(Ryan Couture poses for a photo with his father, billionaire fragrance-baron Randy Couture.)
By Elias Cepeda
To say Ryan Couture’s MMA career has moved fast is an understatement. The son of perhaps the most accomplished MMA fighter in history, Randy Couture, Ryan left a banking job just a few years ago to train full-time in Las Vegas with his father, and only two and a half years into his professional career, he has put together a four-fight win streak against great fighters in Strikeforce.
Though his last name has created a whirlwind around him since day one, the junior Couture has kept his head down and stayed humble while working hard to perfect his craft. With the week Ryan has had, it is a good thing that he had practice at keeping cool and collected amidst craziness.
The 30-year-old lightweight upset K.J. Noons in mid-January on Strikeforce’s final card. It was assumed that several Strikeforce champions and contenders would be offered UFC contracts after that event but nothing was certain for Couture.
Like all up-and-coming fighters, it was Couture’s dream to make it to the UFC. He took some time to rest after the Noons fights, got back to light training and waited for word about his future.
“I have a rule where I take one week after a fight and do nothing but eat cheeseburgers and drink beer,” Ryan says with a chuckle. “But after that, I got back to lifting and doing strength and conditioning with Jake [Bonacci], just trying to ease back up to working on the mat because my face was banged up.”
Then, a week ago Couture says he got a life-changing call from UFC President Dana White. Ryan was offered a UFC contract, but it came with one serious caveat.
The younger Couture works and trains in Las Vegas out of his father’s Xtreme Couture gym. His dad is also his coach and a corner man – three of the most important and trusted roles any fighter could have combined into one. As Ryan was getting closer to the UFC, however, Randy was getting further from it. The former heavyweight and light heavyweight champion had just signed a deal with former UFC partner but now rival, Spike TV, and rising MMA organization Bellator.
Dana White was furious at Randy for leaving a UFC/Fox television deal to work for a competitor and going about it in a way he claims was backhanded. On the phone with Ryan, White extended a bitter-sweet opportunity.
“The whole thing was a blur,” Ryan said of his short conversation with White. “The whole thing probably lasted a total of two minutes. I was at work at the gym front desk last Friday and my phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize and I was with a customer so I ignored it. It rang again and then I ignored it again. Then I got a text saying, ‘this is Dana, can you call me back?’
“I thought, ‘oh shoot, I don’t want to ignore that call,’ so I let my boss the gym manager know that I needed to make a phone call and called him back. He said…’obviously me and your dad have beef. Things aren’t OK between us but I want to reassure you that you are a UFC fighter. You have a home here.’ He said that was assuming that I wanted to fight for them. He gave me the option. He said he was not going to make my life miserable if I wanted to leave and pursue something else.”
While speaking with assembled media after last Saturday’s UFC 156, White lambasted Randy Couture and mentioned that he had spoken with Ryan and explained to him that his father would no longer be welcome at UFC events. Through his anger, White’s comments were vague but ominous-sounding.
It is easy to understand that White would not roll out the red carpet at UFC events for a now-competitor in Randy, but could the UFC and White actually affect who is and is not allowed to corner one of their fighters? Fighters and seconds/cornermen are licensed by state athletic commissions, not by the UFC.
We asked Randy earlier this week what his understanding was regarding his ability to corner his son during fights going forward. “I don’t have the answer to that question right now. I think it’s an athletic commission,” he told us.
So, we contacted Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Director Keith Kizer and asked if White or the UFC had contacted him about preventing Randy from being a licensed second for his son. “Absolutely not,” Kizer told us. “No promoter has ever contacted us and told us who and who not to license.”
Furthermore, Kizer told us, even if a promoter had attempted to dictate or pressure them on licensing matters, neither he nor the commission would not take that into consideration. “Licensing is done by the athletic commission,” he said.
There is no particular reason to believe that White or the UFC acted improperly and attempted to pressure the Nevada Commission to no longer license their Hall of Fame fighter, but had White pressured Ryan to agree to no longer bring his dad with him to events? We asked Ryan if, during his brief conversation with Dana White, he got the impression that if he listed his dad as a corner man — or if he even bought a ticket and watched from the audience — that it would be a problem for his new bosses.
“That’s the way it seems to me,” Ryan said.
“Dana told me, ‘your dad is not welcome at our events.’ The full implication of that didn’t sink in until after we hung up. It is what it is. If Dana doesn’t want dad there, he doesn’t want him there. I did say that I wanted dad to be involved in my training, and Dana said I could do whatever I needed to with my training. Really, for me, it’s a bummer because he doesn’t even want him there as a spectator. My dad can’t cheer for me from the audience. My dad has been a big part of how I got to where I am. He’s a great corner man, a fantastic coach. He’s able to communicate things clearly and that is really important.”
Saddened, Ryan still decided to take White and the UFC’s offer. “As it stands, the beef is between Dana and dad and it needs to stay that way. It’s not my issue. That has nothing to do with my career,” he said.
“I told him that the UFC is where I want to be. It is hard to get there and it is the best place to accomplish my goal, which is to be the best fighter I can be and hopefully the best in the world one day.”
This past summer, I spent time interviewing both the elder and younger Couture and they both went on and on about how Ryan living in Vegas and being a professional fighter out of Randy’s gym had brought them close. Randy and Ryan’s mother divorced while he was still young and both seem to relish getting back time together that had once been lost.
It may be premature to speculate, but one has to wonder if this new development — Ryan’s new boss telling him he has to make changes in who corners him or even watches him live and in person during fights — will put some distance back between father and son. They work for competing companies now, and it appears as if Ryan would be in trouble with the UFC if his dad continues to corner him.
The young fighter is confident that he and his dad’s relationship will remain strong, however. “Our relationship will absolutely not be affected negatively by this,” Ryan said.
“The day of the fight, in some ways is a small part of the process. Whenever he’s around he’s going to be heavily involved in training camp. He will continue to actually be there for the hands-on stuff. We will always have that no matter what. That’s never going to change. We both have talked it through and he wants what’s best for both of our careers. I don’t see it coming between us at all. It will be a bummer to not have him there for my next fight. This next one is going to be a special one. It will be bittersweet, though, because he won’t be in the corner. But we each want what’s best for each of our careers.”
Things have been moving fast for Ryan Couture, but he’s glad to be where he is. He also feels ready.
“If you had asked me a year ago if I thought I’d be ready to fight in the UFC I would have definitely said that I needed more time, not to be fast tracked,” he admitted.
“But I feel like I’ve proven a lot to myself and everyone else [during my] last three wins. I’m putting on good shows and improving how I react under pressure, particularly with being hurt in the second round of my last fight and still finishing strong. My confidence couldn’t be higher.
“The last six months I’ve begun to feel that I’m at the level where I can hang with anybody. The timing couldn’t be better.”