Who was the man? The biggest fighter in the history of the UFC? The guy who turned a floundering fight sport into a billion dollar industry? It's a complicated query - one perhaps better suited for the bean counters than the head crushers.
Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, and Brock Lesnar are all names that have been bandied about over the years. But no matter who you think fits the bill as the sport's Octagon alpha dog, it's been a question mostly considered by armchair quarterbacks, bored MMA pundits, and message board fans. Until this morning.
On Fox Sports Radio with Petros and Money, Dana White sounded off with an answer of his own:
"I would have to say Chuck Liddell. Chuck Liddell was the guy who really carried this thing on his back for the early years when we were getting this thing off the ground. We had some guys who were big stars but Chuck was really the man. Chuck was the guy with that look and everything else. When people saw him you knew that was the Ultimate Fighting guy."
With due respect to White, I think he's forgetting someone pretty important to the UFC's rise. Walking hand in hand with Liddell, creating the sport's fanbase with his own force of will, has been the "Huntington Beach Bad Boy" Tito Ortiz. Every step of the way, Ortiz has been side by side with Liddell, in most cases beating him at the box office, and on television. He's Liddell's equal everywhere, basically, except inside the cage.
Before Liddell was a star of any significance, Ortiz was already the UFC's poster boy. He and Ken Shamrock gave Lorenzo Fertitta hope during a desperate time, drawing 150,000 buys on pay per view at UFC 40. No one else had come close to that number in Zuffa's six events to that point. It reaffirmed the new sports promise as a spectator spectacle.
The win over Shamrock made Ortiz. To be the man, you have to beat the man. And fans didn't see the new breed of stars as "the man." Not until they saw them best the old guard like Shamrock and "Tank" Abbott with their own eyes. Dispatching Shamrock made Ortiz a star - and stars want to be paid like they matter.
While Ortiz played hardball in negotiations with his former manager White, Liddell moved up to the main event. But "the Iceman" didn't have the same cache with the fans. Against Randy Couture at UFC 43, Liddell managed just 49,000 buys. When Ortiz returned at the next event to try his hand at beating the aged wrestler, the two almost doubled that with 95,000 buys.
Chuck's win over Tito at UFC 47 was the biggest of his career. It made him as a serious player in the fans' eyes and launched him into the rarefied air of perennial main eventer. He and Couture headlined the first season of The Ultimate Fighter and the subsequent pay per view at UFC 52, which shattered all Zuffa era records with 280,000 buys.
Everything Chuck could do, Tito could do better. His own coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter set records on Spike TV that lasted 10 seasons. At UFC 57 Liddell drew 400,000 buys. Tito did him 25,000 better at UFC 59. Even Ortiz's television cameos were bigger and better- while Liddell had an awkward turn on Entourage, Ortiz starred on the network smash Celebrity Apprentice in front of 11 million people every week.
The two made the most magic, however, together. Former training partners and clients of White, their feud simmered for years. When they met in the cage for the second time, they became the first UFC fighters to draw more than a million buys on pay-per-view.
It was the pinnacle of Liddell's career. As an entertainer, it was Tito's peak as well. While many recall Ortiz's extended losing streak, Liddell actually began a precipitous decline after beating Tito at UFC 66 too. He lost his title to Quinton Jackson in his very next bout, and both rivals began a fade to fighting oblivion.
In some ways, White is absolutely right. Liddell was integral to the UFC's rise. But you can't really think about Liddell without thinking of Ortiz, too. Together they led the UFC to heights unimagined - and both need to be remembered for it, not just the amazing Liddell.
By the Numbers
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