Mixed martial arts star Randy (The Natural) Couture announced his retirement Thursday, leaving the UFC heavyweight title up for grabs.
The inability to secure a fight with Russian heavyweight star Fedor Emelianenko and issues with UFC management appear to have driven the decision.
But at 44, Couture also knew Father Time was catching up. The barrel-chested Hall of Famer, who left the sport for almost a year in early 2006, exits a champion — and with plenty of opportunities in other fields.
Couture is currently in South Africa filming "The Scorpion King: The Rise of the Akkadian."
"He’a got a lot more movie offers coming in that he’s weighing," Couture spokesman Sean O’Heir said Thursday from Las Vegas. "That’s the direction he’s going in."
O’Heir also cited the UFC’s difficulty in signing Emelianenko to a contract.
"Fedor was Randy’s last great challenge and with the prospect of that fight being gone, he feels that he’s accomplished all he can in mixed martial arts.
"He’s looking to spend more quality time with his wife now."
Couture cited issues with UFC management in his resignation letter to UFC president Dana White, according to The Fight Network which quoted portions of it.
"I appreciate this opportunity the sport of MMA and the UFC has given me," Couture said in the letter. "However, I’m tired of swimming upstream at this stage with the management of the UFC. It only makes sense at this point in my career to fight Fedor Emelianenko, and since he’s now signed with another organization, I feel like it’s time to resign and focus on my other endeavours."
Emelianenko, considered by many to be the best MMA fighter in the world, will reportedly be the marquee man in a new Russian-based promotion called M-1.
White said he was not surprised by Couture’s decision.
"I talked to Randy several weeks ago and he said that if he couldn’t fight Fedor, then he has nothing left to prove in the sport of mixed martial arts," the UFC boss said in a statement.
"I think it’s a great move for Randy’s acting career to retire from fighting while he is on top," he added. "As we all know, Randy retired before. The landscape in MMA changes every day.
"So when he is ready to come out of retirement again, he is still under contract with me, and I’m ready to promote him."
The statement did not address Couture’s comment about "swimming upstream" with UFC management.
Couture retired in February 2006 after losing the rubber match in his trilogy of fights with light-heavyweight rival Chuck (The Iceman) Liddell at UFC 57.
He returned to the cage in March 2007, upsetting heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia at UFC 68.
It was his fifth UFC title.
Couture defended the heavyweight belt in August at UFC 74, scoring a TKO over hard-nosed Brazilian Gabriel Gonzaga despite breaking his arm in the bout to improve his record to 16-8.
"He’s a very unique individual," White said earlier this year. "You don’t see many guys that are able to compete at 44 years old, let alone at the level he’s competing at. He’s a freak of nature. Not only is he an incredible athlete and an incredible fighter, he’s an incredible human being."
Couture remembers the first time he climbed into the cage, back at UFC 13.
"I fought two great big guys in that tournament," he recalled in an August conference call. "The first guy was 300 pounds, the second was about 290 … I remember being about ready to piss my pants walking into that cage.
"I wasn’t sure if I wanted to climb the fence and run or stand in there and fight."
That was 10 years and more than 60 UFC cards ago.
A world-class wrestler — he was an Olympic Greco-Roman alternate four times for the U.S. — Couture was known primarily for taking opponents down and punishing them on the ground.
Few fighters were better than the 6-2, 220-pound Couture at mapping out a strategy, however. Couture showed his savvy against Sylvia by surprising with his striking power.
He knocked the six-foot-eight Sylvia down within seconds and then controlled him the rest of the fight, often on the ground.
Outside the cage, Couture’s empire continues to grow. He has gyms in Las Vegas, California and Florida and is looking to open the latest Xtreme Couture gym in Toronto with a location already picked out and a tentative spring unveiling.
He has a line of clothing and nutritional supplements, works as a fight promoter and TV analyst, and is starting up a booking agency with partners in Canada called Fight Lab, which will serve as an agency for fighter appearances and other MMA-related services.
Couture is also acting, with the films "Invincible," "Big Stan" and "Redbelt" already in the books.
On the small screen, he has been seen in "The Unit," with another appearance already planned for the series.
Plus he is working on his autobiography, due out in the spring.
"It’s been a long road, it’s been an absolute blast," he said prior to the Gonzaga fight. "It’s gone way further than I ever expected it to go and it just continues to grow. It’s absolutely amazing."