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‘Chuck & Tito’ director Micah Brown talks origins of documentary, adding to lore, Tito Ortiz’s response

Photo from the third meeting between Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell on Nov. 24, 2018
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Any MMA fan worth their salt knows the story of Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, two stars whose bitter feud ignited MMA, turning a flickering flame into a blazing inferno of popularity.

The rivalry gets the marquee treatment this Tuesday, when Chuck and Tito airs on ESPN as part of the network’s long-running 30 for 30 documentary series. The film tells the story of the fighters’ roller-coaster relationship, and it traces their ties to the earliest days of the UFC and future company president Dana White. It also details how their respective upbringings influenced their personas, and what a trilogy of in-cage meetings meant to both.

MMA Fighting spoke to director Micah Brown about how he became involved in the project, as well as why Chuck and Tito was chosen to be the first 30 for 30 about MMA, his regret over not being able to dedicate more time to the psychology surrounding their third fight, and why Ortiz appeared to be publicly displeased with the film at first.

(Questions and answers edited for grammar and clarity.)

Where did your MMA fandom begin and why do you feel that you were the right director to tell this particular story?

For me, I’ve been interested in mixed martial arts since really college. I was watching Chuck and Tito fight, and those were two of the guys that I always thought were super entertaining. I wasn’t a huge, huge fan as far as following everybody in the sport, but I did have an appreciation for it pretty early on. Then I actually did a documentary for Showtime about a muay Thai fighter in Thailand who had a chance to fight for his freedom through this government program, and so I became a little bit more of a fan of it throughout that.

It wasn’t even really the sport that was the reason that I wanted to tell this story. It was really the theme behind it, which is this theme of what causes people to want to step into the Octagon and fight? What about these guys are wired a certain way that they feel like they had to go out prove themselves in this primitive, primal type of sport? That was really what interested me more than anything, and fighting just happened to be the device that moved this thing along.

Being that this is the first 30 for 30 about an MMA story, why Liddell and Ortiz?

When I was looking at what would be a great MMA story, I was really looking at what is the origin of the sport? So you can track it all the way back and you’re able to tell how the sport began through Chuck and Tito, you’re able to tell how the sport was purchased through Chuck and Tito, you’re able to talk about how it really grew into the modern era. And it all stems back to those guys because they were there. Not in the beginning with Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, but they were managed by Dana White. They were friends.

Tito was there early, early, in UFC 13 and then Chuck came along into the picture, and these guys really did usher in the new wave during the Zuffa era of what the UFC would eventually become. They were the first superstars that Zuffa was able to build and they kind of showed that the UFC could not only compete with boxing and pay-per-view, but they could build superstars, something that they’re still doing today.

The ending was a little bittersweet because the very last line is about how Liddell is still undecided on his fighting future? What note do you feel you left the story on and why?

I think that the tough reality is that with most fighters, there’s very rarely a happy ending. That’s just kind of the reality of it. If you stick around in the fight game long enough, you all end up the same way. And that’s just kind of the reality of the fight game, so it’s only appropriate that the film would end that way too.

And it’s not sad—that’s one of the things that Ken Shamrock said at the end, it’s not sad. This is what they want to do. This is how they want it to end. And I think that’s something that’s very important in understanding the mentality of the fighters. This is their nature. They wanted to go out like that. It’s not really about winning and losing. It’s about that warrior heart, that warrior mentality that they have and doing it for as long as you can because you love it.

What do you think is the most important element this documentary adds to the lore of Liddell-Ortiz?

One of the bigger things that it’s added is that I don’t think a lot of people have seen Chuck’s story. It’s been well-documented, Tito’s story, but for the first time you’re getting to see a little bit of what made Chuck Liddell “Chuck Liddell,” and his relationship with his father. They’ve all talked about his grandfather and his grandfather played an important role in his life, but very few people know the details behind how he ended up being raised by his grandfather. So I think that’s very new.

Chuck Liddell and Chuck & Tito director Micah Brown
@micahbrownfilm, Instagram

I also think that in a lot of ways it provides Tito a better voice than what he’s had in the past. Obviously, Dana still hates Tito, so you have that element of it. But in the past, all the UFC-produced stuff has not really shown Tito in the most positive light, and I think this film does a much better job of that, because it’s a lot more balanced when it comes to Tito being allowed to tell his story and being able to hear it from him and giving him due for his impact on the sport. Everyone talks about Chuck and how important Chuck was to bring the UFC to the mainstream, but very few people have talked about Tito as one of those guys that should be included in that conversation.

Much of the drama surrounding the first Liddell-Ortiz fight, at least according to Ortiz, was around the two being properly compensated. Do you feel like that section of the documentary is particularly important given that fighter pay is still such a timely topic?

I think the big thing with Tito is that a lot of people don’t realize that Tito actually wasn’t stupid. What is the worst thing that you can say to a fighter? The worst thing thing that you can say to a fighter is that you’re scared. And that’s something that Tito has been labeled as for his whole career: scared, scared, scared.

Well, now we’re still kind of talking about fighters being scared, and that being a tactic in the fight game. Not just with Dana White, but with any promoter, to get people to fight, it’s because if you get the reputation of being scared, then that’s your reputation and that can be detrimental in a lot of different ways. And so we’re still seeing that today in a lot of ways and hopefully, this film says something about that. That Tito wasn’t just scared. Maybe he was smart, because maybe he and Chuck wouldn’t be fighting again at 43 and 50.

Ortiz has spoken about having issues with how the documentary was edited, mostly blaming White for what he perceived to be too much control over the final cut. What did you think of Ortiz’s comments and how closely did you work with the UFC on this?

I saw Tito’s comments. Nineteen times [the film was supposedly edited according to Ortiz], I don’t know where that number came from. I will say this, there’s a lot of people that chime in on notes. You have all of us internal producers, you have your relationship with ESPN, ESPN has a relationship with the UFC, so they all get notes from everybody. I will say that in any documentary, that’s a process.

Tito is very aware of the things that we talked about in his interview, in the stories that he wanted to tell, and I was very open with him about the story that I wanted to tell, and both he and Chuck, and sometimes you don’t have the time to do all of that. Sometimes there are things in the relationship, I will say that ESPN has final cut of the film. So sometimes I win some battles, sometimes I don’t win some battles, and I think that’s just kind of one of those things, but I think that at the end of the day we have a film that the UFC is proud of. And I’m proud of it too.

What was the toughest thing to leave on the cutting room floor?

There’s a lot of stuff that is on the cutting room floor, I think sometimes clarifying some intentions for the third fight would have been—I wish we had more time to be able to talk more about the reasons why Chuck and Tito were doing a third fight. I wish we could have spent more time on that.

But I think it’s a great film right now, and hopefully it celebrates those guys. There’s always a lot of cooks in the kitchen whenever you do a big film, and you just try to do the best that you can to preserve what can and honor these guys. People have got to realize, it’s five storylines: It’s Chuck, Tito, Dana, the rise of the UFC, and this third fight. You’re never going to make everybody happy.

I’ve spoken with Tito about it and I’ve spoken with Chuck about it. I think all things considered they’re very proud of the film. But of course, it’s a network film and a lot of people get to chime in.

Do you think we’ll ever see a feud like this in combat sports again?

There has been a lot of bad blood fights. Now the UFC is kind of built on bad blood fights, and the fight game in general is bad blood. I don’t know that you’ll necessarily have something like this again, because I don’t think the sport is going to boom as big as it did. And I think that’s what’s different about this story.

These guys took this sport in its infancy and made it to what it is. And I don’t think that that will ever happen again. How much higher can they really grow? That’s what’s unique about this place in time. They took something from nothing and they put it on the map and now it’s an unstoppable beast.

Chuck & Tito airs Tuesday on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET and will be available on-demand on the ESPN+ streaming service starting on Friday.

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