Couture defeats Gonzaga to retain heavyweight championship at UFC 74

LAS VEGAS -- It's become old hat, these so-called "shockers."

Forty-four years young, facing a larger heavyweight 16 years his junior whose style appeared to mix like oil to his water, UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture, a perpetual underdog throughout his storied mixed martial arts career, entered his eighteenth bout in the octagon Saturday night and did exactly what he said he was going to do: dominate.

Why would anyone be surprised at this point?

Less than two minutes into the third round of a compelling fight, Brazilian challenger Gabriel Gonzaga, who earlier this year earned his way into the title shot by brutally knocking out Mirko Filipovic with a head kick, lay beaten and blooded as a crowd of 11,118 inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center eagerly cheered Couture for having just vanquished another would-be king.

"The Natural" is a patient tactician, yet in defeating Tim Sylvia to recapture the heavyweight crown this past March and versus Gonzaga tonight, he managed to score the first meaningful salvo nearly off the opening bell.

A snapping left hook to Gonzaga's chin had the 252-pound challenger out of Ludlow, Mass., dancing like a grade-schooler intent on avoiding cracks in the ground. The heavyweights engaged in a clinch for the first time, and Couture failed to grapple Gonzaga to the canvas. Instead, they traded punches and kicks, and Couture again landed a clean power shot with his left that seemed to hurt the 28-year-old challenger.

Against the octagon fencing, Couture hoisted Gonzaga high in the air before twisting him almost parallel to the floor and dumping him on his head. Though Gonzaga stood almost immediately, the result of an accidental clash of heads showed on his face.

"I think that's what cut his nose pretty bad," stated Couture, now 16-8-0. "When he came down our heads came together. I heard the crunch and I knew his nose was broken."

Gonzaga, now forced to breathe through his mouth, faced a rabid champion, who wailed away on the inside until the horn for round one sounded. Napao walked back to his corner with the lower half of his face covered in blood.

A minute's rest and the work of an expert cut-man did little to staunch the flow from Gonzaga's battered nose.

Early in the second, the fighters clinched and Gonzaga (8-2) looked to referee Herb Dean for help. Mouthing to the official that he could not see, Dean precariously moved in before separating the fighters and engaging in a discussion with the challenger. Soon, a Nevada State Athletic Commission ringside physician joined the pair, and the fight was allowed to continue.

Dean restarted action in the same position and Couture, a former U.S. Greco-Roman Olympic wrestling hopeful, tried right away to put Gonzaga on the mat. To avoid going down, however, Napao grabbed the fence and Dean responded by deducting a point. They remained against the chain-link and Couture unloaded with combinations on the inside.

"I just had to stay in that range," said Couture. "He's a big strong guy -- you don't want to stand on the outside."

With a dominant round and the point deduction, a case could have been made for a 10-7 score in the second period. Yet scoring held little relevance compared to time -- a significant points lead was nice, but with 15 minutes remaining in the five-round title fight it didn't appear Gonzaga, wilted against Couture's pace and pressure, would last long enough to make the judges' tally meaningful.

"I felt like if I got in his face, kept the pressure on him, and was able to frustrate him from there, that it would pay dividends as the fight went on," said Couture. "I think he just wore down."

Gonzaga unloaded whatever guns he had left to start the third, firing a high kick that grazed the champion's head before nearly connecting flush on a second. But Couture stood his ground and, after several attempts, finally had the Brazilian controlled down on the canvas with a trip takedown.

In position to finish, Couture unleashed a torrent of undefended punches from half-guard that forced Dean to halt the fight at the 1:37 mark.

What's next for the champ? The UFC heavyweight division has improved greatly over what it was even a year ago and could provide the champ several intriguing options.

A clash pitting former PRIDE champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Couture could be compelling, though "Minotauro" hardly looked great in his UFC debut against Heath Herring in July.

The real prize -- for Couture and fans alike -- of course is Fedor Emelianenko, who would provide "The Natural" a chance to make prognosticators look foolish once again. More importantly, it would give mixed martial arts fans a dream fight pitting the ultimate competitor against the perceived best mixed martial artist on the planet.

St. Pierre looks great in return

Fighting for the first time since a stunning loss in April that saw him relinquish the UFC welterweight belt to Matt Serra, Georges St. Pierre cast aside questions about his mental state to out-point the gifted Josh Koscheck over three rounds.

A participant on the debut season of "The Ultimate Fighter," Koscheck quickly climbed the ranks of the 170-pound division, and tonight stood on the cusp of solidifying his place amongst the best in the division. But it was not to be for the American Kickboxing Academy welterweight.

St. Pierre put Koscheck, 29, off balance in the first by putting the former College All-American wrestler on his back with a powerful double-leg takedown. The popular French Canadian, who upped his record to 14-2, controlled position until a scramble let Koscheck land his own takedown.

Both Adalaide Byrd and Jeff Collins saw the opening frame for Koscheck, while Glenn Trowbridge scored it 10-9 for the 26-year-old St. Pierre.

There was no disagreement between judges in the second, with each seeing a 10-9 advantage in favor of the eventual winner. Aided by another takedown -- "My plan was to put him out of his comfort zone, so I knew he was not very acclimated to fight from his back," said St. Pierre -- the former champion controlled from half-guard and spent much of his time digging for a Kimura on Koscheck's right arm.

The majority of round three was fought on the feet. Koscheck's corner screamed for him to move forward and aggressively strike, and though he tried, the explosive fighter failed to connect on anything substantial.

As he'd done against top wrestlers in the past, St. Pierre stuffed Koscheck's final takedown attempt and concluded the fight with an effective series of ground-and-pound from the guard.

While Trowbridge scored each round for St. Pierre, Byrd and had it a bit closer at 29-28.

Sports Illustrated cover boy Roger Huerta was impressive in picking up a third-round technical knockout against UFC newcomer Alberto Crane.

Huerta (19-1-1) dominated from the opening bell with punches from a plethora of angles, which was made easier by the fact that Crane left his face exposed as he attempted leg submissions through the course of the fight.

Exhausted from trying to fend off the powerful Huerta, Crane (8-1) moved from fight- to survival-mode in the second period. That continued into the third when "El Matador," a major focus of the UFC's push into the Hispanic market, showed some imagination while watching himself on one of the giant screens inside the arena.

"He was holding my back," said Huerta. "I couldn't see where his head was."

Huerta found his target several times with winging backward elbows, leading to the finish at the 1:50 mark of the final period when the previously undefeated Crane, wearing a sizeable mouse under his right eye, was saved from further punishment by referee Steve Mazzagatti.

Joe Stevenson bested Kurt Pellegrino by unanimous decision after the skilled lightweights traded strikes and positions for three tough rounds.

The first two frames were extremely hotly contested, but Stevenson, now 28-7-0, turned it on in the third and cemented his victory with a series of unanswered right hands that rocked Pellegrino, now 10-3-0.

Judges Gene LeBell and Doug Crosby saw the bout 30-27, while Cecil Peoples scored it 29-28.

Afterward, it was learned that Stevenson, who could be in line for a lightweight title shot, suffered a broken jaw during the bout.

Patrick Cote shocked "Ultimate Fighter 3" middleweight champion Kendall Grove, claiming a stoppage victory over the Team Punishment fighter at 4:45 of the first period.

Cote, who upped his record to 11-4 in winning his second straight UFC fight after dropping his first four, landed a right hand to the side of head that buckled Grove (8-4-0) to the canvas. The Canadian followed the 6-foot-6 Grove to the floor, where he bombed away with punches until referee Herb Dean stepped in to save the dazed Hawaiian.

Dark matches

Renato Sobral created controversy in his submission of David Heath, which came at 3:30 of the second.

After wrapping up the American's neck in an anaconda choke, Sobral refused to acknowledge Heath's tap, prompting referee Mazzagatti to desperately force Sobral's arms from the unconscious fighter.

Several seconds passed before "Babalu" finally released the hold, leaving Heath (7-2-0) out on the mat for several moments before he made it to his feet. Sobral, now 28-7-0, was showered with boos as he left the stage after telling UFC's Joe Rogan that he intentionally held on to the choke despite knowing that Heath had tapped.

Nevada State Athletic Commission cxecutive director Keith Kizer said after the fight that he planned on holding half of Sobral's $50,000 purse until a review of his conduct against Heath could be completed.

Former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir made quick work of Antoni Hardonk, catching the Dutch fighter with a tight Kimura at 1:17 of the opening frame.

Mir, who upped his record to 10-3-0 with the win, took the bout to the canvas after catching a Hardonk (5-4-0) low kick. The Las Vegan wasted little time in moving to side-control, where he tied up the striker's arm and solicited a tap to the painful hold.

BJJ black belt Thales Leites improved to 12-1-0 with a flashy display of technique on the ground, forcing UFC newcomer Ryan Jensen to submit due to an armbar at 3:47 of the first.

Jensen, now 11-2-0 with the loss, scored early with right hands that rattled Leites twice, but in the end it was not enough as the Brazilian regrouped and took advantage after a gutsy trip takedown midway through the frame.

It was here that the Nova Uniao-trained middleweight looked for a rear-naked choke and an inverted arm-triangle before settling on the beautiful tapout-inducing armbar.

The evening's first bout saw lightweight Clay Guida take a split decision victory over American Top Team lightweight Marcus Aurelio. Guida, 22-8-0, launched left- and right-handed haymakers throughout the match, while defending the Brazilian's repeated attempts to pull guard.

Judges Patricia Morse Jarman and Jeff Collins scored the contest 30-27 for the victor, while Adalaide Byrd had it the other way (29-28) for Aurelio, who dropped to 14-5-0 with the defeat. Sherdog.com scored the bout 30-27 for Guida.

"This ain't PRIDE anymore," said Guida while addressing Aurelio, who fought several times for the PRIDE organization before Zuffa took control of the reigns. "This is the UFC."

Josh Gross is the editor for Sherdog.com