Before MMA fans were fawning over an Irish finisher or tuning in to see an absolute unit of a former WWE heavyweight champion enter the Octagon, the sport went through a period often referred to as the “Dark Ages”.
From UFC 22 and until UFC 30, the promotion had a hard time securing pay-per-view slots, venues, and tape distribution. Just before UFC 29, Zuffa LLC bought the failing organization for $2 million. The casino-rich Fertitta brothers used their connections in Las Vegas to get the UFC regulated and bring the MMA to Sin City.
This was all a step in the right direction but a sport needs athletes to root for. It needs characters that people can invest themselves in emotionally.
Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture were popular draws at the time and used their wrestling background to dominate as others had before them. Fans cheered with every slam and jumped to their feet to applaud the ensuing ground and pound.
Yet, as nice as the grappling aspects of MMA are to the even semi-educated fan, nothing beckons the casual crowd like the prospect of knockout.
The Iceman cometh
Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell entered the world of “no-holds-barred” fighting at UFC 17. He won his first two MMA bouts before being matched-up against a submission grappler and thirty-fight veteran named Jeremy Horn.
Jeremy Horn hands Chuck Liddell the first defeat of his career,
when he submits him off his back with an arm triangle choke pic.twitter.com/i4dSASuriv
— MMA History Today (@MMAHistoryToday) March 6, 2020
Horn would catch the former kickboxer/karate-stylist in an arm-triangle choke and put him to sleep. Liddell, desperate to get the loss out of his head, jumped back into the cage and knocked out Kenneth Williams at a regional show just 25 days later.
Victories over Jeff Monson, Kevin Randleman, and others followed and the UFC brass began to realize they had something special on their hands. With the promotion again gaining pay-per-view slots, it was time to share what they had with the world.
Though the UFC was struggling in America, MMA was thriving in Japan. PRIDE FC was drawing big numbers with lucrative TV deals, selling out stadiums, and bringing in combatants from around the world. In 2001, Dana White and Liddell flew to Yokohama for a cross-promotional bout.
“The Iceman” would KO Guy Mezger in the first round at PRIDE 14.
That time when Chuck Liddell fought in PRIDE and iced Guy Mezger.pic.twitter.com/BrwZ1wgFEj
— Cerebral Vigilante (@Delisketo) April 14, 2020
Liddell next beat the likes of Murilo Bustamante, Renato “Babalu” Sobral, and Vitor Belfort before being crowned the number one contender in the division.
The UFC tried to put together a fight between Liddell and then-champion, Tito Ortiz. Ortiz cited scheduling conflicts while others accused him of ducking the contender. The promotion decided to move forward without Ortiz and brought in former two-time heavyweight champion and UFC star Randy Couture to fight Liddell for the interim belt.
Couture rag-dolled Liddell en-route to a third-round TKO finish. He had Liddell’s timing down disrupted the striker’s rhythm with his own punches and takedowns. Liddell, again wanting to clear his mind of defeat, flew back to Japan two months later to compete in the PRIDE 2003 Middleweight Grand-Prix. There, he stopped the then much lankier—but still dangerous—Alistair Overeem in just over three minutes.
In the second round of the Grand-Prix, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson would halt Liddell’s run to the finals. Despite going 1-2 over a five-month span, Liddell’s popularity was growing. He was making appearances in movies and TV shows and often appropriately cast as a “tough guy” or “cage fighter”. He didn’t say much in those early roles because he didn’t have to. His presence was ominous enough.
Sporting a mohawk so fans could see the ink adorning his skull, Liddell looked like a man that wasn’t to be trifled with. While muscular, his physique wasn’t as sculpted as many of the other athletes. His abdominal muscles were fighting a constant battle with a burgeoning beer gut. His penetrating eyes and signature goatee accented this bruiser demeanor. It was an appearance that encompassed the “badass” image the UFC was going for at the time. Rap-metal was blaring, Tapout shirts were en vogue, inked up bodies were bleeding in cages and the ravenous fans were eating it up.
The image was perfect for the tone of the early 2000s, but you had to be able to back it up in the Octagon. Liddell had lost a couple in a row, but he grew from every defeat. When he would finally meet Tito Ortiz at UFC 47, it was do-or-die. Ortiz was one of, if not, the biggest draw in the sport at the time, and a win over him would catapult Liddell towards the stars.
It was in the second round that a flurry from Liddell backed up and downed “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy”.
This was the beginning of a reign of terror that saw Liddell’s savagery and popularity skyrocket. He next knocked out Vernon White before getting a second title shot against Couture. Couture came in ready to execute a similar game plan to the first meeting but Liddell mixed up his footwork and baited the Greco-Roman standout into slugging with him, leading to Liddell finding his chin early in the bout.
#OnThisDay in 2005: Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture rematched and it ended with THIS knockout…
— UFC Europe (@UFCEurope) April 16, 2020
Chuck Liddell now had a shiny golden belt to carry with him to ESPN and talk show interviews. He avenged his first loss to Jeremy Horn by fourth-round TKO. This led to a coaching gig opposite an old foe in Randy Couture on a brand-new show called The Ultimate Fighter. The show was a breakout success and a new audience was exposed to the aura of “The Iceman”. The rubber-match with Couture would again go the way of the champion.
His third title defense was a stoppage in a rematch against Sobral, who was on a ten fight win streak at the time. The stars aligned so Liddell would once again knockout Tito Ortiz in a pay-per-view that sold nearly a million units: an unheard-of number at the time.
Liddell-mania was at its peak as his face appeared in commercials and on products. He had avenged all of his losses except for one. For years, many American fans didn’t know this “Rampage” stain on their champion’s record. That was until Zuffa LLC acquired PRIDE FC and scheduled the rematch.
The end of an era
In his UFC debut, Jackson flat-lined Liddell. It was a shocking performance for those who had never heard of the chain-wearing banger from Japan. A fight against Keith Jardine was booked to give Liddell a comeback bout but Liddell looked uninspired throughout the contest. Just when fans were sure that the mohawk-clad madman was shot, he came out and put on a fight of the year contender with another PRIDE import in Wanderlei Silva.
Yet, that was the last bit of gas left in the tank. Liddell would be viciously KO’d in his next three fights before retiring from the sport in 2010. He returned to the cage in 2018 at 48-years-old and Ortiz exacted his revenge, knocking out Liddell in the first round.
After leaving MMA, Liddell would find more success outside the Octagon. He starred in big-budget movies, appeared in multiple reality shows, and even had a run on Dancing with the Stars.
In 2019, ESPN produced one of their renowned 30 for 30documentaries that did a deep dive into the feud of Liddell vs. Ortiz and its influence on mixed martial arts.
Liddell’s legacy is easy to track and define. He was one of the first fighters to parlay his career into mass-media, he was one of the biggest draws in the sport at the time and the face of “cage fighting” for years. To this day, folks who have never watched a full MMA event recognize the UFC Hall of Famer.
Chuck Liddell never backed down from a challenge, never ducked a fight, and he didn’t need the mic skills of a Chael Sonnen to sell himself. Liddell’s fists did the talking and when they spoke up, the fans listened.