It is five years since Chuck Liddell last strode through the balmy tunnels of the MGM Arena and into the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Back then, the UFC was still in a transitional phase with a burgeoning reputation in the United States and its fanatical global following yet to take hold.
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Liddell – a former light-heavyweight champion – was UFC’s poster boy and widely credited as playing a key role in bringing mixed martial arts into the mainstream of US sports and entertainment.
Figures like Liddell, George St. Pierre and Randy Couture stood at the pinnacle of their sport, and were household names in America.
But despite the impressive knockout punches and submission moves, UFC’s ticket numbers, pay-per-view figures, and interest levels were still relatively low – only hardcore fans paying attention away from its US heartland.
At times all it takes is one athlete to spark a trend and turn an organisation into a machine of worldwide popularity.
Jose Aldo was the man to win the affections of South America, with the Brazilian now unbeaten since 2005.
Then came indestructible grappler Ronda Rousey – now with 13 straight wins – before a cocksure Irishman named Conor McGregor began to take centre stage.
McGregor is seen as the key to really igniting the popularity of UFC in Europe.
He sports canes, top hats, straw hats, pocket watches and wears sunglasses like Karl Lagerfeld. There have even been reports of him bringing a leopard on a lead into a press conference.
But to Liddell, the man whose stage McGregor has inherited, the fundamental factor for the Irishman’s famed showboating is that he is backing it up with inspiring performances in the octagon.
“Conor talks a lot and comes out and fights a lot,” Liddell tells Sport360° when asked about UFC’s new main man. “It’s great for the sport. It helps the UFC to promote fights. He brings a casual observer to the sport and they get to see a great fight.
“The nice thing about Conor is that if you have someone with a mouth like him who can produce fights, and actually fights the way he talks, then that’s awesome. I love the way he fights. If he keeps fighting with that style then he can do what he likes.”
McGregor meets Aldo in Vegas on December 12 in what has been billed as the biggest fight in UFC history, and Liddell believes the hype is justified.
“I can’t wait to see it,” the 45-year-old says. “I’m an Aldo fan for a lot of years, and I’m a big McGregor supporter too, and they match up well for a great fight. On paper, it’s a match made in heaven for the fans.
“Those guys should have a war and it will be a fun one to watch. I can’t imagine it not being fun to watch.”
After years of high-wattage lights and high drama, Liddell holds a formidable record in the sport with 16 wins from 23 fights, including four successful light-heavyweight championship defences.
Liddell’s career was punctuated by a bitter rivalry with Randy Couture, with the former having the upper hand in two of their three meetings.
After losing to Couture in 2003, Liddell was desperate to redeem himself, and two years later, was granted the opportunity to fight ‘Captain America’ for another shot at the title.
When Couture moved in for a takedown late in the first round, Liddell countered with a heavy strike to the head and knocked him out cold.
“That would probably be the highlight of my career, knocking Randy out for the first time,” Liddell says.
“There were many highs – I had a lot of fun doing the sport I love, and to see where it’s gotten in a short amount of time shows it’s been an amazing ride.”
The UFC juggernaut continues to gather momentum worldwide with pay-per-view figures for UFC 190 in January at a staggering 900,000.
When Liddell fought Couture in 2005, 280,000 fans tuned in.
The president of the UFC and the man tasked with making the big fights is Dana White. He appears a motivated, media-savvy and lavish individual.
Liddell labels him “intelligent, straight forward, likeable”, adding that “you know what he’s thinking”.
For White’s flaws, he runs the organisation effectively and even introduced women’s MMA in 2012 with the signing of Ronda Rousey as its first fighter.
Three years on and Rousey is still the undisputed champion and perhaps the best female athlete in the US at present.
A former Olympic medallist in Beijing, Rousey is now 13 wins from 13 in the bantamweight division, and with many of the top names in her category unable to last more than a minute in the octagon with her. It is difficult to know if any MMA athlete can challenge Rousey’s supremacy.
“Every time Ronda comes out she’s a better fighter,” says Liddell. “She looked like a one-trick pony before.
“Now she’s getting better at everything. That’s the thing, she keeps improving. To stay at the top you have to keep improving. And that means adapting and changing in different areas.
“It will be hard for anyone to beat her. She just needs to keep staying out in front of the chasing pack.”
It seems certain that Rousey will one day take her place the UFC Hall of Fame alongside Liddell, who was inducted in 2009. Their paths may also cross in Hollywood, with Liddell’s newest film ‘War Pigs’ recently hitting cinema screens, while Rousey has already dabbled with cameos in ‘The Expendables’, ‘Furious 7’ and ‘Entourage’.
The popularity of UFC is now well and truly reaching blockbuster levels, but it is no surprise to its original leading man.
“It is the best sport in the world. People are going to keep coming to it, it keeps getting bigger, and I can’t wait to see how far it goes,” Liddell says.
A look back at Liddell's memorable moments:
1. Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva, UFC 79, Dec. 29, 2007
This was a bout Liddell wanted, and be certain it was a bout the fans wanted. A good fight was possible, but no one could have expected the Fight of the Year slugfest that ensued. Countless times, both fighters had opportunities to deliver a career-defining finishing shot, and countless times each stood in, taking the best punches the other had to offer. Liddell went on to win a unanimous decision in his last victory, the year’s best fight and with one unforgettable performance.
2. Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz 1, UFC 47, April 2, 2004
Both were coming off losses – Liddell to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Ortiz to Randy Couture, and both knew to get another crack at the light heavyweight championship, the road would have to go through each other. Ortiz stood with Liddell, and Liddell made him pay the price. An onslaught 30 seconds into the second round finally buckled Ortiz as John McCarthy stepped in to shut it down.
3. Liddell vs. Randy Couture 2, UFC 52, April 16, 2005
Liddell handed Couture his first knockout defeat and he became a champion for the first time, leaving no doubt in the process that he was the biggest name in UFC.
Chuck Liddell stars in the movie “War Pigs” and the film is playing in UAE cinemas now and available to PRE-ORDER on iTunes Middle East
The first series of WHITE COLLAR DXB was brought to a close this week with its final showdown between the Red and Blue team.
The finale saw the two teams go head-to-head in a fight night at Dubai’s Asian Hotel.
Danny C of Radio 1’s Rude Awakening – and narrator of the series –MC’d the evening and was joined by broadcaster Jim Rosenthal, who provided live commentary of the matches.
The series, which took 24 average Dubai residents and captured their transformation over six episodes on osn Sports 4, culminated in the final showdown which the Blue Team won with a clean sweep of victories.
Through the blood, sweat and tears viewers have watched the progress of participants as they went from their first foray into the ring up to their final showdown.
On the eve of the final show, director, and co-founder of Nomad Productions, Phil Griffiths, said: “We wanted WHITE COLLAR DXB to not only provide a unique form of engaging entertainment in the Emirates but more importantly create a means for everyday people to improve their health and their life amidst the chaos of Dubai living.
“The results have completely blown us away. Every week we see contestants push themselves to their limit and beyond, and we have been able to capture these triumphs and share them to their friends, family and coworkers.”
For more information you can visit WHITE COLLAR DXB on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Vine – @WhiteCollarDXB.
The second edition of the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Jiu-jitsu tour ended on a high note as UAE fighters did their country proud with a stellar show in the United States.
Some of the best Jiu-jitsu fighters from across the globe convened at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, to compete in the tournament, which was organised by the UAE Jiu-jitsu Federation (UAEJJF).
Emirati fighters won a total of 13 medals which included eight gold.
Yahia Mansour of the UAE national team topped the podium in the brown master 1 94kg division while Team Nogueira Dubai’s Sheikh Faisal Al Qassimi took bronze in the same event.
This competition brought together more than 420 male and female, from 32 countries to compete for top honours.
Commenting on the event, Abdulmunam Al Hashemi, chairman of the UAEJJF said: “I would like to congratulate everyone for a hugely successful event that has put UAE jiu-jitsu firmly on the map. The tournament is aimed at highlighting the UAEJJF’s growing profile as the facilitator for international sport.
“The participation of the world’s top jiu-jitsu athletes reflects the success of the second leg and highlights the prestigious status that Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Jiu-jitsu enjoys as a landmark event for jiu-jitsu players.
“Last night’s show is indicative of our immeasurable potential to be a world leader in this sport and this has been proven time and time again by the exceptional skill and sportsmanship of our fighters.
“The UAE team did their country proud in the US, showing the world what can be achieved through sheer passion and tenacity.”
Award and medal presentations were held on the day with prizes awarded for the first, second, and third places in each division.
The athletes also won prize money ranging from $500 to $2,000 in several categories, including open weight, master black belt; white, blue, purple, brown and black belt categories for both men and women.