Couture credits the growth of the sport to Spike TV's reality show, "The Ultimate Fighter" which launched in January 2005 and now averages a reported 2 million viewers an episode.
"I think the show brought a new perspective to the sport and helped people realize who we were, instead of going by their initial first impression and political backlash that it was just dangerous and brutal sport," said Couture, 44, the only three-time world heavyweight champion in UFC history.
"I think once they saw, every week on television, what goes into making one of these fighters, with all the training, sacrifice and hard work they put in, people started to get it. It wasn't what they thought."
Couture (15-8) is set to defend his title against Brazilian-born Gabriel "Napão" Gonzaga (8-1) tomorrow night on pay-per-view at "UFC 74: Respect" from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
"It's going to be a great fight," Couture said. "Gonzaga is a big kid with good, well-rounded skills. I definitely have my work cut out for me, so I have to bring my 'A' game and see what he's made of."
Though Couture didn't start fighting in UFC until he was 33, he has had a passion for mixed martial arts and combat sports since he was 10.
He started the Xtreme Couture gym in Las Vegas in February with hopes of continuing the growth and tradition of UFC, although he said most members have no intention of becoming fighters, but rather just want to be around the sport and stay physically fit while learning some form of martial arts.
"There are only about 15 to 20 of us who come in here every day and want to get knocked in the head," said Couture, who trains at his Las Vegas gym and has other gyms located in Vancouver, Wash., and Wellington, Fla.
"We tell them before they come in here, check your ego at the door. Nobody is in here to prove that they are tougher than anybody else. We're all just in here training to get better and have a little fun."
Couture was a three-time Olympic team alternate in wrestling in 1988, 1992 and 1996 and a semifinalist at the 2000 Olympic Trials. He said the similarities he saw in mixed martial arts and wrestling intrigued him enough to believe in the sport, even when few others did.
"It's the devotion of what I love to do," Couture said. "I love training and I love the sport. I'm just fortunate to be physically capable to still compete in this sport at such a high level. So every time I get to go out there, it's just an added bonus."
Because of the sport's popularity, Couture, one of only four fighters in the UFC Hall of Fame, sees the future getting brighter, and not only for the sport and its fighters. Couture has appeared in six movies and landed several endorsement deals outside the octagon. He predicts the sport will become not only more accepted and respected by the general public in the coming years, but will also be considered a mainstream sport.
"I think the sport will have interjected itself into society as the new combative sport for this generation," Couture said. "I think you'll start to see more UFC-style programming on regular TV and not just pay-per-view. Once that happens, I think we'll start to see a lot more mainstream coverage and sponsorship that all the other sports seem to enjoy." *