In retrospect, throwing Chris Leben in there against Anderson Silva wasn’t very nice. Leben was going to do what Leben does in welcoming Silva into the UFC, which was move forward throwing bombs willy-nilly with his chin flashing neon and wide open for business. He’d already proven himself to be that rare fighter; the more you hit him, the more dangerous he got. When you hit him good, I mean really good, that’s when he bounded forward on those famous toddler legs returning fire, like an indestructible mass of orange hair and nail polish returneth from the grave.
It was almost masochistic, watching him fight. It was certainly masochistic watching him fight Silva.
Silva sniped Leben from afar, from inside, from up high, from down low, from acute, right and obtuse angles, with his knees, fists, open palms and the business end of his elbows. It was fight game geometry, and the whole thing lasted an absurd 49 seconds. Joe Rogan turned up the shower pressure of accolades from the start: "This is a different kind of striker," he said. His was "a ballet of violence." And none of it was hyperbole.
Silva wouldn’t lose a bout until the 17th time he entered the Octagon, as a 38-year old boogeyman whose striking reach was still as long as his afternoon shadow.
And if Anderson Silva was the future in 2006, then Chuck Liddell was the glorious present. He was the reason that MMA was the new rock & roll. The robust mohawk and Koei-Kan tattoo down the side of his scalp gave him a pillager’s appearance that just really brought home his brand of violence. The cool icicles on his shorts? They became synonymous with smelling salts.
From 2004 to 2006, Liddell fought seven times. He won by knockout seven times. All of them were in Las Vegas, which was the Chuck Liddell capital of the world. Five of those bouts were title fights. All of them were pressure cookers. Two of them were against Randy Couture. The whole streak was bookended by arse-whoopings of Tito Ortiz. (That part of it, the whippings of Ortiz, felt almost ritualistic).
The "Iceman" was the fight game’s true rock star. It wasn’t just his fighting style; it was who he was and the way he lived. It was the late nights and boozing and velvet ropes and the pandemonium of public outings and adoring women. He walked with a badass hitch, and made his arms into an "X" with a loose pinky hanging out when paparazzi got in his grill. When he won, he threw his arms back and screamed like an alien was about to pop out of his chest. When not doing that, he was falling asleep during live morning talk shows in Dallas to the horror of its sober television hosts, and treating it all just like…eh, what’s for breakfast?
"Yeah, he was a rock star," says his longtime trainer and friend John Hackleman, who was the first to introduce Liddell to nail polish. "He’d call me up and say, hey, we’re going on a private jet to so and so, and everything else got put on the backburner. And me, just as a trainer, not even the fighter, it was consuming most of my time. He was definitely living like rock star."
At UFC 57, at Chuck-Randy III in Feb. 2006, Liddell was already the light heavyweight champion after having avenged a loss to Randy Couture at UFC 52. As always in trilogies, the math was showing patterns that corroborated with hunches. At UFC 43 Couture had woke the sleeping giant. At UFC 52, Liddell took the belt and made the first fight feel fluky. By UFC 57, the biker Hun from Santa Barbara was UFC’s version of Goliath, and Couture was in the role of David.
After he beat Couture in the third fight, the after party raged on. And on.
"I made a lot of enemies asking him to reel it in a little, both with the media and the sponsors and promotion and stuff," Hackleman says. "But Chuck just had so much going on, and you can’t keep track of someone unless they want to be kept track of. My biggest thing was, I’d never even been to an after party. I was so conservative in the way I lived that I just couldn’t believe a fighter would do that kind of stuff. He was anti-everything I was, so I was always the last to know anything. It was hard to reel in that superstardom at that time."
At UFC 62, in a rematch with Renato Sobral, Liddell waited for "Babalu" to wade in with his strikes to blast him with an uppercut early in the first round. For the next half-a-minute, he stalked him to the fence, peppering him with big shots flung from the hip, then to the ground, where he predatorily -- almost casually -- finished the job. It was his third title defense.
The after party was epic. And it raged on.
"He still went out a little bit, and that’s an understatement," says Hackleman. "If I was different in a lot of other ways, like if I was more of a party guy or if I was one of his trainers instead of his trainer since day one, if I was like that I can’t imagine how bad it would have gotten."
At UFC 66, the "Iceman" hit the high point of his career. That was the night he beat Tito Ortiz in a rematch from UFC 47. The bad blood between them had brought the public’s blood to a boil, too. Liddell exploded with a series of punches to down Ortiz in the third round for his fourth title defense.
Liddell, the legend, celebrated.
"Chuck had all kinds of celebrities who loved him, all these football and baseball players who worshipped him who I don’t even know because I don’t watch those sports," says Hackleman, who for a decade was asked if he’s Chuck’s dad. "One time, Tony Robbins flew in to visit Chuck, and I look over and Chuck is just texting people and ignored Tony. I was like, what are you doing? I had to take his phone away."
After 2006, the thing began to fall apart for Liddell. "There was signs that it was coming," Hackleman says. He lost his next bout to Quinton Jackson at UFC 71, then the following fight to Keith Jardine at UFC 76. The end of the "Iceman" was near. After 2006, he went just 1-5, before retiring in 2010 after getting knocked out by Rich Franklin.
As the Liddell era closed out, Anderson Silva’s just got started. By 2007 they were two ships passing in the night.
And as for Leben, in his rocking chair moments with his grandchildren at his knee, he can truthfully say he fought the spectrum in a year’s time. He went from fighting Jason Thacker in 2005, who had no business taking off his shoes to get in the Octagon, to Anderson Silva in 2006, the greatest mixed martial artist we’ve known.
All challenges that came after fall somewhere in-between.
(Catch up on the previous years in this series: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007)