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Liddell, ‘Mask’ ushered into UFC Hall of Fame

Iceman’ reflects on Tapout founder Charles Lewis Jr., fellow fighters and fans

UFC Hall of Fame

Sam Morris

Chuck Liddell gets a hug from UFC president Dana White after being inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame Friday, July 10, 2009. TapouT co-founder, the late Charles “Mask” Lewis Jr., a good friend of Liddell’s and the UFC, was also honored in the ceremony at Mandalay Bay.

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TapouT co-founder Dan "Punkass" Caldwell, left, speaks as recently deceased Tapout co-founder Charles "Mask" Lewis Jr. is inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame Friday, July 10, 2009.

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Chuck Liddell greets fans as he is introduced during a UFC Hall of Fame induction ceremony Friday, July 10, 2009 at Mandalay Bay.

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The Tapout crew, from left, Timothy "Skyskrape" Katz, Dan Caldwell and the late Charles "Mask" Lewis Jr. offer one of their patented poses.

Ultimate Fighting Championship events are never short on emotions, but usually the electricity in the air is one of energy and excitement right before or after a big fight.

But the buzz Friday night at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center scaled new heights when several thousand fans flocked to the casino on the famed Las Vegas Strip for the first-ever UFC Fan Expo — filled with autograph sessions from the UFC’s biggest stars, fighting seminars, and plenty of mixed martial arts vendors pedaling their newest fitness products.

A little after 6 p.m. though, mere yards away from the hustle and bustle of the mob trying to get Randy Couture’s autograph, the mood on the main stage flipped a 180-degrees. A large and reflective audience sat at attention when UFC president Dana White and co-founder Lorenzo Fertitta took the stage for a special Hall of Fame ceremony.

“This is a very emotional day for us. There’s nobody in this sport more deserving to be in the UFC Hall of Fame than Chuck Liddell,” said Fertitta, after White introduced the two newest members of MMA’s most elite fraternity in Liddell and the late TapouT founder, Charles “Mask” Lewis Jr.

“This is a guy (Liddell) that has defined a sport. When you think about the UFC, he personifies the UFC. Whenever anybody sees that logo, I think they think of Chuck Liddell. He will forever be a part of the UFC … He’s a special person because he never did this for the fame, never did it for the money. Chuck is one thing and one thing only — he’s a fighter. It’s in his DNA.”

But even one of the baddest men on the planet couldn’t hide his emotions during the event that was equal parts somber and celebratory.

Liddell thanked fellow fighters and his large legion of fans for their role in his success, before walking backstage midway through Lewis’ tribute.

“Chuck Liddell is a little emotional right now. He and Charles were very close friends and I thought it was cool to induct them both into the Hall of Fame at the same time,” White said.

Lewis, who was killed in a car crash California on March 11, and the 39-year-old Liddell join the likes of Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn, Randy Couture and Mark Coleman in the Hall.

A video segment played in honor of Lewis, who was 45. Clips of the man known around fighting circles worldwide by his trademark face paint, showed his infectious personality and unwavering vision for the sport he loved.

“Just cause you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, doesn’t mean you can’t turn your roads to gold. Just because you came from hard times and difficulties, put-downs and discouragement, doesn’t mean you can’t be the best — and go way beyond what anybody ever thought you could,” Lewis said on the screen, while flashing another one of his signature trademark’s — his big smile.

“Maybe it won’t be me who touches a million people. But maybe I touch that one that touches a million. That’s what it’s about. Sometimes you got to know the man from the person. At the end of the day that’s what every thing is about, that somebody might be a little happier because you are here.”

Some fans clapped, while others wept, but White managed to move through the moment by reflecting upon Lewis’ one-of-kind personality.

“When Lorenzo and I first met him back in 2001 when we first bought the UFC, this is a guy who had had just this aura about him. This persona,” said White of Lewis, who turned TapouT from a T-shirt business out of the back of his car into a multi-million-dollar corporation.

“I don’t care when you met him, what happened in his life that day, what was going on in the world, this guy was never in a bad mood. He was never a downer, never bummed out. He was always upbeat and positive about everything. He was a big part of helping attack a lot of grass roots marketing and getting the UFC out there.”

Company co-founder Dan (Punkass) Caldwell, who was joined on stage by the third member of TapouT’s famous trio, Timothy “Skyskrape” Katz, reminisced about his great friend — saying the goose bumps on his arms were a sign that “Mask” was watching from above.

“He just always knew, always believed that this was what was going to happen and he never stopped believing. I learned a lot from him and I continue to learn a lot from him,” Caldwell said.

“And it's awesome how he's still touching lives even after his passing. Charles will always be remembered."

Liddell — who wore a black TapouT shirt with Lewis' image, avoided any talk about his future plans to either fight or retire — thanked the Fertittas (co-founder Frank, was also on stage) and White for their large financial investment and incalculable time commitment that it took to push MMA into the mainstream conscience of sports fans.

He then turned his attention to the men he took on in the Octagon, guys like Randy Couture, Vitor Belfort, even hated rival Tito Ortiz.

"I wanted to thank all the other fighters, comrades, my guys who got in the ring with me, all the guys that fought me," said the former light heavyweight champ, who began his illustrious UFC career with a decision victory over Noe Hernandez at UFC 17 on May 15, 1998, in Mobile, Ala.

Then “The Iceman” twisted around to the applauding fans in the audience.

“Lastly when I walked out to the ring, I never felt like it was just me walking out there, it was all you guys," said a pacing Liddell, who admitted his nerves for giving public speeches — despite the fact that any words he uttered Friday would have riled up this willing crowd.

"I'll never forget the first time I walked in the MGM, the sound of the crowd, how loud it was. It was deafening. It was like we were walking out to the ring, it was us, just not me."

Andy Samuelson can be reached at [email protected] or 702-948-7837.

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