I think Dana has crossed the line by not allowing my son to have me in his corner or the brand that we built with our name represented in the UFC. That affects my son's career, and I feel horrible that Ryan has to deal with that. He's earned his spot in the UFC. He's doing the best he can. He deserves a fair shake. And I don't think he's getting that.
But this is how Dana operates. I don't operate that way. It's not personal for me. It's about making the best business decisions I can for my brand and for the sport of mixed martial arts.