When I saw the news on that Chuck Liddell was rumored to have signed a deal with Bellator MMA, I shook my head. Reports speculated that the multi-million dollar contract was offered to schedule a trilogy with Tito Ortiz, who Liddell defeated twice during his prime in the UFC.
— BJ Penn (@bjpenndotcom) March 2, 2018
Retired since 2010 after he lost 6 of the last 7 bouts of his career, “The Iceman” will have to ask himself if those millions are worth the risk to his legacy?
The 48-year-old slugger was the face of the Ultimate Fighting Championship when the organization emerged from obscurity and exploded in popularity to alter the course of sports history. Along with the Rocky-style brawl that Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonnar delivered on cable TV in 2005, highlights of Liddell’s haymakers became an intriguing selling point as the general public discovered mixed martial arts. Keep in mind, the Liddell/Couture trilogy was built around the original season of the Ultimate Fighter reality show that propelled the company into the main stream.
The former UFC Light Heavyweight champion started his MMA career in 1998, long before big money or fame accompanied those that stepped into the octagon. Surviving the lean years, Liddell used his background as a Division I amateur wrestler and kick boxer to utilize the “sprawl and brawl” tactics. A combination of windmill punches and takedown defense brought him notoriety as the sport that was once an underground niche began to draw big numbers on pay-per-view in the mid-2000s.
During the first eight years of his legendary career, “The Iceman” generated an impressive record of 20-3, most of those victories were by thrilling knockout. Perhaps the highlight of the pioneering grappler’s career was the vicious KO of the legendary Randy Couture to claim the 205 LBS title in 2005. On top of a crowd-friendly style, Liddell had the perfect look to market an MMA fighter, sporting a Mohawk to accompany the Chinese letters tattooed on his head. As Chuck racked up victories in the cage, he also drew at the box office, including his 2006 pay-per-view KO of Tito that still ranks among the top ten best-selling events in the promotion’s history with over a million buys.
While that second KO win against Ortiz was the peak of his drawing power, it proved to be the peak of Liddell’s career as a fighter as well. After Zuffa bought Pride in 2007, the sport saw a drastic shift as another wave of established fighters joined the UFC, which eventually saw the sport continue to evolve. Just five months after his second win against Tito, Liddell was knocked out in less than two minutes by Rampage Jackson at UFC 71. The argument can be made that Liddell was never the same inside the cage after Rampage’s looping right hook sent him crashing to the canvas.
The popular athlete finished the year with a split decision loss to Keith Jardine before he won via unanimous decision in an epic brawl with Wanderlei Silva at UFC 79. The violent spectacle with Silva wasn’t an indication of a return, but rather the last glimpse of “The Iceman” that soared to fame when the UFC surged in popularity.
Three consecutive KO losses followed in the next three years against Rashad Evans, Shogun Rua, and Rich Franklin respectively. The brutal fashion of each knockout caused concern and a call for his retirement. UFC President and close friend, Dana White insisted on Chuck’s retirement, which was officially announced at a press conference in 2010.
Liddell later acknowledged it was a tough decision to hang up the gloves, but most agreed with it so that he could avoid any further damage. The contrast of sports, especially combat sports, is that the decline from the peak can be just as disappointing as the thrill of the rise to the top. We watch sports heroes with anticipation as they excel with incredible skill, and in most cases, watch with some sadness as their decline is an indication that it’s time to conclude their careers.
Nobody wants to see a fighter stay in the sport too long, mostly because of the danger it can pose to their health. Perhaps, the toughest test for any athlete in any genre is to know when to hang up the boots to preserve their health and their legacy. The examples are numerous, but the common theme is sadness as an audience watches all-time greats compete as a former shell of themselves. Sometimes the motivate is for the money or simply that those that have competed their entire lives can’t step away from the sport. One of the most well-known examples of this was the Ali/Holmes fight in 1980 that saw Ali’s former sparring partner defeat the icon when the contest was stopped in the 10th round. The 39-year-old Ali took a tremendous beating before his trainer, Angelo Dundee screamed that the fight was over to rescue his fighter from more damage. The incredible punishment that “The Greatest” took during his heroic career had taken its toll. Larry Holmes, who retained his title, wept in the dressing room after the bout because he didn’t want to cause damage to the aging legend.
The unfortunate example of this in MMA is Ken Shamrock, who was one of the originals of the first UFC tournament, but is much more well-known for fighting well over a decade past his prime. The low point of this was probably 2010 when he lost to Pedro Rizzo via TKO at a sparsely attended upstart event in Sydney, Australia. He also signed with Bellator in recent years, first for a loss against the late Kimbo Slice in 2015 and then another loss to Royce Gracie the following year. Shamrock tested positive for steroids after the Gracie bout and his license was revoked in 2016. “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” didn’t choose to retire, but instead prostituted his legacy until he was forced out of the sport.
I’m concerned about the potential pitfalls of a Chuck Liddell comeback to MMA. While he retired because he couldn’t take the punches he had previously to set up for his own devastating counter punches, the decline is not unusual for combat sports. The general consensus was that Liddell hung it up at the right time and left a legacy he could be proud of intact for the history books. Following his retirement, he was named Vice President of Business Development for the UFC and continued to appear in film and television roles.
Assuming this isn’t just about the money, what does Liddell expect to prove here? What does beating Tito for a third time really prove? Does a victory somehow indicate a comeback at 48 years old? Considering that Chuck hasn’t won a fight since 2007, the odds are this potential return to the cage won’t be successful. More than anything, this is a risk of his legacy, a career that helped build the sport to where it is today.
Is this Bellator deal really worth the risk to tarnish a legacy?
Chuck Liddell is the only one that knows the motivation behind this contract. Maybe it’s because he needs the money, or maybe the athlete that KO’ed his way to the top of the UFC thinks he has one more run at stardom. However, at this point, I hope that Liddell reconsiders this move because nobody wants to see another Ken Shamrock situation.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
E mail firstname.lastname@example.org | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta
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