Three days after Christmas 2007, thousands of fans were at the Mandalay Bay Event Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, to see the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s top star, “The Iceman” Chuck Liddell, square off with the fearsome “Axe Murderer” Wanderlei Silva. The crowd was loud and boisterous as the competitors stripped down and got on a scale. That’s right. These fans weren’t there for the fight; they were there for the weigh–ins. It was a clear signal of just how far the sport had come.
Just ten years earlier, the UFC was lucky to draw a few thousand fans to backwater locations like Alabama and Mississippi. To make matters worse, it was banned from pay–per–view television nationwide. Even after the mega–rich Fertitta brothers bought the company in 2001, the UFC had come close to going under. A fortuitous cable television show called The Ultimate Fighter had given the promotion a new lease on life.
Now the fledgling sport of MMA was being hailed as the next big thing. Almost every news medium that mattered covered the story of the sport’s rise like a phoenix from extinction with various degrees of accuracy. The most important point was clear. MMA was hot and UFC 79 was proof positive. Not only did the UFC sell out the arena and draw a gate of almost $5 million, they sold more than a thousand additional tickets to see the fight on closed–circuit television.
“I can’t tell you the last time I was this excited for a fight,” UFC President Dana White said. It was a fight he had traveled around the globe to set up in 2003, entering Liddell in the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix, only to be bitterly disappointed when “The Iceman” fell to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson before getting a shot at Silva. Wanderlei had demolished Jackson in the finals, rankling White because it showed hard–core fans that the Japanese promotion, and not the UFC, had the toughest fighters in the world. White had been obsessed with putting the fight together ever since, even promoting it on UFC broadcasts before it had been signed.
Pride had been reluctant to allow Silva to appear in the UFC’s famous Octagon. White settled that issue by buying the Japanese group. Now he could finally book his personal dream match. It didn’t matter to fans or White that both fighters were coming off losses. This was more than just Liddell versus Silva. This was UFC versus Pride personified. “Silva was definitely the face of that organization [Pride] and one of the most exciting fighters in the world,” he said. “He and Chuck have the exact same fighting style. Both are aggressive knockout artists, both come forward, and both try to finish fights with knockouts. I’ve been trying to put this fight together for six years. Finally, here we are. I can’t tell you how much this fight means to me. Seriously, I’m shaking right now.”
White may have been shaking, but Liddell wasn’t fazed in the least. At the weigh–in, Liddell had made Silva wait for the customary stare–down while he slowly put his clothes back on. The sponsors’ logos so garishly displayed on that clothing, after all, helped pay his bills and would want to be in the money shot, sure to be broadcast nationwide on ESPN. The fiery Brazilian Silva didn’t appreciate the delay (or Liddell’s press conference promise to knock him out). He pulled his shirt off, and as the two stared into each other’s eyes, he faked a head butt. Liddell didn’t flinch, calmly taking a step back and flipping Silva the bird. “The Axe Murderer” lost control and went after Liddell. It looked like a professional wrestling pantomime, but it was completely real. In a moment, it demonstrated the UFC’s appeal to the young male market. MMA combined the flash and bombast of professional wrestling with the gravitas and excitement of a real sporting event. In the WWE, that kind of tomfoolery would have been in the script. In the UFC, it just added intensity to what was already a much anticipated fight.
“He got stupid at the weigh–in and any time someone does that, it just fires Chuck up even more,” Liddell’s trainer John Hackleman said. “As soon as he did that, we went in the back and I was ten times more confident than I had been. You do that to Chuck, you’re going to fire him up a lot more.”
The fight was everything the hype had promised. It was years in the making, and fans got exactly what they expected: two powerful strikers exchanging punch after punch. After a slow start, the two began throwing bombs. For once, it was Liddell with the straighter punches, using his reach to land blows when the Brazilian’s looping punches were coming up short. “Two warriors who love to bang and knock people out went toe–to–toe and showed tons of heart,” White said. “It was one of the best fights I’ve ever seen.”
Although Silva landed plenty of counter shots when Liddell uncharacteristically came forward, Liddell punished him with precision punching. Silva was in trouble in every round, back to the cage and swinging wildly just to get some room to breathe. Liddell was known for his knockout power, but Silva took punches flush on the chin and survived where others might have fallen.
“He did a great job to keep fighting. He didn’t want to give up,” Liddell said. “There were a couple of times he could have covered up in the corner and the ref probably would have stopped it. But he came out slugging. It was a fun fight.”
Liddell’s unanimous–decision win capped off an amazing year for the UFC. The company had turned the corner. Once banned from pay–per–view, this show would bring in more than 600,000 households paying $39.95 for the pleasure of watching Liddell get back on track. The sport was a regular feature on local and cable news, and made the cover of Sports Illustrated, the ultimate sign of mainstream sports acceptance. It had come a long way since a skinny young Brazilian, too frail to actually participate, watched a Japanese judo master teach his brothers the basics of ground fighting.