In 30 for 30’s Chuck & Tito, director Micah Brown tells the story of the epic rivalry that in many ways created the modern UFC. It’s a great way to relive probably the only good part of the aughts. There are so many angles to the Chuck Liddell-Tito Ortiz story — the former friends turned enemies, the way they changed MMA, the way the UFC promotion machine changed their friendship, the toll the fight game takes on the body — that I was dying to talk to Chuck and Tito about it.
Fighters can be unreliable narrators though. MMA writer Ben Fowlkes has called fighting “sports without the metaphor,” and in the same way, asking fighters for introspection can be an exercise in futility, if not redundancy. Their struggles are largely externalized, by design. They’re doers, not debaters. And anyway, how much can anyone really understand their own persona?
If you want to understand the story, sometimes it helps to go to the person who told it. And so to find out all the things I wanted to know that the documentary didn’t answer — how much control did Dana White have on the production (is he “controlling the narrative,” as Tito says)? Why didn’t we get Jenna Jameson’s side of the story? What’s it going to take for Chuck to finally say he’s retired? — I sat down with Micah Brown, director of Chuck & Tito.
Brown is an athlete himself, a former track star and walk-on football player at Kansas before he got into filmmaking, so he has a least a little natural insight into jocks. Still he wondered, why is it so hard for fighters to walk away?
Were you an MMA fan before this?
I was a fan of the sport. When I was in high school I’d go to Blockbuster video and I’d see it sitting back there and one of my friends would rent one and we just watched and see who got beat up. But we didn’t really follow the sport, it was just like, “Yeah, let’s go grab this random box off the counter here and check out this video and watch these guys beat each other.”
And then in college I remember watching Chuck and Tito fight and being like, “Wow, these guys are pretty awesome.” And after that, I think I watched the Chuck and Rampage fight. I remember getting that one and cheering for Chuck and he got knocked out and I was devastated, I was so bummed. I would say I wasn’t a huge fan of the sport, but I knew of Chuck and Tito, and those guys were always the two people in my mind that put the sport on the map.
I was a big Chuck Liddell fan myself and I was always rooting for him in these big fights. But knowing now that Dana was Chuck’s manager, do you ever go back and wonder how much being a fan of Chuck and wanting him to win was something that came from yourself and how much was a narrative that was crafted by Dana?
I mean, yeah, it’s kind of weird retrospectively. Because, at the time when I was fan of a Chuck Liddell, I never really thought about the marketing, I was just kind of just consuming. I’d just see Chuck Liddell in Entourage. I see Chuck Liddell on the Simpsons. I see Chuck Liddell in all of these things and you see him in commercials smashing his head in with a boulder or whatever he’s doing, and you’re just like, “This guy looks freaking cool.” You know?
I mean, if you could close your eyes and picture an action hero, it’d be Chuck Liddell, right? And then who was the guy he was punching in the head? It was Tito. I didn’t really think about the fact that there was a deeper relationship there.
In the movie, there’s that story where Dana is talking about making Chuck choke out the hotel bouncer because he was talking trash on UFC fighters. There had to be more crazy stuff you heard about, like Tank Abbott and Don Frye and Japan in the early days of MMA.
Oh yeah, there were so many crazy stories. I mean, unfortunately, when you only have 75 TV minutes you can’t include them all, but one of my favorites was talking to Rashad Evans. Rashad told this story about when he was about to fight Chuck Liddell. He went downstairs and he got really nervous after the weigh-in and he started having a little panic attack, and Randy Couture was staying the floor below him. So he went downstairs and he fell on Randy’s bed and he just said, “Randy, I’m scared. I don’t know what I’m going to do. He’s going to knock my face in.” And Randy Couture said, “You know, you just need to relax and just accept the fact, make peace with it, he might knock you out.” And Rashad’s like, “What? That’s the worst advice I’ve ever heard.” But then he kind of realized that, you know what? Yeah, he’s going to wake up and he’s going to be fine, and that’s the only way that you can go in and fight a guy like Chuck. (Editor’s note: Rashad ending up knocking Chuck out cold with a right cross, arguably the worst knockout Chuck ever took)
That story I think is actually going to come out on ESPN+. We’re releasing a bunch of bonus content with some of these types of stories. Same thing about the story of (trainer John) Hackleman meeting Chuck for the first time, which is pretty epic.
So how did you come on board with the project?
I actually pitched the project to ESPN Films. I was trying to do an idea centered around fighters and why they fight and get inside that mindset of, why is it that all these guys ended up ending their careers the same way? They just fight a little bit too long.
And then all of a sudden Chuck and Tito announced that they’re fighting again. And I’m like, well these are the two guys I used to play on PlayStation, and I started thinking about it and I’m like, man, ESPN needs an MMA story with this new relationship (with the UFC). This is an opportunity for me to do the first 30 for 30 on MMA and it would check a lot of boxes for me. And so I went out and talked to my brother-in-law, Phil Murphy, who works at ESPN as an anchor and he’s involved in MMA. And I said, “Hey Phil, do you know Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz?” And he said, “I don’t, but Brett Okamoto does.” So he got me in touch with Brett and Brett reached out to their managers and from there both the guys responded within five minutes and the next day we pitched ESPN. It had to be the fastest greenlit 30 for 30 ever.
I know that the UFC and ESPN are partners now, but did the UFC have conditions for using all that footage? Do they have any control over the narrative of the film?
You know, whenever you go into a film there’s a lot of people that are chiming in on things. Our own producers, ESPN producers, UFC like you mentioned has a relationship with ESPN and they have the right to license material to whoever they want. ESPN ultimately has final cut of whatever film they paid for. As a director, notes are given to you and sometimes you win those battles, sometimes you lose those battles. I think that this story came out really good and I think it honors both guys, and I know both guys are proud of it.
Are there any battles that you lost that you remember?
Whenever you set out to make a story they always say there’s a movie you shoot and there’s a movie you edit, and you hope the one you edit ends up close to the one that you shot. I think, for me, one of the things I wish we had more time for was to kind of dive into the third fight a little bit more. We actually shot a whole month of content following these guys up to the third fight that I thought was really powerful. But, I mean, we had to balance five storylines. Chuck’s storyline, Tito’s storyline, Dana’s storyline, rise of the UFC and this third fight. It’s a lot to cram into 90 minutes, and some of that third fight stuff had to fall on the floor. That’s just the nature of the business.
I was amazed that Chuck let you film him watching that third fight, or that he would even really want to watch that third fight. That fight’s hard for me to watch, let alone if I was Chuck watching it.
Yeah. We have an uncut version of it, because originally this was going to be kind of like a half followed documentary — kind of like a 24/7 type thing — half historical documentary. We have that cut as a whole scene that’ll come out on ESPN+, and it’s actually really heartbreaking to watch.
It feels like the way that Tito sees it is that he went against the UFC and then the UFC used Chuck to gang up on him, and then now, 15 years or whatever later, Dana and the UFC are using ESPN to still control the narrative. As an outsider, it seems like he might at least the kernel of a point.
I think the story does a better job than most on depicting Tito and how much he meant to the sport. I think that was one of my goals. I’m really proud of the fact that in this one, I think we did a better job of not only explaining who Tito was as a person instead of just the negative sides of his relationship with Dana and the UFC.
As for Dana controlling the content, that’s a question for ESPN. Honestly, I wasn’t involved in those conversations. I know they have a partnership, but ESPN had the final cut. For me as a filmmaker, I think you do your best to preserve the story that you set out to tell, and I feel good about what we ended up with.
Dana ripping on Tito is probably the funniest stuff in the movie and it’s pretty enjoyable. At the same time, do you ever wonder why he still feels the need to bash Tito every chance that he gets?
I think it’s a little bit immature frankly. I think it’s time to grow up and move past that. I think that that chapter’s closed and he’s the president of the company, and I think he could probably definitely be the bigger man. But then again, you know, on the flip side. Tito shouldn’t really be that surprised. It is the fight game and people do talk crap. Hopefully one of them will take the first step in ending that feud.
What is happening with Jenna Jameson — did you try to get her to participate in this?
We did not speak to Jenna. We ended up just leaving that in Tito’s court on what he wanted to say about that narrative. It was not a storyline that we really wanted to chase down and do investigative reporting on. It was more about what it meant to Tito’s career.
In terms of the initial question that you set out to answer about why fighters keep fighting so far after their prime, do you think you got any insight into that?
I think one of the things that I initially thought was like, these guys are just crazy. I think that I proved that not to be true. I think a lot of it that this is really who these guys are, and a lot of it has to do with the things that they’re fighting against. Sometimes, it’s like physically going in the octagon and fighting, they love the physicality of it. But it’s more than that with Chuck. He and Tito kind of had mirrored backgrounds. They both had fatherless homes, and I think that that builds up a lot of aggression. And Tito had this desire to be loved and liked, and that drove a lot of the reason why he wanted to do this. I think Chuck also had that to a different degree, because I think now we’re seeing in Chuck’s life that he hasn’t really adjusted great to life after fighting and he’s still trying to figure out what it is. When the clapping stops, where do these guys go? They’re still trying to figure it out. It’s really hard when people put you on a pedestal and you’re praised and then all those people run away.
It’s hard for us, because we don’t do that. Nobody really claps for you when you get a promotion. It’s a lot of different, transitioning out of that where people treat you like a King and then all of a sudden you’re like, “Where you going to go? Work at Jiffy Lube?”
And even if you used to fight and you’re okay working at Jiffy Lube, you still have to get asked about it every day.
Yeah, exactly. It’s the pressure of expectation. John McCarthy says at the end of the film, “Every fighter fears, it’s what they fear that’s different.” What Tito feared was that people wouldn’t know him, or that he would be irrelevant. And what Chuck feared was sort of the same thing. So, I think it’s almost like this Batman and Joker thing going on, where you hate each other but you need each other. And you probably hate each other because you’re a lot more similar than you’d like to admit.
One of the things that really struck me when I was watching the movie is that both of them, as much as they would say they hate each other, they were always gracious as winners. And that seems different than the classic Tank Abbott example or even Jorge Masvidal when he knocked out Ben Askren. Do you think that that has something to do with Chuck and Tito as personalities, or do you think that that behavior reflects the era of MMA in which it happened?
I think it probably has more to do with Chuck and Tito. It’s all personalities. And so I think with Chuck, they’re sportsmen. I mean, it’s easy to be more gracious when you win. Whenever people lose, it’s a little harder. You very rarely see somebody freak out like some of the people that you mentioned when they win. Normally, it’s a better look and it’s a little bit easier too, when the competition’s done, that’s gone in your favor.
Right, but at the same time, the first era of UFC it seemed like they were kind of shouting to be heard in a way. People didn’t know what this was and they were trying to sell it as this sort of exotic thing and they were trying to be big and brash. And then maybe in the Chuck and Tito era, they were kind of pushing back against the human cockfighting perception, where they were trying to say, “Hey, we can be athletes and professionals too.”
Yeah. I mean, I think at one time Chuck said that five of the UFC’s top fighters had a college degree. So, I think they were trying to break those perceptions that they weren’t like Tank Abbott. They were definitely trying to show that, “Hey, we’re real athletes, we’re real people and it’s not a total sideshow.”
The marketing is what put the UFC on the map but then it was also what killed the UFC. And so then they were kind of stuck in this middle ground where you’re like, “Man, everything that we did to make people watch this kind of screwed us.” It’s that catch-22. And now we’re just looking at it, they don’t even have to do that at all. It’s more just “Watch these athletes.” They’re watching Stylebender do a back flip and kick somebody in the face and you’re like, “Whoa.” It’s crazy.
What was it like talking to Tank Abbott and maybe seeing some of those gnarlier dudes from Huntington Beach?
It was awesome. I wish Tank would have been able to make it in the film a little bit more. We tried a couple different ways to work him in into his section. I snuck him in at the end, which I’m sure for a lot of die-hards were like, “Whoa, it’s fuckin’ Tank Abbott! And he’s skinny now!” It was interesting because you know, his health isn’t very good. He’s got some stroke issues and some other things, but it was fun reminiscing on some of his times and obviously his perception of Tito and their relationship and his time in the UFC. Tank will be the first to tell you he was the original UFC star and he does not shy away from that. Hopefully one day, he’ll get a little bit more time to shine on what he did for the sport.
Is the UFC helping him with his medical costs and that sort of thing? Do you know anything about that?
I mean, I have no idea who’s helping who on whatever. I’m not his insurance agent, but I’ll say that I do, personally, from Micah Brown’s perspective, I would love to see some of these guys taken care of. I don’t know what that looks like because I don’t know what they currently are given, but I do know that it seems like there should be a union of some kind. I don’t think that Chuck Liddell should have to fight at 50.
It’s funny that Jenna and Tito and Dana all hate each other now. It seems like they could come together because they’re all big Trump supporters.
You’d think that they would all like rally behind something, but I don’t know. I didn’t even know that Dana and Jenna were Trump supporters, but I guess I’m not surprised.