The sky drapes over the hills of California's wine country like an infant's pristine blue blanket. A trio of cats tumble through a patch of dry leaves and the sun beats down as if no one bothered to mention that it's now December. It's about as idyllic a scene as you could imagine.
Suddenly, the chop of Pantera's "Walk" tears the air like a rusty razor, surging over the surrounding hills and, not surprisingly, scattering the cats. The song is barking from an iPod docking station perched next to a mat surrounded on eight sides by chain-link fence (an Octagon, to those familiar with mixed martial arts) which has been plunked down, almost impossibly, on the side of a sloping, wooded hill.
Inside, one of the world's most dangerous men — Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell — is bouncing around the cage, spitting out Phil Anselmo's lyrics and shadowboxing in a way that makes you feel sorry for the air that surrounds him. He pushes hard, Pantera seemingly coursing through his veins and fueling his brutal dance. The song drives him — and frankly, he can use the help.
That's because some 300 miles away, the incongruous sounds of Kid Rock's "I Am the Bullgod" roar from a red barn that sits beyond the tony ski lodges and tourist traps of Big Bear, California. Inside, Tito Ortiz — a UFC legend and the man who intends to take Liddell's championship from him in just a few short weeks — is prowling his own Octagon, honing his craft against a constantly rotating cast of five different sparring partners. One man challenges Tito; they tangle and sprawl across the mat, trading fists, knees and elbows. Soon, without pause, another fresh fighter takes his place. The grueling pace goes on for 45 minutes — and this is just one slice of his eight-hour training session today. There will be more sparring, there will be weightlifting and, of course, there will be running ... miles and miles of running. Fortunately for Tito, he'll get energy boosts along the way from Kid, Korn and Eminem.
Most of us turn to music to help push us over our daily humps: Getting out of bed, getting to work, getting through spin class. It's no surprise then that the same strategy (and in many cases, the very same music) drives men who push themselves to the limit in a sport that demands knowledge of disciplines from kickboxing to jujitsu, and everything in between. Exactly how tough is this sport, you ask? Chuck and Tito's fight on December 30 will be the culmination of weeks of conditioning, months of training and years of study.
"In the beginning, the guys who used to fight were just jujitsu guys like Royce Gracie or punchers like Tank Abbott," Ortiz explained. "They didn't understand the whole Rubik's Cube of mixed martial arts, where you have to know jujitsu, you have to know kickboxing, you have to know wrestling. You need the cardio and the weight training. It's like a recipe. You have to put it together in the right ways and do the right things at the right time."
For Tito, fight preparation means sequestering himself in Big Bear (the thin mountain air enhances his conditioning) and pushing himself for eight hours of running, weightlifting, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling a day, six days a week. "To put a whole game plan together is really a physical challenge," Ortiz added. "The mental side of it, waking up every day, knowing what do I have to do ... To put my body through a grind session, it's painful — it's a mental torture."
Liddell, however, takes a "less is more" (yet still daunting) approach. "Honestly, I work out two to three times a day; each workout is about an hour and a half," he explained. "I've heard a lot of guys saying they train eight hours a day, but I've been with some of those guys and unless they count puttin' on their clothes and driving to the gym and talking to their friends afterward, they don't train eight hours a day. I think it's more about quality than quantity."
And for Ortiz and Liddell — two of the biggest names in a sport rapidly surging in popularity — the unique pressures are even greater. While their December 30 main event will undoubtedly be a battle, it is also expected to be the biggest mixed martial arts event in history, a new watershed for a sport that recently has been drawing more young viewers than the NBA or Major League Baseball. No pressure there, right?
"You can't really explain the energy at a place like the MGM [Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, where the fight will be held] when it's sold out and it's a big fight night," Liddell said. "You can't transfer it to a TV."
"I guess it's like a cross between a boxing match and a rock concert. There's no energy like it," Ortiz agreed. "Some people do skydiving, other people get in bullrings and fight. Some people play in the World Series or the Super Bowl. I get in the Octagon and compete to see who is the toughest man in the world. Ultimate Fighting is what I do ... and I've been doing a very good job up to this point."
Until the moment when the crowd roars and the Octagon door swings shut, the key for both men is to remain focused and motivated. And for both, that means tucking in their headphones, picking a playlist and shutting out the world. Whether it's Liddell's morning sprints in the thick sands of Pismo Beach, Ortiz's afternoon runs through the hills of Big Bear, or either man's extended gym sessions, their music always close at hand. "There are times when I'm pushing myself and I don't think I can go harder, but then a good song comes on and I get a huge adrenaline rush and my endorphins kick in," Ortiz explained.
There's a good deal of overlap between Liddell and Ortiz's iPods, not surprising given that both deal in bold, naked aggression: You'll hear DMX and 50 Cent in both men's respective gyms. But the deeper you dig into their playlists, the more clear the distinction between the two becomes. Liddell — a soft-spoken and seemingly single-minded fighter — rocks a catalog that plays like a roadside jukejoint dream, where George Strait sits side-by-side with Suicidal Tendencies. There's the ballsy blues-rock of George Thorogood, the heartland rock of Staind, the unholy whirl of Slayer and the proud twang of Travis Tritt.
Liddell puts together a fresh playlist for each of his fights, and while the details may change, it's usually raw and aggressive. "It really helps when I'm training. It gets you fired up," he said. So as Liddell prepares to return to the Octagon, he loads his iPod with Slayer ("Angel of Death" is a favorite), Pantera (Vulgar Display of Power is in heavy rotation), Nickelback, Rancid and Lars Frederiksen & the Bastards (hang around Liddell long enough and eventually you'll hear "Skunx"). Then there's his love of country. "It's fun for me to put on a few country songs while we're training because I'm one of the few people [at the gym] who likes them," Liddell laughed.
Chances are, no one's going to challenge his monopoly of the sound system, no matter what he's playing. Much like the music on his playlist, Liddell is straight-shooting, hard-hitting and rock-solid. Unlike his music, however, he is also soft-spoken, a genial man but one who would seemingly rather be fighting than doing just about anything. His soundtrack — much like his focus — is all about the ring.
Meanwhile Ortiz — the brash character whose larger-than-life image is outsized only by his accomplishments — seems drawn to stirring and boastful anthems, hip-hop and otherwise. Where Liddell shuffles, Ortiz swaggers with the aid of Ludacris, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and his longtime friends in Korn. The soundtrack of Ortiz's youth came courtesy of the Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath his troubled parents gravitated toward, and the Cali punk that surrounded him in Huntington Beach, California. But he would eventually draw inspiration in the bold boasts and high living of hip-hop, fixating on the better life he dreamt of for himself.
He can vividly recall a college trip to Lake Havasu, Arizona, where a promise was made over Tupac's "Picture Me Rollin'." "I remember looking at [a friend] and saying, 'Watch, dude, I'm gonna make it and you're gonna listen to this song and remember me because you're going to close your eyes and picture me rolling,' " Ortiz recalled. "It's funny because it's just little things like that, like 'Rollin' in My 500 Benz' ... it's money, it's all material things. But when you come from a poor family and you don't have anything and you see everyone having all that stuff, you get really jealous of it. I had to pretty much put on an act in front of people because I didn't want them to know that I was poor. I couldn't bring them to the motel that we were staying at because my parents were drug addicts. I couldn't show them my parents because I was very embarrassed by it — I'd say, 'My parents aren't here today, they're out of town.' So I look at those kinds of things in music, and they kind of inspire me to be a better person."
For Tito, the drive he finds in his music is about more than the fight; it's about the life. He's a mogul in training, a man who can clearly see Jay-Z's blueprint ... and 50's and Eminem's. There's the fighting, but there's also the clothing line (Punishment Athletics), the lust-worthy girlfriend (Jenna Jameson) and the Hollywood aspirations (he's pondering his own reality show). "If you have the charisma to hold a camera, you're going to go far," Ortiz said. "If you're just going to fight for the rest of your life, all of a sudden you'll be 40 years old, teaching karate classes at your local dojo."
His first taste of stardom came early, courtesy of his friends in Korn as he watched them rise from backyard gigs to the multiplatinum lifestyle. "I envied them, because they had all the cars. They were making all the money. That's what drove me to get where I am, because that's what I wanted for myself," Ortiz said.
But beyond the flash and cash, the band's powerful emotional core also resonated with Ortiz, speaking to deeper themes that fuel the challenger. "I'm built on emotions, and the stuff Jonathan Davis would sing about and the emotions he would bring out ... I pretty much just fell in love with the music," Ortiz said. "When I do my runs or my training, you have to find that aggression and intensity to push yourself."
It's what drew him to his other muse, the man whose "Mosh" ushers Ortiz into the ring before every fight: Eminem. "He never took the easy way out. He always had a challenge during life ... So many people were hating on him because he was doing stuff that no one would expect him to be doing. I would see myself in that, because when I started in the UFC, I was doing a lot of sh-- that no one wanted me to do. I mean, flipping off the other guy's corner, wearing T-shirts that said some gnarly things. I was the bad boy. It was just a given that I had something in common with him. He came from a trailer park, he didn't have a father. I had parents, but they were on drugs all the time."
Despite their differences — in both playlists and personality — both men dig through their songs to find fire in the lyrics. "It's got to mean something to you," Liddell said. "It's got to talk to you a little bit. That's what makes music kick ass."
"There has to be some type of motivation behind it, some type of story that motivates a person," Ortiz said. "And it has to have hostility in it, because I'm about as hostile as a person gets when I step in the Octagon."
The music and the motivation reach a crescendo on fight day. In those last few moments before the Octagon door swings open, both men shut out the world and bury themselves in their music: When the going gets tough, the tough crank up their iTunes.
"If you walk with me from my hotel room down to the locker room, you've got to listen to me sing — which is probably the biggest torture anyone gets before a fight," Liddell joked. "I'll come down with my headphones and I'm usually singing along with whatever I'm listening to. I can't hear me sing, but everyone else has to listen to it."
Meanwhile, Ortiz spends the last few moments before a fight finding his emotional peak and getting ready for his "Mosh" moment. "I just want to get in the right mental mode," Ortiz said. "Physically, I've done all the work. [At that point,] it's about emotions and the mental side of it... I listen to the lyrics [to 'Mosh'] really, really closely ... about being a leader in what he believes in.
"I'm being a leader in what I believe in with this ultimate fighting," he continued. "There were people that were never going to accept us. They were saying, 'It's a brutal sport, you guys are never going to go anywhere.' I thought different. I was like, 'This sport is going to get awesome. People are going to pick it up. People are going to get educated on it. They're going to know how hard we work, and know that it is a true sport and know where we came from and where we began.' "
He pauses for a moment. "When I walk out to [that song], I have a tear that comes to my eye. It just gets me right in the heart. There's nothing more intense than just listening to that."
And that, after all, is everything you could want from your playlist.
Chuck's most played artists: Rancid, Lars Frederiksen & the Bastards
Tito's most played artists: Korn (old friends), Eminem
Chuck's playlist surprise: A wealth of country and a smattering of "goofy pop songs" ("That's my daughter," he laughs. "She can download whatever she wants.")
Tito's playlist surprise: Oddball reggae sing-jay progenitor Eek-A-Mouse ("Back in the day, when he used to play in Orange County at Club 5902, I went and watched — and it was awesome," he recalls.)
Chuck's training playlist
Pantera - "Walk"
George Thorogood - "Who Do You Love"
Travis Tritt - "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)"
DMX - "One More Road to Cross"
Staind - "It's Been Awhile"
Hank Williams Jr. - "Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound"
Yung Joc - "It's Goin' Down"
Lars & the Bastards - "Skunx"
Slayer - "Angel of Death"
Suicidal Tendencies - "Controlled by Hatred"
50 Cent - "If I Can't"
T.I. - "Bring Em Out"
Tito's training playlist
Eminem - "Mosh"
Korn - "Good God"
Ludacris - "Move B---h"
DMX - "Damien"
Rage Against the Machine - "Know Your Enemy"
Fieldy's Dreams - "Ortiz Anthem"
Korn - "Ass Itch"
Snoop Dogg - "Murder Was the Case"
Metallica - "Enter Sandman"
Bob Marley - "Get Up, Stand Up"