Randy Couture had just held one of his best friends in his arms as he died.
In what was supposed to be an exhibition bout, Chuck Liddell faced off against Fedor Emelianenko, an intimidating Russian with superhuman-like abilities in the ring. The Russian's manager, Vadim Finkelstein, had enraged Liddell at the pre-fight press conference, saying that the former UFC champion was a "has been" and had no business being in the same ring as Emelianenko.
Insults aside, Liddell was determined to put on a show for the Las Vegas crowd. Adorned in American flag clothing, complete with Stars and Stripes top hat, and coming out to the funky sounds of James Brown, Liddell bounces and parades to the ring with his entourage.
Fireworks and sexy dancers only added to the spectacle, a stark contrast to the stoic Russians in the opposite corner.
What happened next forever changed mixed martial arts and more importantly, Randy Couture's career. Today in this special edition of History in the Making, we'll take a look at the tragedy that bred a triumph when Couture faced off against Emelianeko in the unforgiving Russian winter.
Follow me after the jump to read the rest of this tall tale:
While Liddell was an aging fighter, he was still a former champion and thus, deserving of some respect in the ring. He faced off against the much bigger Russian and immediately took the upper hand. He landed his trademark hooks, but they didn't faze Emelianenko.
With a minute left in the round, "The Last Emperor" turned the tables on "The Iceman" and began to batter him with a barrage of punches. Lefts, rights, uppercuts -- they all found their brutal marks. Time takes its mercy on Liddell as the first rounded, but the former champion was in dire straits.
Couture, who was cornering his long-time friend and former foe, contemplated throwing in the towel. Another round like that would be devastating for Liddell. "The Iceman" forced "The Natural" to give him his word: He would not throw in the towel.
Reluctantly, Couture agreed.
The second round started just as the first ended. Emelianenko lands at will with Liddell offering no defense. Willa Ford, Liddell's lover, begs Couture from the stands to throw in the towel. "The Natural" momentarily considers it as he raises it in the air, but decides to keep his promise to his friend.
What happened next shook Couture, and America, to its core.
Emelianeko delivers a monsterous hook that connects flush with Liddell's chin and the former UFC light heavyweight champion crumples to the mat. Liddell had been knocked out before, but never quite like this.
Couture and the rest of "The Iceman's" corner leap into the ring to aid a still motionless Liddell. Couture turns to Emelianko, still standing over his fallen opponent and stares daggers into the Russian. "The Last Emperor" simply responds, "If he dies, he dies."
Chuck Liddell lost his life that night doing what he spent most of his life doing. There was a twisted honor about that that helped assuage some of the pain for some but it did no comfort for Couture. He went to Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta and demanded to be allowed to fight Emelianenko. When they refused, he vacated the UFC heavyweight championship and signed on to fight "The Last Emperor" on his home turf, the Soviet Union on Christmas Day.
The fight world was shocked.
Did Couture just give up the one of the most prestigous titles and a lucrative contract to fight half a world away in an enemy country against a man with a confirmed kill? Vengeance oftens makes one act on emotion, rather than logic it would seem.
Couture decided to train in Russia, hoping that the same bitter conditions that fueled Emelianenko would also fuel him. He and his camp holed up in a small cabin and took training back to basic. 5K runs in the snow, pull ups from the roof beams, running up mountains with a log on his back -- this was old school fight training.
Emelianenko, on the other hand, employed the most state of the art training methods available. Dozens of fitness machines were at his disposal, while sensors monitored each and every one of his vital signs. He even received injections of an unidentified substance that many claim to have been anabolic steroids. This was the perk of fighting in an unsanctioned bout, I suppose.
When Dec. 25 finally rolled around, Couture wasn't sure what to expect. What he got was an arena full of Soviets that despised him. They booed and hissed as he made his way to the ring and completely about-faced when Emelianeko walked out. They cheered and cheered their Russian hero until they were hoarse.
With both fighters now in the ring, it was time to settle the score.
Emelianenko immediately takes the offensive and begins to land punch after punch. He backs Couture into the corner and lands several punches to the body. Couture simply can't get inside due to the Russian's longer reach. "The Natural" is able to turn the tide for a moment as he begins to attack the body but Emelianenko quickly takes over again.
A minute left in the round and it feels like we're seeing Liddell/Emelianenko II. Couture is getting battered. He complains that he sees three of Emelianenko. Forrest Griffin, his cornerman, tells his to punch the one in the middle to which Gil Martinez, a training partner of Couture's, agrees. What Couture doesn't need is another round like the first.
Emelianenko continues the onslaught in the second and knocks Couture down several times. "The Natural" refuses to quit, however, and eventually lands a brutal hook that staggers the Russian. He immediately goes on the offensive and pounds Emelianenko in the corner. The bell sounds but the American doesn't care. He lands several more punches and takes "The Last Emperor" down before both camps jump in to separate the two.
"The Last Emperor" has been cut. This causes the fighter, who formerly thought he was invincible, to begin to doubt himself. On the other hand, this revitalizes the American as he realizes that is not taking on a fighting machine, but a man just like any other.
The tide begins to turn.
The Russian continues to land punches but not without Couture answering back. This is no longer the beating we saw in the first round and a half. Couture is giving it just as good as he's getting it. Going into the final rounds, both fighters are a bloody, exhausted mess.
The two fighters exchange punch after punch, neither refusing to relent or give in. So impressive is the American's heart and will that the previously hostile crowd has begun to cheer him. It's an amazing sight to behold.
Heading in the final round, Finkelstein berated Emelianenko, telling him that he must win this fight for his country. Emelianenko, tired of being a puppet, grabs his manager by his neck and tosses his in the crowd. He bellows that if he wins, the victory will be for him and him alone.
The bell sounds and the two meet in the center of the ring.
Emelianenko lands several punches that Couture shrugs off. The American taunts Emelianenko into hitting him again, shockingly enough. Couture ducks out of "The Last Emperor's" next strike and delivers four hooks that stagger the Russian and send him reeling back.
Backed into the corner, Emelianenko fights back.
He delivers one punch, then another before trapping Couture in the corner. "The Natural" eats punch after punch until Emelianenko backs up the center of the ring. The two trade blow for blow until Randy begins to attack the body and dirty box the Russian. His body blows are hurting Emelianenko, you can tell from his face.
Body, body, body, HEAD!
Couture lands a huge hook that rocks the Russian. Another and the another that sends the "The Last Emperor" falling to the mat! Emelianenko is out and the referee is forced to stop the bout. Couture raises his arms in the air and falls to his knees as the crowd cheers on.
Couture, surrounded by previously hostile Russians, is hoisted in the air on their shoulders as they drape an American flag over him. His will and determination has won them over. He is handed a microphone and tells the audience and the world watching at home that both his and their swaying of opinions of one another is proof that we are really all the same.
It is a heartfelt moment that even has members of the Soviet Union government applauding. Coture then wishses his son at home, Ryan, a Merry Christmas and tells him he will be home soon.
Emelianenko was never the same after that. He never stepped foot in a ring again and began making low-budget action movies that were critically panned. Couture didn't fare much better, either. He lost his entire fortune in a real estate scam and was forced to move back into his old neighborhood is south Philadelphia.
But this wasn't about what became of those two men, it's about what those two men did on the snowy December night. They put it all out on the line and captured our imaginations. It helped us remember that if I can change and you can change, everybody can change.