Written by: Julian McLeod

There is something about a sports rivalry that just captivates people. It is very entertaining to watch the tension build up to the match date.  This weekend, former training partners Rashad Evans and Jon Jones will fight for the UFC light-heavyweight championship. From all angles, this main event could arguably be the defining fight to really kick off the FOX era in the UFC. There are some media outlets that already have Jon Jones pegged as being en route to becoming the greatest of all time, though it can be argued that that title is currently held by the former light-heavyweight Chuck Liddell.

The rise of “the Iceman” Liddell can be traced back to his brutal knockout of Vernon White, but it was his feud with Tito Ortiz that really shone a spotlight on his career. What was said between the fighters and what had gone on behind the scenes set the stage for one of the most memorable light-heavyweight collisions, and the fight is still widely considered as one of the most anticipated grudge matches in UFC history.

It was a sobering 2002 for Tito Ortiz, the “Huntington Beach bad boy”. Before his match against Liddell, he was the face of the UFC and a dominant champion. During his championship reign, Ortiz dispatched several tough competitors like Evan Tanner, Yuki Kondo and Vladimir Matyushenko. He had also reached new heights in popularity due to his rivalry with UFC 1 veteran Ken Shamrock.

At UFC 40, in the first of three battles, Ortiz dominated Shamrock, forcing a corner stoppage. Before Ortiz could even get his breath back, Joe Rogan wanted to know about his thoughts on the seemingly inevitable title fight against Chuck Liddell. The response from the champion wasn’t well received, as he told the viewers that he and Chuck had agreed not to fight each other because they were good friends and, more controversially, weren’t being paid what they deserved. For fans and UFC officials, it didn’t matter whether Ortiz was trying to garner leverage in his contract negotiations, genuinely reluctant to fight his friend and training partner, or simply delaying a fight against his most dangerous opponent: he was denying the top contender his fight and the UFC a marquee title bout.

This dispute would exile Ortiz from the UFC for a short while, which effectively gave Randy Couture the space to shine. During Ortiz’s absence, Couture defeated Chuck Liddell and took the interim champion in an upset for the ages. When Ortiz returned, he was unable to influence the unexpected ascendancy of Randy Couture. This development would make the long-awaited fight between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz a non-title bout.

In contrast to Ortiz, who was very much playing into his role as a charismatic and controversial star, Chuck Liddell let his fighting ability do most of the talking. He went toe-to-toe with Vitor Belfort, and completely crushed Renato “Babalu” Sobral on the same card that Ortiz both defeated Shamrock and denied him a title shot. Fortunately for Liddell, his fighting style and his overall persona had endeared him to the fans of the UFC, and Zuffa was putting their full marketing muscle behind him. At UFC 43, Liddell found himself in an interim light-heavyweight title match against Randy Couture, which turned out to be a humbling night for “the Iceman”. A few months later at the Pride Grand Prix, Liddell was stopped for the second time in his career, this time by Quinton Jackson. Though it looked like Liddell was losing his place in MMA, he would soon return to the United States with a new focus. Liddell’s target for his UFC return was Tito Ortiz. The negoitions for the fight must have been long and arduous, but on April 2nd, 2004, the grudge match was set and for the eager fight fans–and it was worth the wait.

There was a lot of debate amongst fans and media alike about how much Liddell and Ortiz, who had trained together, would know about each other’s training regements and skill set. Could Ortiz get the fight to the ground and build on Randy Couture’s gameplan or would Liddell’s striking be too punishing to deal with? There was definitely bad blood between the two with Liddell accusing Ortiz of ducking him and that they were never friends. The slogan of ‘it’s on’ set the mood for the evening. The night saw Nick Diaz taunt Robbie Lawler relentlessly until finishing the fight with a stiff jab, Andrei Arlovski showcase his punching power against Wesley Correira and Chris Lytle pull off an impressive submission in the co-main event. The undercard had the crowd charged up for the main event.

The crowd is loud and raucous as the two fighters meet in the middle of the octagon. The fight begins tense as both Liddell and Ortiz feel each other out in the first minute of the opening round. Liddell throws out a few punches, followed by Ortiz half-committing to a takedown. As the first few minutes tick away, it is clear what each fighters’ intentions are. Liddell keeps to the outside, reaching in with shots, but the pro Ortiz crowd appears to be giving “the Huntington beach bad boy” some confidence as he goes for a takedown and manages to land a few strikes of his own. Most of the first round is a little tepid until the final seconds, when Liddell launches in with a flurry, and McCarthy steps in between them to end the round.

As the second round revs up, Liddell takes the centre of the octagon and pushes forward. He catches Ortiz with a short hook that stuns Ortiz and backs him up against the cage. Liddell follows up with a unstoppable flurry that drops Ortiz. It’s not long before the fight is stopped in a brutal fashion.

Compared to some of the knock-down, drag out wars people fondly reminisce about, the first Liddell/Ortiz encounter might have been considered tame, but it was the drama surrounding the fight that made people more emotionally invested. If the UFC harnessed the Jones/Evans feud in the same way, it will show in their bank statements. The biggest thing we can take away from UFC 47 is that despite the fact that they did train together, both fighters were extremely wary of each other. Jon Jones and Rashad Evans aren’t relying on what they did in training two years ago, and when the door closes in the octagon, it will be the fighter with the better athletic ability and gameplan that will come out on top.

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