It’s easy to forget.
Today, MMA athletes are legitimate superstars on par with LeBron James or Tom Brady. The top fights are watched by millions around the world and draw big-name celebrities at ringside the same way that the great Ali fights of the ‘60s and '70s used to. The UFC has the same lucrative endorsement deals and TV contracts as the NFL, NBA, and MLB and its top fighters are millionaires many times over with crossover appeal and name recognition that extends far beyond the octagon.
But it wasn’t always that way. Not that long ago, mixed martial arts were viewed as semi-organized street fights, not that far removed from a WorldStarHipHop brawl. Hell, Senator John McCain used to deride it as “human cockfighting.” Watching some of those early matches felt almost like an illicit activity that you spoke about in hushed tones, as opposed to proudly broadcasting your views on social media as is the norm with today’s contests.
Shepherding the sport into the mainstream fell to a select group of fighters, who in many ways are the godfathers of the modern UFC. They moved MMA from a fringe sport into a massive enterprise and became household names along the way. Few of those names ring out like the Iceman, Chuck Liddell. With his mohawk and a propensity for knocking opponents the fugg out, Liddell became the UFC’s light heavyweight champion and had a series of memorable fights with Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, and Wanderlei Silva. Liddell was also a coach on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, which really helped bring UFC to the masses. To cap his career, in 2009 he was inducted in the UFC Hall of Fame.
Liddell is now being celebrated as part of Roots of Fight’s MMA Legends collection. After focusing its attention mostly on boxers, the brand is now making the same awesome T-shirts and sweats for guys like Liddell, Dan Henderson, and Royce Gracie. And there isn’t a single skull on any of them. The move makes perfect sense. Every other sport celebrates its past with nostalgic throwback gear, why should MMA be any different?
We spoke with Liddell to talk about the collection, why a boxer will never beat a UFC fighter, and who he wish he could’ve gone up against in his prime.
What is it like for you to see MMA grow to a point where there’s now throwback apparel for the sport?
It’s pretty awesome, to be honest with you, being put in a group with guys like [Roots of Fight athletes Muhammad] Ali and [Joe] Frazier and [Mike] Tyson. You have Bruce Lee in there, too. It’s great to see the sport come this far. It’s been a crazy ride for me.
When you were first starting out did you think MMA would get this big?
I always thought the sport would get this big. I didn’t think it would get this big this fast. Without the reality show, it might have been different. I was never a reality show fan and I don’t think Dana [White] was either. But he called it his Trojan horse to get a live fight on TV. Everything kind of lined up.
MMA apparel has come a long way from putting as many skulls as you could on things, are you pleased with that change?
[Laughs] As soon as [UFC] started exploding, every time you turned around there was a new shirt company coming out. I do really like the quality of these [Roots of Fight] shirts and the way they went.
What is your training routine like these days?
I still do mixed martial arts. I still lift. I try to stay in shape. Jay Glazer has a gym down in Hollywood. I try to go down there a couple days a week and work with NFL guys like Odell Beckham and Chris Johnson during the off-season. It’s fun to do some other drills, hitting the bags and working on exploding off the line and stuff like that.
Do you still get in the ring?
Oh yeah. I’ve still got some friends fighting, and I like to get them ready for fights.
What did you think about the Diaz-McGregor fight?
I think Conor was off a little bit. He didn’t really account for the adjustment of his weight. He was moving up in weight and that throws your timing off. I did it before when I was kickboxing. I was walking around at about 215 and the next time when I fought, I was almost 225. I thought I’d be bigger and stronger and would hit harder, but I was a little off. I was pushing my punches. Timing is such a big thing for a guy like Conor and carrying that extra weight makes a big difference in a big fight against a quality opponent. But he’ll be back. He’ll make some adjustments and it will be interesting to see how he does moving up.
Who are the fighters that you get excited to watch these days?
I do like Conor Mcgregor and the way he comes out to fight. Anybody that comes out to fight [I like]. I like Cowboy Cerrone. He’ll fight anybody, anywhere, anyplace. I like that attitude. I don’t care if it’s a submission or a wrestler trying to ground and pound or a striker that knocks guys out. I want to watch guys try to finish fights. That’s what’s exciting for me as a fan.
Every day it seems we hear about some a boxer and an MMA athlete talking about who would in a fight. How do you think a boxer would fare?
In a boxing match, or an MMA fight, or a street fight? We already know they’re not going to do well. Let me back up. Back in the day everyone used to say that boxers are better than kickboxers, striking-wise. That is because all you ever saw was kickboxers coming over to boxing and trying to do well. When boxers started going over to K-1 and started kickboxing, they didn’t do so well. What happens is you change your distance and your timing. If you stand in a traditional boxing stance when a guy’s kickboxing, you’ve got about a round and a half and you’re going to lose your leg. If they’re just kicking you and there’s no way you can block it, you’re not going to be able to stand. I’m being generous with a round and a half. Now if you go from that to MMA, you’ve got to change your stance and timing and distance again because otherwise you’re going to get taken down. It’s hard to do all these things. With Conor we were talking about how changing his weight changed his distance and timing a little bit. Here you’re changing your whole style of fighting. If you’re a boxer who just tried to learn some ground stuff for a few months, these guys are going to destroy you. You’re getting taken down and you’re never getting up. Boxing can help in MMA a lot, with footwork and all that stuff. But it’s a different animal when you have to fight in the cage.
Is there a fighter today that you wish you could’ve fought in your prime?
I’ve said it before, I would’ve liked a shot at Jon Jones in my prime. I really think I’d be a lot of trouble for him because I hit real hard he hasn’t shown the power to hurt me other than with his spinning stuff which I think is really hard to land. I’m a good striker and he’s not going to wrestle me. I would’ve been a tough fight for him. I would’ve pushed him.