If you watch MMA long enough, eventually you will feel like you just watched your dad get beat up. The first time I really remember feeling that way was when BJ Penn fought Rory McDonald. There’s a pit in your stomach, a desire to quit watching, but that feeling is quickly replaced by a strange combination of morbid curiosity, a twisted sense of justice, in that this is the sort of thing that needs to happen in order to maintain some sort of natural order, and just a glimmer of hope, a sliver in the back of your mind that maybe things will get better. It is pretty awful. Since that fight, I’ve probably felt that way at least once a month, to varying degrees. Certainly every time BJ has fought since then, a lot of Takanori Gomi’s fights, the tail end of Matt Hughes’ career, the recent fights of Tatsuya Kawajiri, the end of Rashad Evans’ career, some recent Gilbert Melendez fights. It happens a bit too often for my liking and I would like to avoid it, except sometimes it feels like I seek it out.
On Saturday, Chuck Liddell is going to fight Tito Ortiz for a third time, and every one who watches, however many people that may be, will feel like they just saw their dad get beat up, there’s really no way around that. Whether they want to admit it or not, they’ll know that going into it, I do. It’s been laid bare for all to see at this point. It is practically the selling point for this fight. It hasn’t been marketed as a meaningful fight, or an exciting fight, or part of some larger plan or event, its a nostalgia trip that is going to end with two middle-aged men trying to separate each other from consciousness, even the best case scenario should leave you feeling bad about yourself. I still want to see it, more than I do the UFC card that same weekend. Maybe it is some sort of craven, bottom of the barrel, base need for violence between two people you know, the reason why, in high school, everybody wants to see a fight, regardless of who’s involved, when they wouldn’t be otherwise inclined to watch a fight. Maybe it’s just that sort of ugliness we try to hide from everybody else, that certain special kind of ugly that crosses our minds when we are alone. Or maybe it’s something else, I hope it is. I would like to think the real reason I want to watch this fight, knowing everything I know that this fight will entail, rises beyond the very worst parts of myself.
The Chuck-Tito rivalry, in a lot of ways, is emblematic of my earliest experience with MMA. I got into MMA, the UFC more specifically, with the second season of The Ultimate Fighter, but the first real fight where I felt like I really knew what was going on, the first one where I felt like I totally grasped the entirety of the context surrounding the fight was Chuck-Tito 2 at UFC 66. It was the biggest fight of that era, between the two biggest stars in the UFC at the time, and I KNEW what was going to happen, I really knew it. Here’s what I knew at the time: Tito couldn’t beat Chuck on his best day, it just couldn’t happen. Chuck knew it, Tito knew it, most everyone knew it. Tito knew it to such a degree that he spent years telling everyone he and Chuck were friends, so as to avoid fighting him. Tito couldn’t strike with Chuck, and he wasn’t a good enough wrestle to take him down for any significant length of time. I knew that no iteration of Tito Ortiz could beat Chuck Liddell. Therein lies the appeal.
Chuck Liddell is eroding in front of our eyes. Even at his peak, Chuck Liddell wasn’t exactly lucid, and the years since have only exaggerated that decline. If you’ve seen any of the lead-up to this fight you can see that Chuck Liddell hasn’t just lost a few steps, he’s forgot he even had them. He is a shell, a husk of his former self. No one, I don’t think, is more keenly aware of this fact than Tito Ortiz. He knows that this is the worst Chuck has ever been, and likely, the worst he ever can be and still get credentialed to fight, and Tito is jumping on that fact.
Tito Ortiz has never been the smartest guy in the room, he hasn’t ever really been able to string coherent sentences together, I don’t get the sense he knows why people like him or hate him, I don’t think he’s what you would call a good decision maker. He’s just not a sharp guy, maybe that’s a side effect of a career spent fighting, or maybe its congenital, who knows. But, he is smart enough to see a way to redefine his career in a way, a way to finally beat his biggest rival, a path to changing his place in history, if only slightly, even if it leans towards morally reprehensible.
Say whatever you want about Tito Ortiz in recent years, but he’s not a terrible fighter. He’s gone out there and acquitted himself against decent, at the very least, competition. Compare that to Chuck’s last fights and it is a lot less upbeat. The fight with Rich Franklin isn’t as soul crushing as you might think it is, but the Rashad Evans fight certainly is and the one against Shogun isn’t much better. On the other hand, the Tito that beat Chael Sonnen and Alexander Shlemenko might not be a top 10 fighter, but even in defeat, as is the case with Liam McGeary, it hasn’t been sad like it was with Chuck. Tito still has a semblance of what made him great, Chuck doesn’t and because of that, because both fighters are in such different places than where they were when they fought the previous two times, it is like they’ve never fought.
In 2006 I knew that Tito couldn’t beat Chuck Liddell on his best day, but in 2018 Tito has a chance to beat Chuck at his worst, and he’s going to try on Saturday. That’s what intrigues me about this fight, why I’m going to watch it, even if I know how bad it will make me feel. I want to see Chuck prove Tito wrong, I want to see Chuck, as broken and battered as he appears, at his very worst, prove that he is still better than Tito. I wan’t to see one punch, thrown from the cheap seats, put Tito out. The same way I wanted BJ Penn to show that he was still as great as I remembered him being, the same reason I felt like I needed to see Gomi beat Melvin Guillard. These guys still mean something to me, as awful and meaningless as MMA is and has been, I’ve still got something invested in guys like Chuck Liddell. So, I’m willing to watch the fight, willing to bet on the slightest, infinitesimal odds, that I’ll go to sleep that night feeling good about myself. That can only happens if Chuck wins though, because in my mind Chuck beats Tito from 2006 til infinity.