Aging pro athletes thriving in a young man's game always make for a great spectacle. Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer, 46, is a marvel, throwing about as hard as your average slow-pitch softball stud but still making major league hitters look bad. And what about that Tom Watson, who at 59 inspired the world's elderly population by nearly winning the British Open in July? Then there's also a certain quarterback now playing for the Minnesota Vikings, who turns 40 in October, and still has a chance to age gracefully on the football field.
These age-defying athletes are all impressive. But they've got nothing on Randy Couture, the mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter who will take on heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira Saturday night in the 102nd Ultimate Fighting Championship event. A five-time champion in the UFC, the premier promoter in the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts, Couture, 46, is an aging man in a sport that can obliterate even young, healthy bones. As such, he amounts to a litmus test for the next wave of young MMA athletes, who have to wonder, how long can we hang around this grueling sport?Mixed martial arts, after all, is a violent sport that combines wrestling, boxing, jiu-jitsu and other forms of combat fighting. So in spite of the money he can make, won't Couture see the lasting damage inflicted on so many fighters, like pro boxers, who just hang around too long? "I think that's bull," says Couture, an alternate on the 1988, '92, and '96 U.S. Olympic wrestling teams. "I don't think there are going to be any long-term ramifications, other than I'm going to be in great shape for as long as I'm on the planet."
That may sound like reckless confidence, but Couture may actually benefit from the nature of his sport. It's true that compared to boxing, an MMA bout can seem rougher: grappling, kicking, punching, and fighters don't spend too much time dancing around the ring. But in fact, MMA isn't all about the head. One popular move is to force your opponent into submission by nearly breaking his arm. Painful? Sure. But not something that can cause long-term brain trauma. "We don't see the basic pounding other sports see," says Couture. "Not that our sport isn't rough. It's plenty rough. But I don't think [long-term injuries] will be an issue for any athletes."
Couture is a pioneer of his sport, an MMA legend who helped take the sport mainstream. Before joining the UFC in the late '90s, he spent six years in the Army, and was an assistant wrestling coach at Oregon State University. Somehow, he seems to be getting better with age. Couture reclaimed a heavyweight championship after coming out of yearlong retirement in 2007, though he lost his last fight, in November, to current UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar. He's broken an arm, his nose, and suffered an orbital fracture in previous fights, but swears he's pain-free. "My body has held up remarkably well," he says. "I managed to get through nine weeks of camp with no nagging injuries."
So what's this guy's secret? Start with the diet. "I try to eat a lot of raw foods and a lot of whole [grains]," says Couture. "I try to stay towards the alkaline type foods like raw almonds and greens and those sort of things as much as possible. Stay away from the dairies, the sugars and processed food, but keep it simple. I'm not one of those guys who likes to measure all that crap." As he's gotten older, Couture has also paid more attention to blood chemistry. He's now cutting down on his iron intake. "I had way too much iron in my system," Couture says. Of course, it's natural to wonder if a 46-year-old man can last without performance-enhancers like steroids. UFC fighters, however, do get tested, and Couture's record is clean.
Whether you're a rabid MMA fan, or one of those people who finds the fight craze mysterious, even repellent, Couture offers practical advice. "A lot of guys get older and they just start to feel a little bit different," he says. "They're like s--t; I'm just old. Don't give up that fight. You can still get a lot out of your body. Why shouldn't you fight it?"