It was August 2004, Ashlee Simpson was still in the charts, phone cameras were still relatively new and the UFC still had cool names for their PPV events.
UFC49 was known as ‘unfinished business’ and the business between the headliners ‘the Phenom’ Vitor Belfort and Randy ‘the Natural’ Couture was certainly just that, unfinished.
Vitor and Randy had met on two previous occasions and while Vitor was the champion going into this fight, having defeated Randy 8 months prior. It was still Vitor that felt he had the most to prove.
Belfort vs Couture 1
The two first met at UFC15 way back in 1997 in a heavyweight title eliminator. Randy notes in his book ‘Becoming the Natural’ that he felt that he was essentially being fed to Vitor. The UFC in his opinion did not want Randy to win that fight.
Coming into their fight at UFC 15 Vitor Belfort was dubbed the phenom after 3 consecutive 1st round stoppages. Vitor was a new breed of fighter that the UFC wanted to push for all he was worth, realistically they wanted him to win the heavyweight tournament.
Vitor in 1997 looked unstoppable, and most picked him to cruise past Randy in the heavyweight title eliminator. Randy had other plans, it took 8 minutes and change for the Natural to break the Phenom both physically and mentally.
Before that fight Randy said that he knew he could mentally break Vitor by just grinding him down. Randy just kept the fight close and dirty, the beating was one sided and severe, and in some ways Vitor never truly recovered.
Belfort vs Couture 2
The two would meet again at UFC46 in January of 2004, Vitor would take the light heavyweight title from Couture on that night. It was however due to a doctor stoppage after Couture was cut just 49 seconds into round number one.
Randy was adamant that this meant Vitor’s victory was meaningless, and that when they met again it would be a continuation of that fight. Randy was sure that he could repeat what he had done in 1997, he was dead set on breaking the Phenom again.
Belfort vs Couture 3
That brings us to the trilogy fight, 21st August 2004, Vitor Belfort vs Randy Couture. We were finally going to see if Vitor could overcome his demons or if he was destined to break again as Couture had been predicting.
Everyone knew that Vitor was dangerous on the feet, at the time he was about as dangerous as you could get. Randy Couture was 41 years old, a lot of people were just thinking that surely father time has to catch up with the Natural eventually right?
Well it wouldn’t be on this night, for Randy this was as close to a perfect performance as you can get. It was total domination from start to finish. More than that though, it was an implementation of a perfect game plan.
Watching this fight back it almost seemed that Vitor was beaten after round one, Randy was just the master of employing his strategy. Imposing his will on his opponents, and just breaking them physically and mentally was a signature of the Natural.
Couture was like a blanket smothering Vitor even in round one. Part way through the first round Vitor was so desperate to get Randy off him that he was resorting to eye gouging. This was not picked up by the referee but was highlighted by the replay between rounds.
A clash of heads opened a cut on Belfort early in round two but it wasn’t this that beat Vitor. Vitor was beaten mentally after round two this was especially evident when he didn’t even bother getting to his feet to walk to his stool, he just slumped on the floor bleeding heavily and looking dejected.
The beatdown continued in the same way throughout round three. Vitor was throwing up a few half hearted submission attempts, but these just landed him in a worse position where he would take yet more punishment from Couture.
When round three came to a close and Vitor slumped down at the side of the cage, the doctor took a look and advised that the fight should be stopped. There was no argument from Vitor he knew that he was beaten and likely would not have found a way back into the fight.
MMA has changed so much, but it is worth looking back
The reason I enjoy this fight is that it is a showcase of Randy Couture, what he was capable of doing and what he represented. Randy was not the fastest nor the hardest hitting, but that did not matter; he was smart enough to play to his strengths and nullify his opponents strengths.
This fight was a perfect example of Randy at his best, you can physically see Belfort breaking in the second round. It gets to a point where Belfort is just accepting the inevitable because he is too beaten up and too tired to try and win, this is what the Natural excelled at.
If you want to go back and take a look at a great example of Greco Roman wrestling combined with pressure and mental toughness (or weakness depending on who you’re focusing on) then look no further than this fight.
Worth a watch for anyone who hasn’t seen it before, or even if you have in the absence of new events it is well worth revisiting.