Chuck Liddell and the Myth of the Real Fighter

via L.A. Times

By knocking out Chuck Liddell at UFC 115, Rich Franklin ushered in an avalanche of eulogies for Chuck Liddell's career. Amidst all the hurried hyperbole and retirement pleas, I came across this little gem in Ben Fowlkes' piece for MMA Fighting (emphasis mine):

Sure, I know everyone wants to go out on a win, but in the fight game it rarely works that way. Just try and talk a winning fighter into retiring. See how far that gets you. The truth is that all real fighters need to be beaten into retirement.

I'm sure men like Rocky Marciano, Lennox Lewis, Joe Calzaghe, and Bas Rutten would appreciate being told they aren't real fighters.

And just what is a "real fighter"? Is Anderson Silva not a "real fighter" because he refuses to press for a finish as his number one priority? Is Georges St-Pierre not a "real fighter" because he insists on fighting his opponent in their weakest realm? Is B.J. Penn not a "real fighter" for refusing to answer the bell and avoiding five minutes of unnecessary punishment?

Is Jorge Gurgel a "real fighter" for abandoning his fighting base in order to put on more exciting displays of sub-par kickboxing? Is Tank Abbott a "real fighter" because he'll enter the cage and brawl for beer money? Is Stephan Bonnar a "real fighter" for taking steroids in order to keep his name on a show?

Maybe I'm being glib. Maybe I'm unfairly taking Ben to task for what, by all accounts, appears to be a throwaway line in a rather pedestrian piece about the apparent end of Chuck Liddell's career. (And, as an aside, I'll believe that when I hear it from Chuck himself.) Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Or maybe not. Despite the teachings of honor and respect from the various martial arts, MMA is still plagued by the typical macho-jock culture that permeates any male-dominated athletic competition. Fighting a smart, safe fight is a surefire way to raise the ire of fans. Throwing caution to the wind, taking a punch for each one given is rewarded with job security and fan admiration.

Chuck Liddell's fight with Rich Franklin didn't make him any more or any less a fighter. Getting knocked out for the third time in as many fights isn't a fitting end to his career. Retiring after the long-awaited fight with Wanderlei Silva, win or lose, would have been a fitting end.

But Chuck Liddell is a real fighter whether he would have retired after the Wanderlei fight or decides to fight ten more times. He's a real fighter because he stepped into the cage and faced his inner fears. He's a real fighter because he challenged his skills against others. He's a real fighter because he fought.

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