'Natural' progress: Couture's final fight

Randy Couture may be ready to move on to the next chapter of his life, but he isn't taking it easy yet. Jeff Sherwood for Sherdog.com

LAS VEGAS -- Although he says it had minimal effect on his own decision to retire, Randy Couture admits he was genuinely saddened by the circumstances surrounding the end of Chuck Liddell's career.

To have one of the most brilliant careers in mixed martial arts end not because Liddell wanted it to, but because it had to, just didn't seem right.

"I felt horrible for Chuck," Couture told ESPN.com. "Everybody was chatting about him retiring. He's been such an amazing champion and he had such an aura around him.

"To have him drop the last couple in the way he did, it just sucked. The way the fans talked about him, it was very disappointing. I felt bad for him."

Couture has defied every expectation any athlete could ever have in mixed martial arts. His success and marketability are essentially unparalleled, and he'll always be remembered for somehow staying competitive at the age of 40.

Then 45. And then 46. Now 47.

But one thing Couture is not is crazy. He has made a career, a lifetime, of surprising people. But even he knew that, at some point, the sport would ask him to leave if he didn't walk away on his own.

So on April 30 at UFC 129, at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Couture will make his curtain call against Lyoto Machida in front of the biggest crowd ever to witness one of his fights.

Regardless of what happens in the Octagon that night, or whatever matchup the UFC might offer afterward, Couture says he's done. Walking away, on his own terms.

"There had to be an end. I'm not crazy," Couture said. "I've pushed this further than anybody thought I would or probably anybody will for a while. But I'm not nuts. I realize it's not going to last forever.

"So why not take control and do it on my terms? When I want to do it and not because I've been knocked out the last three times and nobody wants to see me get beat up again? I never want to have that conversation with anybody."

Minus this colossal announcement that one of the most iconic figures in the sport is set to retire, things appear absolutely routine for Couture headed into the fight.

At 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, two weeks before the event, Couture is the first one to arrive at his Las Vegas gym. He works the pads with boxing trainer Gil Martinez for 30 minutes, then spars with Cesar Ferreira, a 26-year-old Brazilian prospect, with no headgear.

As the day goes on, other fighters start appearing at Xtreme Couture: Jay Hieron, Gray Maynard, Martin Kampmann, Frank Trigg, Karo Parisyan -- all of them have agendas set for the day, but it seems every one stops at least for a moment to see how Couture fares against the explosive Ferreira.

They smile when Couture lands a combination under the chin, despite the fatigue that's set in from the now hourlong workout.

"He's ready," said Hieron, who has been with Couture's team his entire career. "Just because he's saying he's retiring, don't get it twisted like he didn't train and he's not going to give it his all. He's been in here every day, grinding with us."

No one in the sprawling complex of Xtreme Couture questions the boss' decision to hang it up, despite his riding a three-fight win streak into UFC 129.

In a way, these guys have been learning from Couture their whole careers and this is just another lesson: Better to leave with everyone asking you to stay than telling you to leave.

"The guy's a legend," Hieron said. "He could have retired a couple years ago, but he chose to stay and he's done great things since then. If it's time for him to go out, I'm behind him.

"He's done a lot of things that 99 percent of men in this world will never do."

The door that Couture walks through later this month won't close behind him. If he wanted to return at the age of 50, the sport almost certainly would welcome him back.

Martinez, who has known Couture for nearly three years, recognizes this. As a longtime boxing trainer, he has seen no shortage of "retired" fighters get that itch to return.

Whether that will happen to Couture, no one really knows. But Martinez believes when the last horn sounds at UFC 129, that will be it for the "The Natural."

"I think he's comfortable with his decision," Martinez said. "He has so many other opportunities that are going to keep him busy. He's going to be able to fill this hole with everything else he has going on.

"And he wants to enjoy his life. He's in a position to enjoy life. He'll be OK."

During his interview with ESPN.com, Couture -- a man who seemingly has never been aware of his age -- smiles when he brings up the number before the reporter can.

Discussing his retirement, he says, almost as if it's a secret, "You know, I'll be 48 in June."

Forty-eight and about to close the books on a journey he says began as a kid when he first walked onto a wrestling mat. It has been quite a ride.

"I pinch myself all the time," Couture said. "I feel so fortunate to have all the things I've had, to have been involved with this whole thing. It's amazing. I couldn't be any better, and not everyone walking around can say that. I'm pretty fortunate."

Brett Okamoto covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at bokamotoESPN.