Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to fight some of the toughest guys in the history of the sport. And now, on September 19, I’ll be fighting Liam McGeary for Bellator’s light heavyweight title.
I’ve been a headliner many times before, so I know what it takes to compete and win against the best. I come into this fight as a wiser fighter than I was earlier in my career. I used to train 10 hours a day, seven days a week wherever I could against whomever I could. Now, I train smarter, keeping my body in the best condition to compete at a top level.
It’s been a long road to get to this point, and I’ve taken on some of the best fighters that this sport has ever produced. These experiences have built on each other to make me the fighter, and the man, that I am today.
Here’s a breakdown of the five toughest guys I’ve ever traded punches with.
There are two different kinds of Brazilian fighters. There are some who have a little doubt in their step and can be broken. Then, there are fighters who are almost like animals in the ring and absolutely refuse to quit. Wanderlei Silva fits into that second category.
I fought Wanderlei the first time I won a world title, and he made me earn it.
There was definitely an intimidation factor going into the fight. This guy’s nickname is “The Axe Murderer”, and at the time, he had been violently knocking out wrestlers during fights. I was strictly a wrestler at that point in my career, so of course that stuff gets your attention. It was definitely one of those fights where I was nervous beforehand, but once I got into the cage, I was ready. I always am.
In the second round of the fight, I landed a punch on Wanderlei, and he dropped. I heard him groaning on the ground like I knocked him out, and then I hit him again, and I think I woke him up because he was back at it.
Later in the fight, I gave him a body kick, and he caught my leg and then hit me with a right hand to drop me. I remember when I took that punch, it felt like the whole world had gone upside down. I managed to get away, but he caught me with a good one.
He came forward with reckless abandon throughout the fight, and I managed to nullify his strikes by getting underneath to close the gap and perform takedowns. I earned the decision after five rounds, and for the first time in my career, I was the champ.
When I lost my world title to Randy Couture in 2003, I felt like my life was over with.
I didn’t know how it was possible that a 40-year-old man could beat me. I was 30 years old and in the prime of my career. After beating Wanderlei, I reeled off five straight title defenses against good fighters, and as a result, I thought I had the edge on Randy in every category. I thought I was faster, I thought my striking was stronger, I thought I could out-wrestle him — flat out, I thought I was a better fighter.
But every round, he just dug deeper and deeper, and ultimately he just out-wrestled me. I don’t think I was fully prepared for how tough his takedowns would be. More than anyone else, Randy stands out as the toughest guy I’ve ever fought.
At that point in my career, I was still a young guy and I was learning. This was 12 years and six major surgeries ago. Since then, I’m still the same kind of aggressive fighter, but I’m smarter. Smarter about how I prepare, smarter about how I train and smarter about how I approach a big fight. I think when it’s all measured up, that one loss probably put me in the right frame of mind to pull off some of the biggest wins of my career.
Chuck was a guy whom I trained with for such a long time, and then we ended up fighting each other. These fights were definitely different for me.
There were punches he hit me with that took my feet out from under me. And when you combine that with his really solid takedown protection, he was a tough matchup.
And what made it tougher was that we’d trained together so long that we had a deep understanding of each other’s style. There really weren’t many surprises, but he just happened to have my number. I’m fine admitting that. I still think the second fight was called too early, but in this sport, you’re often told that you need to defend yourself intelligently and at all times. If you have one lapse, that gives the ref the opening to stop the fight, and that’s that.
But what still bothers me about this rivalry is how many lies were behind it. Ultimately it resulted in losing what was a great friendship with Chuck.
It’s all behind me now and I’ve moved on, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to make a list like this without including Chuck.
I don’t even really want to say this one, but I will because the guy fought his ass off.
When you watch my fights with Forrest, turn off the volume and just pay attention to what’s happening inside the cage. This was two guys just going at it.
The first fight, I won. The second fight, I’ll give it to him, he beat me. But that third fight, I thought I kicked his ass. I dropped the guy five times, but for the first time in UFC history, they scored “strikes attempted,” which cost me the decision.
What the hell are “strikes attempted,” anyway?
I gave a lot of myself for those three fights because I went into each of them with an injury. The first fight, I had a torn meniscus. The second fight, I had fractured orbital bone and a ruptured disc in my neck. And the last fight, I had knee surgery nine days before and the only cardio I could do to prepare was riding a bike. But at that point in my career, I fought no matter what.
I sacrificed a lot in order to compete in those three fights, and I’ll give Forrest credit for laying it all out there as well.
Now this was a true rivalry.
There was nothing fake about the buildup to these fights. Ken and I truly hated each other. You really couldn’t pair two guys together who are more different, and the end result was one of the best fighting trilogies ever. I mean, we really hated each other.
What put me off most about Ken at first was his ego. He was coming from professional wrestling and he carried himself like he was better than other people. Honestly, his persona was similar to the head of the Cobra Kai in The Karate Kid. Who wouldn’t want to kick that guy’s ass?
In my mind, those were the good old days. Fighters could hate fighters, but we all lived pretty close to each other and were working together to build up a sport that we loved.
The first fight with Ken was a bloodbath. It went three rounds and he took a lot of damage before I got the win.
The second fight was a big one because it happened after we both spent an entire season as opposing coaches on The Ultimate Fighter. I appreciated the opportunity to be on that show because it allowed people to see the type of person I was as a coach, and it definitely further played up just how different Ken and I were. And there were some great fighters who came up in that season, Michael Bisping and Kendall Grove among them.
I ended up winning that fight in the first round, and then I won the third fight a few months later, also in the first round.
These days, Ken is a completely different guy — very kind and very humble. But I’ll always look back fondly on our fights, because in a lot of ways, I think they represent how two different personalities can bring a fight to the next level.
I’ve had to get through some great challenges to make it to this point in my career, but ultimately, on Saturday, I’ll be the only person out of any of the guys on this list that has a world title belt around his waist.
That’s the only thing that matters.
On September 19, Tito will fight Bellator light heavyweight champion Liam McGeary at DYNAMITE 1 being broadcast live on Spike TV from the SAP Center in San Jose, California at 9/8C.