who is the new American fighter? For starters, he resembles Chuck Liddell: With a thick coil of a neck and a close-cropped Mohawk, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) light-heavyweight title-holder looks like a Marine who’d take great delight in clearing a mosh pit. And that Chinese calligraphy tattooed on the side of his head? Obviously his threshold for pain far surpasses that of the average Joe-and Jim, Bill, and Bob combined.

And that’s helpful when you work inside an octagonal cage for a living. As a mixed martial artist (the technical term for Ultimate Fighting Championship competitors), Liddell, aka “The Iceman,” combines fisticuffs, kickboxing, wrestling, and choke holds to either knock out his opponent or force him to “tap out,” indicating a submission. In any other context, of course, this behavior would pass for felonious assault, so being within arm’s length of Liddell for a day imparts a clarifying effect. Here’s a man not only capable of kneeing you in the ribs until you’re coughing blood, but who’d enjoy doing it. Or he could deliver a flying kick to your face that floors you, or land a haymaker with such ferocity that your brain trickles out your nose. Yes, the clarity is unmistakable: You are not a fighter, and Chuck Liddell is.

But then you start talking with Chuck Liddell, and that clarity becomes clouded. You discover he grew up in sunny, sleepy Santa Barbara, Calif., and he has a degree in accounting with a minor in business from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. And then you learn that nearly 80% of the Ultimate Fighters have at least some college education, if not degrees. Many are communications grads, engineers, and computer programmers who come from farms and middle-class suburbs. In that respect, they are just like you. “If I weren’t fighting, I’d be in the business world,” says the 37-year-old Liddell. “I did well in school, was the captain of the wrestling team and the football team, and always got along well with people, so I’m sure I would have gotten a job in the real world. I probably wouldn’t have liked that, though.”

And then it becomes clear that Liddell, like most professional fighters, has made a decision: to reject the life of the suit and the cubicle and revert to the most primal of instincts. And somewhere in the balance, he’s maximizing his youthful exuberance and finding his own sense of manhood.

“There’s nobody in the world I wouldn’t fight,” says Liddell when I ask him the obvious: “What drives you to beat the crap out of another person?” It’s midweek, midafternoon, and we’re the only customers at a shot-and-beer Brooklyn pub called Muggs. Ten days ago, Liddell defended his championship by beating into a bloody pulp the face of Tito Ortiz, another UFC light heavyweight. “Every time I win, I prove something: I’m the best guy in the world at what I do. That’s what excites me.” He drains his Colorado Bulldog (a White Russian with Coke) and adds, “I’ll fight somebody in my backyard for free just to see if I’m better than him.”

Liddell’s sense of purpose parallels that of mixed martial arts itself: Both have much to prove. MMA’s harshest critics claim that the sport, which is currently banned in dozens of states, is neo-primitive and signals the decline of civilization. Even the hawkish John McCain has equated it to “human cockfighting” in the past. Indeed, when 15,000 fans emit synchronized roars each time fist hits face during a floor grapple, one feels merely a few lions and a couple of Christians removed from ancient blood sport.

But the facts-and the sport’s appeal-are undeniable. Since its inception in 1993, MMA has gained traction, especially since the Fertitta Brothers (Las Vegas casino owners) purchased the UFC brand in 2001 and instituted “rules” (biting, fish-hooking, orifice gouging, and, oddly enough, cursing have been banned) to win the approval of various state athletic commissions. On top of that success, a weekly reality show on Spike TV called The Ultimate Fighter (now in its fifth season) has only added to the buzz. As a result, the sport’s pay-per-view ratings now rival that of boxing.

“After the Spike TV show began airing, my career and the sport and the fan base changed,” says Liddell, whose $1 million purses have bought him a mansion and a Ferrari. “People accepted us and became more educated about what we do. I get noticed everywhere now, and it’s surprising who recognizes me-like this one 50-year-old lady who had a tattoo of my face on her shoulder. It’s gotten a lot crazier.”

During the hour we linger in Muggs, dozens of men drift into the bar, all somehow not working on a Wednesday at 1 p.m., and none of them drinking. Liddell politely tries to step toward the front door, but that’s not going to happen. The owner would like to snap a few photos; one guy has his buddy Sean on the phone-“Chuck, can you talk to him?” “Hey, can you sign this for me?” Liddell diplomatically obliges. The sound of backslapping and the hushed murmur of awe and deference fill the air.

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