Editor's note: This article appears in the May 21 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Marla Rutherford for ESPN The Magazine
C'mon, you're not afraid of Chuck, are you?
"I love dancing," he says, his hips ticking back and forth with fluidity. "I'll dance anywhere, anytime. People think I'm wasted, but I'm not. I'm just enjoying myself."
Liddell is wearing expensive, loose-fitting jeans and a T-shirt with cherubs frolicking across the chest. His head is shaved save for a tight Lohawk. He has on flip-flops, which reveal his toenails. They are painted an implausible neon pink.
A WEC fighter walks by, slaps Liddell on the back, then notices the toes. "Look at that gayness," he says, cocking his head. Liddell just smiles and keeps grooving. He is a tolerant man. He can afford to be.
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For the past six years, Liddell has been known as a badass, the best fighter in the world bar none. He's the UFC's current light heavyweight champion. In his 10-year career, he has lost only three fights and has gone on to avenge two of them. The third, his 2003 loss to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, is set for a rematch on May 26.
"The plan is to knock him out in the first round," Liddell says in a voice devoid of bravado. Unlike some fighters, he does not boast. He wears his professional record with a shrug. His talent is a gift from birth, or God.
"I've been fighting people since way back," he says with a smile. "At parties. In clubs. I always say I never started a fight. But looking back, I made it real hard for you to get out of one."
Even before he got paid to kick and punch, Liddell liked brawls. Not backing down was a means to an end. "Fighting was a competition for me," he says, "something I happened to be really good at."
Liddell is 37 years old. He is 6'2", 220 pounds. He has a round, boyish face, with piercing eyes and a sharply defined, Val Kilmer mouth. He's not small, but he doesn't block the sun like many athletes. His body is one of supreme use; every muscle serves a purpose. And generally that purpose is to put other men in a world of pain. "I'm not conflicted about it," he says. "I don't mean to hurt ya. I just want to prove I do it better."
What Liddell means is that he isn't psychotic. He describes himself as "mellow, laid-back." He doesn't derive pleasure from inflicting pain, and the fact that you enjoy watching him do it says a hell of a lot more about you than him. "Chuck looks like an ax murderer," says UFC president Dana White. "But he's the nicest guy in the world."
Even so, being an ultimate fighter has very little to do with being nice. It's about being an incomparable athlete. You must excel at boxing, martial arts and wrestling. You must possess depths of fortitude and a willingness to stand alone. And you must be accountable for yourself in a way that few sports require. Liddell knows this, having played virtually every other sport with the exception of tennis.
AP photo/Marlene Karas
Chuck Liddell is the biggest draw the UFC's got.
"Chuck is a bona fide superstar," White says. "Even in other countries, everybody knows him. When I go to New York with him, he gets mobbed. People scream from their cars."
Liddell's signature, and most popular, move in the octagon is a wide, swinging punch that bends and curves, Plastic Man-style, ending with his fist on the side of an unsuspecting head. His reach is long; his power, jaw-shattering. The whole movement is balletic, grace honed to violence, quick and definitive, propelled by intention. The intention: not to win, but to defeat.
"His greatest strength is his uncanny ability to knock out from any angle," says John Hackleman, owner of fighter breeding ground The Pit, who's known Liddell for 16 years. "A lot of fighters are great until they get hit. Chuck doesn't quit. The harder you hit him, the harder he'll fight."
Or, as another fighter says as he passes the octagon and spots Liddell: "Looks who's here! Clan of the Cave Bear! Guns of f---ing Navarone!"
A short list of MMA fouls, as approved by the Nevada State Athletic Commission:
Butting with the head.
Eye-gouging of any kind.
Groin attacks of any kind.
Putting a finger into any orifice.
Grabbing the trachea.
Grabbing the clavicle.
Spitting at an opponent.
Charlene Liddell was vehemently antiviolence, even while her son was getting pummeled daily in school. "We lived in assisted housing in Santa Barbara," Chuck recalls. "There were two white kids in my class, and I was one of them."
Eventually, a teacher told Mrs. Liddell, a single parent, that her son was going to get hit every day unless he hit back. And so it was that little Chuck got a lesson in hand-to-hand combat from his maternal grandfather. At age 12, he began martial arts training "to stay busy." A natural athlete, he gravitated toward team sports in high school -- track, baseball, football, wrestling -- and excelled in them all, playing middle linebacker and starting all four years in wrestling at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "I went as far as I could with football," he says with little regret. "Wrestling, too. But I'm better at fighting. I used to say it sucks that the one thing I'm really good at I can't make money on."
Then along came the UFC. The sport had a rocky start, beginning as it did in 1993 as a way to find the world's best fighter in informal competitions under the imprudent tagline "There are no rules!" Anyone with balls was welcome. Most guys padded their martial arts résumés and entered the cage only to wail like banshees. Boots were worn. Hair was yanked out by the fistful.
Marla Rutherford for ESPN The Magazine
Liddell had to learn to fight at an early age.
One of them was White, a boxing promoter who became part of a group that purchased the UFC for $2 million in 2001. The no-holds-barred approach was abandoned, replaced with regulating bodies and Olympic-style rules. Thanks to aggressive marketing, UFC fights now average around 2.3 million viewers on Spike TV and sell out arenas worldwide. HBO is close to signing a broadcast deal, and "SportsCenter" airs postfight highlight clips. This year, more young men tuned into the league's UFC 70 event than the MTV Video Music Awards.
Still, many in the old guard of sports are resistant to mixed martial arts, citing what they feel is an inherent barbarism. Some sportscasters liken UFC matches to bar fights, while others refuse to acknowledge the league exists. This, one could argue, is more about elitism and old-school snobbery -- the same type of condescension once directed at NASCAR -- than a valid argument against the sport. Football, a pursuit known to eat its young, causes far more career-ending injuries than MMA. "I got hurt so much more in football and wrestling," Liddell says.
Some of MMA's biggest detractors are from the boxing world. Boxing, after all, stands to lose the most from MMA's rise. Floyd Mayweather Jr., boxing's biggest mouth, recently claimed, "Boxing is an art, UFC is a fad," and that if Liddell stepped into a boxing ring, "he'd get punished."
This, of course, pisses off Liddell. "Everybody messes with us," he says. "What makes boxing a sport but not us? We have to do more and know more than boxers. I'd drop a boxer so fast." He's probably right. Boxing is about five or so basic punches; MMA adds wrestling and martial arts. Unless a boxer landed an early knockout punch, he'd find himself pinned and looking for the nearest exit.
At the moment, Liddell is eating lunch at the Pink Taco, in the Hard Rock. His legs are folded under his chair, bobbing like sewing needles. On his wrist, a diamond-studded watch catches the light.
"One of my sponsors gave me this," he says, shaking his arm. "It's not something I would ever buy for myself. It was really nice of them, but " He shrugs, then returns to his chips and iced tea.
Across the table, Hackleman shovels in some guacamole and reminisces about the old days, back when the two men would spar just for fun. "You're the same now as you were when you were sleeping on my couch," Hackleman says. "Before a fight, Chuck is always goofing around. That's why I named him the Iceman. He doesn't get nervous."
He doesn't pray, either. Not before a fight anyway.
"Why would I?"
Liddell is a confident man. He is a man who has been tested and has survived, and that knowledge fills him with a lightness of being unfamiliar to men who don't dare come up against anything, let alone themselves. All elite athletes possess this poise, this buoyancy -- but none more so than the fighter. It is one thing to excel, to be fast, to be flexible, to be strong, to endure. It is quite another to do all of that while being hit in the face.
"A lot of big guys make a reputation for themselves as hard," Liddell says. "Then I'll see them in the ring and they can't fight their way out of a paper bag. They're picking on guys they can beat. That's not being tough. That's being an a--hole."
As Liddell stands up to leave, the Pink Taco manager approaches, hand extended. "Lunch is on us, Chuck," he says, beaming. Liddell thanks him and attempts to move toward the door, but his two-second pause has allowed a crowd to form. Men in their 20s and 30s encircle him, most snapping away with their camera phones. "Would you sign my hat?" one asks, thrusting it at Liddell. The fighter obliges, staying mum when another fan quips, "Don't make me fight you for a picture." After every autograph, Liddell says, "Thank you."
Ten minutes later, he finally breaks free and walks purposefully toward the elevators. He misses the open door and is again surrounded. It will take him 20 minutes to get to his suite on the top floor, where upon arriving he will immediately rush to the balcony and take a long, deep breath of fresh air.
AP Photo/Marlene Karas
Tito Ortiz was no match for Liddell here.
He shuffles along, visibly favoring one leg. He catches his reflection in the mirror.
"I think it's from my toe," he concedes, lifting his right foot out of his flip-flop to reveal a slice under his big toe deep enough to lose change in. "Could be that, I guess."
He can't recall how he got the cut, and he's not one for complaining, about anything, with one obvious exception: He doesn't much like unremitting grandstander Tito Ortiz, his former training partner turned rival.
In 2002, Liddell was primed to fight Ortiz for the UFC title, but Ortiz demurred, claiming schedule conflicts. That didn't sit well with fans or Liddell, and Ortiz was impelled to face him in April 2004. Liddell won with a second-round knockout, and he beat Ortiz again last December, despite a torn MCL and a popped tendon in his left hand.
"I'll admit," Liddell says, lowering his voice slightly, "he is one guy I enjoy hitting -- I enjoy it a lot."
A short list of people scarier than Chuck Liddell:
Backstage at the WEC fights, Liddell is coaching Erik Apple, a 29-year-old fighter with matinee idol looks. The two men circle each other on a warmup mat, with Liddell occasionally tapping Apple on the skull when he leaves himself vulnerable. Apple furrows his brow and nods at Liddell's every word. They wrestle a little, Liddell again showing Apple his weak spots, a mixed blessing so close to fight time. They finish with a hug.
The UFC is a handsy bunch. Hugging is big, as are shoulder squeezes and hair tousles. There is an easy intimacy among men who grapple for a living, a fluid physicality, as if every moment outside the ring is an opportunity to apologize for what happens inside it. When you've ripped a man's ear to the lobe, a postmatch embrace goes a long way.
AP Photo/Marlene Karas
With cameos on shows like "Entourage," Liddell's profile is only going to get bigger.
"It's the worst," Liddell says with a smile.
Well, maybe not the worst. Losing is the worst. "When you lose a fight, you damage your manhood," says Hackleman, a former boxer and fighter. "You can't blame the team. You failed. Period."
Given the chore that awaits them, the fighters backstage are oddly relaxed. A few psych themselves up, but most clown around, tease each other or offer support to the fighters on deck. They wrestle and stretch. Others watch the closed-circuit TV. There's something very natural about the whole scene, comforting even, like this is what men are meant to be doing -- grappling for dominance and laughing over beers when it's all done.
"Men want to fight," Hackleman says. "What we do is innate. The two basic biological responses are fight or flight. It's not play basketball or flight." While Hackleman sees fighting as an undistilled version of every sport, Liddell is more sanguine. "Fighting is what it is," he says. "I've never felt out of control. I'm the last guy to punch a wall. If I'm really upset, I may go for a jog or something."
There is, of course, some darkness. For Liddell it springs from his father, a man so ill-equipped to parent that he locked his toddler son in a room for hours at a time, leaving Chuck's 3-year-old sister to look after him, Liddell says. "She fed me onions once. I was crying because I was hungry. Dad didn't care. Then he left for good."
Liddell has two children: Trista, age 9, and Cade, age 8. Both live with their respective mothers but remain very close to their father, as do the women, neither of whom Liddell felt compelled to marry.
He takes his parenting seriously, but Liddell wants it known that his absentee father is not the reason he fights. It's not about compensation, emotional or otherwise. "A lot of guys get in street fights to prove something," Liddell says. "But I never did. I have nothing to prove, but I never give up. You give me enough time, I'll win."
Has he ever been in therapy?
He is quiet for a moment.
"I went to anger management once," he says. "At Cal Poly I kicked a stuck door, and it flew off the hinges. The counselor said, 'Come back when you have real problems.'"
Marla Rutherford for ESPN The Magazine
Does he look like a chess player? There's more to this man than fighting.
He was in the chess club.
He has never broken his nose.
He was an A student in high school.
He has a degree in accounting.
He has a Chihuahua named Bean.
He has seen "Fight Club."
It was "fine."
He has also seen "The Sound of Music."
He loved it. So much so that he went to see the musical -- a couple of times.
Chuck Liddell is not afraid of dying. "I am afraid of not being able to fight," he says. He'd miss it, the physicality, the touchstone to truth, the constant and real measure of his own ability. If nothing else, fighting offers men a wellspring of knowledge. For better or worse, when you can take a punch, you know who you are.
Liddell knows precisely who he is. And because he knows, he can dance with abandon, paint his toenails pink ("because I can") and enjoy the occasional musical without shame. He's a man awash in serenity. Only the potential for injury unnerves him, if he allows himself to dwell on it, which he doesn't.
"I can't see myself in a wheelchair," he says, cringing. "People feeling sorry for you would get old real quick."
He envisions a different future, a shinier one. "I'm interested in Hollywood," he says. "I'm trying to do Punisher II. I may get to play the villain's crazy brother. I'll probably start acting classes."
He knows it sounds cliché, but he makes no apologies. "I'm 37," he says. "I hope to fight quite a few more years, but you never know." He pauses, takes a long, deep breath and smiles. "Then again, Randy Couture is still the heavyweight champion at 43," Liddell says happily.
"And I knocked him out twice."
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