Well-respected Couture will be difficult for UFC to replace

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I'm often asked if Randy Couture is as nice a guy as the easygoing athlete we all see smiling from his front row seat at UFC events on television.

Having collaborated with Couture on his 2008 memoir, Becoming The Natural: My Life In and Out of the Cage, which we worked on together for three years, I realize I've had a closer vantage point than most of one of the sport's legendary figures.

I was asked this question again Saturday night, standing in a crowded bar in Anaheim, Calif., as "The Natural" waged his final bout as a professional fighter in the Octagon nearly 2,200 miles away at UFC 129 in Toronto. As always, my answer was a simple "yes."

I met Couture in 2001, an event or two after he'd won the UFC heavyweight title a second time, this one from Kevin Randleman at UFC 28. He was 36 at the time, 11 fights into his 30-fight career and already considered somewhat over the hill by the sport's standards.

One of my first interviews in a new sport called mixed martial arts, Couture met me in the hotel lobby, patiently gave me more than an hour of his time and helped solidify my decision to become a full-time MMA reporter.

In his soft, engaging voice, Couture spoke with an eloquent confidence. He laughed when the interview took a humorous turn just as easily as he could answer serious questions thoughtfully and with conviction.

He gave me his undivided attention, which made me feel like I was the most important person in the room. I would come to learn that Couture had this effect on almost everyone he spoke to. And as my career progressed and I interviewed hundreds more fighters, I began to grasp what a unique trait he possessed.

Remember the most likable person in your high school class and you'll begin to understand the person that Randy Couture is. It was something I had difficulty capturing in his autobiography because he was naturally unaware of it, which is part of his charm. I once asked Couture's sister, Yolanda, if her big brother was popular in high school and she laughed, describing how even one of his teachers couldn't hide his admiration when he gifted Couture a letterman's jacket out of the blue.

As I watched Couture navigate through the sport, I witnessed him connecting with his fighting peers. If he walked into a locker room alone, it would only take a few seconds before someone flanked his side. People enjoyed talking to him and valued his opinions on training, fighting and I'm guessing a host of other topics as well.

Fighters from all over the world have converged on the Xtreme Couture MMA gym in Las Vegas to train alongside him.

Vitor Belfort, who Couture fought and beat at two pivotal times during the Brazilian phenomenon's young career, sought out his former foe as a regular training partner and confidante after his second loss to him in 2004. In turn, Belfort, who still splits his time between Las Vegas and his native Brazil, was an integral part of Couture's preparation for his final fight, against Lyoto Machida on Saturday.

Even former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, arguably the most clandestine of any fighter to step in the Octagon, invited Couture out to his secluded Alexandria, Minn., gym in preparation for the former World Wrestling Entertainment star's title defense against Shane Carwin at UFC 116 in July 2010.

Other fighters often tell me they admire and try to emulate Couture's commitment to being the best that he can be in the sport. It's this drive to give it his all or nothing that led Couture to his first retirement following his second knockout defeat to Chuck Liddell at UFC 57 in early 2006.

Embroiled in his second divorce and trying to find his footing in the aftermath of a breakup with Team Quest, a formidable fight squad made up of his wrestling contemporaries, this is the only time I've seen Couture truly succumb to sadness.

Backstage, Couture dabbed at his teary eyes and bloody nose with a washcloth, overcome with a sense of disappointment in himself -- not that he'd retired -- but that he hadn't been able to win the fight.

During his retirement, which would last only a year, Couture's thirst for competition never abated. He'd dieted, exercised, trained and suffered grueling weight cuts as a professional athlete since the age of 18, when an officer had spotted Couture's cauliflower ears in an Army gym in Germany and plucked him from the enlisted.

Surely, now 42 with a little money in his pocket, Couture would take a breather, but he had other challenges to chase. He enrolled in an extreme adventure race, which took us to the breathtaking, mountain-desert landscape of Moab, Utah. I stood on the shores of the Colorado River watching Couture dip his kayak into the freezing water for a two-and-a-half hour paddle, followed by a 40-mile bike trek through the winding Moab canyons, a 275-foot rappel down the mountainside and a six-mile run to finish it off. Without any real training, he managed to cross the finish line in the middle of the pack -- enough for the sport's regulars to take notice.

On the Colorado River's bank, it became clear to me that retirement didn't fit Couture well at all.

But when he decided to return to fighting in March 2007 -- in a heavyweight title bout against towering 6-foot-8 striker Tim Sylvia, no less -- many in Couture's inner circle not only feared he'd lose but also fretted for his well-being. Layoffs aren't usually kind to fighters, especially for 43-year-olds who have fallen out of the constantly evolving training cycles needed to stay relevant in the sport.

But Couture knew something we all didn't and it wasn't his style to let any of us in on it. I think part of the gratification of being an underdog is being able to revel in that feeling you get after you prove a large group of people wrong.

Even after Saturday, as 55,000 fans shook the walls of the Rogers Centre Arena in Toronto chanting his name, Couture told me that his five-rounder with Sylvia at UFC 68 in Columbus, Ohio, remains the favorite fight of his career. In the first 10 seconds, Couture dropped Sylvia with an overhand right that fans still talk about. However, it was the bout's final 10 seconds, where 16,000 fans counted it down like a New Year's Eve celebration, that the ageless legend felt a once-in-a-lifetime connection with his admirers.

I've never seen Couture turn down a fan who has approached him, even the one who trailed him into the bathroom one night at a show to ask for an autograph. I've only seen Couture cranky one time in 10 years, and most days he has the patience of a saint, as his life, more often than not, seems to be an endless loop of media interviews and appearances.

But by no means is Couture perfect. He's never claimed to be and has openly discussed his struggles with living up to the "Captain America" persona thrust upon him. He's been married and divorced three times and not all his personal and business relationships have survived the strain that the pressure of money brings.

But like with his fighting, he strives to get better at it. After spending a good portion of his 20s and 30s chasing an Olympic dream that would elude him four times, Couture reconnected with his two oldest children. Today, they live in Las Vegas and work alongside him in the family business. Ryan, 28, his eldest son, is quietly growing into a promising fighter himself.

Randy Couture will never be the most gifted athlete to ever enter the Octagon. Like Michael Jordan started out in basketball, Couture lost more wrestling matches in junior high school than he won, but he kept at it. I think it's Couture's competitive fire and passion to challenge and push himself that people relate to the most and are inspired by. It's what makes other fighters want to be like him and why people get knots in their stomach each time he steps into the cage. Rarely do people want to see him fail.

On Saturday, I watched the most influential fighter of the sport's first 20 years finally extinguish that inner fire that kept him going far past the norms of what this demanding sport dictates is physically possible. But he did it on his own terms, against a skilled fighter who challenged and pushed and eventually bested him. This time, I believe Couture, who turns 48 in June, is walking into retirement with peace of mind.

In years to come, I suspect Couture's name will be spoken with the same reverence that Muhammad Ali's is given in boxing. And there is more to come from the six-time titleholder and UFC Hall of Famer as he settles into an advocate's role speaking up for the rights of the fighters now walking the path he helped pave.

There will never be another Randy Couture in mixed martial arts, but I know there are fighters who will learn from both his example and his mistakes, and create their own legacies. And in them, I'm sure we'll see a little bit of Randy Couture.