The Best Moments of Chuck Liddell's and Tito Ortiz's Careers

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2018

The Best Moments of Chuck Liddell's and Tito Ortiz's Careers

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    Omar Vega/Getty Images

    On Saturday night, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz will step back into the cage one more time. The two MMA legends (age 48 and 43, respectively) are coming out of retirement to renew their rivalry and make their scrapped 2010 trilogy fight a reality with Golden Boy Promotions.

    There are, of course, a lot of different ways to look at this fight—some good, most bad—but it's hard not to see these two come together and remember what used to be. No matter how Saturday's fight goes, Liddell and Ortiz are cemented as MMA legends and are responsible for some of the greatest, most important moments in UFC history.

    So how did these two carve out such lasting reputations? And what happened when they faced off in the past?

    Read on to find out.

Tito Ortiz Gets the Better of Ken Shamrock for the First Time

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    Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    The UFC was in dire straits in the early 2000s.

    Despite returning to nationwide pay-per-view in 2001 after a four-year ban from most carriers, the promotion was struggling to get fans to put down money to watch events. Zuffa's buyrates were low. Consistently lower than the floor set by previous ownership group SEG. It desperately needed something 

    That something proved to be the feud between Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz.

    The two first crossed paths in 1999 at UFC 18, when Ortiz pulled off an upset win over Jerry Bohlander and began taunting Shamrock, who was cageside working as Bohlander's cornerman. That scene played out again a few months later when Ortiz bested another Shamrock teammate, Guy Mezger, at UFC 19. While the first incident has largely been forgotten, the scene of Shamrock hopping on top of the cage and shouting back and forth with Ortiz sparked an interest in the rivalry that lingered for years.

    The two didn't face off until UFC 40 in 2002—Shamrock was wrestling in the then-WWF until 2000 and fought in Japan after that—but when they finally came together in the cage, it garnered nationwide attention unlike anything before seen in the UFC. While the spike in attention can largely be credited to Shamrock, it was Ortiz who won the night, coming back from an early knockdown to dominate the grappling and earn the win via corner stoppage. 

    Ortiz wasn't the only man to catch fans' eyes, though...

Liddell Bests Babalu

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    When the UFC has a big event on its hands, it has always sought to use that platform to shine a light on its favorite rising stars. One of the fighters who was put into position to get some shine under the Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock spotlight was Chuck Liddell.

    Facing Renato "Babalu" Sobral in the co-main event, Liddell posted perhaps the best knockout of his career.

    After laying some intense early pressure on Sobral, stalking forward and keeping him off-balance with wild punches, Liddell unleashed a big head kick that landed flat across Sobral's forehead. The shot on its own likely would have been good for the knockout win, but a flurry of ground-and-pound sealed the deal. Though it wasn't a technical clinic by any stretch, it was the kind of intense, vicious performance that Liddell has become known for.

    Long serving as an undercarder for Ortiz main events, this win was the boost that helped make Liddell a main event name. It took him a while to convert that into a title opportunity, but when he finally got that chance, he made the most of it.

Liddell Smashes Ortiz in First Bout

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    Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    For a long while, Tito Ortiz vs. Chuck Liddell was the most desired fight in the UFC.

    The two had long seemed destined for a showdown, often sharing cards with one another, but sharing the same cage proved to be another matter entirely. The reason for that was an alleged friendship between the two. 

    According to Ortiz, the two had trained together and grown close over time, sharing a gym and even a couch with one another.

    "I'd shown him things when we trained. We agreed that we were not going to fight each other," Ortiz said in a 2006 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "I wanted to wait. But he was jealous. He wanted the fame and the limelight like me."

    Liddell, however, said that while they spent time under the same roof, their relationship was strictly business. "We'd train, go home and watch TV. He'd go upstairs to his room, and I stayed downstairs. ... That was our 'hanging out,'" he said. "When he talks about how close we were, he's delusional."

    With Ortiz looking to reclaim the title he lost to Randy Couture, and Liddell reeling from two losses in 2003, the stars aligned for their long-awaited showdown. Though the expectation was for a fairly competitive fight, the hotly anticipated grudge match instead panned out to be a blowout.

    After a timid-yet-intense first round, the second opened with an exchange where Ortiz was punched (not poked) in the eye. That seemed to fluster Ortiz, and Liddell made the most of that opening by pressing forward and delivering a flurry of punches that bloodied Ortiz up and forced the referee stoppage.

    The rivalry didn't end there, as the script flipped with Liddell cementing himself as the dominating champion and Ortiz being the overlooked contender. Their feud only deepened. Ortiz got another crack at Liddell, but the second fight ended no better for him.

Liddell Wins the UFC Title Following 'The Ultimate Fighter'

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    Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    The UFC went from niche curiosity to a part of the zeitgeist in 2005 with the launch of The Ultimate Fighter. The Spike TV reality show caught the attention of the public and served a dual purpose for the UFC, bringing new contenders into the promotion and shining an extra light on some of the big pay-per-view contests it had on its calendar.

    The first bout built up in this way was the light heavyweight championship rematch between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell. Going down days after the slobberknocker between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, Liddell made a strong first impression with new fans by showing off his massive punching power, cracking Couture with a left hand, following it up with a massive right and securing the first-round KO with hammerfists on the ground.

    In addition to giving him the title (and a bit of revenge for his 2003 loss to Couture), it also helped establish Liddell as one of the UFC's most visible figures.

    While Couture vs. Liddell 2 would have been a needle mover on its own, the boost in visibility from TUF—which included the two men appearing as team leaders on the show—made the fight a PPV milestone, delivering numbers not seen since the promotion's early days and more than doubling the previous Zuffa record set by Ken Shamrock vs. Kimo Leopoldo, per the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (via MMA Payout).

    Liddell defended that title four times from there, a stretch which saw him best Couture in the rubber match at UFC 57 and once again defeat Tito Ortiz at UFC 66.

Tito Ortiz Doesn't Like Dana White

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    New MMA fans might have trouble believing this but, once upon a time, UFC President Dana White was a beloved figure. For the media, he was an intriguing foil to the stuffy, old commissioners of the time like Bud Selig or Paul Tagliabue. For fans, he was a relatable, accessible figure who shared their excitement for the product.

    For a solid decade, pushing back against White was almost unheard of on any level. Nobody, not even fans, would speak out against him...except for Tito Ortiz.

    Bitter over an extended contract dispute, Ortiz and White exchanged barbs through the media regularly. This back-and-forth ranged from childish insults to discussions of an actual fight between the two, but things kicked into overdrive at the weigh-ins to UFC 84 when Ortiz went to the scale, took off his signature hoodie and revealed a shirt underneath that read "Dana is my b---h."

    It was a display of brashness unlike anything else seen in UFC history and one of the only examples of fighters openly dissenting from company brass at an official event. White was inexplicably absent from the weigh-in (likely because of the ongoing bitterness between the two), but that didn't take away from Ortiz's boldness here.

    The two sides eventually made amends (then broke back up, then got back together), but history shows that they're only one perceived slight away from being mortal enemies once again.

Bellator Gives Ortiz a Second Chance, and He Makes the Most of It

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    In most cases, MMA fighters have a predictable career trajectory: They rise, they plateau and then they plummet.

    It's rarely a sport like baseball where a player can visit an old coach, make an adjustment to their swing and find a second wind. A fighter's chin will start cracking, or a back injury will worsen until, one day, they just can't do it anymore. That's what happened with Chuck Liddell, who was forced into retirement by the UFC in 2010 following back-to-back-to-back knockout losses, and it seemed like it was the case with Tito Ortiz in 2012. 

    After mounting one of the ugliest skids in UFC history to that point—going 1-7-1 over a nine-fight stretch—Ortiz retired at UFC 148 in unceremonious fashion. 

    That was for the best, most fans and pundits believed. Side-by-side with Ortiz's decline, old rival Chuck Liddell was being knocked out more easily and more emphatically with each outing. Though Ortiz could have kept fighting, the ceiling both professionally and financially was low enough that it may not have even been worth bothering.  

    When he announced a year later that he was coming out of retirement to fight for Bellator MMA, it was easy to dread what would come, but somehow, some way, both sides made it work. Ortiz's 2014 to 2017 run in Bellator was ultimately everything the second half of his UFC career wasn't.

    While he was routinely trotted out to catch an L on the undercards of UFC events, Ortiz was presented as, and treated like, a big deal in Bellator. His fights were given real builds, he fought a good mix of opponents and, most of all, he firmly sat as a main event attraction. Though the fights weren't great from an entertainment perspective, Ortiz went 3-1 in the circular cage and closed out that run with a hero's send-off.

    That second retirement, of course, is set to end this weekend, and that does take some shine off his last day with the promotion. Still, this was a perfect moment from the Huntington Beach Bad Boy and the kind of send-off that few fighters get.

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