Last time out we launched Ultimate Rivalries by taking a look back at the heated rivalry that erupted between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock during the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and for our latest instalment we are taking a look back at a rivalry that was born purely out of competition – the three-fight series between ‘The Iceman’ Chuck Liddell and ‘The Natural’ Randy Couture.
These two men were polar opposites inside the Octagon – Liddell was a knockout artist with dynamite in his fists, while Couture was a no-nonsense wrestler who would grind you down, beat you up and break your spirit. It was the ultimate clash of styles that produced history-making moments and help the UFC continue its growth from underground pariah to mainstream sports sensation.
Roots Of A Rivalry
A stand-out amateur wrestler, Randy Couture entered the world of mixed martial arts back May 1997 and quickly established himself as the UFC’s top heavyweight by winning his first four fights and becoming the champion in that weight class. A three-year exile followed as he fought elsewhere, but Couture returned to the promotion in late 2000 and quickly picked up from where he had left off by regaining the heavyweight belt and making a couple of successful defences. Back-to-back defeats in 2002 would spell the end for his time in the bigger weight class though, and many felt the September 2002 loss to Ricco Rodriguez should have sent him into retirement.
While Couture was coming to terms with the end of his days as the premier heavyweight fighter in the UFC, the company’s light-heavyweight division was in disarray. Chuck Liddell’s seven-fight win streak had made him the number one contender to champion Tito Ortiz, and fight fans were salivating at the prospect of the two men going head-to-head to determine who was the number one fighter in the weight class. There was one major problem though – Ortiz was refusing to defend the belt. Money, injuries, a friendship with Liddell… Ortiz seemingly used every excuse in the book not to share the Octagon with ‘The Iceman’ and that left UFC with a massive headache at a time where the company was really building up some momentum.
The UFC ultimately (pardon the pun) made a decision – an interim light-heavyweight title fight would take place at UFC 43 and all they needed was an opponent for Liddell. Surprisingly they turned to Couture and the rest, as they say, was history.
While Couture went into the bout on a two-fight losing sequence, Liddell was a fighter in superb form having won 10 straight fights to establish himself as the number one contender to the light-heavyweight crown. His most recent outing ended in a spectacular head-kick knockout of Renato ‘Babalu’ Sobral in the first round and he was widely expected to take out an ‘over-the-hill’ Couture in equally brutal fashion. Whoever expected that outcome was wrong… very wrong!
Liddell was known for having excellent takedown defence, but up until this point he had not fought a man with the wrestling chops that Couture had and he learned that one minute into the first round when ‘The Natural’ picked him up and slammed him down to the mat. Liddell quickly got back to his feet, but the momentum was already on Couture’s side and he enjoyed the better of the stand-up exchanges before driving through another takedown, after Liddell missed with a wild right hand, to ensure he took the first round on the scorecards.
Liddell’s frustration was there for all to see at the end of the first round and his mood hardly improved in the second as Couture continued to get the better of the stand-up exchanges – something nobody expected to see prior to the contest – and then dropped his opponent on the mat with a beautifully timed sweep, and in the third it was ‘game over’ as the former heavyweight champion completed a masterful job in his debut at his new weight class. He out-struck Liddell, slammed him to the canvas, quickly transitioned into mount and rained down bombs until John McCarthy stepped in, waved off the contest and made Couture the first two-weight champion in the history of the UFC.
Icing A Rivalry
It would be almost two years before the two men would meet for a second time, but it was almost inevitable that we would see Couture-Liddell 2 and it was no surprise when it was announced as the main event of UFC 52, with the two men coaching on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ television show to increase interest in an already mouth-watering contest. That series produced the legendary Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar fight that led to an explosion in popularity for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and one week later the company smashed pay-per-view and ticket sales records as fight fans clamoured for the light-heavyweight title fight between two of the sports’ biggest stars. Now it was up to the two fighters to deliver on the biggest stage. Would Liddell prove he was speaking the truth when he underestimated Couture the first time around, or would the defending champion produce another dominant display to prove that first encounter had been no fluke?
We got our answer in the first round, but not without some controversy. Referee John McCarthy stepped in after Couture was poked in the eye during an exchange and when the fight resumed he made a critical mistake by charging after the challenger. Liddell backpedalled to stay out of range and landed a right-hook that sent Couture crashing to the canvas, forcing McCarthy to step in as the challenger made sure. Liddell was the new light-heavyweight champion of the world and there was only one word on the lips of everybody after that fight – ‘Trilogy’.
The fans were not made to wait too long for it. Both men picked up victories on the UFC 54 card and the trilogy bout was swiftly scheduled to be the main event of UFC 57 – an event that once again broke PPV and gate records for the company. Couture claimed the eye poke in the previous fight had cause him to be angry and reckless, gifting the fight to Liddell, but the champion begged to differ and insisted the result would be the same here. ‘The Iceman’ was right. The finish came early in the second round when Couture appeared to slip while throwing a left hook, presenting Liddell with the opportunity to land a straight right that sent the challenger to the mat. Liddell followed up with a few more strikes for good measure, but by that point the fight – and the rivalry – was over.
Couture, who was now 42 years of age, announced his retirement following the fight (a decision that lasted all of one year), while Liddell went on to successfully defend the light-heavyweight title two more times before being knockout out by Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson. Liddell was never the same after that night, losing four of his next five fights before calling time on his career, and while the ending of his career was hardly the stuff of fairytale, nobody would ever forget the incredible Couture-Liddell Trilogy that helped catapult the UFC and mixed martial arts into the mainstream.