On the night of July 4, I go driving down the Strip with Ryan McKinnell, of the Web site mmamadness.com, and his friend Dave, who have decided to blaze a little weed and watch the fireworks burst over Treasure Island from the comfort of McKinnell’s black Mustang. McKinnell, a husky guy in his mid-20s, is wearing a black White Sox cap and a Metallica T-shirt. He is upset over the way the crowd booed Rampage. “They’re fucking warriors, man, each and every single one of them,” he says. “They step in a cage, they get locked in it, and they have to look across and know that the person on the other end of that cage wants to hurt them.”
McKinnell discovered mixed martial arts as a kid growing up in South Bend, Indiana, and he loves the sport with a pure passion that only male sports fans in their mid- to late 20s without another major object of affection in their lives can truly understand. Because today’s fighters have grown up in the sport, he explains, it is easier for them to combine the striking blows and defensive tactics of different disciplines without getting caught in between stances.
In a world of millionaire athletes, the closefistedness of the UFC’s owners may paradoxically increase the appeal of the sport—while the overt inequalities of the UFC pay scale provide fodder for outrage on mixed-martial-arts message boards on sites like Sherdog and MMA Weekly. “The second time Babalu fought Chuck Liddell for the title, for the fucking light-heavyweight title, Chuck Liddell made $250,000 with bonuses,” Ryan says, evangelical fervor lighting up his eyes as the fireworks pop out in pinwheels of red, white, blue, and gold in the curved reflective space above the dashboard. “Babalu, I believe, made $16,000. And that made me want to rip my hair out.”
Ryan rubs his eyes. Liddell is a special case, he says, being both the biggest draw in mixed-martial-arts history and Dana White’s favorite fighter. “He was being set up to be the next great fucking poster child,” he remembers of Liddell, who appeared on the cover of ESPN: The Magazine before being knocked out for the second time by Rampage Jackson.
I have a date with Liddell sometime after midnight. With time to kill, I hang out in the Jpop Sushi Bar & Lounge at Mandalay Bay and listen to a Miami Beach refugee celebrate America’s birthday on keyboards. Every 15 minutes, I dial a cell-phone number that someone gave me and leave another message on the Iceman’s voice mail. It is well past midnight when I finally reach him.
“Sure, come on upstairs,” Liddell answers, giving me his room number. I arrive at the room shortly after he does. Out of training for the past few months with a leg injury, he has developed a gut that balloons gently beneath his plain white T-shirt. Otherwise, he is a solid 39-year-old dude who dresses like an aging Huntington Beach punk, in blue jeans and a low-rise SoCal Mohawk. His fiancée is game enough to tolerate a reporter sitting on her couch at one in the morning.
Plenty of people have a stake in the outcome of tomorrow’s fight, and Liddell is one of them: if Griffin wins, the Iceman gets his title shot, provided he can get past his next opponent, a young fighter named Rashard Evans. “I think he’s got a good chance in this fight,” Liddell says, looking wistfully out the window of his one-bedroom suite at the dying embers of the July 4 parties along the Strip. “Styles make fights, man.” Griffin is longer, and in better shape, than Rampage, he continues. “I think he has a lot better shot than the plus-200,” he says, of the most recent betting line on the fight. “Money will go back and forth, but …”
Liddell started learning karate when he was 12, and started fighting for money when he was still in his teens, in Bakersfield and Las Vegas and as far away as Thailand and Brazil. “You’d make a couple hundred bucks for your expenses, pretty much,” he remembers of his early days in the sport. “A punch knockout, you get a bonus of a couple hundred bucks, and a couple hundred bucks more if it was a kick.” From the time he was a kid, Liddell says, he loved to fight. “I always say I never started a fight,” he says, pausing for a moment. “But I never let guys out of them too easy, either. I mean, I made you pretty much crawl out if you wanted to get out.”