Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006 | 12:33 p.m.
Still bruised and bloodied after getting knocked out in the final bout of his splendid career, Randy Couture searched for the right words to describe what he was feeling on a bittersweet night at Mandalay Bay.
Earlier on Saturday evening, Couture, one of the most popular and charismatic stars of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, announced his retirement from mixed martial arts in the center of the octagon after losing to light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell in the third fight of their memorable trilogy.
Although Couture had hoped to bid fans farewell with a victory, he received a rousing ovation from the crowd at the sold-out Events Center, a tribute to his accomplishments in the UFC.
"It's emotional," Couture, 42, said in his locker room. "I've got a lot of friends here, a lot of people who mean a lot to me ...
"Obviously I was disappointed in the way it ended. It was not the way I intended to go out."
Couture, a native of Everett, Wash., now fighting out of Las Vegas, retired with a record of 14-8 in mixed martial arts competition, a mark that's misleading because he routinely squared off against the most elite fighters in the sport.
Couture remains the only fighter to have won both the heavyweight and light heavyweight titles in the UFC, the world's leading mixed martial arts organization, which is based in Las Vegas.
In doing so he earned the respect and admiration of the UFC's rabid fan base, a feeling Couture said was mutual.
"I've had just an amazing experience," said Couture, also known as "the Natural." "We have some of the most amazing fans. They're tried and true; they stay with you win or lose."
Saturday's match was going to be his last fight regardless of the result, Couture said.
"I decided months and months ago that this was my last fight," Couture said. "I didn't want to make any public statements about it because those things can take on a life of their own."
Liddell's victory on the card that was billed simply UFC 57, "Liddell vs. Couture 3," came by technical knockout at 1:28 of the second round after the champion, a minus-135 betting favorite in the Mandalay Bay sports book, landed a powerful short right hand to send Couture to the mat.
The show was the most highly anticipated in the UFC's history and was expected to set records for the live gate (between $3 million and $4 million) and pay-per-view sales (projected to exceed of 300,000).
It attracted a sellout crowd of 11,200 to the Events Center and another sellout of 1,325 for the closed-circuit telecast in a ballroom at Mandalay Bay.
Liddell of Santa Barbara, Calif., said he appreciated his rival's contributions to the sport.
"Randy's a great champion," Liddell (18-3) said. "He fought effectively until he was 42. There's not too many guys who can do that.
"I still consider him my toughest fight in the UFC."
The three fights between the men - Couture a world-class wrestler, Liddell primarily a striker - made their mark on UFC history, Couture said. Couture won the first match in 2003 and Liddell evened the score last April.
"It was the first real trilogy of our sport," Couture said. "It was an honor to compete against (Liddell). He forced me to be sharp, to work hard; he forced me to do a lot of things I probably wouldn't have done.
"I've always had a lot of respect for him. He's a tough champion."
UFC 58, "USA vs. Canada," is scheduled for Saturday, March 4, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center and will feature UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin of Cincinnati against David "the Crow" Loiseau of Montreal in the main event.
The top undercard bout will pit leading welterweight contender Georges St. Pierre against "The Prodigy" BJ Penn. Tickets are $50 to $450.
Jeff Haney can be reached at 259-4041 or at [email protected]