It's a question that has been asked time and time again ever since Rashad Evans left the Iceman motionless in a heap of wreckage in the middle of the Philips Arena (Atlanta, GA). To this date, no definitive answer has been given. We've all been left here, twiddling our thumbs, wondering what was to be next for the future UFC Hall of Famer. And we all were left wondering how much he truly had left in his tank. Was this just a bump in the road? Or was this something more? Well, it's time to examine this and see if we can find out what the true answer really is.
On December 30th of 2006, Chuck Liddell defended his UFC Light Heavyweight championship by knocking out the Huntington Beach Bad Boy, Tito Ortiz. He was riding high. Living the life of a rock star. Partying all day, partying all night, training hard but not hard enough. He was caught up in the mystique that being one of the premier UFC icons brought him. Liddell forgot what got him to the top. Hunger. He had lost that hunger. The events that followed have shaped his life as we know it.
A mere five months later, Liddell was lying flat on his back, a common theme that will keep resurfacing, after being knocked out by Quinton "Rampage" Jackson early in their second fight. It was sort of an anti-climactic end to the reign of Chuck Liddell. A reign that had lasted two years. A reign that featured four knockouts. And it was a win streak that (in total) started back at UFC 47: It's On! against Tito Ortiz. He was the winner of seven straight fights, all by knockout. And then came along Rampage. The one man he always had troubled with. Going back to their fight in PRIDE, Rampage showed the model on how to beat Liddell. You wait him out and spring a trap for him. And it happened in their second fight. Liddell fell prey to the "waiting game" and he paid for it. With his belt. A payment he thought he would never have to endure.
Following that loss to Jackson, Liddell looked to rebound against a man who was also looking to come back from a vicious knockout. Ironically, both occurred on the same night. Both at UFC 71: Liddell vs. Jackson in Las Vegas (NV). Keith Jardine walked into his bout against Chuck Liddell as a heavy underdog. No one believed that Jardine could actually defeat the Iceman. Everyone except for Jardine himself and everyone in his camp. Beat Liddell is exactly what Jardine did. For the final two rounds of that fight, Jardine brutalized Chuck with kick after kick to the midsection. And even dropping him once in the second round. Chuck appeared to have lost it but regained his composure to stand right back up and continue the fight. However, it was apparent that Liddell was not all there. His eyes had a look in them that signaled defeat. A fighter at the end of his ropes. Almost like the same look that De La Hoya had in his eyes against Pacquiao earlier this month. A fighter who realized that the younger guys had finally caught up to the old man's game. Liddell left UFC 76: Knockout without a victory, losing by Split Decision to Jardine. And with Wanderlei Silva in attendance, it left us wondering if that fight would ever take place. Well, we didn't have to wait long.
At UFC 79: Nemesis, we got to finally see the fight that we had always wanted to see. Wanderlei "The Axe Murderer" Silva against Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell. And it was a fight that did not disappoint. But even in a fight that Liddell seemingly controlled with his sizable reach advantage and strategic takedowns, he still found himself in a spot he didn't want to be: on the canvas, looking up at Wanderlei after a good shot. Liddell sprung back up but had a different look in his eyes this time. A look of redemption. A look of how much he wanted to win this fight because of the long road it took to get here. And on this night, he strategically and smartly picked his way to a victory against his nemesis. But even in a fight that Liddell won, it did not seem that the fans were at all rooting for him. So even after Mike Goldberg shouted "Liddell is BACK!", the fans were left there in amazement of a great fight rather than wondering if Liddell truly was indeed back to his old form. He had hit Wanderlei with some huge shots, much like he had hit Jardine with, but Wanderlei, like Jardine, did not wilt nor go down. They both stood tall and banged with Liddell. Wanderlei wasn't as lucky in the decision aspect of things as Jardine was, but he stood toe-to-toe with Liddell and gave as good as he got. The fans even seemed to respond better to Wanderlei after the fight than they did for Chuck. It was almost as if the fans had lost a little bit of love for Liddell that night. Not because he won or because who he beat, but because they didn't see what they seemingly paid for. A signature Liddell win that was capped by a vicious knockout. Perhaps his next fight would deliver on that for the fans. Perhaps.
After a rumored (and scheduled) bout against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua was put on the back-burner, Liddell accepted a fight against "Sugar" Rashad Evans at UFC 88: Breakthrough. And breakthrough is exactly what Evans did, right through Liddell's jaw. Literally. In a fight where many people wondered exactly what would Evans' strategy be, he surprised the world and did what no one thought he could do. He stood with Liddell. And at the end of the night, he was the only one of the two actually left standing. The first round was a back-and-forth affair that Liddell seemed to control, for the most part. The second round started with much of the same but then the unthinkable happened. One of Liddell's patent looping punches was dunked under and countered with the most vicious right hand this side of the Mississippi. Evans brought a fist straight out of the Stone Age and put it right to Chuck's jaw, sending him crashing to the cage floor without an ounce of consciousness inside of him. Even the look on Evans said it all. He stood there, somewhat worried and somewhat shocked. But somewhat in awe of what had just happened. The seemingly impossible to slay Chuck Liddell was not just defeated, but knocked into a state of emergency. And with that, Evans earned his title shot against champion Forrest Griffin. But it was with that right hand from hell that led to the main question. How much does Chuck Liddell really have left?
I think it's safe to say that no one truly knows. No one but Chuck himself. He recently stated that he wants to fight Keith Jardine in March at UFC 96, saying "We have Jardine listed. We want him in March." And the truth is, does Liddell really want that fight? He might say that he does, but does he really? Sure, he can avenge a loss. It's something he seems to do quite well, outside of his second run-in with Rampage. But is it really needed? Should Liddell lose for the fourth time in five fights, where would that leave him? He would be left with the mid-level guys at 205. He'd have ducked the likes of Lyoto Machida as well as never fought a guy like Mauricio Rua, Forrest Griffin, and others.
For his sake, and I say this because I want to see a man know when to call it quits, I hope he is finally done. It's not to say that Liddell does not have anything left in the tank. I'm sure he does. And I'm sure he knows that he does. But enough is enough. In the past four fights, Liddell has tasted canvas and three times it has led to a defeat. Twice by way of knockout. One by a knockout that could actually end a man's career. And it should. It really should. Liddell is an icon for MMA. The guy that every man can relate to, somewhat. And the guy that every man can relate to needs to know when to call it quits. You don't want to be like Riddick Bowe out there, looking to fight for the last few scraps of money you can get your paws onto. If sports teach us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures, as well as our successes, with quiet dignity and grace. That line is from the great Gene Wilder.
So, Chuck, know when to hang them up. I think now is a great time. Don't be like Mark Coleman. Don't come back when you have no purpose to. And do not think that you are Randy Couture because your body is not one that can handle itself the way that Randy's can. Be Chuck Liddell. I know that you do not want the (MMA) world to remember the last time you walked out of the cage as the time you were carried out of it. But think of how much worse it could get for you. You have a whole life ahead of you. I know you have money saved. And I know you live a good life. So do the smart thing, retire while you can and while you think you have a chance to live to the best of your abilities. You might go through the "What If?" syndrome, but it's just that. Going through that syndrome after a few more knockouts is not worth it. Your life is what is important. So go live it.
Those who know me best know that I've never, once, cheered for Liddell. I've always despised what he stood for. However, in this day in age, I think he needs to think about himself more than about the fans. He needs to be selfish. And walk away with his head held high. A victory over Jardine in a rematch might do that for him, but a loss would go a long way to destroying the career he helped create. That aura of invincibility will be long gone and all that will be left is a pot-bellied 40-year old man with nothing left but his memories of a time long ago. And none of us, mostly him, want to see that happen.
So how much does Liddell really have left? Like I said, I'm sure he has a lot left. But for his sake, I hope not. No one wants to go through this anymore.
Chuck, thanks for everything. Just hang them up. Please.