It was a rivalry that probably never should have happened, but that at the same time was inevitable. The two best 205-pound fighters in the world at the time, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, began their mixed martial arts journey as friends and training partners, but when you’re dealing with ultra competitive athletes, there was no question that, eventually, the two would meet in the Octagon.
Their story began years ago, when mixed martial arts was still struggling to gain a mainstream foothold and its two biggest stars were just struggling up and comers looking to make it big.
Huntington Beach’s Ortiz first burst on the UFC scene in 1997, with San Luis Obispo’s Liddell following in 1998. The soft-spoken Liddell operated mainly in obscurity in those early days as the much more loquacious Ortiz shot up the ladder and eventually won what would become the UFC light heavyweight title with a victory over Wanderlei Silva in 2000.
Liddell’s first true taste of the spotlight came when he knocked out Kevin Randleman in 2001, but the undisputed king of the 205-pound division was still Ortiz, and he had the fanbase and media coverage to prove it. The two had become friends and worked out together, though, and a fight between the puncher and the ground-and-pounder was seemingly out of the question.
As time went on, though, Liddell’s rapid rise became the talk of the MMA world, and soon, the questions began. “When would Chuck get his shot?” being chief among them. Ortiz and Liddell blew off such inquiries publicly, but after “The Iceman” helped his buddy train for an aborted UFC 33 bout against Vitor Belfort, they started to distance themselves from each other.
“We knew that sooner or later, if we kept winning, that we were both gonna have to fight,” said Liddell. “We started separating almost a year and a half ago. The last time I trained with him was when I helped him train for (the fight with) Vitor (Belfort).”
And when Liddell defeated Belfort at UFC 37.5 and Ortiz came into the Octagon for a bit of camera time, the die was cast as far as The Iceman was concerned. Ortiz was slow in coming around to that idea, citing either friendship or money as the reason the two would never fight.
By late-2002, Liddell and Ortiz were no longer on speaking terms, and the public started getting involved in a call for the fight. To add insult to injury, the previous training sessions between the two also became front page news.
“I’m a bad fight for him, a bad style,” said Liddell. “And he knows that. I’m a really tough fight for him because I strike real well and I’m really hard to take down. When he fights someone who can strike, all he wants to do is take them down. We trained together a little bit and he knows he’ll have a hard time taking me down.”
The training sessions between the two took on a mythic quality to them as talk swirled around about what happened between those closed doors. Liddell was quick to dismiss such chatter and downplayed it, basically saying that what starts in the gym stays in the gym.
Soon though, Ortiz was backed into a corner, especially after he lost his UFC light heavyweight belt to Randy Couture and had to go through Liddell to get another title shot, and finally, the two met in a huge event at UFC 47 on April 2, 2004.
Liddell dominated from the outset, eventually knocking Ortiz out in the second round. The feud was apparently over, with both men going their separate ways, both personally and professionally. Ortiz was bothered by the way everything went down.
“It bothers me a whole bunch, but it shows you what money can do to people,” said Ortiz. “It changes them. Liddell’s his own man now and for him to say that we were never friends, that’s just BS, and he knows the truth. And the first time we fought, that was one of the reasons why I couldn’t compete on the level that I usually did. It really hurt me a lot at that time, but now it’s all hard feelings. We’re acquaintances, no longer friends. When I see him, I say, ‘Hey Chuck, what’s up?’ and that’s as far as the conversation ever goes. I know in my mind, and I know it’s in the back of his mind, that we’re gonna fight again, no matter what, but this time there won’t be any friendship factor at all – this is gonna be hatred, and I think I fight the best when I hate somebody.”
Liddell would defeat Couture in their rematch for the UFC light heavyweight title and become a bona fide superstar. Ortiz would leave the UFC at the end of his contract and go through a 14-month layoff before returning to re-establish himself as one of the best light heavyweights in the world in 2006, setting up a second chapter to the most intense rivalry in the sport that would take place on December 30 of that year.
“I'm just happy to be fighting again,” said Liddell. “I love what I do, I love fighting, and I'm definitely going to love fighting Tito again. The biggest thing with my fans, they're always asking, ‘when are you going to knock out Tito again?’ So on December 30th, that will be for them.”
“Liddell is a great champion, but his time has come,” added Ortiz. “I'm ready to get my belt back. The first time we fought I was in an unhappy place and I didn't want to fight. Now that times are better, I want to get back in the Octagon and continue to dominate. December 30th is going to be Tito Ortiz's day, I guarantee it.”
The rematch went the same way as the first, Liddell stopping Ortiz in the third round of the UFC 66 main event in Las Vegas. And while the two would ultimately meet a third time outside of the UFC in 2018, with Ortiz halting Liddell, it didn’t have the fire of their previous two meetings when the Hall of Famers were in their prime and captivating the MMA world.
For many fans, no feud that happened before or after those first two bouts in 2004 and 2006 was as intense as that one, and it’s one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
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