In celebration of Black History Month, Fightful will profile Black athletes and pioneers in MMA history and highlight each of their individual stories — in this piece we look at the career and life of the late legend, former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman.
Some have criticized promotions like the UFC in the past for their lack of support for black fighters, MediaFile's Matt Giola wrote a piece detailing this back in September 2018. There have also been others who have discussed the issue of racism within the sport of mixed martial arts, Omar Lopez touched on this in a post on his blog Cairn Thoughts and referenced an August 4, 2016 episode of the now-defunct MMAFighting show The MMA Beat where they elaborated on this further.
During this segment of the show, Ariel Helwani brings up the criticism of then-UFC champions Daniel Cormier, Tyron Woodley, and Demetrious Johnson. His fellow co-host Luke Thomas responded with the following answer giving his take as to why that was and about the racial aspects of the fight game.
"I think we live in a world, everyone likes to deny that there are racial components to the fight game. The fight game is in fact built on, partly, racial stratification and what that means for exploiting people's differences," Thomas said. "I don’t know to what extent they are problems in each of those cases (speaking about Woodley, Cormier, and Johnson), but it is hard for me to buy the idea that someone’s racial background in this country, and in countries elsewhere, that that doesn’t affect how fans perceive them. To what extent, we can debate, but that it is there, I think is absolutely incontestable."
Nearly four-and-a-half years later from that episode and the racial component of MMA is still ever-present, if not more evident. It's hard to look at some of the promotional tactics of a fighter like UFC welterweight Colby Covington in recent years and some of the comments he made towards both Kamaru Usman and Tyron Woodley in the lead up to their fights, documented here by Insider's Barnaby Lane and not see a reoccurring issue. Yet the sport's lineage is and has been filled with black stars and champions in multiple weight classes and promotions. So for the month of February and in honor of Black History Month, Fightful will be doing a series that looks back at some of the best Black athletes and pioneers in MMA history and highlighting each of their individual stories. The first two fighters we featured were former UFC welterweight champion, Carlos Newton and former UFC heavyweight champion Maurice Smith. The third fighter we will feature is former UFC heavyweight champion, Kevin "The Monster" Randleman.
Randleman was born on August 10, 1970, in Sandusky, Ohio a small midwest town on the north shores of Lake Erie. Coming from a family of eleven kids, Randleman's family growing up was not wealthy but they did provide him with something just as, if not more valuable, love. His mother worked as a social worker and his father was a steelworker, before transitioning to becoming a cook. Even with the challenges of trying to financially support eleven children, Randleman's parents were super supportive of the future mixed martial arts legend and his dad would even coach for all of his and his brother's youth sports teams. His athleticism started to flourish at Sandusky High School thriving as a football and track star, Randleman though eventually found his calling on the wrestling mat. In an interview with the podcast documentary series MMA TRUFAN, his older sister Erica Randleman discussed her younger brother's discovery of the sport and how he got into it.
"I really think that once he got that wrestling bug, it was over," she said. "It was just amazing how much of a natural he was but I think it started, my older brother Troy started wrestling when he was in junior high school and I think that's what triggered Kevin to want to try it too. I think he was trying to kind of do what his big brother was doing and he just took it and he just was amazing, he just ran with it."
Amassing a 122-11 record for his high school wrestling career and winning a state title in 1989, it was clear he had the potential to be something special in the sport, but even as an athletic star Randleman was dealing with more hardships outside of wrestling. He was living with a wrestling teammate because of constant rifts with his mom who was somewhat of a disciplinarian and facing regular racial abuse from opposing schools when competing against them, even having to deal with an incident of an off-duty cop pointing a gun at his head for no other reasoning than that the officer felt the vehicle Randleman was driving, outranked his skin color. On top of that, he'd have his first child a son Calvin at only 17 years old and Randleman initially didn't think wrestling was in his future. He eyed a football scholarship from Toledo University, but then caught the attention of Ohio State wrestling coach Russ Hellickson.
Hellickson had marveled over the natural and raw talent that Randleman possessed, the young Sandusky native displayed super-hero athletic traits like running a 4.3 40-yard dash and sporting a 38-inch vertical jump. It became a pretty easy decision for Randleman to choose to head to Columbus and don the red and white singlet. Hellickson knew that he had a star on his hands in Randleman, but that the genetic gifts his pupil had been given wouldn't be enough to help him dominate at the highest collegiate level, enter in Mark Coleman.
The former UFC heavyweight champion, Pride FC 2000 Openweight Grand Prix champion and future UFC Hall of Famer, was once a Buckeye great. Winning a National title in 1988 and now serving as an assistant coach for the Ohio State wrestling team, Coleman was preparing for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Randleman initially did not like Coleman and thought the feelings were mutual during Kevin's freshman season, with the pair never really speaking. But a winter weight-lifting session would help Coleman and Randleman bond over a shared love of the grind. Randleman's freshman season would leave an impression out of the gate, he would win a Big Ten championship, be named the first black All-American wrestler in Ohio State history, and end up losing in the 1991 National Championship match to Iowa's Mark Reiland. Coleman would become roommates with Randleman, which would set the foundation for his historic 1992 season and turn him into The Monster.
"I never took it easy on him, I pushed him and beat him as bad as I could and when practice was over, we shook hands, and then when we went back to the house and we ate, and then we played John Madden, the original John Madden football. That was as intense as the National Championships were, we put a lot of holes in the wall playing John Madden, me, and Randleman."
Randleman's sophomore 1992 season for Ohio State is regarded as one of the greatest singular seasons in collegiate wrestling history. He would go a staggering 42-0-3 the first undefeated season in school history, repeat as Big Ten champion, and defeat Nebraska's Corey Olson in the 177-pound final to win the 1992 National Championship. His 1993 junior season would come with many obstacles standing in the way of a repeat bid for another National title and is where the first showcase of Randleman's otherworldly toughness was displayed. He'd deal with a torn knee ligament all season and then in the second round of the NCAA Championships, an injury Randleman had suffered in the training room would come back at the worst time.
During his match with Central Connecticut's Mark Frushone, Randleman's jaw would dislocate. As per the rules of amateur wrestling, because the injury happened as not a direct result of an illegal move, Randleman could risk being disqualified if he couldn't continue. After Coleman refused to help put his jaw back in place, without any help from anybody else, Randleman popped his own jaw back into place and continued on to win the match. Coleman recounted the incident during the MMA TRUFAN podcast.
"He dropped down to the mat, slammed his head on the ground a couple of times, stood back up and he looked at me and he looked at Russ and he said I'm ready to go, I'm good."
Randleman would beat Cornell's Kyle Rackney and Iowa's Ray Brinzer before once again defeating Nebraska's Olson in the 177-pound final to win back to back National Championships. Now one of the most decorated wrestlers in Ohio State history, he looked primed for a 1996 Olympic bid and to become a three-time National Champion. But the pressures of being wrestling's new chosen one and the University deeming him academically ineligible ended Randleman's incredible wrestling career for the Buckeyes finishing with a record of 108-7-3.
He would move back home, now a young father seeking his next path in life. Randleman would have a short stint in 1995 with the Arena Football League's St. Louis Stampede and started managing a gym in his hometown of Sandusky, he was content to ride out whatever life he was building for himself. But a fateful call on one summer night in 1996 from an old friend in Coleman, would be the launching point of Randleman's fighting career. He talked about the call with Coleman during a December 2011 interview with MMA Inside the Cage's Casey Oxendine.
"When he (Coleman) became the UFC champ everyone always asks you if you have anyone that you train with," he said. "So the first thing in his mind was like ya Kevin Randleman and at the time I had a son, I wanted to go home, I wanted to raise him, I wanted to be with him, I wanted to spend more time with him. And Coleman calls me and said 'Hey you wanna fight?', I said 'Na man', like I'm cool, I'm right here with my son, I'm watching WWE and he said '$30,000 if you win' and I said 'Who do I gotta kill?"
Randleman would get on a plane and travel to Arizona to train with Coleman and Mark Kerr, preparing only 35 days in advance of a one-night tournament in Brazil under the Universal Vale Tudo Fighting promotion. It's one thing to debut in MMA nowadays, but could you imagine debuting in a single tournament in a promotion, in another country where there are no gloves and no real rules? Randleman was fearless though. The Ohio State legend would win the $30,000 for his family taking just under 18 minutes to dispose of Luiz Carlos Maciel, Geza Kalman, and Dan Bobish on October 22, 1996, at UVTF 4.
He was so dominant that when he competed in his second tournament at UVTF 6, his opponents started resorting to tactics like having cornerman pull them out of the ring any time that Randleman would get an advantage. After suffering a separated rib, strained knee, broken thumb, and having his left eye swelled shut in the tournament's previous bouts, Randleman would lose in the finals and suffer the first defeat of his career to Carlos Barreto via submission to a triangle choke after a hellacious 23 minutes. He'd fight two more times in Brazil before making his Octagon and American debut.
UFC 19 took place on March 5, 1999, in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and would be UFC fans' introduction to Kevin Randleman. The charismatic physical specimen with his highlighted blond hair, Superman physique, and bright red wrestling shoes made his presence felt in his promotional debut. In a very samurai-like way, Randleman would avenge his mentor Coleman's loss back at UFC 14 to Maurice Smith. The fight at UFC 14 was a pivotal moment in a changing of the guard of sorts in the sport and showcased that high-level strikers could compete with the elite grapplers. But by defeating the Seattle kickboxer by a unanimous decision, Randleman was able to show grapplers and specifically, wrestlers had an answer for low kicks or a striker who knows some grappling defense. Unlike Coleman, Randleman was able to consistently take down Smith in a variety of ways whether it be off the cage, pulling Smith into his takedowns with his movement, or catching his kicks into takedowns. The victory would earn Randleman a chance at the UFC heavyweight title against Bas Rutten.
The pair would meet at UFC 20 on May 7, 1999, but before they would even step into the Octagon against one another, they had a comical encounter beforehand in the elevator.
"Bas and I happened to catch each other in the elevator, I was getting ready to get on and he was in the elevator," Randleman said. "And I said 'Hey if you don't kick, if you don't kick, we can stand up and throw em' and he's like 'OK"
Of Course, Rutten would break that promise and throw a front kick within the first ten seconds of the fight, leading to a Randleman takedown not long afterward, a moment both remembered fondly. He would dominate much of the fight's opening 15 minutes, taking Rutten down multiple times, landing hammer fists and elbows, cutting him, and eventually breaking the Dutchmen's nose. Rutten would do a decent job in the two overtime rounds of landing offense off of his back, he cut Randleman on the sides of his head early in the fight with elbows from his guard, but it had seemed clear that Kevin had done enough to win a decision. However, the judges would award Rutten the split-decision and the UFC heavyweight title in what most view as one of the most controversial and worst decisions in the history of the sport. It would see a ripple effect in changing how fights would be judged going forward and a pivotal turning point in the introduction of five-minute rounds into the promotion. The matchup though sparked something even greater as well, a lifelong friendship between the foes with Randleman even giving Rutten his famous "El Guapo" nickname.
"One of my greatest friends I've ever got through this whole entire fight thing is Bas Rutten," he said. "He is crazy, but at the same time, when you think of MMA you always have to think of Bas Rutten because he's the epitome of what MMA was. I love him, I love his family, they were at my wedding and we've been just very good friends ever since."
Randleman though would get his justice in a way, winning the UFC heavyweight title in his next fight at UFC 23 against Pete Williams and then defend the title at UFC 26 against Pedro Rizzo, once again avenging more of his mentor Coleman's past defeats. His second title defense would come against Randy Couture at UFC 28 on November 17, 2000. Couture knew the task at hand was a tough one and the future two-weight division champion had a lot of respect in his preparation for Randleman.
"I had spent a ton of time working on the possibility that Kevin would take me down and then what," said Couture. "So I spent a lot of time on my back working on jiu-jitsu and a guard and being able to be effective not only to protect myself from there but to possibly be offensive from that bottom position which is not a place where most wrestler's like to be."
Couture would get taken down within the first 30 seconds of the fight and get dominated for most of the opening round. Randleman kept him up against the cage and smashed him with his regular hulk-like offense from the top position. The second round would see much of the same with Randleman landing a big leaping left hook early and then securing another takedown on Couture, positioning him against the cage. The fight shifted though in the third round where Couture turned the tables, taking down Randleman with a trip in the clinch and eventually mounting and finishing him with strikes.
Randleman's next two fights in the UFC would be his last for the promotion, facing former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell and Renato Sobral before leaving for the land of the rising sun and the Pride Fighting Championships promotion. Some would argue that his time with Pride was the best run of his career and I wouldn't argue with that notion. He'd open up his run with the company 3-0, before losing back-to-back matchups with legends Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Kazushi Sakuraba.
He fell in love with the Japanese fan base and they loved him equally as much. Randleman was endeared to the culture and respected the way they treated fighters. He even started professional wrestling overseas in 2002 for All Japan Wrestling, being featured in a tag team with Coleman.
"When it comes to fans, the Japanese fans are the best fans in the world," Randleman told Oxendine in that 2011 interview. "Why? Because you don't get booed in Japan. If you get booed in Japan you'll probably never fight in Japan again because you fought that bad. They sit, they listen, they understand when there's nothing going on and your on the ground rolling around, that they can hear a break, so they're quiet like church mice."
The two most defining moments of Kevin Randleman's career as a fighter in my opinion came during his time in Japan, the first being at PRIDE Total Elimination 2004 on April 25, 2004. He'd face Mirko Cro Cop, one of the most feared strikers and kickers in the entire sport in the opening round of the 2004 Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix. The conventional wisdom was that Randleman's only way to pull off the monstrous upset over the Croatian knockout artist would be to take him down, there was no way he'd win the fight standing.
The fight started as expected, Randleman pressured Cro Cop early, clinching and securing a body lock to begin looking for a takedown opportunity. The action would stall though and the ref would separate the two men, with the commentators even acknowledging that this could be the beginning of the end for Randleman. But the former UFC heavyweight champion had other plans and the unthinkable happened, as Cro Cop started the process of loading up a kick, Randleman exploded in with a leaping overhand left hook that sent the heavy favorite crashing to the canvas. Randleman swarmed and landed a series of devastating hammer fists to put Cro Cop out cold in just under two minutes and pulling off one of the greatest upsets in MMA history. Legendary commentator Mauro Ranallo's call for the fight, couldn't have depicted the feeling of Randleman's victory any better.
"Kevin Randleman has knocked out Mirko Cro Cop! The Monster has knocked out Mirko Cro Cop!" Ranallo would scream in jubilation and astonishment.
The win would set up a matchup between Randleman and the pound-for-pound best fighter in the sport at the time, Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko in the quarterfinals of the 2004 PRIDE Heavyweight Grand Prix. However, tragedy struck Randleman two weeks before the fight with the passing of his father but he knew the opportunity against Emelianenko was one he could not pass up on. Once again a heavy underdog and fighting with a heavy heart, Kevin Randleman did what he always did best, create unforgettable moments.
Randleman would begin the fight leaping in with the same left hook he had just knocked out Cro Cop with and using it to set up an early double leg takedown on Emelianenko. Fedor would hip escape and give up his back in the process, allowing Randleman to secure a waist lock and suplex the Russian heavyweight in one of the craziest slams of all-time. The Randleman-plex as it is now forever deemed, appeared to vaporize Emelianenko's neck with Randleman spiking him directly on his head. But showing his own greatness amid the chaos, Emelianenko would sweep Randleman from the north-south position and secure a kimura for the submission win seconds later. Elizabeth Randleman, Kevin's wife who was in attendance for the fight recalled her reaction to the slam.
"I remember watching that slam, we thought Fedor was dead."
He would go on to fight ten more times before retiring in 2011, but the two fights in 2004 against Cro Cop and Emelianenko will forever be what I remember Kevin Randleman the most for. The emotions he made you feel and the moments he created, in the mere three minutes and thirty seconds those fights lasted, is what made Kevin Randleman special in a nutshell. He was never one to get caught up in wins, losses, accolades, or championships but Randleman had always hoped of making it into the UFC Hall of Fame. In a piece by The Sandusky Register's Jimmy Watkins, it was revealed that Randleman would watch the UFC induct a new class into their Hall of Fame every year and be visibly frustrated by some of the choices.
Every year after he retired, Kevin watched the UFC announce its newest hall of fame class. And every year, he’d have something to say about it.
“Man,” Kevin would say, “he was never even a champ. And he’s in.”
Normally, Kevin didn’t stress over awards. In 2009, Ohio State named Kevin its wrestler of the century. When Elizabeth learned the news from a letter in the mail, she was ecstatic to share it with Kevin.
“Oh my God, baby!” Elizabeth said. “You’re the wrestler of the century!”
“Oh yeah, babe,” Kevin replied. “They called a couple of weeks ago. I forgot to tell you. I’m sorry.”
But the UFC Hall of Fame meant something to Kevin. Elizabeth could tell from the way he negged past selections. After he died, she adopted Kevin’s habit of watching the UFC announce a new class every year.
Coleman, who was inducted in 2008, reassured her each year that Kevin would eventually be inducted, too. But this year, Coleman and Elizabeth wondered if they should even talk about it.
“Liz was frustrated,” Coleman said. “Her man should’ve been in years ago.”
Those frustrations are over now. When the UFC reschedules the induction, Elizabeth will accept Kevin’s honor in his place and use the platform to promote Kevin’s biography, “The Making of the Monster.”
Randleman's biggest accomplishments in his life though were marrying the love of his life Elizabeth Broglia on April 25, 2009, and being the father to his four kids Calvin, Jasmine, Madolyn, and Santino. As much as people wanted to talk about The Monster and his combat sports accolades, Randleman made sure to never miss a chance to bring up how much he loved his family. He also was a one of a kind friend, who seemed to make everyone he encountered feel as if they were his best friend. Randleman had a heart as big as his enormous muscles and personality were, he was the embodiment of selflessness and compassion.
He had a real passion for helping people and in his post-fighting life seemed to be thriving in that role. Randleman had founded the Monster Wrestling Academy in Las Vegas to coach kids how to wrestle and according to a 2016 piece done for MMAFighting by Shaun Al-Shatti, was just about to get a break mentoring NFL rookies for a sports agency. Sadly though, tragedy struck on a February 2016 trip to San Diego, which was for the job opportunity Randleman was hoping to get. The former two-time National champion and UFC heavyweight champion had suddenly passed away on February 11, 2016, from heart failure caused by complications from pneumonia.
Randleman had dealt with a series of health issues after tearing a tendon in his shoulder during a fight with Faith Kocamis back at Bushido Europe: Rotterdam Rumble in 2005. The shoulder injury would spiral down into more and more problems for Randleman, mainly caused by a reoccurring staph infection. Watkins went into detail about all the surgeries and complications Randleman faced because of the staph infection in his piece for The Sandusky Register
The infection started in his shoulder, on which the same doctor operated six times trying to cure it. Then it resurfaced near his ribs, which forced doctors to cut a hole in his side to clean the infection. When it spread to his hip, he needed a hip replacement, but doctors were wary of operating on him with the infection, which caused him extreme pain.
Add into the broken jaw he fought through to win his second National title at Ohio State and the countless injuries he fought with throughout his career, the thought of a seemingly indestructible man like Randleman passing away from something like pneumonia was shocking, confusing, and overall just devastatingly sad. Randleman had caught what seemed like a cold from his young son Santino before the business trip he took to San Diego and had gotten medical treatment in California. But the thought of him never coming home to his family, was something nobody ever expected.
"I see the San Diego phone number come up and I answer the phone 'Hey baby how you feeling?' and there's a guy on the other line stuttering," Randleman's wife Elizabeth recalls of that fateful February day. "and he's like 'Mrs. Randleman' and now you gotta remember I'm in a crowded, tiny little waiting room in an ear, nose, and throat doctor with my four and a half-year-old son sitting right next to me. And he goes 'This is Dr. Wu' and I say "Oh Doc, how's my man doing?' and he stutters a little and he's like 'Mrs. Randleman, I'm so sorry' and I said 'What do you mean?' and he said 'He didn't make it."
Randleman's death was an enormous loss for the MMA and the entire combat sports world, but nothing could compare to what Elizabeth and their four children lost four years ago. I've struggled with how to end this piece because I'm not sure how the late, great Kevin Randleman would want to be remembered or how the people who knew him best would want him to be honored. I fail to think some schmuck like me can really truly encapsulate the greatness of Randleman with any words I've come up with or could come up with.
I do think of a poem though that Randy Couture wrote in honor of his late friend, saying "You're the one monster no one ever ran way from." That short sentence embodies the spirit of Kevin Randleman better than I ever could. I also found a clip from the documentary Rites of Passage directed by Bobby Razak, where Randleman gives a eulogy of sorts in his own words.
"When I die they gonna say this man, I lived my life. If I said I wanted to go there, I went there, I saw it. I'm going to see everything that I wanna see before I die and when I die, I'm not going to be laying on my death bed saying I wish that, I would've, Nah. They gonna be like this man did what he loved to do all the time and that's why I think that I can just go through life and just always stay positive and focused. Because I don't let the tomorrow things in life stress me out."
Our condolences and thoughts are with the entire Randleman family and all of Kevin's friends during this difficult time. A legend that may be gone and that was taken far too soon, but a man that will never, ever be forgotten.