From the very beginning, Dana White made the stakes very clear for his old friend and former client. When asked if a loss at UFC 115 on June 12, 2010 would mean the end of the line for former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, White didnt mince words. Yes, and I think he will say the same thing, White told reporters. But, the UFC President was quick to add, this time there was something different about the win-or-go-home ultimatum he was proposing for the UFCs former golden boy. The difference before, when I wanted him retired,was that he wasn’t doing the right thing, White said. He was out partying every night and doing the wrong thing, not the right thing.He wasn’t living the life of a professional athlete. He and I sat down and talked, and I will tell you what, he has kept his word. He has been in phenomenal shape since the beginning of The Ultimate Fighter, and it will be interesting to see how he does.A few days later, in front of a crowd of nearly 18,000 at General Motors Place in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Liddell broke Rich Franklins arm with a kick before getting knocked out cold in the final seconds of the opening round.That was it. His time as a professional fighter was done. Or so White told us once the event was over. We all turn 40, and we all get old, White said. Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player in the world. It happens to everybody. He wanted this, and he gave it his best shot. He went out like Chuck Liddell would. He was blasting and throwing bombs, and he gave the fans a last, good fight with The Iceman.
Chuck Liddell at a workout ahead of UFC 115. (Associated Press)
For a long time this seemed like settled history. Ask any hardcore fight fan about the end of Liddells career, and theyd point to this, the night eight years ago today when he lost his third straight fight via knockout, all with Whites Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. Liddell had done his best and had a great career, but he couldnt take the hits anymore. That was the conventional wisdom at the time, anyway, and with White ready to offer him a steady paycheck for a do-nothing job as a UFC executive, Liddell eventually agreed.Its only recently that he seems to have decided to reconsider, and the man who wasnt in the cage that night seems to have a lot to do with it.The original plan for UFC 115 was to complete the trilogy. For weeks beforehand, Liddell and his old nemesis, Tito Ortiz, had served as coaches on Season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter, gradually reanimating their longtime rivalry just as expected. But when Ortiz withdrew from the fight with a neck injury, he was replaced on the show and in the main event by Franklin, the former UFC middleweight champ and a reliable company man who could be counted on to answer the call whenever the UFC was in trouble. The switch came at a precarious time for Liddell. A few years earlier, he was on top of the MMA world. He won the UFC light heavyweight title with a first-round knockout of Randy Couture in 2005, then defended it with four consecutive KO or TKO finishes, all while the sport of MMA exploded along with his own personal stardom. A few years before, he was just another tough-as-nails fighter with cliche tattoos and a questionable haircut. Now he was a genuine celebrity, showing up on Entourage and on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. When the UFC wanted to show the world the face of a cage fighter, Liddell was the first choice. Not only did he look like someone who could beat up the entire cast of Roadhouse, he also had an exciting, primarily standup-oriented fighting style. The UFC and its burgeoning new fan base couldnt get enough of him.
Chuck Liddell and Rich Franklin at UFC 115 weigh-ins. (Associated Press)
But when Liddells decline began, it was a steep one. He lost the title to Quinton Jackson via first-round knockout in 2007, then lost a narrow split-decision in his follow-up fight with Keith Jardine, who apparently never got the message that he was supposed to be an easy rebound opponent to help set up a clash between Liddell and PRIDE import Wanderlei Silva. The Silva fight came together anyway, with both fighters delivering as advertised even in a long-simmering feud that was slightly past its expiration date, and in the end Liddell got the nod from the judges. It would prove to be his last professional win to date, as a brutal knockout loss to Rashad Evans in 2008 gave way to a TKO loss to Mauricio Rua in 2009. Thats why, headed into UFC 115, Ortiz seemed like the perfect opponent. Not only did he have a similar celebrity status and a history with Liddell that would move tickets and pay-per-view buys, he also had a style that seemed relatively non-threatening to Liddells aging chin. Ortiz wasnt the guy who knocked people out with a single blow. He was the guy who took them down and tried to win a decision. Liddells two one-sided wins against him seemed to bode well for his chances of ending his losing streak and prolonging his career. Then Ortiz pulled out hurt, and Franklin stepped in to spoil the party.
Rich Franklin and Chuck Liddell at UFC 115. (Getty Images)
Early on in the fight, things looked good for Liddell. He seemed to have a size and strength advantage over the former middleweight champ, and as bulled forward behind an array of kicks to the legs, body, and head, Franklin looked like a man who was mostly just trying not to get run over. After blocking a high kick in the opening minute, Franklin seemed to injure his left arm, which threatened to be a real problem for a southpaw. A Liddell takedown shortly thereafter gave him something else to worry about. But as he fended off attacks with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, Franklin was finding openings to fire back at the increasingly aggressive Liddell. A right hand from Liddell sent Franklin reeling backwards as the opening round entered its final minute, but still Franklin managed to gather his wits and counter. With 20 seconds left, a Liddell head-kick slapped against Franklins jaw, and it was as if suddenly Liddell smelled a finish. He dove in after the retreating Franklin, lost his balance, and wound up in the clinch. But after sending Franklin off with an elbow in close as the 10-second clapper sounded, Liddell made a critical mistake. Franklin seemed to be on the run, and The Iceman just couldnt resist chasing after him. Thats when he ran face-first into a short right hand from Franklin, and Liddells legs crumpled beneath him.
Rich Franklin stands over a knocked-out Chuck Liddell at UFC 115. (Getty Images)
It was an all-too familiar scene. A punch he would have absorbed easily a few years earlier had knocked him out cold. All he could do was lift his bloodied head up in confusion as Franklin celebrated and the crowd went wild. The fight he had to win just to stay in the game was over. With it went his career.That was the story at the time, anyway. And, after some initial reluctance, Liddell seemed willing to accept it (along with those easy paychecks). It wasnt until relatively recently, after the UFC was bought by Endeavor and the paychecks stopped coming that the now 48-year-old Liddell began to consider other options what he later called a blessing in disguise. And who else would make sense for such a return if not the one who got away, the man who left him in there to get knocked out by Franklin eight years ago? Maybe some things are just too tough to let go of, especially once youre no longer being paid to forget about them.“Today in MMA History” is an MMAjunkie series created in association with MMA History Today, the social media outlet dedicated to reliving “a daily journey through our sport’s history.”