It was all good seven months ago.
At UFC 88, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell (21-5) was one win away from what would’ve been a classic student vs. teacher title shot against Forrest Griffin at UFC 92 (Liddell was Griffin’s coach on The Ultimate Fighter’s inaugural season). All he had to do was get past “Sugar” Rashad Evans—something the former UFC light heavyweight champion was heavily favored to do.
In the second round of their bout, Liddell backed Evans into the cage and attempted to go for the kill and then it happened. To the surprise of everybody not named Rashad Evans (and possibly Greg Jackson), a thunderous right hand separated Liddell from consciousness.
And just like that, the “Iceman’s” title hopes were dashed and the questions about retirement started. With the loss to Evans, Liddell found himself on the losing end of three of his last four bouts.
When Liddell steps into the Octagon this Saturday in Montreal to meet Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in UFC 97: Redemption’s co-main event, it may prove a defining moment in Liddell’s storied career. UFC president Dana White has dropped some hints in the press that it may be time for the man who helped the UFC rise to prominence to hang up the gloves. For White, winning may not be enough to keep Liddell in the Octagon.
“I’m not even saying if he wins, unless he looks incredibly impressive (in Montreal)— I mean, he’s going to have to go out there and dazzle me, for me to want Chuck to still fight,” White said in an interview when asked his thoughts on Liddell.
To his credit, Liddell seems unfazed by the comments and plans to go out and give a performance that MMA fans have come to expect from Chuck Liddell. “I’m planning on coming out and performing like I usually do and I’m planning on knocking him out. Hopefully that’ll be enough to keep [Dana] interested in me fighting.”
Liddell makes things crystal clear—the only worrying he’s going to do is about the fight in front of him.
“I haven’t seen any reason to start worrying about my next fight. I never have before. I’m going to go out and fight this fight. I have a tough opponent in front of me and I’m getting ready for it. I’m worried about winning this fight and I’ll worry about what I do after this fight, after this fight.”
Though MMA pundits and fair-weather fans are ready to show Liddell the door, one person who isn’t sleeping on the Iceman’s skills is Rua, who expects a game Liddell to show up Saturday night.
“Absolutely not,” Rua states when asked if he believes Liddell’s skills have declined. “My take on Liddell is that he is a great fighter. Very dangerous with great skills. I like fighting top fighters; this is what motivates me and I’m facing one of the best. I’m expecting him to be at the top of his game.”
In preparation for this fight, Liddell also hooked up with Howard Davis, the boxing coach over at American Top Team. The change of scenery (ATT is located in Florida, Liddell trains in California) and training schedule seems to have lit a fire under Liddell, who seems anxious to show off his newfound skills in the Octagon.
“I was out there for a little bit and Howard was here with me for about seven weeks at my training camp,” Liddell says. “It’s been really good working with him. He’s helped my foot work and defense a lot. I’m looking forward to showing some of the new stuff I’ve learned.”
In addition to the career implications, an extra weight will also be on Liddell during the walk to the Octagon. The unfortunate passing of Charles “Mask” Lewis hit the MMA community hard, but devastated Liddell. “The Iceman” and a third of the TapouT collective were good friends. UFC 97 will also mark the first time Liddell dons a TapouT shirt into battle—the shirt he’ll be wearing was designed by Lewis.
“I was saddened and it hit me hard. This will be the first time I’ll be wearing a TapouT shirt. I just saw him the week before [he died] and he had just finished designing it. It’s going to be a little different,” Liddell says, struggling to find the right words. “Yeah, I took it hard. He was one of my good friends.”
If Liddell can get past Rua, Redemption may prove to be a career resurrection. With the light heavyweight division being the most stacked in the UFC Liddell—who has held the gold twice—says he has no time to become complacent despite all of his success.
“Guys keep getting better and better and if you don’t keep improving, they’ll pass you by.”
At this stage of Liddell’s career, he’s fighting merely for the love of fighting and says he’s “got the best job in the world.”
“I don’t need to prove anything,” Liddell states.
“I want to go out there and fight.”