Chuck Liddell - Jeff Vinnick/Zuffa LLC
Before he became one of the most dominant light-heavyweights in the UFC, Chuck Liddell had to earn his way into the company. With his life at a crucial point, it was either make his dreams a reality or enter the 9 to 5 grind.
In 1995, 25-year old Chuck Liddell had known about the UFC from its early days, but never considered fighting until a friend of his, San Diego Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal, offered to sponsor him to train. At the time, Liddell held two national kickboxing titles and accolades in other organizations, and was at a crossroads in his life. It was either make it in fighting or get a desk job, and Chuck was not ready yet to push pencils.
Charles David Liddell was getting into fights from a young age, but he was not the one starting them. Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, Chuck's mother forbid her son from getting into fights at school. When other kids picked on him in daycare, he would stand still and absorb the blows until, after one particular fight that required his mother to get him, she gave him permission to defend himself. From there, it was anything goes for the young boy. At age 12, he began learning Koei-Kan Karate (which is what the tattoo on the side of his head is about), and by high school was a black belt in the style, as well as on the wrestling team and a center on his football team.
Years later, he would meet Nick Blomgrem, who taught Chuck Muay Thai and transitioned him into the world of competitive kickboxing, as well as John Hackleman, who improved the budding fighters skills all the way to the end of Chuck's career. Liddell was making a minimal amount of money for his kickboxing fights, and now had to support two kids. It was time to either make the pro thing a reality, or put on a tie and use his accounting degree from Cal Poly to earn a living. After having a talk with his teachers, he decided to take his fighting career to the next level, and that was to enter the growing world of MMA.
Liddell headed to John Lewis' "Jsect" gym in Vegas, where the UFC fighter was already training other known MMA fighters, and helped Chuck combine his wrestling skills with his striking, as well as teaching him more about the ground game. It was also here that Liddell met the Fertitta's and Dana White (a story for another day).
It took Chuck three years to get his shot in the UFC, with one fight under his belt that is uncredited on most of his records (which he won by a head-kick KO), but all that mattered was that he made it in. The event would be UFC 17 from the Mobile Civic Center in Mobile, Alabama. Nicknamed "Redemption", the show's title was given in honor of Mark Coleman's attempts to climb back up in the heavyweight rankings after losing his title to Maurice Smith from three events earlier. Fans will remember this event in relation to Coleman, but more so the kick heard round the world when Pete Williams from The Lion's Den knocked out the exhausted former champ with a kick to the face. Meanwhile on the card, Frank Shamrock would defend his middleweight title against Jeremy Horn by kneebar in a tough and competitive match.
Along with a few heavyweight superfights, UFC 17 featured a one-night middleweight tournament that included Dan Henderson and Carlos Newton. Vying for a spot as an alternate, Chuck Liddell would meet Noe Hernandez, who was more experienced than Chuck in MMA with several fights in Monte Cox's "Extreme Challenge" shows under his belt.
That experience in fighting did not do much for cutting weight, as Hernandez came in two-over when he hit the scales the day before the bout. Liddell, who had weighed in at 199 (one pound under the limit), allowed his opponent to have the extra weight, and no doubt used it as more motivation to win. Both of these fighters wanted a contract with the UFC, and it was clearly going to be winner takes all.
In Chuck's book, Iceman: My Fighting Life, he described his emotions as he stepped into the octagon and started the match:
"I didn't feel any real butterflies when I walked into the ring either. But maybe I should have. I had been telling myself to look out for that big right. My friends had warned me about it. And yet, ten seconds into the fight I let my guard down, and bam, he pops with that powerful punch of his. I said to myself, 'Damn.' I wasn't worried, I just couldn't believe I got caught by that. I felt my eye starting to swell up, I knew it was going to be black-and-blue within minutes. I couldn't believe I had done something so mindless so early in the fight."
Hernandez and Liddell fought for the full duration of their twelve-minute round, with Chuck collecting himself after being rocked by that first big punch. Liddell managed to open up a cut on the bridge of Noe's nose soon after that, and the two brawled as the crowd cheered on. The two hungry fighters traded blows, with Chuck doing his best to avoid being put on his back. By the end, Chuck had done enough to earn a unanimous decision victory over Hernandez, but did not appear on the pay-per-view itself as Newton and Henderson made it to the tournament finals unscathed, where they put on quite an impressive show.
The ironic part about Chuck's first fight in the UFC is that he made a mere $1,000 total, including his expenses. Chuck Liddell would go on to become one of the best UFC light-heavyweight champions in the history of the sport, and would make a minimum of half-a-million per fight (disclosed) towards the end of his career, not including bonuses and sponsor money. Needless to say, Chuck made the right decision in choosing fighting over the wonderful world of accounting.