Let's get the most basic points out of the way up front. Chuck Liddell is a legend. If you were starting a MMA Hall of Fame, Liddell would likely be a first ballot inductee. When Zuffa first got onto national television with The Ultimate Fighter, the sport needed a star to capture the throngs of new fans attracted by the violent game of human chess in the Octagon. Liddell was that star, replacing Ken Shamrock as the new sport's most popular and famous athlete.
Liddell was everywhere: the cover of ESPN: The Magazine, a cameo on Entourage, appearances (we'll get to this later) on local news broadcasts. Not only was he the mohawked perpetrator of incredible violence, he also provided a built in counter point to critics everywhere. "See this man?' Dana White could ask a skeptical reporter. 'He's an accountant.'
For all of his public relations punch, Liddell was no paper champion. He was the real deal in the cage, presenting a unique challenge to opponents. He was a wrestler who could punch. Jiu Jitsu aces like Murillo Bustmante couldn't control him on the ground and neither could wrestlers like Tito Ortiz. With Liddell leading the way, "Sprawl and Brawl" became a legitimate and incredibly effective fighting strategy.
You could make a valid case that from 2005-2006 Liddell was the best fighter in the world. It's a short window, shortened by lifestyle and effort issues, making "The Iceman" a tantalizing what might have been.
During the middle of Chuck's reign on top of the sport, the whispers began. If there was a party on the West coast, you were likely to see Chuck Liddell there. He was spotted, over and over again, with the tell-tale signs of a certain kind of partying: itchy nose, twitchy and hyper body movements, and darting eyes. People began to talk openly about his problems after a bizarre performance in Dallas hyping the movie 300.
It was a lifestyle that was clearly affecting his game in the cage. Liddell was distracted. The poster boy for a growing sport came to the cage out of shape, often sporting a beer belly that became a signature part of his appearance. For Liddell, who regularly went out to nightclubs until the break of dawn on fight week, there was little in the way of critique from the MMA media. The Dallas interview led the Nevada State Athletic Commission to test Liddell for drugs. He passed with flying colors, although most recreational drugs would have long been out of his system anyway. Trainer John Hackleman told Sherdog.com that Liddell had likely been using Nyquill to sleep. Later he changed his story to include prescription sleep medication. Former manager Dana White was concerned enough to step in:
"That was a whole nother story! I wouldn’t say that was an intervention either," White said about Liddell’s "Good Morning Texas" appearance. "I just stepped in and said, ‘What are you doing and who let you go on TV that morning? They need to be hung from the streetlight and beat like a piñata, whoever let you go on that show.’"
Two months after this debacle, Liddell was unceremoniously dropped to the canvas by a Quinton Jackson right hand. Little did we know at the time, but Liddell's career as a top fighter was over that day. Losses piled up, but the lifestyle stayed the same.Liddell lost a decision to the unheralded Keith Jardine and then was knocked unconscious by Jardine's teammate Rashad Evans in Atlanta.
What's troubling about Liddell's fall from the top of the sport is the nonchalance that surrounded it. Liddell continued to employ the same strategies and increasingly savvy opponents knew exactly what he was going to do. As all star training camps became en vogue, Liddell stayed in his comfort zone, training with Hackleman in California at the famous Pit. Before traveling to Pride to fight in the 2003 Grand Prix, White sent Liddell to train in Las Vegas, importing some of the top fighters in the game to help get Liddell ready, a team of training partners that included Phil Baroni, Matt Hughes and Jay Hieron. Liddell hated the training camp, and after losing to Jackson, never went back to preparing with top level fighters.
The loyalty is commendable, but sometimes personal relationships have to give way in the fight game. Liddell couldn't bring himself to cut ties with the camp that helped make him the fighter he had become, and the result was stagnation. Hackleman's gym has produced no other top tier fighters-when Chuck's natural gifts were no longer enough to win, his team couldn't help him devise a new gameplan or come to the cage with new skills in tow. The Liddell who fought Rich Franklin Saturday night was the same fighter who took on Vernon White at UFC 49 back in 2004. The difference? In 2004 Chuck could push forward and take a shot to give one. By 2010, the same kind of punches put him to sleep.
Liddell is a legend and his contributions to the sport have helped propel MMA into the stratusphere. But, in the cage, Liddell was never the fighter he might have been. The short list of the very best includes names like Royce, Rutten, Fedor, and GSP-it could have included "the Iceman" too, but the pull of the fast life was a little too strong, he stayed out a little too late, partied a little too hard. It's the difference between being a famous fighter and being a great fighter. Liddell walked that line for as long as he could, eventually becoming MMA's first victim of the limelight.