Not all that long ago, the idea he’d be famous enough one day that people would want him to fly up to Canada just to hang out at a fight so folks could get an autograph or a picture with him never dawned on Chuck Liddell. Back in the mid-’90s when he was an accounting student at California Polytechnic State University with a knack for bookkeeping, he figured he’d graduate, get a real job and maybe open a karate gym if he was really lucky.
But then, right around the time he was graduating, something called the Ultimate Fighting Championship was starting to gain a tiny bit of traction. Suddenly, guys who weren’t boxers but didn’t mind scrapping could make a few bucks. So, one day as his classmates were chatting about what firm had hired them or where they’d been accepted to work, he announced he had a slightly different plan.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m going to go fight professionally.”
Thirteen years after his first bout, it’s turned out OK for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s retired light-heavyweight champion, who’ll be in Hamilton on Friday night as part of the Slammer in the Hammer mixed martial arts card at Copps Coliseum.
How well did it turn out? Not only did the 41-year-old carve out a lucrative career inside the cage as one of the most-explosive and exciting knockout artists in the sport, but he’s been a character on the Simpsons, has competed on Dancing With The Stars, was the first UFC fighter to make the cover of ESPN magazine and has become a full-on celebrity.
It’s a bit of an unbelievable story for a guy who grew up in California but whose lone claim to fame prior to adulthood came in a tiny spot in the movies. If you slow down the Boy Scout scene in The Postman Always Rings Twice with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson and look very, very closely, you’ll see the future Iceman as an 11-year-old.
But his love was fighting. Karate actually. He studied Koei-Kan karate — that’s what’s tattooed on his head in Chinese characters — and took up kick-boxing as a teenager.
The UFC was a little different since it was more free-form than he was used to, but he won his first two fights as a middleweight and 12 of his first 13 bouts overall, all the while managed by Dana White, who eventually bought the organization with two casino owners and has become the face of the sport.
Liddell already had his trademark Mohawk haircut back then. Had for a few years, as a matter of fact.
Back in 1992 — six years before his first pro fight — a bunch of friends were heading to a Slayer concert and decided they’d shave their heads for the occasion. Thing is, growing up with his strict mother and grandparents, he’d always had to keep his hair short. Now that he was finally allowed to grow it out, he wasn’t about to take it right down to the wood. The Mohawk seemed like a good compromise.
“The reaction I got, people liked it,” he says.
So he kept it.
As the UFC exploded in popularity — heavily helped by the first season of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter for which he was one of the two coaches, giving him oodles of air time and exposure — his unique look stood out and helped make him more famous than he ever imagined. That really hit home with him while standing in a Windsor coffee shop waiting for his order, when he first really realized his life had changed.
“Some girl from behind the counter said, ‘You’re that guy,’ ” he laughs.
Thinking he was being pegged for something he didn’t do, he quickly told her he’d never been there before and had nothing to do with whatever it was she was talking about.
“No,” she said. “You’re on TV. You fight.”
Today, he can’t step out in public for two minutes without being noticed and stopped. It’s something he’s OK with, though he says it makes working out at a gym difficult when people want to come up and chat. And he still finds it odd that, when he’s eating in a restaurant, people who spot him call their buddies and soon there’s a crowd waiting for him when he’s done. He says he’s happy to oblige the fans, though.
“They’re the ones who allowed me to do what I wanted for a long time,” he says. “I want to continue helping the sport.”
Which is why he’s here and why he’s now the UFC’s vice-president of business development. He would have loved to still be fighting, but three nasty knockout losses in his last three fights were enough to convince him to move along.
That said, is there any chance he and Randy Couture and a few other retired guys might start a UFC old-timers’ tour?
He pauses for a second and then bursts out laughing.
“That would be kind of funny.”
Guess that means no.