The Iceman Goeth – A Tribute to Chuck Liddell
Chuck "The Iceman" Lidell is finally going stubbornly into that good night. Any fighter who once lost by knockout to Quinton Jackson in a fight for the belt could probably retire without a hint of shame. Liddell, however, once reigned supreme as the UFC's light-heavyweight champion, defending the belt four times from 2005-2006 after wresting it from the very MMA titan who defeated him in 2003 for the interim belt: none other than Randy Couture. Since Liddell's reign, which ran from August 2004 to May 2007 (that's 33 months, just shy of three years), the light heavyweight belt has been transferred four times in just shy of four years.
Some pundits claim Randy Couture is the face of the UFC, or the greatest UFC fighter of all time. Others say it's young guns like Anderson Silva, GSP, or good ol' boy Matt Hughes, who put American wrestling on the North American MMA map (no disrespect to Dan Severn or Mark Coleman). Some say Brock Lesnar or Royce Gracie, bookend PPV draws, are the true anchors of the Octagon. For me, it's always been the "Iceman", who appears to attend every UFC event he's not fighting in, shadowboxing intently as he stares at the action, while between rounds he grins at the camera sheepishly, as if to say, "what did I do to deserve this?"
What indeed: knocking the lights out of bad dudes on pay-per-view – breaking bones and breaking records. Liddell headlined the first UFC card to break 1,000,000 PPV buys, the main event of UFC 66: Liddell versus Ortiz II. The "Iceman" was arguably the most dominant light heavyweight champion in UFC history (sorry Tito, I know you defended the belt five times to Liddell's four, but you ducked Liddell only to lose to him twice by KO and TKO when you weren't the champ anymore, plus every one of Liddell's belt defenses were stoppages). Finally, Liddell is the 6th inductee in the UFC Hall of Fame, and he is the only UFC fighter to be a PRIDE semi-finalist in a PRIDE Grand Prix.
For me, the beginning of the end was not the loss to Keith Jardine, nor was it the KO loss to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. It was the knockout loss to "Sugar" Rashad Evans. Jackson proved in PRIDE, way back in 2003, that a good, patient boxer with solid defense and good wrestling could take Liddell. It was no surprise that Jackson beat him again, since Liddell is the epitomy of the go-for-broke school of striking that unfortunately provided calculating counter-strikers the openings to finish and ultimately send Liddell crashing to the canvas.
When Liddell lost to Evans, it was shocking. And, admittedly, a huge blow to his fans' morale. Not anymore because he lost to Evans – Evans is a tad cocky but has proven himself worthy of his current top-three light heavyweight status. At the time I thought Evans had caught him with a lucky punch – fight analysis proved me wrong. Later, I was dismayed because I foresaw what his later fights confirmed: Chuck Liddell had post concussion syndrome. Despite the fact that Rashad caught Liddell flush with a beautifuly timed overhand right counter, Liddell seemed to crumple too cleanly, too quickly. Something didn't look right, and the feeling was cemented when Rich Franklin knocked Liddell out with a short, stabbing right hand to the chin in Vancouver in June of 2010 at UFC 115 - more than a year after a second straight knockout at the hands of Mauricio Rua, current UFC light heavyweight champion. Liddell should retire, I thought. But is that such a shame?
Despite his unique style, it took years for Liddell to be picked apart and put away. This doesn't suggest that he faced a low calibre in his opposition (two wins over Randy Couture, one over Renato Sobral and another over Alistair Overeem when Liddell was in his heyday) – rather, it points rather clearly to just how dangerous a puncher Liddell was. 13 of his wins came by KO or TKO. Even in his last fight, a KO loss at the hands of Rich "Ace" Franklin (the last of three consecutive KOs) Chuck Liddell managed to break Franklin's arm with a kick before taking the short choppy right to the chin that floored him – this after staggering Franklin and dominating the first round.
Liddell has always had the wrestling forte to either sprawl into takedown attempts, or writh back onto his feet. Once there, opponents who didn't want to stand with the pinpoint-accurate KO artist had to contend with Liddell's looping left and surface-to-air missile right sweeping straight that began somewhere from below the left hemisphere and followed through somewhere into the stratosphere – a karate strike honed to devastating effect by trainer Keith Hackleman. After losing to Randy "The Natural" Couture at UFC 43 (2003), there was no one in the UFC, then dominated by wrestlers, who could contend with "The Iceman" and his lethal, stalking, pinpoint accuracy. This fighting style was honed by Liddell's career long trainer, Keith Hackleman, at their fight camp "The Pit" based in San Luis Obispo, California. Chuck maintained a career-long dedication to the fight camp, which currently trains UFC up-and-comers Antonio Banuelos and Court McGee.
In 2005, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture signed on as coaches for the first season of The Ultimate Fighter series, now a SPIKE stalwart. At the time, the UFC was struggling to keep its head above water with fluctuating PPV draws and no cable or mainstream television deals. This season of TUF launched the careers of UFC mainstays Diego Sanchez, Josh Koscheck, Kenny Florian, Chris Leben, Nathan Quarry and Mike Swick. It led to the rubber match between Liddell and Couture. It also led to the greatest UFC fight of all time, Forrest Griffin versus Stephan Bonnar in the first TUF finale. Every MMA fan knows how meaningful that fight is to the sport today, not to mention the follow-up PPV which garnered over 400 000 buys and the UFC's highest grossing gate to date, at $3.3 million.
Chuck made the right move retiring when he did. Despite the fact that little if any press is given to the issue of post-concussion syndrome in MMA, Liddell had appeared to have made a serious attempt to overcome it, in particular by taking a year-plus leave of absence after his KO loss to Rua. He was featured on "Dancing With the Stars" in the meantime. Following that absence and his KO loss to Rich Franklin, however, Dana White stated for the second time that Liddell was due to retire. There is no shame in this. Top-ranked professional athletes in every major mainstream sport retire due to injury, often in the twilight of their careers, when the accolades have waned and the spotlight has long since shone elsewhere. A brain injury is just as legitimate, if not arguably more legitimate, than any lasting or irreversible joint, soft tissue, cartilage or tendon injury.
For Chuck Liddell, there is more than just a secure paycheque at the end of an athletic career: there is a spot at the highest echelon of UFC management and the lifelong knowledge that during the UFC's darkest days, he helped to carry the promotion and the sport into the heyday that we know and love. Furthermore, he is was, remains and could be the greatest light-heavyweight the UFC and its fans have ever known.
On December 29, 2010, Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell offically announced his retirement and his new position of Vice-President of Business Development for the UFC. As fans, what can we say about him, in the end? Chuck Liddell stepped into the ring not just to fight, but to finish. He played an instrumental role in resurrecting the UFC and making it (and its reality TV series) what it is today. He dominated his division for years against worthy opponents. He retired, in the end, with dignity.
By Roy Kok