I will never forget the sound of 15,000 rabid fans, lunatics who just seconds before were screaming their heads off, sitting in absolute and total silence. You could have heard a pin drop in the Philips Arena, shocked into silence when Rashad Evans knocked Chuck Liddell into unconsciousness.
This was no ordinary knockout - it was the death of a legend. The rabidly pro-Liddell crowd in Atlanta for UFC 88 came to see a right hand send someone crashing to the mat. They just never thought it would be Liddell's iconic mohawk bouncing off the canvas. Sitting cageside, it was a scary moment.
Liddell had come up short with a right uppercut and Evans had connected flush with an overhand right. While the cameras broadcasting the event nationwide cut away from the fallen champion, we could see his leg twitching. My photographer (my brother-in-law Justin Kendall, somehow sitting next to Tracy Lee and crew Octagon side) was mere inches away and could see Liddell's eyes rolling around in his head. The rumor quickly spread that he had defecated himself, something that happens occasionally when a fighter is put to sleep. Their brain shuts off - and so does their bowel control.
There was concern for Liddell's safety. Frankly, some concern for ours as well. The crowd awoke from their stupor in a frenzy. There was an ugly vibe and people started throwing things. I looked at the Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer, veteran of hundreds of UFC events and professional wrestling cards. "This could get ugly," he told me.
Backstage, Evans was thrilled. Looking back at my video from that time and you can see how much things have changed. Greg Jackson was beaming and Evans made a point to thank striking coach Mike Winkeljohn. It was Winkeljohn's constant drills and game-planning that allowed him to catch Chuck with a powerful right hand. Keith Jardine sat in the background, a smile seemingly etched on his face. A happy family, I thought. Things can change dramatically in just three years time. Liddell, being a man's man, showed up at the press conference before taking a trip to the hospital. He made an effort to meet the press, but he didn't have much to say.
"I got caught," Liddell said. "What else do you want me to say?"
Before the event, downtown Atlanta looked like a TapouT store had exploded in Centennial Park. Thick necked men with gaudy t-shirts were everywhere and the fighters did their best to be accessible. At the Hard Rock Cafe, Matt Hamill and a party of 30 or so friends and family snapped photos with fans while enjoying an enormous post weigh in meal. Liddell's trainer John Hackelman had fun with a wedding party, the couple celebrating their vows underneath an authentic Prince guitar.
For Evans, everything changed that night. He became the UFC's lead villain in a sense, the man fans love to hate. He knew he was going to be booed that night - Liddell, after all, was the UFC's poster boy and a legend.
"I didn't really mind it that much, because that's what I expected," Rashad said. "If I hadn't expected it, I might have gotten my feelings hurt. But I knew they would all be rooting for Chuck. I like Chuck, too. I was clapping and dancing to his music when he came out. I was going to have fun with it. I wasn't going to be like 'Oh no! This is my death.' Being relaxed allowed me to fight the way I'm capable of fighting."
He may not have known that those boos would plague him throughout his career. When Rashad followed the win over Liddell with a stoppage of fan favorite Forrest Griffin, his role as the bad guy became permanent. I once walked with Rashad through the arena, looking for a quiet place to do an interview. It was a little intimidating. Fans scream from all sides, much of it hostile, with the occasional request for a photograph or a signature on a piece of UFC swag.
My head would have been constantly on a swivel, waiting for an attack that might never come - but might. Rashad, however, took it all in stride. He was used to being booed and hissed - and it all started at UFC 88.