Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Zuffa, LLC via Getty Images
The first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) is credited with many things.
It goes from the monumental like being the sole reason the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is still around today to the smaller like skyrocketing the careers of Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Diego Sanchez and the like.
But Chuck Liddell's massive popularity was also helped along by the inaugural season of TUF. He was already one of the most popular fighters in the company but his exposure over the 12 week season helped propel him to the next level. Soon enough, "The Iceman" became synonymous with the UFC.
The first event after the TUF Finale where Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar unleashed a three round war on an unsuspecting world was UFC 52 which saw Liddell's second bout with fellow TUF couch Randy Couture. They met at UFC 43 and "The Natural" scored the upset, defeating Liddell in the third round.
Griffin/Bonnar whet a potential fanbase's appetite for more mixed martial arts (MMA) action. A week later, fans saw Matt Hughes' incredible comeback victory over Frank Trigg and in the main event, Liddell knock out his old rival to finally win the light heavyweight title. Those potential fans were now hooked.
The 15th season of TUF begins this Friday (Mar. 9) with coaches Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber. After tweaking with the show's formula over the past seven years, a major overhaul is in store this season. The fights will be presented live for the first time in the program's history, adding even more tension to the reality show proceedings.
To commemorate the premiere, let's take a look at the bout, one of the biggest highlights in Liddell's storied career.
They touched gloves and immediately Couture takes the center of the Octagon, inching forward ever so slightly while LIddell circles around the perimeter. A right from "The Iceman" misses its mark as does the counter Couture throws his opponent's way. "The Natural" had the element of surprise in their first meeting, using his stand-up to batter Liddell since he -- and everyone else -- thought the former heavyweight champion would look to take the fight to the ground as soon as possible.
"The Natural" wouldn't have the luxury the second time around.
Couture ducks under a left hand and looks to clinch up with his opponent. A long-time practitioner of the dirty boxing style, once "The Natural" gets his hands on an opponent, he'll soon start wearing them down. Liddell immediately backs up and circles away, sticking a jab in Couture's face the entire time. "Captain America" continues to pressure his opponent, however. Staying in the center of the cage while Liddell circles around, Couture is definitely the aggressor in the opening minute of the bout, something which will eventually led to his downfall.
"The Iceman" lands an inside leg kick but can't follow up with the ensuing punch combination. Couture answers back with a jab that connects on Liddell's chin and looks to move in closer. Just like he did previously, Liddell backs up and circles out, throwing out a looping left hand to keep his opponent at bay. Liddell lands a couple of good counter punches including a jab that pops Couture right in the nose. "The Iceman" seems more comfortable in attacking off of his opponent's offense, countering anything "The Natural" throws his away. In a weird reversal, it's Liddell who is picking his shots and chipping away at Couture while "Captain America" throws huge, potentially fight ending bombs.
Couture lands a grazing hook and follows it up with a leg kick. Another hook finds its mark even better than the first and the crowd lights up. Liddell retreats but the champion is in hot pursuit. He finally grabs ahold of the challenger and begins to unload with uppercuts while pulling Liddell's head down. "The Iceman" struggles to break free and finally does but an errant finger has caught Couture in the eye.
Immediately, memories of his UFC 46 with Vitor Belfort come flooding into the minds of everyone watching. The Brazilian's glove caught Couture's eyelid, slicing it open and forcing an end to the bout only seconds into the main event.
The fight is temporarily halted so the medical staff can take a look at the champion. The crowd erupts when the doctor leaves the Octagon. The fight is back on.
The two fighters meet in the center of the cage and for the next 10 seconds, begin exchanging wildly. An overhand right from Couture gets countered and the champ takes a fistful of leather on the chin. He circles around and begins walking Liddell down, throwing lefts and rights with his chin sticking straight up.
It's impossible to know what Couture was thinking at that moment. Perhaps he thought he saw a hole in his opponent's gameplan he could exploit. Perhaps the counter punch he had just taken rocked him enough to warrant leaving his comfort zone to get a takedown.
What we do know is that a huge right from Liddell buries itself in Couture's jaw, dropping "The Natural" to the mat and ending the fight. It was right then, right there that Liddell became the most popular MMA fighter on the planet.
Will either Cruz or Faber experience anything close to this after their stint on TUF?