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Book Club: Iceman – My Fighting Life

The editor of Playboy magazine once told me his favorite Playboy Mansion Party story: As this particular evening was coming to an end, a large line had formed to wait for the valets to bring up their cars. But none had arrived. In a panic the head valet ran down the hill to find out what was wrong. Halfway to the bottom he discovered Jack Nicholson romancing a Playmate from behind in the middle of the driveway. Because none of the underlings dared disturb him, they had parked until he either finished or moved. Alas, Jack apparently has a tremendous amount of stamina, so finally the head valet stepped over to him, coughed once, and said, “Mr. Nicholson, if you would prefer a little more privacy, there are plenty of available rooms in the mansion you could use-”

“But son,” Nicholson replied with his trademark grin, “I’m waiting for my car.”

I thought of that story as I read Chuck Liddell’s memoir, Iceman: My Fighting Life, because he comes off as the love child of Jack Nicholson and John L. Sullivan—a two-fisted Irish-American phenom who Parties Like a (Kid) Rock Star. If Liddell’s self-portrait in this book is accurate (and Jim Genia of Full Contact Fighter who knows him told me it is) then the man has the constitution of a bull. He’s capable of leaping tall buildings full of groupies both right before and right after fights while consuming enough party favors to give Robert Downey Jr. a heart attack. If he has any weaknesses, it is an obvious, although unspoken, distaste for the way training cuts into his nightlife.

And that’s pretty much it. As Matt Damon said in The Departed, “The Irish are the only people impervious to psychoanalysis.” Liddell autobiography is so thin on internal insight that it reads more like The Leadership Secrets of the Iceman than say Tito Ortiz’s tortured memoir. The book is littered with sidebar lists, like Chuck’s five favorite martial arts movies and five weird things he eats. It’s chapter titles could serve as a wry management consultant’s PowerPoint presentation: “Chapter 33: When you’ve got a guy dazed, knock him out.”

So is there anything to learn from his book that you couldn’t pick up from watching his fights or listening to some Sherdog podcasts? Something to explain why this book spent weeks on The New York Times bestseller list other than his immense fame? Not that I’m jealous or anything!

For example, why did he choose Ultimate Fighting as a career back in the days when there was no money in it instead of accounting—the degree he graduated with from college? He was an aggressive tike, granted. And his leg was crippled as a toddler, causing him to wear braces and throwing off his speed later in life so that wrestling became a more attractive option than football. But the main reason seems to be that he can’t sit still for more than six seconds. In fact, this twitchy, fidgety ADHD is something a leitmotif in the book, constantly repeated, which makes one wonder how on earth his ghostwriter squeezed 300 pages out of him.

One thing is for certain: His deadbeat father who abandoned the family when Chuck was a boy is not responsible. No, no, no, don’t make that mistake, because it is the one thing that makes the Iceman angry. “I’m not holding any ‘Where’s Daddy?’ demons. I never step into the cage angry, trying to turn my opponent into my long-lost father.”

So I’m not suggesting the man whom Chuck refers to as the “sperm-donor,” whom he refuses to have any contact with, and whom he despises almost as much as Tito Ortiz (“Tito’s worse than a punk; he’s a coward.”) was a motivating factor in his choice of profession. I’ll just say that it was a necessary but not a sufficient cause.

Truth is, Chuck loves fighting and he loves the ladies who love him right back. It’s the circle of life. So he does what he loves and never thinks about the future, presumably because that would require him to sit for more than six seconds.

If Tito Ortiz is an emotionally stunted nine-year-old, then Chuck is living every sixteen-year-old boy’s fantasy. He lives in a mansion with his best friend/wingman/assistant, he drives the Ferrari that Dana gave him for being such a loyal soldier (or “company man” as Tito calls him), and in a sport dominated by ground and pound wrestlers he uses his sprawl and brawl style to knock muthafuckas out in a way that has captured the imagination of your average frat boy (and Hollywood) like no one since Mike Tyson.

The only part of his life that is, in any way shape or form, adult, aside from the fame and money, are the two daughters he fathered in the space of two years from two different mothers when he was in his twenties. (Clearly his prophylactic ground game has markedly improved since then.) It’s obvious from this book and his famed Entourage episode that he loves his girls. And since he didn’t make the mistake of either marrying either of his two baby mamas (that would have been a disaster) or inviting them to comment in his memoir like Tito Ortiz did, it would seem that all is quiet on that western front.

If there are any dark clouds looking for silver linings in this book, they are simply the result of the sport’s relentless evolution and publishing’s slow time scale. As Luke O’Brien pointed out in The Washington Posts’ earliest foray into covering MMA, “everyone loses.” And so has the Iceman, twice, after he signed his book contract for an amount insiders’ report to be $900,000. (Not that I’m jealous.)

Fortunately for fans, Mr. Liddell is not done: “You always have to get the fuck back up. In fact, this is how I know I’m not done: The only thing I wanted to do as soon as the cobwebs cleared after Rampage was start fighting again. Same with Jardine- Because I still love to fight- Who knew that this would become one of the most popular sports in the world? No one knew. Least of all me. But sometimes you get lucky.”

Okay, I’m jealous.

(Matthew Polly writes all sorts of stuff for all sorts of people. His book American Shaolin can be picked up pretty much anywhere, so you should go buy it. Or if you want to be a jerk about it, you can wait till next year when his book about MMA comes out.)