As an ultimate fighter, Chuck Liddell pummels guys for a living.
He kicks them in the head, knees them in the ribs and — if the need arises — punches them repeatedly, until their faces become bloody, swollen messes.
But he wants you to know that he's not a lunkhead.
"People assume if you're a fighter, you're mean and you've got a screw loose — that you're liable to snap at any second," Liddell said. "But for the most part, that's not true."
As his new autobiography reveals, Liddell is a chess player with a sensitive side, a Cal Poly grad with an accounting degree who paints his toenails pink just because he can.
Still, you're much less likely to find Liddell at a chessboard than in a gym sparring for his next big fight. He's The Iceman, after all — the San Luis Obispo resident whose mohawk haircut and staggering right hooks have made him the face of Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts organization that now surpasses boxing in popularity.
For 19 months in 2005 and 2006, Liddell was the UFC's light heavyweight champ, a gritty fighter known for his brawling style. Even after consecutive defeats to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Keith Jardine cost him the title, he was still a fan favorite who couldn't wait for the next throwdown.
"I really like fighting," Liddell said, sitting among the weight machines at SLO Kickboxing, the gym he purchased with buddy Scott Adams in 1999. "It's my reward for three and a half months of training."After two straight defeats, though, fans wondered if the 38-year-old Iceman was washed up. Then, in a Dec. 29 pay-per-view bout in Las Vegas, Liddell won a career-revitalizing fight against Brazilian Wanderlei Silva, putting him on track to regaining his championship.
First, however, he'll sign books. This week sees the release of Liddell's autobiography, "Iceman: My Fighting Life" (Dutton, $25.95), written with ESPN The Magazine's Deputy Editor Chad Millman.
The book summarizes his big fights and offers insight into Liddell's personal life--from his childhood in Santa Barbara to his ascent to fighting stardom — with all its money, fame and sex. Liddell also lends insight on the near collapse and comeback of the UFC, once labeled "human cockfighting" by Sen. John McCain.
Fighting in his blood
Liddell was one of four kids raised by a single mother. His father — Liddell calls him "the sperm donor" — abandoned the family when Liddell was 3. But, he insists, his father's absence isn't what inspired him to fight.
"People who don't know me, who try to tell my story, like to think that I fight because of some deeply hidden anger because my father wasn't around," he writes in his book. "Sorry to disappoint, but that's not the case, although he gave me — and my family — plenty of reasons to be mad."
He credits his grandfather, Charles Liddell, with teaching him to throw a punch and says his mother coached him as well.
At 12, Liddell took his first karate class. Later he played football at Cal Poly and wrestled.
But fighting was in his blood. At 6 feet 2 inches and 205 pounds, Liddell had a boxer's frame. Pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks up a hill for training made him stronger. And his trademark mohawk — acquired before a Slayer concert in 1992 — gave him an unquestionably badass look. (Ironically, a tattoo on his bare scalp reads "House of Peace and Prosperity" in Japanese.)
Still, early in his UFC career, Liddell was a no-name, earning just $1,000 per fight. He could hold his own sparring against then-champ Tito Ortiz. Yet a few early technical knockouts kept him from achieving star status.
Liddell's career, though, is marked by comebacks.
He defeated Ortiz in 2004, and then won the light heavyweight title a year later by avenging an earlier loss to Randy Couture, the current UFC heavyweight champ.
With that 2005 victory — plus a Spike TV reality show, "The Ultimate Fighter," in which he co-starred with Couture — Liddell became a household name.
"Here's what happens when you win a big fight," Liddell writes. "Girls flock to you."
He doesn't offer many salacious details, but after one fight, he reveals, he was in a hotel room with five naked women.
"I've never really had a problem with women," said Liddell, who now has a steady girlfriend. "But it is a different thing when you're on TV. And girls like fighters. They like tough guys."
He's frequently stopped for autographs and photos. Men often ask Liddell to hit them just to say they were punched by the champ.
"We had a guy that had to be escorted out of a party because he wouldn't leave me alone," Liddell told The Tribune. "He wanted me to punch him in the face."
As his popularity grew — celebrities such as George Clooney, Adam Sandler and Mandy Moore attended his fights — Liddell kept his cool. In fact, that's how he got his nickname. Early on, trainer John Hackleman noticed how eerily calm Liddell appeared before fights, an iceman.
What seemed unnatural to his trainer was second nature to Liddell.
"The week of the fight, there's nothing left to do," he said. "You can't train any harder, you can't learn anything else, there's nothing to stress about, really. You just go out and perform. Stressing about it is just going to make you per-form worse."
Despite his intimidating image, tough-guy reputation and the gladiator roar he lets out after winning a fight, Liddell appears friendly and modest in person, his raspy voice difficult to hear over fighters working out nearby.
He's not flashy like some of his peers. He doesn't showboat or talk a lot. And his physique, he even admits, isn't as rock-solid as some of the guys he's taken down. Sometimes he enters the ring looking a little soft around the middle.
Yet he wins fights and, in the process, many fans. He's made guest appearances on the HBO series "Entourage" and "The Late Show with David Letterman." He occasionally pops up in movies, such as "Knocked Up" and "Superbad." He appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine with one of his two children. His house has been filmed for MTV's "Cribs," and he has a merchandise line for hats and T-shirts.
Liddell thinks his popularity is straightforward: "A lot of it is the way I fight — my style of fighting," he said. "I think they just like somebody who goes out there and fights."
When Liddell dramatically avenged three of his previous losses, his purses increased significantly-- up to $500,000 per fight. But his run stalled last May when Jackson caught him with a hard right hook. Jackson, the current light heavyweight champ, beat Liddell a second time with a first-round TKO.
"The first (fight) I was hurt," Liddell said. "The second time I just got caught. I made a mistake."
Liddell suffered another setback four months later when he lost a decision to Jardine.
Just when it seemed he was washed up, he won a unanimous decision over Silva, who had pummeled Jackson in two previous knockouts. (The book went to print before the Silva fight, so it's not included.) At the end of the three-round match, Liddell left Silva bloodied and beaten, outmatched in a toe-to-toe slugfest that lived up to long expectations.
"Hopefully, it shows I'm back," Liddell said.
His star power still intact, Liddell has received movie offers and would like to go into acting eventually. For now, he's focused on another goal — avenging his losses, starting with Jardine.
"I've got two more guys to fight to get my title back," he said.