Friday, April 29, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
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On any given weekday evening, the entrance of Xtreme Couture martial arts gym off Sunset Road is brimming with wannabe mixed martial arts fighters who have just left their nine-to-fives to train alongside six-time UFC champion Randy Couture.
His Xtreme Couture label is splashed almost everywhere in the gym — mats, water bottles, fight shorts and T-shirts small enough for the fighters-in-training in the children’s programs at the gym.
As he prepares to leave the UFC — and the profession that helped him make a name for himself — after 14 years, Couture has become much more than a fighter. He’s become a brand.
It’s something he never envisioned when he made his UFC debut in 1997, when the sport was little-known, as were its fighters. Now, fans can go to almost any toy store in the U.S. and Canada to find action figures in Couture’s likeness or video game starring him.
Seeing the miniature version of himself on a store shelf still makes the 6-footer take a step back.
“It’s a little weird, but it made sense,” Couture said about the opportunity to help create the action figure. “I think like most fighters, I didn’t think about it in these big of terms. We are just doing what we love to do.”
But the action figure is just a small part of it. Couture has parlayed his successes into business ventures outside the ring with T-shirts, gyms, supplements and a budding acting career, all of which he hopes sustain him long after his last fight at UFC 129 on Saturday.
Branching out in the business world was an opportunity Couture started to consider long before fight purses swelled. He had to. The payday for up-and-coming fighters when he started was hardly a living wage. Today, Couture averages about $250,000 a fight, plus a cut of the pay-per-view revenues.
His first business venture was a natural fit. He started Team Quest, an MMA training camp in Gresham, Ore., with former UFC fighter Dan Henderson in 1999 after they saw a need for a facility that encompassed all the training a fighter needs.
“We were going all over the place, like so many of these guys do, to get the training we needed,” Couture said. “We were working out at 24-Hour Fitness, doing my jiu-jitsu over there and my boxing somewhere else.”
That’s when Couture started looking into setting up limited-liability companies and coming up with logos and mottos for his brand.
“We figured out pretty quickly that we weren’t very good at it,” Couture said with a laugh. “You learn. Trial by fire, but you have to keep plugging away.”
So Couture did learn and later moved to Las Vegas for new business opportunities. He partnered with Affliction clothing to start a T-shirt line and tried his hand again at a gym, both under the Xtreme Couture name, in 2007. What started as a place for other fighters to train has grown to more than 350 members who take boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and even yoga.
The gym is capitalizing on MMA’s growing fan base and its newest source of revenue: the youth market. Nearly half of the gym’s membership is under 18.
“When we opened four years ago, we didn’t concentrate on the kids programs like we should have,” said Eric Thatcher, who manages the gym for Couture. “So now were kind of backpedaling to do that.”
Couture has two other gyms, one in Canada and one in Florida, licensed under the Xtreme Couture name and a program for investors to open gyms under the name. The initial investment is about $165,000.
The Las Vegas gym is the training ground for the soon-to-be retired fighter and his team, but it has also become the headquarters for Randy Couture the brand. His supplement, clothing line and charity, the Xtreme Couture GI Foundation, are all run from the facility.
“There’s nobody else is MMA that’s as good for the sport as he is. Not only because he is 47 and still doing it, but if every fighter acted like he did, then we wouldn’t have some of the issues we have in the business,” Thatcher said, referring to violence and drug incidents other fighters have been involved in.
Couture will have plenty to keep him busy after his last fight. He'll host a motorcycle ride May 7 to raise money for wounded veterans and his charity and will start filming on his next two movies, “Hijacked” and “The Expendables II,” later this summer.
“I think that I have a lot of things that will carry me down the road,” Couture said. “Obviously, competition is coming to an end and making those kind of paychecks for stepping in this cage. I’ll have to rely and focus on those other parts on my business life.”
And if anyone wants a piece of Couture in the future, they won’t have to look any further than their local Toys R Us.
See the Sun/KSNV video report related to this story.