Not only that, but before PRIDE imploded the UFC was seemingly running out of worthy contenders to throw at him. His last three defences saw him win a rubber match with Couture, despatch Renato Sobral (again) and knock out Ortiz (again.) Three opponents whom he’d already beaten, three opponents whom he beat again, all by knockout (again.)Liddell, at 37, was on top of the world.
The MMA Encyclopedia Contest: UFC 71 and the knockout of Chuck Liddell
At UFC 71 fans witnessed Chuck Liddell enter the arena at the absolute apex of his popularity and mseemingly, his fighting talents. It took just two minutes for challenger Quinton “Rampage” Jackson to leave Liddell crushed, feebly protesting about a completely justified stoppage to the referee.
By the time the bell sounded on May 26, 2007, the Iceman had turned himself into the biggest stars in the MMA world, and had gone a long way towards dragging the UFC up with him. When he fought his last non-title bout (against Vernon White) in August 2004 on a card headlined by Randy Couture, the event had pulled in 80,000 buys. His next fight, when he took the title from Couture, drew 280,000. His last fight before his knockout by Jackson drew over a million.
If it was the trio of Couture, Liddell and Tito Ortiz that helped the UFC pull out of the dark ages, Liddell was the biggest of the bunch. He was marketable, with a very easygoing, one-of-the-boys persona, and also had a hugely exciting fighting style. In his five title fights from UFC 52 to UFC 66, not a single one of his opponents reached the final bell. There isn’t any title holder in the UFC who can claim anything like that since.
So when Jackson was presented as an opponent for him, it was at once both the best challenger anyone could drag up and also a fighter who Liddell was expected to beat.
But Jackson was a different challenge. In 2003, Jackson had spoiled fans’ hopes for a Liddell-Wanderlei Silva superfight by beating down Liddell in the PRIDE ring so badly his corner threw in the towel, while Dana White whined in the broadcast booth about Liddell not throwing enough leg kicks.
The UFC largely promoted the fight as a revenge fight for Liddell. Entering UFC 71 at 20-3, he’d brutally avenged his two previous losses, one to Couture and one to Jeremy Horn. Jackson was the one fighter on the list he hadn’t repaid yet, and there seemed little reason to think he wouldn’t be able to. The UFC gave all kinds of attention to Couture, even featuring him in the promo video, because Couture was one of the relatively few saying no, really, Jackson can actually beat this guy. But even in the promo videos the attempt came across as half-hearted, and UFC 71 was really about one thing: Liddell’s revenge.
In retrospect, it seems crazy that few people saw it coming, but every reason that gave Jackson a chance to win could be (and was by Joe Rogan) was easily countered.
Liddell was 37? Who cares. He looked better at 37 than he did at 33. Jackson had beaten down Liddell? Sure, but only now, as Rogan pointed out, was it coming out that Liddell had a supposed injury before the first fight. And he’d been in a bad place mentally, having been stopped by Couture just four months before the 2003 fight with Jackson.
And was Jackson a feared challenger? He was coming off four wins, but since beating Liddell he’d also been knocked out three times, all in brutal fashion to strikers. He was 7-3, with one of those “wins” being a decision victory over Murilo Rua so inexplicable he mouthed to the camera “I didn’t win” afterwards and tried to give his trophy to a dejected Rua.. Another contentious decision followed that several fights later over Matt Lindland in the WFA. His UFC debut had been a tune-up fight again Marvin Eastman, where he’d sputtered a bit in the first round before finally getting in gear and knocking out Eastman in the second.
Liddell had come into the fight as roughly a 5-2 favourite (various sources give him at -210, -240, -260 and -290.)
The fight itself was over so quickly there isn’t much to say about it. After some circling, Rampage threw a wide right hook that clipped Liddell to the ground and he finished him quickly thereafter.
Liddell, stunned as much as anybody, angrily protested before he came to grips with it and calmed down, giving his now-trademark explanation “I got caught.” Rogan, from the broadcast booth simply screamed out “I don’t believe this!” An era had ended, quickly and violently.
The epilogue is as well known and as poignant as any in MMA. Liddell, once so dominant, saw his career fall apart, in a sense defying explanation- one fight apparently made the difference between being the most dominant light heavyweight champ in UFC history to being a fighter at risk of being cut from the UFC.
But it also opened up the gates to the new crop of light heavyweights who became the UFC’s biggest stars. After ironically successfully representing the UFC in a UFC vs Pride title fight against Dan Henderson, Jackson lost his belt to Forrest Griffin, who lost it to Rashad Evans, who lost it to Lyoto Machida, who lost it to Shogun Rua. All were some of the biggest stars in the UFC in their respective reigns, and all of them, with Machida’s exception, saw their rise directly tied to Liddell or Jackson.
With one quick fight, the era of the single dominant champion had ended. What followed was an era of multiple stars and pay-per-view draws, as much a part of the UFC’s continuing success as Liddell was in 2005-2007.