Never has such a big announcement been made so sheepishly than when the usually bombastic Dana White announced that the coaches for the eleventh season of The Ultimate Fighter would be Tito Ortiz and the returning Chuck Liddell. Was White right to be sheepish or can Ortiz-Liddell III live up to the legacy of what both fighters have manifested in the UFC?
When Tito Ortiz re-signed with the UFC in July, he was not shy in talking about his desire to renew his famous (if one-sided) rivalry with Chuck Liddell. The problem with that was that the Iceman had been benched by the UFC after his loss to Shogun Rua at UFC 97. Unlike Tito who had his own prolonged absence from the Octagon due to falling out with Dana White, Liddell was benched for ‘his own good’. White argued that as Liddell was no longer competitive with the very best in the Light Heavyweight Division and had plenty of money, there was no point in him continuing to put his health at risk by competing with younger, faster, stronger opponents. At the forefront of everyone’s mind were the signs that Liddell’s punch resistance had gone after devastating knock outs defeats against Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans and the sad retirements suffered by the many boxers who stayed around for one fight too many.
Instead of spouting the old clichés about having to give the fans what they want or the fighter being the best one to know when to call it quits, White spoke from the heart about how Liddell was his friend and that he didn’t want to see him getting hurt in fights that served no good purpose. Typically he took it a step further and started criticizing those close to Chuck Liddell (most notably his trainer John Hackleman) who seemingly weren’t fully behind his benching of the former Light Heavyweight Champion. Dana White’s attempt to save Liddell from further punishment was simply exceptional showing both genuine concern for the well-being of his friend but also incredible foresight to see that whatever money could be made from Liddell in the short-term would not be worth the long-term damage to mixed martial arts if the first breakthrough superstar of the UFC was to suffer the same sad fate of boxing greats such as Muhammad Ali.
And yet less than six months on from announcing the end of Chuck Liddell’s career, Dana White was back on television promoting his comeback fight. It says a lot about White as a person that he looked embarrassed and uncomfortable; a Don King or Vince McMahon would have easily performed such a volte face with the biggest possible smile on their face. But despite his better judgment he really had no choice once it became clear that Liddell didn’t want to retire. While Liddell is still under contract to the UFC, there’s only so long that they could deny him the opportunity to fight without breaching that contract. And with CBS/Showtime willing to invest in Strikeforce in an attempt to break Zuffa’s stranglehold over major league MMA, White couldn’t risk one of the few genuine crossover stars in North American MMA history signing with Strikeforce. The need to defeat Strikeforce and preserve his monopoly over major league MMA had to overcome any concern he had for his friend’s long term health.
Of course having decided to bring Chuck Liddell back, the question then became one of finding the right opponent. Obviously with his recent form (1-4) Liddell is nowhere near the level to justify fighting the cream of the light heavyweight division and many of his greatest rivalries no longer made sense from a matchmaking perspective. Wanderlei Silva is busy trying to establish himself at middleweight and putting any fan-favorite light heavyweight fighter against Randy Couture risks the fans finally turning on Couture for his increasingly defensive Greco-Roman tactics. Other potential marquee matches were also taken off the table with Rich Franklin wanting to take time off, Liddell turning down a fight with Kimbo Slice and Mirko Cro Cop seemingly blind to the obvious need for him to drop down to 205Ibs.
This left two names as being the obvious candidates for facing Chuck Liddell in his comeback fight – Tito Ortiz and Forest Griffin. Both were big names with fantastic records as drawing cards and there’s a natural, ready made issue with Liddell. Facing Ortiz he would be renewing his greatest rivalry while Griffin-Liddell fight would see the original Ultimate Fighter face his coach. As we all know now, they went with Tito Ortiz. While it seems insane to question the marquee value of a fight that has twice broken the UFC pay-per-view record, one has to question whether this will be a fight that capture the attention of fans in 2010. Both fighters are coming off a sustained period of their promoter undermining them and their marketability. For Tito Ortiz he had Dana White repeatedly attacking him in public and UFC broadcasts portraying him in the worst possible light. Ironically this burial was most blatant just before the two sides reconciled, with the UFC refusing to include any of Tito Ortiz’s fourteen Octagon victories in the list. History has shown that when combat sports superstars return after a public feud with their promoter that fans do remembered the promoter’s criticisms and as a result the superstar’s drawing power is significantly reduced. While there were many mitigating factors, the fact that Tito Ortiz failed to draw a decent live gate or pay per view buyrate against Forest Griffin at UFC 106 would suggest that White’s statements over the past eighteen months have diminished fan interest in Tito Ortiz.
If that’s the case, then question marks must be raised at how well Chuck Liddell’s drawing power will hold up after six months of his promoter telling everyone that he’s finished and would only endanger his health by continuing to fight. The danger is that just as the fans eventually accepted White’s repeated statements that Ortiz was a bitter irrelevance they will also now agree with his belief that Liddell fighting on is pointless. If that’s the case, then White will have to move quickly to re-educate his fanbase, getting them to accept that both Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell are still relevant in 2010. Of course the fact that their fight will have thirteen weeks of television to build up to it will help. As shown in TUF 3, Ortiz is a fantastic coach both in terms of building the match with his eventual opponent but also showing fans through genuinely helping and developing his fighters that beneath the showboating and excuses there’s a serious fighter who deserves their respect. And while Liddell may not be the most charismatic person ever, both TUF 1 and Dancing with Stars showed that his easy-going charm is well captured by reality shows. The Ultimate Fighter may be exactly the format to help fans forget all the backstage drama over the past two years and remember exactly why Ortiz and Liddell captured their attention in the first place.
And yet, I just don’t feel it. My head says that despite everything there should still be plenty of fan interest in Tito Ortiz versus Chuck Liddell III but my gut says that this is a cold fight. We saw these guys fight at their peak and both times Liddell won easily. This is the deadest of dead rubbers, there is nothing left for Liddell to prove against Ortiz and if Ortiz managed to finally beat Liddell it would inevitably be dismissed as a hollow victory due to Liddell’s diminished powers. Neither fighter gains that much from a victory and a loss would seriously endanger their ability to be a marquee fighter. While I understand the desire to rebuild Ortiz and so justified the big money deal they’ve signed with him, I can’t help but think that they’ve made the wrong choice. I know he’s difficult to media manage but to me Forest Griffin was the obvious person to face Chuck Liddell. The fight would simultaneously be completely fresh and be based on over five years of history while the dynamic of the former coach versus his former student would be something completely different. And the fight would pit two of the biggest fan favorites against each other in what would be a win-win fight. If Liddell manages to win then he’s beaten a younger, bigger fighter and can claim that he’s turned his career around. If Griffin wins he’s beaten the very legend that helped him begin his major league MMA career.
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell can both recapture the magic in their third match. They’ll almost certainly provide fight fans with thirteen weeks of interesting and entertaining television but this is far from the guaranteed money match that it would have been just three years ago. But if the eleventh season of The Ultimate Fighter is to be a success, then not only will the fighters have to turn the clock back but so will the fans.