A former NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion will battle a four-time national Greco-Roman wrestling champion Saturday night, and 12,000 people will pay big bucks to watch it happen live at the Mandalay Bay arena in Las Vegas.
What’s more, at least 1 million households are expected to pay nearly $45 each to watch these two former amateur wrestling champions square off - more than for any boxing match this year.
That’s pretty amazing. Normally, you would have to pay people to watch two amateur wrestlers grapple. After all, we are not talking about the scripted world of the WWE.
Of course, Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar will do more than just grapple when they face each other Saturday night. They will punch, kick and do some submission moves that would get them disqualified from any amateur wrestling tournament.
What we are talking about is mixed martial arts - specifically the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title.
In what likely will be the biggest pay-per-view sporting event of 2008, Couture, the three-time UFC heavyweight champion and an MMA legend at age 45, will face Lesnar, a former three-time WWE champion who will be fighting in just his fourth MMA match.
The fight will draw six times the amount of buys the Kelly Pavlik-Bernard Hopkins match did last month - which leaves many of my peers in this business dumbfounded.
MMA is a phenomenon that a generation of sportswriters either don’t understand or don’t care to. That’s too bad because when it is right, MMA is a remarkable sporting spectacle that features world-class athletes - as it does in Saturday night’s match between two of the best amateur wrestlers of their eras.
Lesnar won the NCAA heavyweight wrestling championship while at Minnesota in 2000, going 31-1 for the season. The year before, he nearly won the title, losing in the title match to Stephen Neal, who went on to play for the New England Patriots as an offensive lineman.
Couture was a four-time U.S. national champion in Greco-Roman wrestling in the 1990s. His last win came at age 36 — after he had won a UFC championship. He was a two-time finalist in the NCAA wrestling championships for Oklahoma State.
Josh Hendricks, who will face Gabriel Gonzaga in the undercard, was a two-time All-American wrestler at Ashland. Chuck Liddell, one of UFC’s best-known stars, was a collegiate wrestler at Cal Poly.
MMA has given amateur wrestlers a way to get paid when their college careers are over - a way other than becoming a gym teacher.
This gets lost amid the toughman components of the sport - the pounding on the ground, the octagon “cage” - but much of MMA consists of the amateur wrestling skills and the expertise of Brazilian jiujitsu. It can be more brutal than boxing, but it also can be sweeter than the sweet science.
I was ringside when Couture came out of retirement to beat UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia last year, and I saw how sweet it can be: a 44-year-old athlete with tremendous heart beating the odds by putting the bigger, younger man down on the mat and, for much of the next 25 minutes, controlling him and keeping him there. That was as impressive a physical feat as I have seen in person.
Beating Lesnar on Saturday night - which Couture will do - may surpass that. Lesnar is a physical beast. He is 6-foot-3 and truly a super heavyweight - he had to lose weight to get down to the 265-pound limit for UFC heavyweights. He likely will walk into the ring Saturday night weighing as much as 280 pounds that appear to have been carved out of granite.
Couture, at 6-1 and 220 pounds, is a small heavyweight who has gone between the light heavyweight and heavyweight classes over his career. In addition, he is 14 years older than his stronger opponent.
But MMA isn’t about strength and youth. It is about skill and experience. It is about an opponent like Frank Mir, whom Lesnar faced in his first MMA fight more than a year ago. Mir took a beating from the bigger man, then caught him with a kneebar and forced him to submit 90 seconds into the fight.
It is why Couture will triumph over Lesnar. This isn’t a toughman contest. It’s not a brawl. It is a sweet science when done right, and Couture does it right.
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