Mixed Martial Arts is not like other major sports. In other sports, teams play daily, every other day, or weekly. In other sports, fans have the playoffs to look forward to, where no matter what happened in the prior few months, as long as you got into the playoffs, anything could happen in the next couple of months. In other sports, teams have the off-season to draft that promising rookie or sign (likely overpay) that missing ingredient free agent. There’s an emotional attachment to teams and players in other sports. You cry when your team gives up that game winning home run, you jump off your couch when you team scores the game winning goal in overtime, and you’re upset when your team trades that player that you’ve grown to enjoy watching.
I had that emotional attachment to one fighter, an emotional attachment that I’ll likely never experience again. The fighter who tugged at my heartstrings, like only my beloved Colorado Avalanche can do, was “The Iceman” Chuck Liddell.
Since there is no long-term history in MMA and my dad didn’t force me to cheer for a certain fighter because he suffered through a tough period where a fighter could never win a big fight and he wanted me to suffer through those same periods, I had to fall in love with a fighter the ol’ fashion way. By watching an event and then liking the guy who won the main event because that meant he was the best. Don’t judge my methods of picking of a favorite fighter, everyone single one of you reading this right now who started watching the NBA in the nineties is a Chicago Bulls fan due to Michael Jordan but you gave up on the team after Jordan retired until this season.
The event was UFC 37.5 and the main event was Liddell vs. Vitor Belfort. It was a highly competitive fight but at the end of 15 minutes, Liddell’s arm raised in victory. I was instantly sucked in by Liddell’s performance and look. The Mohawk, the blue shorts, his willingness to stand with a guy who had a highlight reel of KO’s, and of course the big flurry in the third round where he knocked down Belfort really sealed the deal for me. I had found my first favorite fighter. My fighting Peter Forsberg or my MMA Steve Austin, if you will.
From that point on, I made it my mission to keep up with Liddell’s future. When I found out he was fighting at UFC 40, I had to see it. It didn’t hurt that the main event featured Tito Ortiz battling Ken Shamrock, who I followed during his WWF days, but Liddell was the real reason I wanted to see the event. And in true “Iceman” fashion, he delivered. A left kick upside Renato Sobral’s head and that was all she wrote for “Babula.” It was the first Liddell fight where I was rooting for him prior to seeing his arm raised in victory and I felt proud. Like I made the right decision in who I decided to support and God rewarded me by blessing my eyes with a spectacular knockout.
Then God taught me how cruel the sport of MMA can be at UFC 43. It was the first time Liddell challenged for the title (albeit an interim title) and he was facing some old guy named Randy Couture. Little did I know that “old man Couture” was Benjamin Button years before Brad Pitt put me to sleep over the course of two and a half hours. I admit, I cheated on Liddell after this loss. I wanted to back a winner. I had just witnessed Patrick Roy give up the final goal of his career in overtime of game seven in the playoffs a little over a month before Liddell lost to Couture. I couldn’t handle back-to-back disappointments like that. I’m not a Chicago Cubs fan dangit.
I stuck with Liddell though (although Couture did become my second favorite fighter after his UFC 43 victory) and was excited to see him back in action against Ortiz. I know Liddell went over to Japan and beat Alistair Overeem but lost to Quinton Jackson but all those guys in Japan were cheaters so that didn’t really bother me. (In reality, I didn’t keep up with MMA via internet in those days and didn’t know much about the PRIDE organization.) Based on all the build up, I was a little worried. In recent years, Ortiz had been afraid to fight Liddell. Why did he now all of a sudden want to go to war with “The Iceman”? Did he think Liddell was on the downswing after losing two of his last three? Did he know something I didn’t? Last time I saw Liddell, he lost and last time I saw Ortiz, he dominated a guy who I thought was “The World’s Most Dangerous Man.” I was worried, which also struck me as odd. Why was I worried about a guy who I’d never met and only seen fight three times in two years? I was invested though. This Ortiz guy kept running his mouth and I wanted Liddell to shut him up. And shut him up he did. Liddell finished Ortiz with strikes early in the second round and a huge smile came to my face when Liddell did his trademark “arms out yelling” pose while blood trickled down the face of a screaming, almost crying, Ortiz.
After beating Vernon White at UFC 49, the same night Couture regained the UFC Light Heavyweight Title by defeating Belfort, Liddell became a part of my weekly television viewing. Dana White, knowing that Liddell and Couture were my two favorite fighters and knowing that I needed something to watch every Monday after WWE Raw, made Liddell and Couture the coaches on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter and setting up a rematch between the two.
Barely managing to stay up every Monday night after Triple H almost always put me to sleep moments before TUF started, I kept finding some way to watch every episode of TUF 1. Not only was the stuff with Liddell and Couture interesting, but the whole show was new and interesting. Chris Leben’s problems with Josh Koscheck and Bobby Southworth, Diego Sanchez being weird, the fighters switching teams, Sam Hoger stealing things, ect…. It gave me a new look at my two favorites fighters and helped me feel more connected to them.
Of course The Ultimate Fighter 1 culminated in the big Liddell vs. Couture 2 fight at UFC 52 on April 16, 2006, almost six years to the day. My excitement level had never been higher. After seeing these two men for every week on my television set and feeling that God had played a cruel joke on me by allowing Couture to win the first fight (because we all know God plays favorite in MMA), I was ready for Liddell to get redemption, gain the title, and validate my poor reason for making him my favorite fighter. It didn’t take long for Liddell to do just that. One big right hand just over two minutes into the fight and moment later the belt was being strapped around Liddell’s waist for the first time ever. While I wasn’t fighting back tears the way I did when Ray Borque held up the Stanley Cup, I was overcome with joy nonetheless.
With the title in his left hand and the KO power in his right, Liddell looked to defend and I was behind him all the way. I won’t bore you guys with the details of how awesome Liddell’s title run was because I know how boring it is to listen to your friends when all they want to do is brag about how good their team is doing. “That’s great to your team made it to the Conference Finals, Mike. My team is playing golf right now because they only won five of their last 20 games. Congratulations on still being able to care about the playoffs and having some hope, I’m sure Paul Stastny’s handicap has gone down in recent weeks. Maybe he’ll make the PGA Tour next off-season. Now shut up before I punch you in the face.”
Speaking of punching people in the face, that’s exactly what Liddell was doing during his title run. He finished Jeremy Horn, Couture, Sobral, and capped off his title run with a victory over Ortiz in the biggest UFC fight at that time. While the bouts against Horn, Couture, and Sobral were just “another fight” in Liddell’s career and my support of him, the Ortiz fight was personal. Liddell vs. Ortiz was like the Avalanche vs. the Detroit Red Wings for me because Ortiz wouldn’t shut up, even though he lost the first fight. Liddell had a great quote prior to the fight saying, “Look how much he talked after I beat him, imagine if I lost.” Liddell just couldn’t lose this fight. I couldn’t handle Ortiz running his mouth. Sure they’d be 1-1 but this fight was for the title and this fight was when both guys were on big winning streaks and this was the biggest fight in UFC history. UFC 47 was a regular season game between two bitter rivals looking to make a statement. UFC 66 was Game 7 in the playoffs. Proving that he’s as clutch as Joe Sakic, Liddell got the job done in Game 7, finishing Ortiz with strikes in the third round.
With Liddell at his peak of popularity and me heading off to college to waste my parents money, I thought now would be the perfect time to introduce “The Iceman” to my friends. My friends and I are what I like to call, “playful drunks.” When we have a few too many, we like to embarrass ourselves. And what better way to embarrass yourself than fighting with your friends so that when you have to go to class on Monday, you’re all bruised and scratched up and drawing attention to yourself? And thus “Chuck Liddell’n” was born. Not “drunk fighting” and not “lets be stupid and hit each other.” We called it “Chuck Liddell’n” It made sense, right? Who Liddell likes to drink and he likes to fight, so it only made sense that we combine the two. I essentially forced my love for Liddell upon my friends. I didn’t care though, Liddell was on top of the world. The guy had dynamite in his hands and a legendary sprawl. Who could possibly beat him? No one. That’s who. For the record, I was undefeated at “Chuck Liddell’n” and if you dare to challenge me, all you have to do is bring the shots and I’ll show my appreciation by bringing the strikes.
Then it all came crashing down and it hurt inside. I was worried about UFC 71 when Liddell met Jackson for the second time. By this point in my MMA fandom, I had been covering the sport for smaller fights and I studied up on all the history I could. I watched the first fight and saw how “Rampage” roughed up Liddell on the ground. The only thing I took comfort in was how “off” Jackson looked in his UFC debut against Marvin Eastman. If he fought like that against Liddell, I knew Liddell would win. Unfortunately Jackson didn’t fight the same way. Liddell was clipped early and finished. Amazingly, I wasn’t that upset that. Disappointed that after all that hype the fight lasted all of two minutes? Yes. But not upset. Now that I had more MMA knowledge in my brain, I knew how things worked and I knew that Liddell wasn’t invincible.
It was the next fight that upset me. We all know Liddell was given Keith Jardine as essentially a “gimme” fight to get him back on track and set up the big fight with Wanderlei Silva. Jardine had just been destroyed by an unknown Houston Alexander, no way he was going to last two minutes with Liddell. But then two minutes passed. And the first round passed, the second round, and after 15 minutes Jardine was still standing. “What the hell just happened? Liddell doesn’t go to decisions,” I thought. Not only that but since I score fights while watching them, I scored the fight for Jardine. I had Jardine winning and so did two of the three judges. The only person more upset than me was probably Liddell, who was slumped over in the corner while Jardine was being interviewed. Now what?
A few weeks later, UFC made the big announcement. “UFC 79: Liddell vs. Silva.” It was on and I was pumped. But I was also extremely worried. Liddell had lost two straight fights, I knew a third straight might be the end. Now of course Silva had also lost two straight but he had lost to Dan Henderson and Mirko “Cro Cop.” Liddell had lost to Keith freakin’ Jardine. Plus Silva was a murderer. If Liddell couldn’t beat Jardine, how the heck was he going to beat one of the scariest guys in MMA history? I had my faith though. In fact, at this point I was writing for 411MMA and in their event roundtables that features the predictions from all the writers, I was the only person to pick Liddell. That was the way I wanted it though. Liddell & I vs. The World.
Liddell vs. Silva turned out to be my favorite fight of all-time, likely never to be surpassed. It was fifteen minutes that lived up to the hype and at the end of it, when Liddell raised his arms in victory, I got up from my couch and raised my arms with him. “The Iceman” was back. I can’t count how many times I’ve watched this fight since it happened but it’s to the point where I can mute the broadcast and still know exactly what Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan are saying. And while I have UFC 79 on DVD and I have the UFC Unleashed: Liddell vs. Silva special on my DVR, I always watch the original PPV broadcast. I still get goose bumps seeing the “6 Years in the Making” graphic and when Silva is in the ring, the lights go down, and the first thump that starts “Intro” by DMX before the camera cuts to Liddell is one of my favorite “non-fight” moments in MMA.
Liddell’s next fight would be at UFC 88 in Atlanta, Georgia. Seeing as I had never been to a UFC event, that Georgia was only a seven hour drive away, and that Liddell was headlining, there was no way I was going to miss this event. His opponent would be Rashad Evans, a good fighter who was undefeated but also a guy who struggled to beat Michael Bisping, a relatively undersized light heavyweight, and a guy who had the style that Liddell ate for lunch (almost exclusively a wrestler with limited stand up). I was excited to see my MMA hero add another knockout to his list and earn another shot at the belt.
It wasn’t meant to be though. Evans knocked Liddell out cold in one of the most memorable KO’s in UFC history. While I’ve seen the KO a million times thanks to various highlight reels, I’ve never gone back and watched the entire fight. I just can’t do that to myself. I was in the arena, I was ready to cheer with thousands of others when Liddell won, I don’t want to relive what was and what could have been that night. After the event I remember sitting in my hotel room thinking that Liddell should seriously consider retirement. A brutal KO loss to a guy who was pretty much hand picked for him to beat? This seemed even worse than the Jardine loss at the time. In hindsight, seeing as Evans went on to be UFC Light Heavyweight Champion and one of the best light heavyweights in the world while Jardine faded into obscurity until recently, the Evans loss wasn’t so bad. But September 6, 2008 ranks up there with May 31, 2002 (the night Patrick Roy gave up 7 goals in Game 7 to the Red Wings. A victory would have set up an Avalanche vs. Carolina Hurricanes Stanley Cup finals, which would have allowed me to see the Avalanche play in the finals since I live in North Carolina) in terms of worst sports memories. To add insult to injury, I was hit with a barrage of text messages that read, “Your boy got knocked the F out.” This goes to show you what kind of friends I have.
UFC 97 was rumored to be Liddell’s last fight. Dana White said as much in all the pre-fight hype. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua would be Liddell’s opponent, and while I was worried, Rua had failed to impress in his two UFC fights so I was confident. Liddell didn’t seem himself though. Maybe he came back too quickly from the Evans KO, maybe Rua had finally found his UFC groove, or maybe Liddell was just done. Whatever the case was that night, Liddell just wasn’t “The Iceman.” He was pulling his right hand and he was knocked down and out by a lunging jab. The power and chin seemed to be gone, so what else was left? After that fight, I thought nothing. He had a great run but it was time to call it a career.
For 14 months Liddell did call it a career. He returned at UFC 115 against Rich Franklin, which I was excited for. When he was originally scheduled to have a third bout against Ortiz, I thought it would be an easy victory for Liddell but I didn’t want Ortiz to land that one punch and actually beat, and even worse retire Liddell. Franklin I could deal with though. I’ve always liked Franklin and I thought it was a good style fight for Liddell. I was extra confident. Based on all the reports, we wouldn’t see the same ol’ Liddell who relied almost exclusively on his right hand and was more predictable than a Michael Bay film. I was so confident in Liddell that I even made a friendly wager with fellow 5OZ writer and good friend Adam Tool.
Liddell came out to “Won’t Back Down” by Eminem at UFC 115. Perfect. My favorite fighter walking out to my favorite musical artist? No way this night would end badly. The fight started. Franklin threw a kick and Liddell answered with a kick that looked like it hurt 100 times more than the kick Franklin threw. This was a new Liddell. He was kicking again, he was mixing in takedowns, and the power was there. Sorry “Ace,” tonight just wouldn’t be your night. Then it happened. After seemingly hurting Franklin along the cage, Liddell looked for the kill and ran smack into a right hand that put him out. I just saw on my couch, stunned at what I just saw. I wasn’t sad or even disappointed. I was just stunned that Liddell had looked so good only to be caught with just seconds remaining in the round. To add to my stunnedness, moments later Franklin announced that his left arm had been broken early in the fight. Not only had Liddell looked so good and not only did he lose with just seconds remaining, but he lost to a guy with a broken arm. Why was God so cruel?
After UFC 115 I wrote that I never wanted to see Liddell fight again. It was just getting too painful. He had nothing left to prove and his chin just couldn’t handle the light heavyweight power. I couldn’t take seeing him unconscious; needing extra attention to be revived, and asking, “What happened?” after the fight was over.
On December 29, 2010, exactly 3 years after his epic fight with Silva, Liddell officially announced his retirement. I was happy and even relieved that it was finally over. While MMA retirements seem to be about as official as pro wrestling retirements, I felt in my heart that Liddell was truly done. He’s now married, UFC is probably compensating him well, and he seems happy in life.
It still upsets me when people say things like, “Liddell threw away his legacy” or “I hope (insert fighter here) doesn’t go out like Liddell.” Why wouldn’t a fighter want to go out like Liddell? He went out on his shield, he went out fighting the best, and he went out on the biggest stage. I hope fighters don’t go out like Ken Shamrock, because that’s the worst way to go out. Fighters should be so lucky to go out like Liddell did. And sorry people, but losing three straight fights, even by brutal KO, all to former champions isn’t throwing away a legacy that includes being one of the fighters who helped usher in MMA to the mainstream, becoming the first true crossover MMA star, multiple UFC Light Heavyweight Title defenses, being one of the biggest draws in MMA PPV history, ect….
On August 8, 2009 at UFC 101 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I finally met the man himself. I was sitting in the stands waiting for the event to begin when I saw the infamous Mohawk walk out from the backstage area. Even though I was half way across the arena, I wasn’t going to be denied. I ran across that arena so fast that I’m shocked security didn’t stop me, suspecting me of thievery. I made my way down to the arena floor, waited my turn, and finally handed my hat to Liddell to sign. Of course, my hat was an official “Iceman” hat that I’d worn every day since I got it for my birthday in 2008. After getting an autograph from my favorite fighter, I felt like a kid who just discovered Cinemax. I texted my friends, called my parents, and tweeted to my followers. That hat now hangs in my room and hasn’t been worn since UFC 101.
I still pay tribute to Liddell every week through my writing. My event previews, “The Walk Out” is titled because no one had a more exciting walk out than Liddell. His bouncing to the music and his energy going down the aisle always got me pumped for what I was about to see. And my event reviews, “The After Party” is titled because in every post-fight interview, Liddell always invited people to come party with him at his after party.
There will never be another Chuck Liddell in my MMA life. Sure I have fighters that I like and cheer for but there is no emotional investment. I’m more invested in my prediction record (because that’s why 5OZ pays me the big bucks) than any one fighter. Maybe I’m crazy for getting so attached to a fighter. But is it really any crazier than getting attached to a sports team? I wouldn’t trade my ups and downs with Liddell for anything. Except UFC 88. I’d be happy to cut off my right hand if it meant Liddell KO’d Evans. Don’t worry, I’m over it though.
Nope, mixed martial arts isn’t like other sports. Fighters don’t fight daily, every other day, or weekly. A loss or two could set a fighter back for a year, maybe even longer. A fighter can’t just magically improve over a 3-month period just because he switched training camps and got better training partners. But you can become emotionally attached to fighters and should your heart lead you to a certain fighter, enjoy every moment.