I have a couple theories on how superstardom is created in combat sports:
1) Every great fighter needs a great rival to stand in opposition to — an equally skilled counterpart who can push him competitively and generate personal animosity.
2) You either have to be an entertaining talker, or the guy who beats the living shit out of the entertaining talker. (The WMMA corollary is: You either have to be a beautiful woman, or the girl who beats the living shit out of the beautiful woman.)
Both of these theories can help explain why Chuck Liddell was — and continues to be — a cultural phenomenon, and arguably the most famous MMA fighter of all time. They also help explain why some of today’s UFC champions struggle to find the same kind of relevance.
Ten years ago today, Chuck Liddell cemented his stardom by knocking out Tito Ortiz at UFC 47: It’s On!, which took place April 2nd, 2004, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Even though it was a non-title fight, Liddell vs. Ortiz 1 was the most compelling, highly-anticipated bout in UFC history to that point — a once-in-a-blue-moon meeting of two rivals who were both incredibly talented, and opposites in every measurable way. It had a storyline as dramatic and exaggerated as any pro-wrestling feud, and yet, somehow, it was real.
Chuck Liddell was the hero, of course. Humble and laconic, Chuck talked with his fists. The only time he showed emotion was after he knocked a guy out, after which he would gallop around the cage, then lean back with his fists at his sides, screaming at the air, the usual deadness in his eyes replaced by unrestrained insanity. He had a cool nickname and a cooler mohawk. He was a white guy, and yes, that does matter. His name was “Chuck,” for God’s sake.
Naturally, Tito Ortiz was the villain. Tito loved to talk, even though he was never really that good at it. But he also understood that mental warfare was just as important as the battle that happened inside the cage. He was a ground-and-pound artist — not a standup fighter — who enjoyed discussing what he was going to do to you, how he was going to hurt you. His hair was closely cropped and dyed blonde. He was born Jacob Christopher Ortiz, but performed under the name “Tito” in an apparent attempt to gain Hispanic fans and piss off everybody else. It worked.
The fact that Ortiz never fought Liddell during Ortiz’s light-heavyweight title run — which Randy Couture had recently ended at UFC 44 — led many UFC fans to suggest that Ortiz was “ducking” Liddell. (Ortiz had his own explanations for why the matchup was delayed.) At any rate, that bit of backstory only helped the narrative: Ortiz was a coward at heart, and Liddell was finally going to prove it.
At the time, Liddell was coming off a disappointing run in the PRIDE 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix, where he was TKO’d by Quinton Jackson in the semi-finals. Essentially, it was a publicity stunt that backfired. Instead of proving the superiority of UFC fighters over PRIDE fighters, Liddell couldn’t even beat the guy who came in second place to Wanderlei Silva. So in addition to his rivalry with Ortiz, there was a personal redemption angle in place at UFC 47 as well. And so, Liddell vs. Ortiz had every single element required to be a legendary fight. Here’s how it played out…
Ortiz looked tense from the beginning. He tried to box with Liddell, and ate counter punches for his efforts. Chuck’s power was making Tito nervous. Ortiz made two ineffectual takedown attempts in round one, both of which were easily defended by the Iceman, the best sprawl-and-brawler in the sport. As the round ended, Chuck landed a barrage of punches and a head kick, and all Ortiz could do in response was shove Big John McCarthy like the heel he was, and shout at Chuck that he wasn’t hurt.
Ortiz opened up round two with a sharp leg kick. It was the last significant strike he’d land. The two fighters clashed in a striking exchange shortly after, and Tito came away rubbing his right eye like he’d been poked. But McCarthy didn’t see it, and Liddell didn’t care. What follows is one of the most brutal finishing sequences in UFC history — a homicidal assault of punches from Liddell that made Ortiz crumple, as anybody would. It was over.
That night kicked off the most successful period of Liddell’s UFC career. It was the first in a string of seven consecutive KO/TKO victories from 2004-2006, which included a title fight win over Randy Couture the following year at UFC 52, a redemptive TKO of Jeremy Horn — the man who was responsible for Liddell’s first loss, back in March 1999 — then another KO of Couture, a second TKO of Renato Sobral just for fun, and another knockout of Ortiz at UFC 66 in December 2006.
I’ll close with this fun fact: Liddell vs. Ortiz 1 was just the second UFC PPV to earn 100,000 buys. Liddell vs. Ortiz 2 was the first UFC PPV to break one million buys. In other words, their second fight was literally ten times more successful than the first. It redefined the metrics of success in mixed martial arts, and you can thank Chuck Liddell for that. But if you do, don’t forget to thank Tito Ortiz as well, because without a bad guy, it’s just not a very good story, is it?
Full UFC 47 results are below…
Chuck Liddell def. Tito Ortiz via KO, 0:38 of round 22
Chris Lytle def. Tiki Ghosn via submission (bulldog choke), 1:55 of round 2
Yves Edwards def. Hermes Franca via split decision
Andrei Arlovski def. Wesley Correira via TKO, 1:15 of round 2
Nick Diaz def. Robbie Lawler via KO, 2:31 of round 2
Mike Kyle def. Wes Sims via KO, 4:59 of round 1
Jonathan Wiezorek def. Wade Shipp via TKO, 4:39 of round 1
Genki Sudo def. Mike Brown via submission (armbar), 3:31 of round 1
- Ten years later, a Nick Diaz vs Robbie Lawler rematch could still headline a mid-level UFC event. Crazy.
- Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski were supposed to fight for the first time on this card, but Sylvia was pulled off due to his NSAC suspension for a positive steroid test. Arlovski remained on the card against Cabbage Correira, who was originally slated to fight Mike Kyle. Wes Sims came in as a replacement opponent for Mike Kyle on a day’s notice.