By Ben Goldstein
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.