By Thomas Gerbasi
One was perhaps the greatest light heavyweight of all-time, a feared striker who ruled the 205-pound weight class with an iron right hand and in doing so became mixed martial arts’ first crossover superstar. The other was his close friend, a visionary who helped create a brand that is now synonymous with the sport, but who did it not with a ruthless business sense, but with an infectious enthusiasm and an attitude that could light up a room.
On Friday, July 10th, the UFC Hall of Fame inducts its two newest members, former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell and TapouT co-founder Charles “Mask” Lewis.
“I appreciate this gesture and I’m glad that people appreciate what I do and that they think that I deserve this, but I’m just one of the guys that fight out there,” said Liddell, who admitted that this crowning moment of his storied career does come with some bittersweet feelings due to the fact that he won’t be able to share it with his longtime friend Lewis, who was tragically killed in an automobile accident in March. “It’s gonna be a little rough being that it’s Charles and me, but for us to go in together, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The official UFC Hall of Fame ceremony will take place at the UFC Fan Expo on Friday, July 10th at 6:30pm. Liddell and Lewis join Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn, Randy Couture, and Mark Coleman in the UFC Hall of Fame.
Everyone knows who Chuck Liddell is. Camera crews follow him around, flocks of reporters jot down his every word, but remarkably, he remains the same person he’s always been. Sure, the bank account’s bigger, the clubs are nicer, and the trappings of fame more expensive – both literally and figuratively – but of anyone in professional sports today, Liddell has remained true to what got him here in the first place.
“I’ve got a lot of friends that I’ve hung out with for 10-15 years that still hang out with me, and I don’t think they’d let me start acting like a jerk,” he told me in 2006. “They knew me when I was the guy going to college and working behind the bar. Plus I still live in the same small town, and things like that (celebrity) aren’t really that big a deal around here. I think I’m a normal guy, and I try to be as normal as I can.”
That’s rare in a day and age where image and spin is everything. Liddell has the same Mohawk, the same trainer, the same friends, and the same attitude. He has always boiled fighting down to its bare essence. For him, when he stepped into the Octagon, it was a fight – not a chess match, not a clashing of styles or comparison of techniques. He was going to hit you, you were going to try to hit him, and more often than not, you were going to fall down. It was a fight, plain and simple, and no one wanted to win that fight more than him.
“Whether it was shooting pool or anything, I just hated losing. I’ve kind of moved that focus and tried to keep it to my professional life.”
That was bad news for the men he faced in the Octagon. From 2004 to 2007, he went on a tear that not only established him as the game’s unquestioned superstar, but as the most terrifying light heavyweight in the game. Strangely enough though, as Liddell’s fame grew, the respect he received (and still receives) from his peers never waned. Liddell was a true fighter’s fighter, and that’s an accolade you can’t buy or receive from newspaper clippings or television appearances.
“I think the reason people like me is because I’ll fight anybody, anywhere, I don’t talk bad about people that don’t deserve it, and I’m not a guy who’s out there trying to trash talk and make a name for myself,” said Liddell in 2006. “I earned the name that I have – I went out and fought for it.”
And during his reign of terror over the UFC’s 205-pound weight class, he wasn’t beating cupcakes, as his seven fight unbeaten streak over that span included wins over world champions Randy Couture (twice) and Tito Ortiz (twice), as well as respected contenders like Babalu Sobral and Jeremy Horn. What made this run even more spectacular was that he won all of those bouts by knockout, punctuating each with the only outward sign of emotion you would ever see from him, a post-fight scream that became his trademark.
As UFC 100 approaches, the organization celebrates the career of the organization’s newest Hall of Famer. It’s a type of celebration that Liddell would probably do anything to steer clear of, as he was never about the attention, getting pats on the back, magazine covers, or glowing television features. He was always about the fight, and when asked a couple years ago how he would like to be remembered a hundred years from now, his answer wasn’t as terse as it usually was, and it spoke volumes.
“As a fighter,” said Liddell. “As someone who didn’t duck anyone, someone who fought everybody that came up, and that always came out there to fight tough. I love to fight, I love the fight game, and I went out there and performed.”
That he did.
A staunch supporter of mixed martial arts and one of the select few who can rightly claim to be a pioneer in the sport, Charles “Mask” Lewis started the TapouT clothing company with Dan Caldwell (aka Punkass) in 1997, not with a business degree and a marketing plan, but with a true love for a new sport that made an impact on him the first time he saw Royce Gracie win the first UFC tournament in 1993.
“I bought every color Gracie Jiu-Jitsu shirt,” said Lewis. “I don’t think they made it in pink, but if they had, I would have bought that too. (Laughs) It was like my armor when I went out into the world. I bet I could walk on water and the sea would part with this shirt on.”
Soon, Lewis would come up with his own armor – shirts with the logo TapouT on them - and in the process of selling the shirts out of the trunk of his car and at local MMA shows, he helped build a brand that is synonymous with the sport today, one that you can find not only at every fight event, but in your local shopping mall. Needless to say, his perseverance paid off – not only for the company, but for all the fighters it sponsored.
“Our shirt sales were doing two things,” Lewis explained. “It was going to make more shirts for the next show, and the biggest thing, we were paying for our fighters in the show. We had to sell enough shirts to pay our fighters at the end of the night. And sometimes, it might have taken us selling at two shows to pay a fighter from the previous week, but they knew that. I was like ‘this is what we’ve got right here; we’ll give you this now, we’ve got another show next week, I’ll pay you the rest of the money next week, and if you come, we’ll even get you in the show free.’ To me, I’m a fighter. It was as though we were all on the same team. We were going to the same underground shows, and it’s always been that we’ve been in the foxhole fighting together. You don’t lie to the guy in the foxhole sitting next to you.”
Strangely enough, despite TapouT’s emergence as a multi-million dollar company, what people may remember Lewis most for is his unmistakable war paint and outfits that forever branded him as “Mask”.
“I don’t care if you call us the TapouT guys, TapouT crew, TapouT fools, two nerds and a cool guy – you know who we are,” he said. “Mask allows me to give my true opinion at all times. Who cares about Clark Kent? I want Superman. Now that my name has come out and who me and Danny are, it’s okay, but the reason I used to fight it so hard in the beginning is ‘who cares?’ You don’t care about Bruce Wayne, Bruce Banner, Clark Kent – you want the superhero. I hated Spider-Man 3 when Tobey Maguire was going around without his gear on. I was like ‘will you put your damn outfit on?’”
Then he would just laugh, and if you ever heard him let it loose, it was infectious. That’s how his personality was as well, and if you walked away from a conversation with him without liking him, there was something wrong with you.
Tragically, Mask, was killed in an automobile crash on March 11, 2009. Yet while the MMA world misses his presence, it will never forget him, and he will forever be immortalized in the UFC Hall of Fame.
Visit www.UFCFanExpo.com for information.