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UFC a knockout as Couture gets rousing send off

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TORONTO (Reuters) – Randy Couture was denied a storybook ending to his Ultimate Fighting Championship career on Saturday when he was knocked out in his final fight, but the 47-year-old walked away from the octagon with his legacy intact.

Regarded as one of the most important fighters to ever set foot in the octagon, American Couture helped pull mixed martial arts out of obscurity and into the sporting mainstream.

What Couture helped build for 14 years was on full display on Saturday as 55,000 fans -- the largest crowd ever for a North American UFC event -- stood and gave him a rousing send off at the Rogers Centre.

"The fans have always treated me great but to go out on that ovation was very special," said Couture, who announced prior to the event that his 30th career fight would be his last.

A career that produced 15 world titles ended with Couture stunned on the canvas in the second round, floored by a devastating flying kick from Brazilian Lyoto Machida.

It marked the end of an extraordinary journey that began 14 years ago at UFC 13 and traced the evolution of the sport through to Saturday's UFC 129.

"In the beginning we all thought it was something very special," said Couture, known to his fans as "the Natural." "It took a while to get everyone else on board and kind of educate them.

"For a long time we were kind of the stepchild and people would go, 'Oh my God you are one of those cage fighters' and they would take a big step back like you were dangerous or a criminal.

"That landscape has changed."

It was not only a special night for Couture but for a sport still struggling to cement its mainstream status.

UFC 129 marked a major milestone for mixed martial arts as it moved from the more intimate arena setting to a stadium for the first time.

Dana White, the face and bombastic president of the UFC, promised a dazzling show and delivered in full as the capacity crowd lapped up six hours of gladiatorial combat rolled out to a pounding rock and roll, hip-hop beat.

It was also an extremely profitable night for White and his UFC partners, who celebrated record gate receipts of $11 million.

Despite its exploding popularity, cage fighting remains a polarizing sport and not for the faint-of-heart.

But there is certainly plenty of appetite for the slickly-packaged violence the UFC is selling.

The Toronto event soldout in a matter of hours, with cage side seats going for $800 and scalpers outside the stadium on Saturday asking triple the face value.

Concession and merchandise stands were also doing brisk business, fans opening their wallets to gobble up $20 programs, $30 t-shirts and $400 replica championship belts.

As impressive as the Toronto event was, UFC's quest for global sporting domination does not end in Canada.

A pay-per-view TV titan, White boasts that UFC already reaches into a half billion homes worldwide and, with events planned for China and India later this year, predicts that number will quickly double.

(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

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