Welcome to day three and lodeplus.com’s continuing coverage of UFC on FOX, and the series “5 for 5: Five Moment Over Five Days Leading up to Saturday’s UFC on FOX.”
This is day three of our continuing coverage. Earlier in the week we covered the early purchase of the UFC by ZUFF LLC (it’s current ownership), as well as the ground breaking Ultimate Fighter reality show. These can be found by clicking the article link located here.
Yesterday we covered The Ultimate Fighter season one reality show, which featured UFC Hall of Fame coaches Randy Couture, and Chuck Liddell. Which brings us directly to today’s installment, so sit back, relax, and enjoy.
And remember to check back all week, as I will finish up the final two moments, as well as bring you live fight coverage this Saturday, from my cage side seat in Anaheim for UFC on FOX.
THE ERA OF THE ICEMAN
Ask the commissioner of any major sporting league, or owner of any team, and the number one element you need in building a brand, is a superstar.
Why do you think the Los Angeles Kings traded for then Edmonton Oiler, Wayne Gretzky in the early 90’s. Sure, they were giving up a substantial amount of their current roster, and future draft picks, but they were getting the games biggest star. They were getting #99. And, the rest as they say, ‘is history.‘
By the time The Ultimate Fighter show wrapped its finale in January of 2005, culminating with the fiery showdown between Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin, the coaches of the show were still scheduled to face off in a title fight.
So, on April 16th, 2005, the UFC brought us UFC 52: Couture vs. Liddell II. The two met prior in a match that saw Couture take the Light Heavyweight Championship from Liddell, in what many called an upset at the time. Fast forward almost two years later, and Liddell had payback on his mind.
In this contest there would be not upsets, in fact, there would be no second round, as Liddell dispatched of “The Natural” with a first round KO, that gave Liddell his first championship inside the UFC, and a star was born.
There were many early stars of the UFC, and in fact, Liddell was around for much of the early years. However, stars like Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie, Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz were all the true early pioneers of the sport. To Liddell’s credit, he was a training partner and friend of a young Tito Ortiz, and many have said that during Tito’s title reign, Chuck served as a buffer, or bodyguard of sorts, in the light heavyweight division. Essentially, Liddell was fighting all the real tough competition while Ortiz was fighting ‘lesser’ competition. But more on that later.
As previously mentioned, there were many stars of the early UFC, but as the old saying goes, ‘timing is everything.’
For Liddell, the timing of his title run from April 2005-May 2007, was one of the most glorified and revered championship runs in the history of fight sports. Not only was Liddell dispatching a who’s who list of opponents during that time–most by knockout–he was appearing on TV, movies, and billboards everywhere you looked. Liddell’s signature Mohawk and head tattoo became a symbol, of not only the UFC, but tough guys everywhere. Everyone knew “The Iceman,” and that’s just how Liddell liked it.
For as much as Liddell was loved and adored for his fighting style, he was equally loved and adored for his approach to life.
To say Chuck Liddell liked to party is a laughable understatement. Late nights, drinking, partying, women–they all became a staple during Liddell’s reign as champion.
After all, Liddell spent the early years of the UFC toiling around the lower 50, fighting in the equivalent of a really nice high school gymnasium. There was no money, and even less recognition, sponsorship or fame in those early years. So as Liddell stood atop the MMA world in the early millennium, we all asked ourselves, “can you blame him?”
Face it, America loves an athlete who can party and still get it done on the field. It’s in our culture, it’s in our blood. Disagree with me? Take a look at Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, John Daly, Charles Barkley, or any other athlete that we endear for being “just one of the guys.”
For many across America, and the world for that matter, that’s exactly what Liddell was–he was just one of the guys.
A guy you could have went to high school with, or college, even. After all, Liddell does hold a degree in accounting from Cal Poly. So he could conceivably knock you out, WHILE doing your taxes. I mean, talk about one of the guys.
The stories around the MMA world of Chuck Liddell’s exploits are vast and legendary, and to be honest, are much more crude and outlandish than anything I could print here. But isn’t that what makes a man so great? The enigma of it all?
Despite all the tales of lore that surround Liddell, it was what he did in the ring, and the toughness he showed inside the Octagon, that are the real stories.
In November of 2002, a few years before The Ultimate Fighter and the subsequent UFC explosion, Liddell was next in line for then champion, Tito Ortiz’ light heavyweight title. However, Ortiz, citing everything from scheduling conflicts to sickness, refused to sign on to fight Liddell. He even went as far as to say they were ‘best friends’ and had formed a pact to never fight one another. For Liddell, that’s not how he, or most people in the MMA world saw it–they thought Tito was ducking Chuck.
With Liddell needing to stay in shape, and also make money, he decided to take a fight. If he lost said fight, then he would be pushed to the back of the line, and be forced to work his was up to contender status all over again.
Now, one would think that maybe Chuck would take someone easy for his fight. Or at the very least, fight someone who was a bad style match up, and let Liddell dictate where the fight would go. But that wasn’t Chuck’s style, if he was fighting, then he was fighting someone worth his time. At the time, that person was perennial top-ten fighter, and always dangerous, Renato “Babalu” Sobral.
Most thought Liddell taking on Sobral with his title hopes on the line was sheer insanity. But for Liddell, it was just business as usual, as he dispatched of Sobral in the first round with a TKO head kick, that can still be seen on numerous UFC highlight reels to this day.
Now, this was back in 2002. The Ultimate Fighter and Liddell’s rise to superstardom didn’t happen until a few years later, but to the fans of the early UFC, this is why Chuck Liddell was their favorite fighter. He was a “fight anyone, anywhere” type of guy. A guy that you could go up to and share a beer with and talk about Metallica. He was attainable. He was one of us.
Liddell’s reign in the UFC lasted a little over two years. In that time he defeated Randy Couture twice, Jeremy Horn, and dispatched of “Babalu” Sobral a second time. His title run culminated with the biggest fight in UFC history, his rematch with Tito Ortiz for the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship at UFC 66.
Ortiz and Liddell previously met after years of bickering and hateful back and forth tirades. Liddell absolutely destroyed Ortiz in that meeting (which at the time was not for the belt, as Couture had taken that from Chuck in their first meeting, as Tito sat on the sidelines in a ongoing dispute), but the public wanted a rematch. Tito had stated for years that in their first meeting Chuck had poked him in the eye and he was blind when the time of the finish came around.
So a rematch had been set, December 30th, 2006, at UFC 66, Chuck Liddell versus Tito Ortiz 2. Ortiz, at the time was on a five-fight winning streak and was still one of the most popular fighters in UFC history. For Ortiz this marked a chance for him to back up all the talk about injuries and eye pokes, and finally get one back on his ‘old friend.’
For Liddell, this marked something entirely different. This marked a chance for “The Iceman” to once and for all, finally shut up his longtime nemesis, and talking box, that he so adamantly disliked. If he could beat Ortiz again, then he would be 2-0 against the future hall-of-famer and would most likely never have to see him in the Octagon again.
UFC 66 was the first Mixed Martial Arts pay-per-view to garner one million buys. It was a historical moment in our sport, as it showed to everyone that the UFC could be a viable money maker, and could possibly be the new sport the world had been clamoring for.
Everyone took note, businessmen and women from Shanghai to Sydney opened their eyes, and realized that something had just happened. In a matter of months a new sport had blossomed in front of their eyes, and there was money to be made. Oh, and UFC 66? Liddell beat Ortiz again to retain his belt.
For Liddell, it would also be the last time he ever held UFC gold again, as he would go on to lost to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 71 in May of 2007, and would retire soon after in 2010.
Now, it’s extremely difficult to pit the rise of an organization on one persons back. In fact, it’s almost impossible. But if anyone was ever responsible for building a brand, then it’s Liddell. He had it all.
The time and place was ripe for a man of Liddell’s character. The sports world had become dry, it had become stagnant, it had become predictable. But then out of left field comes this new sport, with this new champion. Sure, we had heard about this sport before, but it was always a freak show. Something you would turn on with your buddies to get a few laughs, and share a few beers, but nothing you would invest any time into. With Liddell that all changed. It gave the people and fans of MMA a hero.
And that’s just what every young sport needs.
Maybe this is all just the beginning. Maybe the true defining moment is yet to take place. One thing is for sure, if anything can give The Ultimate Fighter, Liddell, and the moments from this list a run for its money, then it’s this Saturday’s UFC on FOX. Cain Velasquez versus Junior Dos Santos carries its own storyline, with its own history, and its own cultural impact. So it’s quite possible in just a few days, the biggest moment in UFC history is about to happen.
Isn’t it just nice to have fighting sports matter again? Long live MMA.