It doesn’t feel like that long ago when the face of the UFC was a knockout artist from San Luis Obispo, California named Chuck Liddell. But that’s what happens when you get older and the years flash by you like the right hand that ended the night for so many opponents of “The Iceman.”
So for someone whose formative years in the sport came when Liddell was beating the likes of Randleman, Ortiz, Couture and Silva, bear with me as I welcome Chuck to the 50 Club today with a reminder of what he brought to the sport.
The below piece was written when the UFC Hall of Famer announced his retirement in 2010. Liddell would come back for a third fight with Ortiz outside the UFC in 2018, because that’s just what retirements in combat sports are like, but it doesn’t change the sentiment or the legacy of one of the sport’s greats.
If you never got to see him live, you missed out. But hopefully through the wonders of UFC Fight Pass, if you do go back to check out some of those defining moments, you’ll see why we’re talking about him today on his 50th birthday and why we’ll continue to talk about him in the decades to come.
The first time I ran into Chuck Liddell, it was at the then-customary rules meeting before his May 2001 bout with Kevin Randleman. There were no camera crews following him, no flock of reporters jotting down his every word – he was just another fighter in a room full of them, competing in a sport that wasn’t even back on pay-per-view yet.
My nephew, who was shooting pictures for me at the time, thought there was nothing cooler than the tattoo on the side of Liddell’s head - the kanji symbols for “place of peace and prosperity” – and not only did he photograph it, he went on to have a casual conversation with him about everything but fighting.
The day after the rules meeting, Liddell knocked out former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman in 78 seconds, and it was the beginning of his transition from California cult hero to worldwide mixed martial arts superstar. Today, everyone knows who Chuck Liddell is; camera crews follow him around, flocks of reporters jot down his every word, but remarkably, he remains the same person he was in 2001. Sure, the bank account’s bigger, the clubs are nicer, and the trappings of fame more expensive – both literally and figuratively – but of anyone in professional sports today, Liddell has remained true to what got him here in the first place.
“I’ve got a lot of friends that I’ve hung out with for 10-15 years that still hang out with me, and I don’t think they’d let me start acting like a jerk,” he told me in 2006. “They knew me when I was the guy going to college and working behind the bar. Plus I still live in the same small town, and things like that (celebrity) aren’t really that big a deal around here. I think I’m a normal guy, and I try to be as normal as I can.”
That’s rare in a day and age where image and spin is everything. Liddell went through his 12-year career with the same Mohawk, the same trainer (John Hackleman), the same friends, and the same attitude. Of course, on this side of the Octagon, years of covering Liddell had its challenges, but while hearing him simply state that he just loves to fight and loves knocking people out will never allow him to fill up notebooks like a Bernard Hopkins, that, frankly, was part of his appeal. Liddell has always boiled fighting down to its bare essence. For him, when he stepped into the Octagon, it was a fight – not a chess match, not a clashing of styles or comparison of techniques. He was going to hit you, you were going to try to hit him, and more often than not, you were going to fall down. It was a fight, plain and simple, and no one wanted to win that fight more than him.
“From chess to checkers when I was a kid, I’ve always been competitive,” he said in 2003. “I hate to lose. I hate to lose at anything. I’ve gotten a lot better about mellowing out about fun games, but there was a time when I’d get pissed about everything. Whether it was shooting pool or anything, I just hated losing. I’ve kind of moved that focus and tried to keep it to my professional life.”
That was bad news for the men he faced in the Octagon. After a 2003 that saw losses to Randy Couture and Quinton Jackson sandwich a win over Alistair Overeem, Liddell went on an over three-year tear from 2004 to 2007 that not only established him as the game’s unquestioned superstar, but as the most terrifying light heavyweight in the game. Strangely enough though, as Liddell’s fame grew, the respect he received (and still receives) from his peers never waned. Liddell was a true fighter’s fighter, and that’s an accolade you can’t buy or receive from newspaper clippings or television appearances.
“I think the reason people like me is because I’ll fight anybody, anywhere, I don’t talk bad about people that don’t deserve it, and I’m not a guy who’s out there trying to trash talk and make a name for myself,” said Liddell in 2006. “I earned the name that I have – I went out and fought for it. I’m not trying to make it off somebody else. And I go out there, I fight hard, and I fight to win. I think other fighters have respect for that because that’s what they’re doing.”
And during his reign of terror over the UFC’s 205-pound weight class, he wasn’t beating cupcakes, as his seven-fight unbeaten streak over that span included wins over world champions Randy Couture (twice) and Tito Ortiz (twice), as well as respected contenders like “Babalu” Sobral and Jeremy Horn. What made this run even more spectacular was that he won all of those bouts by knockout, punctuating each with the only outward sign of emotion you would ever see from him, a post-fight scream that became his trademark.
“I’m just excited,” he said in a typical understatement. “I don’t get very excited very often about too many things, but that’s one of the things I do. I prepare for two to three months for a guy, and you end it quickly like that or you have a good fight and you win, I’m excited.”
Unfortunately, the screams didn’t come too often in the last couple of years, but that’s the life a fighter leads, and in his final UFC bout against Rich Franklin at UFC 115 in June 2010, Liddell went out the only way he knew how – with guns blazing. That’s how we’ll always remember him. And while great fighters will come and go in the future, there will never be another “Iceman.”
And we thank him for that.
Kevin Randleman – May 4, 2001 – UFC 31
Result – Liddell KO 1
When Liddell entered his bout with former heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman in Atlantic City, he was seen as a solid contender, but also one who was expected to be a stepping stone for ‘The Monster’, who was making his UFC debut at light heavyweight. Liddell had other plans, and there was no denying the fight ending power or quiet charisma of Liddell, who would hence be known simply as ‘The Iceman’. And this time it wasn’t just a catchy nickname; it was a warning of what Liddell could do to you if he landed cleanly – you were iced.
The Randy Couture Trilogy
June 6, 2003 – UFC 43
Result – Couture TKO 3
Two years after truly arriving on the scene with his win over Randleman, Liddell finally got his long awaited-title shot against ageless Randy Couture. Couture was undoubtedly the real deal, but to many, the coronation of a new king from San Luis Obispo, California appeared to be a mere formality. Not so, as Couture grounded and pounded him out in round three. It was a costly lesson for ‘The Iceman’, who learned never to read your press clippings and enter a bout overconfident.
April 16, 2005 – UFC 52
Result – Liddell KO 1
It was fast – only 2:06 – but in winning the UFC light heavyweight title after close to seven years in the fight game, Liddell finally had the validation all fighters hope to one day get. Sure he says all the right things and insists that he would fight even without the belt on the line, but at the end of the day, every fighter wants to be a champion, and Liddell finally got to the top, and by knockout against a fighter who stopped him no less. That’s redemption.
February 4, 2006 – UFC 57
Result – Liddell KO 2
A bout overshadowed by the post-fight (and temporary) retirement by the legendary Couture, Liddell’s knockout win over ‘The Natural’ not only put a definitive stamp on the UFC’s first great trilogy (in the Iceman’s favor), but it became a true changing of the guard for the organization and Liddell, who became not only the biggest star in mixed martial arts, but also one that transcended the sport into the realm of mainstream acceptance. In other words, whether you were a fan of MMA or not, when Chuck Liddell fought, you found a way to check it out.
Bad Blood with Tito Ortiz
April 2, 2004 – UFC 47
Result – Liddell KO 2
If Chuck Liddell never won another mixed martial arts match, he would always be remembered for this bout – a one-sided beatdown of his former buddy Ortiz - which was one of the sport’s most anticipated fights. In the process, he showed an ability to not only handle his business inside the Octagon, but outside of it, as he became a much-requested interviewee among the media in the weeks leading up to the bout, and in the years to come.
December 30, 2006 – UFC 66
Result – Liddell TKO3
Despite the one-sided nature of bout number one, by the time the rematch was signed, the entire MMA world was eager to see if Ortiz could reverse the result the second time around. He couldn’t, but in defeat Ortiz showed a ton of heart and he even made it to the third round. But Liddell’s ability to keep his rival on the end of his punches made it impossible for Ortiz to implement his gameplan.
Vernon White – August 21, 2004 – UFC 49
Result – Liddell KO 1
Beating someone you chased for a couple of years has to be a high most of us never could experience. Fighting off the inevitable letdown of such a win has to be tough though. That was what Liddell faced in his first post-Ortiz fight against the always tough Vernon White, who helped motivate his foe with plenty of pre-fight trash talk. What resulted was four minutes and five seconds of war, with Liddell showing not only his punching power (which resulted in a KO victory), but a solid beard, which allowed him to take White’s bombs and continue firing. The only thing left was to get that title belt.
Jeremy Horn II – August 20, 2005 – UFC 54
Result – Liddell TKO 4
Most fighters will tell you that it’s harder to keep the title than to win it. Well, Liddell got no easy mark in his first 205-pound title defense when he faced the first man to beat him, Jeremy Horn. But despite their history and Horn’s pedigree, the fight wasn’t even close as Liddell slowly and methodically broke down Horn’s defenses and stuffed any semblance of offense from the over 100-fight veteran.
Rough Nights with “Rampage” Jackson
November 9, 2003 – PRIDE Final Conflict
Result – Jackson TKO 2
Sent to Japan’s PRIDE organization to compete in their Grand Prix tournament with the ultimate goal being a bout with Wanderlei Silva, Liddell instead ran into a brick wall with fellow American Quinton Jackson, who took some of Liddell’s best punches flush on the jaw and kept coming, eventually putting Liddell on his back in the second round and finishing him off. It was Liddell’s second loss in two fights, but he would go on to win seven in a row and become the most dominant 205-pounder in the game.
May 26, 2007 – UFC 71
Result – Jackson TKO 1
The rematch with Jackson was one of the most anticipated in recent history, and it came at a time when Liddell was bigger than ever, with an ESPN magazine cover and an appearance on HBO’s Entourage series. But a right to the jaw by Jackson in the first round stopped Liddell’s roll in emphatic fashion and moved him from champion to contender in just 1:53. It was a huge upset in the mind of the mainstream, but not to the hardcore, who now just assumed that the talented Jackson had Liddell’s number, just like Liddell had Ortiz’.
Wanderlei Silva – December 29, 2007 – UFC 79
Result – Liddell W3
After Liddell’s second loss to Jackson, he would suffer a second straight defeat, this time via decision to Keith Jardine at UFC 76 in September of 2007. Many were starting to write ‘The Iceman’ off, but when he met Wanderlei Silva in a superfight fans had waited to see for years, he was back to his fearsome form as he and ‘The Axe Murderer’ put on one of the best fights of the year. What may have been more impressive to fans of Liddell was that he actually went for and scored a takedown and threw in some more techniques that had been out of his repertoire for a long time. It showed that there were still some tricks in ‘The Iceman’s bag when properly motivated, and as his last MMA victory, it was the perfect fight for his personal time capsule.