How do you think you helped the sport evolve?
Randy Couture: [MMA] was originally seen as a fringe—largely misunderstood—extreme sport, especially with the stigma attached to a cage. Most people couldn’t accept the shock and get past the…I guess brutality would be the word. [The organization] did a poor job in the beginning of marketing. They capitalized on the sensation and shock value at first, which hindered them from gaining any mainstream acceptance. As more Olympic athletes and Olympic caliber athletes like myself became popular and were successful in fighting, it lended some real sports credibility to what was going on.

What are the biggest differences you’ve seen between the up-and-coming product and the established product?
It changed in so many ways. My very first show was UFC 13. We held the weigh in’s at the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Augusta, Georgia and it was just fighters and their seconds. There were no fans. We lined up and weighed in right there in the lobby. My last show in Toronto, aside from being a huge crowd of being 60,000 people, there were seven or eight thousand people alone just at the weigh ins. I think when Zuffa bought the company they did the right thing in continuing to run towards regulation and embracing the commissions and creating unified rules, implementing scoring and things that the average viewer could understand and make easier to watch.

How did your approach towards a match in the UFC differ from a wrestling match?
One of the differences was back then, every athlete was out to prove that his style or sport was the best combative style or sport, so I entered purely as a wrestler. I had very limited boxing training in the army, I had never been a street fighter—I’d been a grappler and a wrestler my whole life. I knew the athleticism and intensity that wrestling developed and the character of those athletes. I wanted to show what wrestlers were all about. That quickly changed. I call us the second generation of MMA athletes that realized our particular background or style wasn’t enough, we had to learn what a lot [of the styles] these other guys were doing to become well-rounded fighters. 

What was your mentality near the end of your career compared to when you first got in? How did your style evolve?
I quickly set about learning the striking part of the game and the submission part of the game. As a wrestler I was pretty sure on my feet and that I could close the distance and control guys once I got my hands on them, but these ju-jitsu guys operated from their back and places I wasn’t familiar with, and I had very limited exposure to kickboxing and boxing. I felt like those were areas that I needed to sharpen and learn. And I had a lot of fun doing that. I realized, like me trying to catch up with that kick boxer or ju-jitsu guy, I was never going to make that ground up. I needed to learn enough to be proficient, but I was never going to beat them at their own game. I [also] realized that they weren’t going to beat me at wrestling, either. So if I was proficient enough in those other areas I could make them wrestle me.

People used to refer to combat sports participants as fighters, but today we hear the term MMA athlete more and more often. How do you think MMA athletes compare to those that play other sports in terms of overall athleticism?
I think overall they’re incredibly athletic. I’ve obviously seen a ton of wrestlers over the years and I always harken back to it because that’s where I came from. [Wrestling develops] amazing character developed through adversity in the face of competition. I think there is something about an individual sport, whether it’s combative or otherwise, that requires something special. I think on an athletic platform, I think they’d stand up with anybody. It’d be interesting to come up with some measuring stick that isn’t skewed.

In the early days, most fighters were proficient in one style and out to prove that it was the most efficient one out there. Today, we’ve got gyms geared towards MMA. How do you think this will affect what we see in the ring going forward?
I think we’re seeing [it].  [These athletes], who I call third generation guys, grew up seeing the first generation guys like Hoyce Gracie and the second generation guys like myself and said, “that’s what I want to be”. They didn’t care about the belt or a particular background; they were just training to be an MMA athlete. They’re pretty phenomenal. We’re seeing more,

I don’t know if exotic is the word, but flashier techniques—spinning elbows, spinning kicks, all kinds of things being implemented that weren’t being implemented before, because that’s all these guys were doing for the past six, seven, eight years.

What do you say to the parent that says, “I don’t want my kid to do MMA”?
It’s been educational for the public to see that there is a lot more going on than two guys just bludgeoning each other. It’s a very tactical, technical sport. You face a ton of adversity, which develops a particular character and a particular mindset that, if you apply [it] to anything you want to do, you’re going to be successful. There are a lot worse things that a teenage kid could be doing than going to the MMA gym and training. I’ve been doing it for 15 years and I’ve seen no serious injuries, very limited fatalities on record. There aren’t a lot of other combative sports that can say that. Fighter safety has been very important from the start. We’ve embraced that with blood tests and CAT scans and all those things. It’s still a combative sport, and there is a chance you’ll see stiches or tweak a knee, or maybe break a bone, but hell, show me a sport where that is not the case.

Tell us a little bit about your new TV show.
[It’s called] Bellator Fight Master. Basically, [we] have a number of athletes competing for a spot in the Bellator Tournament. The interesting aspect of this show is that the athletes are in control of their own destiny. They pick their coaches, opponents-they are in direct control of the outcome and how they do. 

Be sure to catch “The Natural” as a coach on Fight Master: Bellator MMA, premiering June 19th at 10 PM on Spike.