To those of us who grew up there, the rivalry between Chuck Liddell (a graduate of Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo) and Tito Ortiz (a former wrestler at Cal State Bakersfield) felt like Central California gossip that somehow slipped into the mainstream consciousness. It seems like everyone I know has at least one apocryphal Chuck Liddell story. Any time I saw anything about them on TV, it gave me this pang of vaguely embarrassed familiarity. “Wait, you guys know about this too?”
Their story officially becomes mainstream canon this week with the release of Chuck & Tito, as part of the 30 for 30 series on ESPN. I don’t think I’m unique in seeing something personal in it. In Jon Ronson’s podcast about the porn industry, a porn director tells Ronson, “you can find any story you want in porn.” The Tito-Chuck trilogy is similar: you can see in it whatever you want. The two fought three times, first in two UFC events in 2004 and 2006, both fights in which Chuck won by knockout, and then again in 2018, an honestly kind of embarrassing match, in which the 43-year-old Ortiz knocked out a clearly slowed, 48-year-old Liddell in the first round.
There’s the Shakespearian angle, of two guys with absent fathers who became training partners, then rivals — literary foils, almost — their conflict ultimately making them both better. There’s the commercial angle, the way both their careers straddled eras in MMA, from the “human cockfighting” days to the current, UFC-on-ESPN era. Tito paints himself as the labor activist (though being a Trump lover, he’d probably use the word “businessman”) unfairly maligned by the UFC when it was literally run by Liddell’s former manager, Dana White, using Chuck to push a contrived storyline to punish Tito for demanding fairer pay. Tito the activist vs. Chuck the company man.
Chuck seems to see it more as the story of personalities. Tito the Phony vs. Chuck the Real Dude. That Chuck is a guy with a mohawk and a Fu Manchu who wouldn’t be caught dead discussing “his brand,” while Tito is a pro-wrestling-loving showboat who looked like a Chicano Simon Phoenix from Demolition Man, gives it an epic quality. They both wear their personae like uniforms, to the point that neither has altered it much in 15 years. Chuck and Tito are somehow exactly the same and perfect opposites, on brand even when they don’t know it (and I suspect Tito is much more aware of it than Chuck is).
When I spoke to them this week, it was yet another study in contrasts. Chuck mostly wants to talk about why Tito is full of it and how he always had Tito’s number, from their very first sparring sessions. Tito mostly wants to talk about how he and Chuck were friends, until Dana White came between them, ganging up on Tito. To hear Tito tell it, even the movie itself is another example of Dana using his power to control the narrative and smear Tito yet again (the UFC and ESPN being business partners these days).
Looking back, I always tuned in basically hoping Chuck would knock Tito’s head off. These days, I do wonder how much of that was my personal preference and how much of that was just the narrative that Dana White and the UFC fed us. Even now, Dana never passes up a chance to call Tito an idiot. Which is oddly still funny even when it seems incredibly petty.
Both Tito and Chuck were perfectly punctual (which in my experience, happens almost never with interviews) and gave me basically as much time as I wanted. In both cases, I got almost entirely unusable audio. Chuck because it sounded like he was driving through a rainstorm and mumbling into a phone under a pillow (driving the kids to soccer practice he said), Tito because he was literally doing roadwork on a bike when he called me. Where Chuck is straightforward to a fault, underselling everything and hard to understand at times, even when it’s not a bad phone connection, Tito is a compelling storyteller who gives great quotes (even while riding a bike!) — many of which have the whiff of bullshit — in his trademark mix of grandiosity, malapropism, and mixed metaphor.
Talking to Chuck, I found myself still wanting him to be strong and forceful and to mumble less, to still be that Central California superhero he once was, embodying our best qualities as we perceived them — the toughest, the most unflappable, the least “phony,” the affable, fight-you-anywhere guy who was a little rough around the edges and probably drank too much but with a heart of gold. The kind of guy you’d meet at a bonfire party, say. I want this even as I realize that it’s partly the weight of these exact kinds of expectations that makes athletes like Chuck sacrifice more of their bodies and minds to the fight game than anyone wants them to.
Talking to Tito, I found myself much more empathetic than I once was. When he says that the sport owes fighters more, that he helped a few realize it, that Dana White did him dirty, it’s hard not to admit that he has a point, regardless of whether you assign any altruism to his motives. When he says repeatedly, over Chuck’s constant objections, that the two were friends, should still be friends, I find myself wishing Chuck would let it go and just say yes, we’re friends. They’ve shared so many life milestones that personal affinity is almost irrelevant. You’re friends because the universe brought you together just so, okay? There comes a time in every rivalry when you wish the combatants would put down the gloves and just hug it out.
Tito on his childhood:
Life was normal until about the age of six. And then my dad went to surgery for a hernia and was put on morphine in the hospital. He got out of the hospital and they only gave him a certain prescription of painkillers and he still was in pain. So my uncle introduced him to heroin and he became addicted. My mom became a user and from the age of 13, I lived in Santa Ana, moved from motel to motel. My family was gang and I realized that that wasn’t the right thing to be doing.
I was always a lonely kid. I was either fishing on the pier or working on the boats and never got much attention from my parents. The only attention I got was from my fellow gang members that I really didn’t like because they were always up to no good. I was a people person. I liked to have conversations, I hung out with an older group.
I walked into wrestling at Huntington High and I asked the coach where’s the wrestling ring at. Wrestling ring? Yeah, like in WWF. He goes no, this is totally different wrestling. It’s college wrestling, it’s Olympic wrestling. I said, “I’m not going to get in trouble for slamming people on his head there am I?”. He went, “Nope.”So I was hooked.
The harder I worked, the more attention I got. I became a D student to a B student to an A student. I graduated with a 3.75 and graduated high school. I was a really good wrestler and the only reason I became a good wrestler is because I dedicated myself to it and I got attention from the wrestlers’ parents. My parents never showed up to any of my wrestling matches. I was just that kid that was dying for attention.
Chuck on training with John Hackleman at The Pit:
I just happened to have that card in my pocket, John Hackleman. I went to his house to go to train. You always start with this warm-up, sparring. I’ve never sparred just hands in my life at this point. John had like 20 pro boxer fights, 60 kickboxing, 200 amateur boxing matches.
We put on boxing gloves and I got my ass handed to me for 19 straight minutes. Then he brought a friend with him and his buddy goes, “Hey guys, I think we should stop.” He got tired of seeing a kid get beat up. I was getting pounded. But he thought I was tough. So I kept going back. It started raining one day after I came up on a motorcycle. “Hey you going to come back tomorrow?” I said, yeah, I’ll be back. “Oh here, take my truck,” and hands me his keys. So he gave me his brand new truck to drive home. I drove back, I started training there all the time. But that was kind of how John did everything out there back then. We meet someone who wanted to train with us, “Oh yeah, come up to the gym,” and it would be like, they’d come up there and get a beating. But he wanted to know you were tough. You want to say you’re tough, you want to train, you want to fight, show us you’re tough, then we’ll teach you how to fight.
Tito on MMA’s toll on the body:
I’ve had eight surgeries. I had four neck surgeries, a lower back surgery, three knee surgeries and I had to reattach the retina to my left eye. I take a licking and I keep on ticking.
In my neck, I’ve had T3, T2, T2, T1, C7 disc replacement. T6, T7 fused. C6, C5 fused. C4 disc replacement. I’ve had L4, L5, S1 fused, my lower back. I’ve had an ACL replaced in my left knee, ACL replaced in my right knee, 50% meniscus taken out of my right knee. And I’ve had a reattached retina. I’ve broken my left hand and that’s about it. And a few concussions.
The concussions I’ve been able to heal and a lot of the technology nowadays that I use helps out with that. I do an altitude simulation machine which is called C Vac and then a do a hyperbaric chamber on the weekend, so I take care of my body. I’m not a big party guy because of my kids.
Chuck on his own surgeries:
Your body takes a beating over the years. I was very lucky. I mean I haven’t had a lot, but I’ve had to have two surgeries just in the last two weeks. And it’s all just wear and tear. Sooner or later you’re gonna have to pay the piper, right? But I was a lucky man, my body held together for me for a long, long time.
Tito on the crazy old days of the UFC: (In the movie, there’s a story about Dana making Chuck choke out a hotel bouncer.)
I’d say there’s a crazy one for sure, it was me and Dana, we were on a press tour in Boston and we were at his mom’s house. She goes, yeah, these punk kids upstairs, they’re always loud at night. They’re just really rude kids. So I walked up and knocked on the door, the kids were watching TV. They were in their 20s. I opened the door and they go, “Holy shit! Tito Ortiz.” I go, “Listen, guys. The lady downstairs, I need you guys to keep it down. I need you guys to respect this girl, please. Unless I have to come back.”
They’re like oh no, no. It’s cool, it’s cool. I left. She never had to carry groceries again. So the most respectful kids in the world and I did that for Dana’s mom. That was the beginning when UFC was first bought. That was when they treated me well. That was when they respected me.
Chuck on the crazy old days of the UFC:
Oh man, asking for crazy stories… crazy stories I can tell… Man, it was a different time. Back then, in the beginning days, all the after-parties, there would just be one big UFC after-party, and all the fighters would be there, everybody. And they’re all a bunch of pains in the asses. Let’s see, there was strip club… I can’t tell that one. Nope, not that one. …I’ll tell you there are so many. Put on the spot. [two full minutes of silence] All the stories I remember are the ones I can’t tell.
Tito on what you don’t see in Chuck & Tito:
In one of our training sessions, yeah, Chuck did drop me. But that wasn’t the first round or the first minute, that’s bullshit. That was a lie. That was him cutting down my character. Him trying to assassinate my character.
That’s how training was. Training was always back and forth. Dana was very prejudiced on my part. Just because I was going to step up and speak against him. I was just doing what he taught me when he was against Bob Meyrowitz. (He’d tell him), if you don’t like it you can leave. Well shit, once you’ve learned that’s the way to do it and it works, why change? He didn’t like it because I held that power. I had so many fans that loved me. And I was just fighting for what I thought I was deserved.
But once again it’s just Dana showing his power to control the narrative. And it’s bullshit because there was a true story that was told here and it completely lost integrity. Well not completely, to a certain extent, but the true story was that me and Chuck Liddell were buddies. Now let’s fast forward this shit 16 years later, Chuck Liddell doesn’t have a job at UFC. He wasn’t going to have that guaranteed pay any more, he got released. As they collect $4.5 billion. And that’s with a B too [when WME-IMG bought the UFC from Zuffa, reportedly for $4 billion]. None of us fighters got any money out of that, (the people) that made this company what it was.
Tito on what got cut out of the movie that he thinks was important:
Chuck Liddell saying “What about me? Now that I’m 48 years old and I still got to fight to pay my bills. What happened to you guys taking care of me?” Or me saying you know what? It wasn’t about me being afraid to fight Chuck. I wasn’t getting paid no money. I want a cut of the pie. I don’t want just a small percentage. Every time I tried to speak out, I was always cut down. Before Dana was our manager, there was another guy named Sol Garcia who was our manager. He’s the one that brought us together. Me and Chuck Liddell were the first Team Punishment and I have a fighter card with me and Chuck Liddell on it saying Team Punishment: Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell.
I understood the business game. I told Chuck, “You’ve got to come up with a clothing company, Ice Man clothing.” He was like, “No, man. All I care about is fucking fighting, that’s it.” And, well, look where it gets him now.
Chuck Liddell on those early sparring matches:
I started training with him because a friend of mine was going with him one time right before he fought Frank Shamrock. My buddy leg-locked him 15 times. So he was like, “Hey, can you help me and show me?” He said “Well, I can bring Chuck down,” and he brought me down. We were supposed to work out two days. Tito says I slept on his couch, I slept on his couch because he didn’t get us a hotel room! His sparring partners, he asked us to sleep on the couch. I didn’t care, I just came down to train. We came down and the first time we sparred, I dropped him with a body shot. I beat him up pretty much on our feet all day together and we came back for night practice. Night practice was wrestling and I beat him up wrestling, I took him down four times. He didn’t take me down at all. He actually went back to his house and he was frustrated because I took him down a bunch. He was upset and we were supposed to go to a different place to spar the next day and he didn’t show up. Or respond.
I was just a bad matchup for him, you know what I mean? And we all knew it. He’s a power muscle wrestler. Like he tries to corner you, and that doesn’t work with me. He is afraid to get hit. I hit really hard. And he couldn’t beat me at a straight wrestling match.
Chuck Liddell on he and Tito’s “friendship.”
Here’s the thing: That stuff about us being close friends? No one said that. I’d be hard-pressed to remember a time he called me on the phone for anything that didn’t have to do with business. When it came downtime for us to fight, he knew he didn’t want to fight me. But he can’t just say, “Oh, me and Chuck, we’re good friends.” When did we become good friends? Tell me one time you called me up and asked me to a barbecue or asked me go to a movie or go out to dinner. It never happened. The friendship was 100% fabricated by Tito.
Tito on his friendship with Chuck:
I just think that at the end of the day, we were really friends and Dana put us against each other because he would make a lot of money out of it. As I said, I had no problem fighting Chuck Liddell, just as long as I was making the money that I thought I deserved. We always had respect for each other. After the fights were over I went to his birthday party when he turned 40. I went to his 40th birthday party and that was where we were supposed to hate each other. We never hated each other, man.
Yeah, he’d try to say that he hates me and he’d listen to Dana. UFC and Dana were the ones that were shuffling the cards. I just had to play the hand that was in front of me. I was the bad boy, I was the bad guy. I had to be the bad guy of the two. And it was what it was. They were able to do the story they wanted to do. They were able to make UFC what it was. They were able to sell for $4.5 billion, Dana was able to make 450 million off the skin of us. And look at Chuck now. It’s sad, you know.
Chuck on Tito holding out for more money:
On the money stuff, he said we were such good friends. If we were such good friends, why didn’t he call me up and say, “Hey Chuck, why don’t we hold out? Let’s hold off. Let’s both get paid.” That’s what I would’ve done with my buddy. I would’ve told him my plan. He never did anything like that. He makes it sound like, if you listen to him, in one of the first interviews he did like that, he made it sound like he took me off the street, taught me how to fight and then I turned on him. Like I was this big turncoat. I’m not a turncoat. We fight for living.
On whether there was a “winner” of the trilogy:
Tito: Was there a winner? Yeah, I think the fans are the winner. The fans get to see what the truth was. And UFC was the winner because they were able to make the money off of us. Off our blood, sweat and tears and our relationship. You know our relationship will never be the same.
Chuck: I mean, me. I destroyed him twice in his prime. I wish things were different the last time it happened, but my body– it felt good, but it just wasn’t working anymore. So, what can you do? It’s all good.