–Kenny Rice

He made a sport that was perceived as unnatural, natural. While it had been limited to a web following before the explosion of Internet sports coverage, he brought attention from TV and newspapers. A tough-man competition to the masses he showed physical strength with intelligence the likes of which fans had not seen.

Baseball was never considered the “National Pastime” until Babe Ruth started blasting home runs and mingling with fans, interacting with reporters in a manner they had not witnessed. He brought personality as much as talent to the sport.

MMA was regarded in general as a pro wrestling hybrid with questions about it’s authenticity with characters more than real athletes, unfair but those were the early misconceptions. Even when Royce Gracie was submitting men far bigger than he, there was still the feeling from the general sports audience that this was some kind of freak show with muscles and a vernacular of moves sounding like a foreign language.

Then came Randy Couture, appropriately known as “The Natural.” Ruggedly handsome with an infectious smile, articulate and strong. Suddenly people who had always been on the outside looking in no longer dismissed MMA, they were seeing the prototype athlete and could relate. He was as comfortable beating someone up as sitting down for an interview. And always made it look easy. He was amazingly talented but seemed like a regular guy. He remembered names and was genuinely engaging when he was met by fans and media. He was candid, even self-deprecating sometimes. He was real.

An Army veteran, a collegiate wrestling star, Hollywood couldn’t dream up a more perfect representative. He epitomized the All-American.

Chuck Liddell appearing on “Dancing With The Stars,” Tito Ortiz on “The Apprentice,” and Jon Jones on “The Tonight Show,” all owe thanks to Couture, the first MMA star to cross over into the mainstream. He cracked the ceiling wide open for these men and others that this new breed of sport and new brand of fighters could be appreciated, respected.

Someone would have come along, they always do like Garth Brooks did for country music, that would transcend the genre, but it is difficult to imagine a more perfect, yes natural fit, for MMA than Couture.

As he approaches his final fight April 30 against Lyoto Machida, it is a bittersweet moment for fans. But it is a natural progression for Couture. After all he’ll be 48 years old in June, an incomprehensible age to still be competing at the UFC level, an unfathomable time to be at the highest level for any sport.

Even more mind boggling is it isn’t age that is leading to this, though he admits “I don’t want to grind out another training camp, I want to enjoy life a little more.” Talk about “birther conspirators”, double check Couture’s certificate. Can a man approaching a half-century of life still be that good of an athlete? Yet he continues to display top shelf ability, not at the peak of his game any longer but still far from a mere plateau, he still inhales the rarified air few have ever done at any age.

But with the notoriety he has earned Couture has also shown he is a natural at another craft, acting. So solid that he has worked with action superstars Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis. He has the two movies in post production at the moment and is getting ready for “The Expendables 2” the sequel to last summer’s box office hit.

“I’m looking now for something more, a progression. There are more acting jobs, other business opportunities,” Couture says, “I look back on my career that it doesn’t really come down to this fight or that necessarily, it’s about the journey itself.”

It’s fitting this journey ends with Machida. “He has a complex style. It’s another test of my mettle. I might be considered the underdog as it seems I have most of my fights, but I wanted a challenge to close out. I’m not interested in trying to make a title run again. As I said I want to enjoy life a little more. And regardless of the outcome of this fight, with 50,000 people there how exciting it will be, I am content to move on.”

The UFC Hall of Famer, both Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight champion, has made it an incredible, unmatched journey for fans and the sport. He made it natural to appreciate the skills involved in MMA and to sports fans everywhere he made it credible, accessible and interesting.

Couture is more than winning belts, he won over a generation.

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