Hundreds upon hundreds of the UFC’s faithful cheered wildly. Others shifted for a simple glance while some, armed with cameras, climbed, pushed and elbowed for position to get a clear shot. The commotion took place during a recent championship match –Anderson Silva’s title defense versus Thales Leites. But the frenzy wasn’t caused by Silva. The rabid fans were not clamoring for Anderson’s often-poetic Muay Thai, nor his brutal ground-and-pound. Heck, these fans, although originally here to watch Silva do what he does best, were now actually paying the champ very little attention. Instead, the commotion was caused by the man who paved the way for the big paydays and international fame that fi ghters like Silva now enjoy. The hectic commotion was a kind of ovation—an emotional send off—for one of the most beloved fi ghters in the history of the sport.
After losing to Shogun Rua in Montreal in April, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell sat in the belly of the arena trying to fi gure out how in the heck he had just lost. Like legends in other sports, Liddell can’t juke and duck Father Time forever. Chuck had always known this, but for every athlete I’ve ever been around, dealing with one’s own mortality, well, quite frankly… it sucks.
Could Chuck fi ght again? Sure. Will he? Who knows? But if the night of UFC 97 was his curtain call, proper respect was shown to the man who put MMA on the map. Someone asked us if he wanted a beer. Unlike others who have been impressed with their own stardom, Chuck, as I’ve written in the past, is still that guy sitting at the end of the bar happily drinking a beer with anyone who cared to throw one back.
“Heck yeah I want one, I haven’t had a beer in three months!” he blurted. With that, a small group of us gathered and toasted the man to whom we’ve drunk many times in the past. This night, obviously, was different. This night had the signs of a swan song. But then, in a move appropriate for The Iceman, he said “C’mon” and we moved our private little party out into the arena for one last drink with those who love him so much. It was last call at The Iceman Pub and he was going out the front door with an exit befi tting the king of the sport.
Despite the fact that a title fi ght was in full swing, all eyes in the arena were on Chuck. Word spread quickly and fans came rushing, armed with ample compliments and admiration. “You’ll always be the best, Chuck!” “You made this sport, Iceman!” “We love you Chuck! Thank you, Chuck! You’re a legend, Chuck!”
As excited as all the fans were to see him, it was good for Chuck to see them, too. I think they acted as his therapy that night. Looking mortality in the face sucks, but it sucks less when you bring along a few hundreds fans on the trip.
How lucky is the MMA world that we got Chuck Liddell? I’ve often wondered how different it would be if instead of Chuck, the fi rst breakout superstar had been somebody with a big ego or somebody high maintenance. How much further down the ladder would we all be if the sport had been represented to the popular culture by somebody who wouldn’t be happy to just sit and drink with half the damn arena?
As the sport of MMA exploded, it needed somebody menacing and larger than life in appearance. We needed somebody who looked like he just may show up on your front lawn and beat the living shit out of you simply because he could. And Chuck certainly fi t the bill. But at the same time, we needed our feared face also to be able to connect with anyone and everyone, fan or naysayer. The sport needed a guy who could solidify the fan base and also win over the opposition by being fearsome and approachable. I can’t imagine if during the formative years of the UFC we’d had a prima donna who wore sunglasses in the clubs at night, found his way into the Police Blotter too often or, like many of today’s superstar athletes, one who simply felt he was too good for everyone else.
Instead, we got a guy who was a great and entertaining fi ghter, and a man who was also gracious and proud simply to help out the sport in any way he could. And when MMA took off and the rest of the world was looking to give him the keys to pretty much anything, Chuck just wanted to sit and play it straight, happy to do what he could for anybody. We got damn lucky, folks, that it was Chuck who became the face of the sport when he did. All the fi ghters who now get national recognition and every one of us in the biz –fi ghters, managers, promoters, trainers, broadcasters, etc—who make way more money than we ever thought we could in this sport, owe a debt of gratitude to Chuck who helped us make it this far.
Me, personally? I was just glad we got a couple of free beers and that I got a chance to watch my buddy soak it up and drink ‘em down. And if that night does turn out to have been his goodbye, I’m glad I got to see him say his farewell in perfect Chuck Liddell fashion. It was a toast that was a long time coming.