If you've ever been one of the swine fortunate enough to feast upon the great modern orator Ric Flair's innumerable pearls of wisdom, you're likely aware of the immutable law that stands as the central pillar of his philosophy.
In a world marinating in the noxious mud soup of post-postmodern ambiguity, it's a reassuringly simple proposition. One can't lay claim to a pro wrestling championship belt until one has first pried it from the champion's grasp, like a post apocalyptic ATF agent pulling a Heckler and Koch HK416 out of Charlton Heston's cold, dead, zombified hands.
But once you have the belt? Then you, my friend, are the top dog in the promotion (or at least that's how it used to be when I still watched pro wrestling, at any rate).
However, as is usually the case, things aren't as black and white when it comes to mixed martial arts (MMA). In MMA we have numerous weight classes, which means merely capturing a title alone isn't enough to confer the status of "The Man" upon a champion in the world's leading fight promotion, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
In order to become the star around which the UFC promotional solar system orbits, it takes a rarely occurring admixture of talent, charisma, hard work, timing, luck, and that indefinable X-factor the biggest names in combat sports have all possessed dating back to the days of Jack Johnson.
In the modern UFC -- which for our purposes we'll date from the premiere of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) on Spike TV back on the evening of Monday, Jan. 17, 2005 -- the first fighter to be elected "The Man" by the company's new audience was light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell.
For the pro wrestling fans who by and large made up the initial TUF audience thanks to the strength of its lead-in program WWE Raw, Liddell was an easy character to rally behind. Cut from the same no-nonsense, blue-colored cloth of wrestlers like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and the Crusher, the mohawked Liddell was just the sort of tough as nails babyface that has traditionally been a hit with those who like to live vicariously through the fistic exploits of others.
To be honest, it was often difficult to understand what Liddell was saying -- he mumbled like a 3:00 AM drunk who had just stuck a giant dip of marbles in his lower lip -- but fans could rest assured that whatever he was saying, it was probably pretty fucking bad ass.
How could it not be? After all, every time Liddell stepped in the cage all he did was knock fools out with his tire-iron of a right hand.
Circa 2005 and 2006 Liddell was living the life most 15-25 year old males dream about: getting paid mad cash, partying until all hours of the night, bedding gorgeous women, and beating the shit out of anyone foolish enough to step to him.
That is, of course, until the day he started losing.
A first round knockout at the hands of Quinton Jackson at UFC 71? Sure that was shocking, but it was understandable. Liddell fans could console themselves with the age old truism that "everyone gets caught" when it comes to four-ounce gloves. Plus, there was certainly no shame in losing to a fighter as imposing as "Rampage."
But when Liddell turned in a lackluster performance and found himself on the losing end of a split decision against journeyman Keith Jardine at UFC 76? At that point it was all too obvious "The Iceman" had lost whatever magic it was that made him so unstoppable during his peak.
In this respect, Liddell had something in common with his UFC 79 opponent, Wanderlei Silva.
Before the post-TUF boom period that saw UFC take over the number-one slot, the Japanese promotion PRIDE FC was the the epicenter of the MMA world. Although the middleweight Silva wasn't the promotion's ace -- that role fell to longtime undefeated heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko -- he was arguably the most feared man in the sport at the time.
More than just a dominant champion, Silva was "The Axe Murderer" -- a stone-eyed killer with no compunctions about unleashing an ultra-violent maelstrom of punches, knees and soccer kicks on his often outmatched opponents.
But like Liddell, Silva too, got caught slipping virtually overnight. First it was a split decision loss at heavyweight against a much larger Mark Hunt. Eight months later he came out on the wrong end of a unanimous decision against Ricardo Arona.
Then on Sept. 10, 2006, things started to get really bad for Silva. That night he suffered a brutal head kick knockout at the hands of heavyweight sensation Mirko Filipovic. In his next fight, at PRIDE 33, Silva once again parted ways with his consciousness, and lost his middleweight title, thanks to a Dan Henderson right hand.
He may still have been capable of the "I-just-got-done-dismembering-your-family-with-a-lawnmower-blade" pre-fight staredown, but with two consecutive knockout losses, Silva's reputation as an "Axe Murderer" was gone in all but name.
Just months later, on April 8, 2007, PRIDE staged its last show. The promotion had lost its television deal in Japan back in June of 2006, when news broke its parent company had ties to the Japanese mafia. As a result of the ensuing public relations shit-storm, the once massively popular sport died virtually overnight in "the land of the rising sun."
It wasn't long before UFC-parent company ZUFFA stepped in to acquire PRIDE's assets, including the contracts of many of the organization's top fighters.
This chain of events led to the long-awaited dream match between Liddell and Silva on Dec. 29, 2007 at UFC 79. Sure, both men's auras as unbeatable killers had been tarnished by recent losses, but much like if a regular Joe TapOut Shirt was offered the chance to lay pipe with a postmenopausal super model, this was a case of better late than never.
In fact, the fight was so great, it was easy to forget both men's glory days were in the rear view mirror. But that's the thing with old lions: their advanced age may be obvious when they tussle for supremacy with the new kings of the jungle, but when they fight amongst themselves, we're often afforded a glimpse of what made them so feared in their heyday.
In the case of "The Axe Murderer," it was his penchant for wild blitzes that made him such an imposing figure. For "The Iceman," it was his ability to absorb punishment in order to land a devastating countershot that had his opponents psyched out before they even stepped into the cage.
Both attributes were on full display during Liddell and Silva's battle at UFC 79.
Although Liddell got the better of the exchanges and was solidly in control by the end of the third round, the real story of the fight was the hard-nosed refusal to quit and willingness to jump headfirst into the fire both men displayed. In the combat sports world the term "heart" gets thrown around so much, it's become perhaps the most odious cliche in the lexicon, but the determination to sacrifice one's well being in the pursuit of victory we refer to by that cardiac descriptor is, more than anything else, what defined Liddell and Silva during their prime and made them superstars.
After the fight, both men's careers went in wildly divergent directions. Liddell went on to lose his next three fights -- all by knockout or technical knockout -- before coming to grips with the difficult realization he was never going to be "The Iceman" again. He retired from the sport after suffering a knockout loss to Rich Franklin, which came by way of a short right hand the old Chuck Liddell would have eaten like a maguro roll.
For his part, Silva went on to enjoy something of a career resurgence. Although he never came close to regaining his PRIDE form -- in fact he's a mere 4-5 in UFC -- Silva still fights to this day and has amassed a few victories over respectable names such as Brian Stann and Cung Le. Win or lose, UFC fans love Silva and give him a reception worthy of an icon whenever he fights, thanks in large part to the effort he put on against Liddell at UFC 79 and his reputation as a killer back in his PRIDE heyday.
For all the legendary status the fight has acquired over the years, it's sometimes easy to forget that Liddell vs. Silva wasn't the main event that night in the Mandalay Bay. That distinction belonged the rubber match between longtime welterweight champion Matt Hughes and recently dethroned champ Georges St-Pierre.
Although the bout was only an interim title match, it represented an epochal turning point both for UFC's welterweight division, as well as for the promotion in general.
While Hughes was never "The Man" fans elected to be the face of the company the way Liddell was, his place as a cornerstone of UFC was well established. Hughes won the welterweight championship in a bout against Carlos Newton at UFC 34 in Nov. 2001 and minus a single hiccup that saw him lose the belt to B.J. Penn at UFC 46, the country boy from small town Illinois remained champion until Sept. 2006.
The man to take the title from him? None other than popular up-and-comer Georges St-Pierre. Unfortunately for "GSP," he wouldn't hold the title long. In his first attempted defense of the title, he lost via first round technical knockout to huge underdog Matt Serra.
Serra and Hughes were set to face each other for the title at UFC 79 after coaching season five of TUF opposite one another, but a herniated disc in Serra's back forced him to pull out of the bout. Instead St-Pierre took his place against Hughes on a month's notice, for what the UFC billed as an interim welterweight title fight.
When St-Pierre and Hughes first met at UFC 50, then 23 year-old "GSP" put on an impressive performance, but he wasn't up to the task of outfoxing the seasoned veteran Hughes. Late in the opening frame, Hughes scored a takedown and with just seconds to go in the round, slapped on an armbar that had the French-Canadian tapping almost instantaneously.
When he won the title from Hughes at UFC 65, his progress as a mixed martial artist was on full display. He was able to keep from getting taken down and outworked Hughes on the feet, leading to a beautiful second-round headkick that set up the finish.
Momentum was certainly on the young buck's side heading into UFC 79, but what made the beatdown he laid on Hughes that night inside Mandalay Bay resound with a poetic irony worthy of the Iliad or Beowulf was how he beat him.
Not only did St-Pierre control the stand-up, but this time around he employed a classic Matt Hughes strategy and took the once-dominant champ down at will. Once there, he battered him with spirit-crushing ground and pound before, in the second round, slapping on an armbar for the submission victory.
Not only did St-Pierre beat Hughes at his own game, he beat him with the very same move Hughes used to win their first encounter.
While "GSP" was already one of the biggest stars in the business at this point, his solid trouncing of Hughes at UFC 79 announced to the world that a new era was dawning in the world's de facto number one MMA promotion. Not only was he on his way to becoming the face of the company, but the old guard represented by Liddell and Hughes had clearly been supplanted by an up-and-coming generation of fighters.
St-Pierre would go on to unify the belts by destroying Serra at UFC 83, unequivocally proving he was on a different level than the scrappy New Yorker who beat him in perhaps the greatest upset in UFC history. From there it wasn't long until "Rush" was the promotion's number two pay per view (PPV) attraction, behind only former WWE star and then-reigning UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar.
However, while Lesnar may have been the bigger draw, many fans were buying his fights hoping to see the philistine pro wrestler get his ass handed to him by what they considered a "real" mixed martial artist. If one looks at who the most popular fighter was in the UFC during best period of business the company has done, the title of "The Man" rests on St-Pierre.
Which brings us back to Rick Flair's Law.
Much like with pro wrestling, a fighter normally needs to beat the current man in order to become the man in fan's eyes. UFC 79 was an exception to that rule, however, where the title of top dog in the promotion was symbolically passed from Liddell to St-Pierre.
Seven years later, he's still "The Man" in UFC, but one wonders for how much longer? At 32 years old St-Pierre is just one year shy of Hughes' age at UFC 79 and over recent months there have been rumblings of his impending retirement.
Whatever the case may be, the next "Man" to take his place will have some mighty big shoes to fill.