Before Randy Couture became a UFC pioneer, a multiple-belt champion and an inspiration to athletes in their 40s and beyond, he was an assistant wrestling coach at Oregon State with a burning competitive drive and no place to direct it.

Before Randy Couture became a UFC pioneer, a multiple-belt champion and an inspiration to athletes in their 40s and beyond, he was an assistant wrestling coach at Oregon State with a burning competitive drive and no place to direct it.

Couture was training wrestlers in Corvallis when he saw his first mixed martial arts fight, and it put him on a winding, lucrative path that's led him right back to Oregon.

The Pacific Northwest will welcome home an accomplished native athlete Saturday night when Couture (16-9) meets Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (31-5-1) at Portland's Rose Garden in the main event of UFC 102, the league's first major show in Oregon.

Couture, who grew up in Washington state before living nearly 13 years in Oregon, has been eager to fight in front of his Northwest fans for several years. Though the 46-year-old former heavyweight champion has no plans to retire anytime soon, he's grateful not to put it off any longer.

"The state of Oregon is a very unique place," Couture said. "It's a great wrestling state, and it's turning into a wonderful place for fighting and developing fighters. I think there's this particular mentality there. I don't know if it's the rain or what, but indoor sports, and wrestling especially, have always flourished there, and I think MMA is going to flourish there as well."

Keith Jardine also meets Thiago Silva in a light heavyweight bout at UFC 102. The pay-per-view card is short on title fights, but long on personalities — none bigger than Couture, who could end up with another heavyweight title shot if he can beat the Brazilian veteran Nogueira, the longtime Pride fighting star who was stopped by Frank Mir in his last bout.

Couture was born and raised north of Seattle, attending high school in Lynnwood, Wash. After six years in the Army, where he studied boxing, Couture eventually became a strength and conditioning coach who assisted the wrestling team at Oregon State.

"Oregon State was a great place," Couture said. "I enjoyed coaching and being part of that program. That's where fighting started for me. I still have some friends from that experience that I stay in contact with to this day. I left my position at Oregon State to pursue fighting full time, and I learned a lot along the way."

When he began to take MMA seriously, he moved to Gresham, just outside Portland, where he opened a training gym. He lived there until moving in 2005 to the sport's epicenter in Las Vegas, but still has many friends in the area.

His fight with Nogueira is an intriguing clash of styles, with Couture's striking skills against Nogueira's more typically Brazilian approach. The matchup has long been coveted by Nogueira, who wanted to fight Couture back when both were atop the sport a few years ago.

"I'm going to have a lot of people against me, but I've been very focused and been training very well," Nogueira said. "I feel like I have to perform way better than the last match. We feel like I worked way better than I worked (before) my last match, too."

Couture also says his ample interests outside the ring haven't detracted from his training. He has a part alongside MMA fan Jason Statham in Sylvester Stallone's upcoming film, "The Expendables," and he also served as a cornerman and mentor for Strikeforce fighter Gina Carano earlier this month.

Even at 46, and even after a decisive loss to Brock Lesnar last November at UFC 91 — a card originally scheduled for Portland before it became too big — Couture doesn't feel finished with MMA.

"I'm taking the same approach as when I started this," Couture said. "I want to take it one fight at a time. That's carried me down the road for the last 12 years. I feel like I'm the best fighter and the best conditioned athlete I've ever been."

"I'm realistic. I'll know when the right time to step out is, and I'll be ready to move on. I've got lots of other things going on. I don't think that time has come yet."