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As the combat sports world prepared itself for Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin to run it back at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, two of MMA’s most familiar faces -- Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell -- on Sept. 14 faced off in the first official media event for their trilogy match promoted by Golden Boy MMA. Over 15 at-times excruciating minutes, Golden Boy Chairman and former boxing great Oscar De La Hoya uh’d and ah’d his way through an introduction of the two combatants and their camps, before Ortiz and Liddell made short statements and squared off before the assembled media.
It was a peculiar occasion, made more so by its association with the biggest boxing event of 2018. Whereas Alvarez-Golovkin 2 rematched two of pugilism’s most accomplished stars at the peak of their respective careers, Liddell-Ortiz 3 is a contest on the polar opposite end the spectrum, a fight 10 years past its sell-by date for which no conscientious member of the MMA community was asking. “The Iceman” hasn’t won a fight in more than a decade and was forced into retirement in 2010 after a string of unsettling stoppage losses; and while the self-proclaimed “People’s Champion” experienced something of a career renaissance in the Bellator MMA cage, no one was clamoring for Ortiz to make a (second) return to competition.
What was clear from the press conference is that despite the geriatric nature of the participants -- their combined age is 91 -- they are taking the bout seriously. Liddell almost sounded convincing in his mind-over-matter platitudes and reminded us that he never really wanted to hang up the gloves in the first place. Ortiz, despite his many flaws, has never been lacking in self-confidence and has ostensibly managed to convince himself that he only lost the first two fights with Liddell because the Ultimate Fighting Championship didn’t give him a “fair shake.”
What is less straightforward, and perhaps the most intriguing part of this dog-and-pony show, are the intentions of De La Hoya.
On the one hand, the celebrated puncher-turned-promoter has spoken at length about his desire to improve the pay structure in MMA -- last month he said that what many fighters are compensated makes him “sick to [the] stomach” -- and the 45-year old has a track record in selling big boxing fights that’s almost as impressive as his hall of fame career. He has also put his money where his mouth by reportedly offering to split 60 percent of the fight’s revenue with Ortiz and Liddell; that’s quadruple the percentage the UFC pays out to its fighters.
On the other hand, De La Hoya needed to rely heavily on his notes during the press conference despite the compendiary nature of his statements, and his references to “the MMA” and Chuck “LIE-ddell” have been the cause of more than a few chortles amongst media and fans. These bungles have led many to question whether he know knows anything about MMA and whether his foray into our sport is little more than belated reprisal for the UFC’s role in the Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather Jr. megafight, which De La Hoya decried as a as a “circus” and a “joke.”
We won’t have a resolution to these questions until after it’s all said and done, but how devoted Golden Boy MMA is to building a solid undercard will likely provide a degree of clarity. If De La Hoya goes out there and tries in earnest to sign the sport’s biggest free agents -- among them Eddie Alvarez and Sage Nortcutt -- then that probably speaks to a longer-term investment in the sport. Alternatively, if Gleison Tibau ends up as the biggest name under the headliners, then it’s easier to imagine this as a one-off spectacle that we’ll all have forgotten about come 2019.
Even if they are for all intents and purposes expired goods, it also bears mentioning how fitting it feels that the referendum on the viability of a new model in MMA would involve Liddell and Ortiz. In more ways than one, their respective careers represent contrasting prototypes for success in the MMA business, and that their final -- please, God, don’t let them do this a fourth time -- collision coincides with a major boxing promoter making his foray into MMA seems an appropriate parting shot, albeit one that feels destined to fail spectacularly.
Many forget that before he became something of a punchline in MMA circles, Ortiz was a pioneer in self-promotion and smack talk, and he was one of the first fighters to parlay his star power into financial opportunities outside the cage. As far back as UFC 17.5 in 1998, he was handing out trading cards of himself to fans to build his profile, and the following year, he built a clothing line, Punishment Athletics, that is still motoring along today. He became a blueprint for up-and-coming fighters to build their personal brands and attract sponsors, fighters who keenly understood the intersection of athletics and entertainment. He even made a languid attempt at calling for a fighters union in 2005 -- a precursor to the volatile labor relations that characterize the UFC today -- and was never afraid to shine a spotlight on the more sordid aspects of the business.
In contrast to Ortiz, Liddell’s legacy is as one of the UFC’s most reliable company men, an agreeable champion whose interests always aligned with his promoter and whose reign was intimately tied to the UFC’s rise to global dominance. As long as his checks cleared and the UFC gave him a platform to showcase his skills, Liddell would pretty much do anything that he was asked to, quickly becoming a mascot for the “anyone, anywhere, anytime” ethos for which he was handsomely compensated. This fidelity to the company -- and to the man fronting it -- was also rewarded in 2010, when the UFC hired Liddell for lifetime employment after imploring him to retire. However, after the company was sold to entertainment conglomerate William Morris Endeavor, he was turfed out, along with former welterweight champion Matt Hughes, in a move that perhaps created a financial imperative for his return to the cage.
Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine that three 40-year-olds can back up their promise to put on a “monumental event,” much less one that meaningfully improves the economic status quo for fighters. While aging legends have found success ratings-wise on network TV, the pay-per-view market is a different beast altogether, and if our apprehensions about De La Hoya’s expertise and motivation prove accurate, it’s unlikely we’re talking about Liddell-Ortiz 3 as anything but another chapter in the book of aborted MMA ventures in the near future.
With all that said, however, from a historical perspective, there’s still plenty of substance to the trilogy between the two former champions, and that at least counts for something.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.