The Real Chuck Liddell
I returned from an eight-day NFL Pro Bowl trip, checked out my house, which I believed had been vacant following a raucous Super Bowl stint, and suddenly felt I was Kato Kaelin-ized. I opened the door to the master guest room in my house and there, laid out on the fl oor, were the belongings of one Chuck Liddell. Not just a few belongings, but all his junk.
Huh? Chuck had stayed with me during Super Bowl week and tagged along for many of the NFL festivities and appearances I committed to attend. The two of us went as far as attaching our name to the offi cial Coors Light Super Bowl after-party.
But as far as I knew, the dude had left when I left for Hawaii’s Pro Bowl. But the scene in front of me spelled a much different story. All his belongings he brought for the week lay on the ground, and his one suit—that’s correct, the only suit he owns–hung in the closet. The only pair of dress shoes he owns–yup, one pair of dress shoes—were discarded in no particular arrangement on the ground.
“Slappy (which I usually refer to him as), where the hell are you?” I asked via cell phone. “I’m at the gym, where are you?” he retorted. “Who’s gym? Mine in AZ?” “No, I’m up in SLO (San Luis Obispo).” “Slappy, you left all your shit here at my house,” I said, not really caring, but just incredibly confused. “Oh, yeah, I, uh, I, um, yeah, I forgot my stuff!” “You forgot your stuff!!? What are you like seven?” That my friends, is all you need to know about the man, the myth, the legend. This is vintage Chuck Liddell.
When the fi ne folks at FIGHT! Magazine phoned asking if I could do a story on the famed fi ghting fi gure, I at fi rst, second and third turned them down. They asked that I do a special cover story on him, letting people get a true inside glance, a behind-closed-doors peak, if you will, on perhaps the most famous face in mixed martial arts. Since the outside world doesn’t really understand that icy stare behind the eyes or what he’s like outside the world of the Octagon, they asked if I could allow them entry into what he’s really like.
Too hard of a story, I thought. If you’d have asked me about one of my football buddies who overcame the adversity of the mean streets and is now living the high society life we once dreamed about as kids, sure, no problemo.
But with Chuck? There is no fl ashy story here. No dirt to dig up. No big controversy to dwell on. He’s not a “scene” guy or a star fucker. Honestly, he’s just Chuck. The fans at home get what they see. There’s no secret to this guy. Give him a face to punch during training and he’s happy. When he’s not training, give him a barstool and a couple of beers, throw on some football and he’s just as happy.
The editor’s at FIGHT! are relentless. They continued on about what a mystery he is, and how there’s got to be something sexy about the guy. They just wanted a peek into what it’s like being around the Iceman, what it’s like to be part of his world. That story up above spells it out to perfection. Chuck is a jagoff, and I mean that in the most fl attering of ways with nothing but love. If all the other athletes in the world stayed true to who they are the way Chuck does, the sports pages would be one boring read. We wouldn’t have the prima donnas that capture our daily conversations, and we would be without the seasonal soap operas brought about by Kobe, T.O., Shaq and A-Rod.
I’m not exaggerating. The man has one suit and one pair of shoes. Oh, and that suit he owns is only because we had to go to a dressup gala event for Muhammad Ali in April. He had to go buy it the week of the event. That folks, is who Chuck Liddell is. Oh, and those shoes? He’s had the same pair for four years. Ugliest damn shoes you’ll ever see in your life. Look like a cross between a canoe and those dance fever Capezios we wore on the Jersey Shore years ago.
“How the hell are these your only shoes?” I barked. To Chuck, those shoes were legends. In fact, he recently lost one of them and we proclaimed it an end of an ugly era in his life.
You’ll never fi nd Chuck in a Gucci store, and he won’t be seen near a Prada location. Not only won’t he buy from the world of designer royalty, he may not even wear something if it ain’t free (sorry, buddy, I’m using this to take my shots).
I tried to explain all these things to the FIGHT! folks. They wanted anything to show the fans who he truly is. They wanted an inside look and as uncomfortable as I was with it, we talked about it and agreed to come up with something.
Perhaps I can best sum up Chuck like this – had this article been assigned 10 years ago, the content would not change one bit. Not a line! He is the same exact human being he was fi ve years ago, 10 years ago, college, even high school, except now everyone in the world knows he can whip their asses. Plus, he’s got some coin now too.
The fi rst time Chuck and I hung out, we rolled for a TV shoot and afterwards he came with me to a party I was going to, hosted by NFL legends Marcus Allen and Warren Moon. This was during The Ultimate Fighter 1 and back then, the general population was just being introduced to this menacing-looking slugger.
We sat off by ourselves near the bar and were generally left alone. Every 15 minutes or so, someone would come up to talk to him or ask him what he does. And every time Chuck seemed a bit embarrassed, but he took the time to talk to each fan as if they had grown up together.
But Chuck was probably the least-known celebrity in the group and seemed extremely happy about that fact.
Fast forward to April of this year. Muhammad Ali holds his charity event, named “Fight Night”, in Arizona every year. The ballroom held an audience that included the who’s who of Hollywood and sports fame: Whitney Houston, Kevin Costner, Faith Hill, LaDainian Tomlinson, Shaq, Tony Hawke, Steve Nash, Ray Lewis, Celine Dion…the list goes on and on. It was a red carpet that only the Oscars could rival (thankfully this one omitted those annoying as hell Rivers ladies).
Unlike our event years ago, Liddell seemed to be the biggest draw in the place. Not only did damn near every fan line up to get a glimpse of the Iceman, the stars clamored for a handshake, a chat. Costner’s people came over and talked about how much a fan the famed actor is and asked if he could possibly meet him. Shaq made sure he paid his respects. Star after star went crazy for the guy!
His reaction? The same exact one those people all those years ago received when he was just about to leave Anonymous Town and pull into Notoriety Station. He dropped his head and got lost behind the veil of repeated text messages – his oasis away from the famous world he has been thrust into.
“When I go to those things I’m still shocked when those celebrities know who I am,” he said. “I got to throw out the fi rst pitch of a Dodgers game last year and Tommy Lasorda knew who I was. How cool is that?”
Personally, I love it because you like to see those who deserve it get it. It drives me nuts when some knuckleheaded athlete takes for granted what God blessed him with and acts like he’s entitled to a rock star lifestyle. Chuck acts like he’s entitled to a good laugh every now and then, that’s about it.
He spilled his blood to fi nd fame and fortune and never once forgot that it’s actually OK not to change. Imagine that? What a novel idea. Get rich and famous and still hang out with the same slappies you always did, right there in your college town. Sure, I could see Tom Cruise doing the same thing, no?
Unlike friends of mine who try to collect stars and attach themselves to what they believe makes them bigger and better people, Chuck shies away from it.
“It’s embarrassing,” Chuck admits. “It’s just not me. It’s just weird, it’s strange. I don’t get it. I don’t’ think I’ve ever been big on making a big deal about people. It’s still hard for me to really comprehend that people will be like, ‘Wow, it’s Chuck Liddell.’” “Even after all this time, I still don’t know how to take it. I almost feel like saying, ‘sorry.’ I love the fact that people appreciate the sport and how tough it is, but it’s still strange to be a celebrity.”
At that Ali event, we sat at a table with NFL stars Ray Lewis, Shawne Merriman, Lance Briggs and our dates, and the big bad football players couldn’t be more respectful. This time, the football players weren’t the stars, Chuck was. And this time, Chuck acted the same exact way he did years before.
As big and bad as they were, the man behind that icy stare could knock them off the perch with one awkward counter hook. Maybe that’s what makes people so enamored with Chuck. He doesn’t just play the part in the cage, he looks the part away from it. “He’s a great guy but I’ll be honest with you, he scares the crap out of me,” said another friend, Giants retired DE Michael Strahan. “I didn’t know what to make of him but those eyes, man those eyes make me hope he’s always in a good mood.”
He’s feared and revered and lives in a world of violence. He makes money by looking tough and smashing people’s faces. But he counters that one extreme with another side of his makeup. Folks, as much as he likes to fi nd pain, he searches for constant laughter as well.
Strahan probably saw the enigma that is Chuck Liddell faster than anyone on the planet. Moments after I introduced the two, Strahan left his cell phone on the table. Chuck told me to take the phone and send someone a really messed up text from his cell and then erase it. Simply put, it was ingenious.
The two of us sent Strahan’s agent Maury Gostfrand a text asking him if coming out of the closet would hurt his marketability, and stating that he simply didn’t want to hide it for another day. At the time, Strahan’s ex-wife released a story to the New York tabloids that he was, shall we say, living an alternative lifestyle.
Chuck seemed more excited about delivering this blow than he did delivering a vicious kick to Babalu. We sent the text and waited for the fun to begin. Strahan received a text back from Gostfrand asking if he was serious. Strahan texted back asking, “serious about what?” Gostfrand retorted, “about coming out of the closet.” Strahan was utterly confused.
Here Liddell was, having met Strahan for a grand total of about 200 seconds, and he comes up with an idea to enrage a sleeping New York Giant. That, folks, is Liddell to a tee. Oh, and by the way, it took about eight more confusing texts for Strahan and his agent to fi gure out what the other was talking about. About a year earlier, Chuck sent a similar text to, get this one, his friend Antonio Banuelo’s…. MOM! Antonio was out doing roadwork and his poor mom got a text from her son admitting the same thing Strahan seemingly did in his text. The poor lady had to wait for 90 minutes or so to fi nd out she had been bamboozled by the UFC Light Heavyweight King!
The humor? It’s a weapon in the grand scheme of his game. He has a terrifi c group of confi dants that hangs with him and keeps him loose prior to stepping foot into the Octagon. Long-time friends like Antonio, Usman Iqbal, Scott Lighty, Glover Texeira, his brother Dan, Brad Marks, Alex Karalexis and Dwayne Zinkin are all there to ensure their buddy is always on his toes. And of course, his fi ancé Erin Wilson is there, and she dishes it out better than the boys.
I’m honored to be one of the group’s members, whenever it’s not football season. I’ve been back there with a bunch of fi ghters prior to going to battle, but none quite like Chuck. It’s a comedy show back there. We bust on him pretty much all day long and he seems to encourage it, his aura begs for barbs, for zingers.
“That’s my thing,” he said, “the guys keep me relaxed. It helps me kill time. No one can sit back there with nothing to do and stay relaxed for that long. I get bored out of my mind. You start getting bored and you start over thinking it. Going back and forth at each other, it keeps me where I need to be mentally.”
There aren’t just zingers here and there, it’s non-stop Chuck Liddell roast time. Nothing is off limits. Who cares if he’s getting psyched, I got another bullet in the chamber waiting to shoot it his way. If someone else does something asinine, he rides them so hard they may have it worse than his opponent that night.
Whatever the man has done stupid in his adult life, you better believe its coming up in conversation in the hotel room, in the locker room, anytime before his hands get taped. Once that tape is on, it’s the only time in his daily life he’s insult free. The only time! The post-fi ght group has exploded in numbers over the last few years as you might imagine. The fi rst time I went to a post-fi ght celebration, we had a couple of couches in a club for his crew. Now? You could only imagine. Yet, the same people who sat on those couches back in the day, are still sitting on the couch next to him today. In Chuck’s world, there’s very little room for those who didn’t get in on the ground fl oor. For those lucky enough to jump into the group, you better be the most loyal SOB on the planet because that’s certainly what you’re getting back.
“We went to all his early fi ghts,” said Eric Schwartz, a college wrestling teammate and training partner of Chuck’s for the last 15 years or so. “After those fi ghts, it would be me and fi ve or six guys and we’d all go to the bars afterward. Then, it pretty much happened overnight; he’d fi ght and suddenly there were 500 people showing up to party with him and you’d only know like eight of them. But even with 500 people in there, the moment he sees one of us, he’ll knife through, fi nd you and give you a big hug.”
Liddell appreciates the fact that he’s become, as Ron Burgundy would say, “a pretty big deal around here.” But he’s not overly comfortable. That’s probably what separates him from every other celebrity in this country. He’s embarrassed and doesn’t see himself as worthy of any attention that exceeds sitting at the end of the bar with his boys.
At the same time, we’ve all started to get frustrated in some cases with his generosity. The man stops for every single person who wants a photo or autograph. A casual walk through a hotel lobby has changed into a 30-minute excursion these days, oftentimes ending with us being led behind the front desk and whisked away by security.
The man doesn’t know how to say no. Not only will he not decline a request, he actually takes people up on buying him a drink and then feels it necessary to spend time with the excited patrons.
“Those fans were there for me when I started, I got involved with them,” said Liddell. “I appreciate it. Part of it, I think it comes from where we came from as a sport. We had a lot of hardcore fans. I just consider it part of my job. I get to do what I love for a living. If taking a few minutes out of my time is part of the price, great. I try to remember, even when it gets hard, I remember this is the fi rst time this guy gets to meet me. He’s excited. I try to give enthusiasm back.”
Seriously, what star athlete does that? Apparently Chuck forgot his handbook on how to become a sports superstar at the offi ce.
How about this one – a few years ago he had to do a TV show at a firehouse in New York City. Chuck told them he and I wanted to hit some bars that night and asked if they wanted to join us. Just like that, their dreams came true and Chuck’s bar tab became huge. What sports hero asks their adoring fans to come hang out with them? Who the heck does that?
But that is who Chuck is. He’s as boyish today as he was ages ago, transforming back and forth between killer and the guy in the group you hope you get to pick on. “I remember when I first met him,” said Schwartz. “He has his hands in his pockets, doesn’t really look at you. He looked like a little monchichi doll. I looked at him and said, he’s tough? Please. He wouldn’t even make eye contact.”
“But he has this switch. One moment he’s talking to you and the next, bam, he switches and clicks over. It’s intimidating. He turns it on like someone just did something to his family. Some guy came after us with a baseball bat once and Chuck jumped in his face and the dude ran away. The guy had a bat, Chuck had nothing! He has those fucked up eyes though and he knows when to use them.”
The guys at FIGHT! wanted to know who he is, who is that man behind the icy eyes? He’s the guy sitting at the end of the bar. The friend you wish you had because he lives to bail his boys out of trouble. He’s the guy sitting and texting constantly because he really isn’t comfortable looking up to see it’s him everyone is looking at. He’s the guy you love to root for because you want a friend just like him, especially one that hits so hard.
There is nothing special, except the fact that he doesn’t act like he is special. You won’t see him looking for a red carpet, you won’t see him looking for a famous entourage. You’ll see him sitting at the same places he’s sat for years. Places in SLO with names like Library and the Graduate and Downtown Brew.
Just don’t leave your cell phone unattended or your mom may end up getting the shock of her life.