Brought together for an exclusive photo shoot in Las Vegas, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Wanderlei Silva are three of the most iconic figures in MMA.
Arguably the first superstars of their generation, these three men have both contributed to and helped define the modern sport of mixed martial arts.
With long and storied careers behind them, the question is what else can these hyper-talented men achieve? Mick Bower talks to the tremendous trio about fighting and what the future holds for them in an effort to find out.
When the Ultimate Fighting Championship were planning their first show in Germany they needed a headline act that would create a buzz. Names that would mean something, even in uncharted territory. The early talk pointed to a Randy Couture / Chuck Liddell main event, a fourth chapter of the greatest rivalry in MMA.
When that failed to materialize, Wanderlei Silva was parachuted in to save the day. As Wandy entered the Lanxass Arena in Cologne a shot of electricity rocked the joint. The audience were literally jumping. Fans from all over Europe had flocked to see a legend in the flesh. The charisma of the man drew in the crowd to the extent that he was cheered to the rafters on his way back to the locker room despite dropping a unanimous decision.
The aforementioned trio transcend the sport. They are the providers and the beneficiaries of mainstream acceptance. Randy, Chuck and Wanderlei: the first generation of MMA superstars.
Wanderlei was Pride. The Axe Murderer was the face of the Japanese promotion. His fearless onslaughts of non-stop aggression won the respect of every fight fan. Meanwhile, across an ocean, Randy Couture was carving out his own legend. Since his debut at UFC 13 in 1997, Randy has been a mainstay of the UFC. The Natural morphed into Captain America as the muscular style developed from his past life as a wrestler allowed him to dominate his opponents. Eventually, after a couple of KOs against the same fighter, he decided to call it a day. After 13 months away, his comeback supplied the UFC with one of its most memorable nights when he slayed the giant Tim Sylvia to grab the heavyweight title. Randy’s victory guaranteed his place in history and the hearts of MMA fans forever.
Chuck Liddell is the man who retired Randy first time around. For years, Chuck vs Wand was the match up we all craved. Back in 2003, Liddell ventured to Japan hoping to meet Silva at the Pride Final Conflict tournament, but Quinton Jackson upset his plans. Wanderlei delivered 17 consecutive knees to Rampage’s head in the final, establishing himself as the only credible challenger to the title of most devastating striker in MMA. The showdown finally happened at UFC 79. Though it was three years too late for many, their common warrior spirit shone out. The three-round war won the popular vote to be named Fight of the Year at the World MMA Awards and was voted the second best of all time by fans in the UFC 100 Top Fights poll. The only fight that scored higher was Griffin vs Bonnar in the TUF 1 Finale. The Ultimate Fighter TV show is widely viewed as the catalyst that propelled the UFC to the next level. The original coaches and main drawing cards: Randy and Chuck.
The Iceman became the face of the UFC. Without him, the promotion and the sport of MMA would not be where they are today. The march to mainstream acclaim coincided with Chuck’s reign as 205lb champ. His winning style was honed to perfection as he plotted to overcome Randy. In his wide stance, he was seemingly impossible to take down. With his right hand-hammer cocked, Chuck would stalk his prey. When there was nowhere left to run, they fell. Casual fans couldn’t get enough.
The name Liddell was a cast-iron pledge that you would get some bang for your buck. Newcomers acquired an appreciation for the finer points of the game in the time they spent watching the contests lined up to support the firework display at the top of the bill. Chuck was on the magazine covers. Chuck was the TV guest star. When the breakthrough came, Chuck was the UFC.
Randy has fond memories of his trilogy with The Iceman. “Our rivalry stayed in the ring. Outside of the ring we’ve always gotten along. We’ve always been friendly towards each other. I think anytime you’re facing a guy like Chuck, who has the ability to punch you in the head and knock you out, you kind of have to make friends with that.
“The first time I was studying tape and watching his style, figuring out the timing and distance he likes and how to approach him, I realized that this guy has the potential to put me to sleep. If that’s what happens, that’s what happens – but I’m going to go down swinging. Get in the pocket and hit him first. I think that surprised him and ultimately made it possible for me to beat him the first time. He obviously made the adjustment the second and third times. His footwork and his approach to me were a lot different. He didn’t stand around and wait to see what I was going to do. He moved and used a lot of footwork and circled and made me chase him a lot. He found ways to find openings to land those shots in the second two fights.”
While fans appreciated their technical ability, it was Chuck and Randy’s willingness to throw down that made them loved. The urge to test themselves against the elite. Wanderlei shared the same DNA and was keen to get in on the act. “I wanted to fight the best guys.
I used to watch Chuck Liddell on TV and he was the main fight I wanted.”
Chuck was keen to oblige. “I went over to Japan because I wanted to fight him. Everyone from the UFC and Pride were arguing over who had the better fighters.” His defeat at the hands of Rampage in the semifinal meant that the dream fight never happened. Four years later, the UFC takeover of Pride removed the obstacles blocking the war Chuck hungered for. “It had almost happened so many times. I was real excited when I finally got to fight him.”
When they clashed, in November 2007, the veterans left it all in the cage to produce a slugfest that justified the hard sell. Despite losing on points, Wanderlei was proud to be part of it. “It was great. Sometimes you have big names fighting, but it’s not such a great fight. I’d rank my fight with Chuck in my top three, along with my fight with Sakuraba and my second fight with Rampage.
“He’s a nice guy. The event with me and him was a great show so maybe we’ll fight again. It’s nothing personal – it’s just business.”
Although Randy and Wandy never fought, they have closely followed each other’s careers and the Brazilian trained at Xtreme Couture when he first moved to the States. Close up, Randy saw another side of Wanderlei. “He’s fun to be around. He’s got a great personality and that’s kind of contrary to the Wanderlei you see in the competition environment where he’s very intense. I mean, you don’t get a nickname like the Axe Murderer for smiling at your opponent. He cuts an intimidating image standing there in the ring.”
Wanderlei holds Randy in equally high esteem. “He’s a nice guy and a good trainer. Inside the Octagon he has nothing to prove because he has beaten all the best guys in the world. Heavyweight champion, light heavyweight champion. Now he’s 46 years old. I keep asking him what his secret is but he won’t tell me. In the future, after he retires, he’s going to tell me. There will never be another Randy Couture.”
Time catches up with everyone in the end, even a phenomenon like Randy. He is philosophical about how he will be remembered. “I think competition wise I’ve accomplished the things I’ve accomplished. I don’t really think about those things because that would just get in the way of what I have to do, which is to get out and fight. As far as a legacy, I think I’ve tried to represent myself and my family and the sport with integrity and people seem to respond to that.”
Chuck Liddell was the poster boy of the UFC for a long time. He paid little attention to the hype then, and his attitude remains the same. “I never let it put pressure on me. I was never interested in all that. I was just interested in winning fights. I want to be remembered as a good fighter. I don’t really think much about what my legacy will be. People appreciated the way I fought and that’s nice.”
Wanderlei Silva is clear about how he wants to be remembered. “A guy who fought for the fans. I love the crowd, I love the show. This is the reason I don’t stop fighting. Last week, I went to Toronto. I’ve never been there before but when I walked down the street: people came up to me for a picture or to ask for my autograph. Guys even paid for my dinner. It’s unbelievable. They treat me like an old friend. I love it. You’re made to feel at home in any place around the world.”
Even with the huge growth in the sport, MMA stars have maintained a unique relationship with their fans, something that Randy is particularly proud of. “It’s been an amazing 12 years and to see the sport change so much has been pretty cool. I’ve certainly changed a lot as a fighter, but I think as a person I still feel like the same. I don’t feel any different or treat people any differently than I ever have and I hope that that doesn’t occur. One of the things I’ve tried to do is just keep it simple and be myself and I think people appreciate that.
“Overall, in our sport, the athletes are very approachable and that’s something I hope never changes. Nobody ever gets the chance to be around the guys at the top of other sports.”
As Wanderlei puts it, “My fans respect me because I respect them. The fans are the real boss. They pay for everything.”
When Chuck, Randy and Wand first entered a gym, the idea of making a lucrative career out of the martial arts seemed unrealistic. Due to the cash injected by a generation of fans inspired by the exploits of the three kings, elite fighters can now earn a good living. As the first generation of superstars the legends should also have the choice of a range of opportunities when they finally hang up their gloves.
The advance of the UFC means that people are needed to spread the word around the globe. The instantly recognizable Chuck Liddell is perfect for such an ambassadorial role and has already undertaken a promotional tour of the Philippines. “We got a great reaction. We had a workout at the mall and 4,000 people turned up. It was packed, it was crazy. If that’s a way I can help out, I’d be happy to do it.”
Wanderlei sees a more traditional career path for himself when he calls it a day. He already runs his own gym and sees training as his vocation:
“I know all the situations that can happen to new fighters because they’ve happened to me before. I have lots of experience and I’m going to use this experience to help other fighters. This is my new job. I want to be a good coach in the future.”
Randy is probably best placed to enjoy a productive retirement. During his extended periods away from the cage The Natural has embarked on a number of new ventures. “I don’t know that there’s any bigger adrenaline rush than standing there ready to walk out through that tunnel and get in that cage, but I’m pretty realistic. I won’t be able to do that forever. I have a lot of other activities that I get a lot of enjoyment out of so, at one point, you have to check the adrenaline meter and enjoy life. Life goes on after fighting.
“I hope to continue to make movies. I’m having a blast getting to play characters and getting some better parts in movies, and I’m enjoying being part of Xtreme Couture, the gym, the clothing line, the nutrition line and all that other stuff I’ve kind of built around fighting.”
Like Wanderlei, Couture intends to maintain a hands-on involvement in MMA. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop being involved in fighting. From running the gyms and the other stuff I have going on and working with the fighters. I enjoy being around the fighters I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
Whatever your stake in the MMA biz is, from fighter to writer, from t-shirt man to armchair fan, you owe a debt of gratitude to Randy, Chuck and Wanderlei, champions in every sense of the word.
Wanderlei Silva vs Kazushi Sakuraba
Pride 13: Collision Course - 25th March 2001
Sakuraba opted to stand and trade with Silva. After suffering an early knock down, Wandy took control and handed a severe beating to the Gracie Hunter, defeating him in less than two minutes. An early milestone in the Pride unbeaten run that established Wanderlei as an MMA legend.
Randy Couture vs Tim Sylvia
UFC 68 - 3rd March 2007
Randy dropped Tim Sylvia with the first punch of the fight and got the record breaking Ohio crowd out of their seats. The old timer pushed the pace and defied the odds to take a unanimous decision (50-45 three times). Couture came out of retirement to take the heavyweight title by dominating a champion 13 years his junior.
Chuck Liddell vs Tito Ortiz
UFC 47 - 2nd April 2004
Bad blood between the two former friends added spice to an already tasty match up. After displaying supreme take down defense, Chuck drove the Huntington Beach Bad Boy back to the fence and battered him till he dropped.
Fighters Only’s principal photographer Eric Williams on shooting Chuck, Randy and Wanderlei.
“Chuck is the person who brought me into the sport, he was the first fighter I ever met. We have become very, very good friends over the years. When Randy and I met, we had this instant respect for each other. Whenever we see each other it’s like two old friends getting together. Wanderlei and I have become really tight, I wanted to work with him so bad, it probably took me about eight or nine months to get hold of him because he was still making that transition to the United States.
“As good as friends as Chuck and Randy are, it was the first time he had been to Randy’s gym. Randy had been inviting Chuck forever, and he just hadn’t gone.
“With Chuck forever texting, Randy, who’s forever the politician, meeting and greeting people, and Wanderlei forever on the phone to Brazil, or the wife or the gym, to get them to co-operate and take direction from me collectively was amazing.
“To bring those three guys together to have a good time and let bygones be bygones, it was amazing. Everybody was excited to do the job, I can’t explain. It was just surreal.
“My assistant called the cover shoot the Mount Rushmore photo of MMA and I agree. I was carving history that day. 15-20 years from now that image will stand the test of time as the first time it was ever done. Anyone else that does it is just copying what Fighters Only did.
“I was truly honored to shoot them together.”