RIP Kevin Randleman, Who Kept Getting Up

For a fighter whose MMA career ended with a 17-16 record, Kevin Randleman produced more than his share of indelible moments.
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Somewhere, maybe in whatever unknowable forever comes after this but certainly on video and in the collective memory of those who witnessed it, a shirtless man is jumping. He is all muscle, a five-foot-ten-inch ball of big old vascular thighs and anticipatory adrenaline, and his short hair is dyed blonde. He’s a fictional character, a set of overalls away from being a Simon Phoenix Demolition Man action-figure, and they call him “The Monster.” He’s also a person, a real one: enthusiastically alive, and preparing for a fight.

The gap between this man’s feet and the floor as he bounds seems to strain possibility. With each leap he threatens to untether his considerable mass from gravity entirely and never come down. Last week, after a life whose finest moments were spent somewhere ineffably above everyone else, and whose time on earth was plagued with medical calamities, he finally did. Kevin Randleman, two-time NCAA wrestling champion, one-time UFC heavyweight champion, and an incredibly durable and deceptively fragile human being, died at 44 years old.

Randleman had already lived through so much. Just a small sampling of the maladies is harrowing. A recurring lung infection ended up being fungal. A car accident, caused by a seizure, nearly decapitated him. A staph infection left a chasm in his side that made for disturbing viral viewing, and I will strongly warn you against searching for the pictures. A concussion and shoulder injury, reportedly caused by slipping on pipes backstage just before the fight, caused the cancellation of his title defense at UFC 24. Kidney problems and narrowly avoided failure followed several surgeries. There was always something.

There were also, at minimum, four official (T)KO’s in 33 fights. All this and who knows how many collisions, broken bones, and twisted joints over the course three years of D1 college wrestling, 15 years of fighting, and even some time in pro wrestling. Legend has it that Randleman won his second title at Ohio State in 1994 with a dislocated jaw. By 2006, he was caught submitting a fake urine sample after getting his leg cartoonishly hyperextended by Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. According to his later account, he had been in no shape to fight, and so had been taking antibiotics and painkillers on the NSAC’s banned substance list. Between trips to hospitals he would somehow manage to fight five more times in three more countries, with his career finally ending in an armbar in Russia in May of 2011.

I’m not sure “persevere” is adequate language for what Kevin Randleman did, but whatever the proper word is, he did it emphatically. Until, finally, came the announcement from his family: “While traveling on business, Kevin became ill and unexpectedly passed due to complications from pneumonia.” That was that, and of course it wasn’t.

A win/loss record can only tell you so much of an athlete’s story. 17-16 is not much to look at, but even now, Randleman’s aura is indelible. From 1996, when Randleman debuted in the world of Brazilian vale tudo with three wins in one night, to 2004 in Pride when he melted kickboxer assassin Mirko “Crocop” Filipovic with a blinding left hook, Randleman went 15-7 against some of the world’s best.

As befit his era, Randleman’s MMA career, skillset, and whole persona were raw. He yelled and said “fuck” a lot and got sincerely worked-up in interviews—“What do think about Nakamura?” “Don’t give a fuck about his ass.”—but after fights he gave what I can only assume were crushing hugs. He came into the sport an apex predator of a wrestler who generated incredible power, and he never really learned to do much else. His strategy in addressing opponents was more or less always the same. 1) Try to punch him, as hard as possible. 2) Try to take him down. 3) Hold him there. 4) Bludgeon him with whatever limbs the ruleset he was fighting under would allow.

It wasn’t sophisticated. He and his ever-present Hammer House compatriot Mark Coleman were rarely blessed with the environment or training to radically expand their skills or concoct mad-genius gameplans. What they knew was wrestling, and so they wrestled. But Randleman was the kind of fast that central-casting coaches talk about when they say “speed kills,” and—as you can imagine from that list of terrible shit that he managed to survive—he was tough as hell. Unlike a lot of attempted transfers from other sports, he also didn’t mind being in a fight, whether he really liked it or life had just made him accustomed to it. That was, unsurprisingly, enough to make it work.

He won that first tournament in Brazil, and then made the finals of a second. He beat a former UFC champion in Maurice Smith, dropped a razor-thin, debated-to-this-day decision to Bas Rutten, and then won and defended a UFC title against Pete Williams and Pedro Rizzo. He outwrestled Randy Couture for two rounds, pummeled Kenichi Yamamoto with what were described at the time as skyscraper knees, and in probably his last great mixed martial arts feat, dropped Fedor Emelianenko on his head with an aerial suplex that has become one of MMA’s iconic images. That Fedor recovered—Fedor always recovered—to reverse and submit Randleman moments later seems almost immaterial.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t lackluster showings. He was in plenty of boring fights. He made tactical mistakes and had his technical limitations exposed. Sometimes his cardio or, understandably, his whole body, weren’t as fit as his will. He never became a smooth submission grappler or a pinpoint striker, and it’s not entirely unreasonable to ask What If. But that risks missing what actually was. Kevin Randleman was a champion, in the memory of those who watched him fight, and more so than any belt could convey.

Kevin Randleman is survived by his wife Elizabeth, his three children, and plenty of stories like this. One of the foundations he worked with after he retired is called Jump For Joy. His life ended too soon, but that epitaph makes sense.

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