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Will UFC 97 Be Over and Out for Chuck Liddell?

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3449579037_ecee941844_mediumThe pressure is on the Iceman. From Beau Dure in USA Today:

At 39, Liddell is at a crossroads. One path leads to a chance to reclaim his light heavyweight belt. Another leads to a slide down the UFC ladder, and UFC President Dana White has made that known. "I'm planning on coming out and knocking (Rua) out," Liddell says. "So hopefully that will be enough to keep (White) interested in me fighting."

...

Since (his loss to Rashad Evans), Liddell has been facing questions about his style, with fists held low to set up looping punches. "I got a little impatient. … I got in a bad position and got caught," Liddell says. "I don't think it's because I'm predictable. … You know I'm going to come and try to knock you out. But I don't think it's that simple."

Liddell has said multiple times, including during the press conference after the Evans loss, that he'll make his retirement decision in the gym, not after a fight.

"I love fighting," he says. "I get paid a lot of money to do what I love for a living. I don't think that that takes much motivation past that, but I do still want to end up on top and with the title."

Jason Bent at MMA Torch analyzes the decline:

Chuck Liddell has trained at "The Pit" under the watchful gaze of longtime trainer John Hackleman, and while everyone can and should respect his loyalty to those who have brought him to the dance it has been considered thickheaded of him not to have sought out additional coaching to better his game. The most glaring weakness that I can see is Liddell’s loss of his reflexes, and this is a natural progression as age will do this to all of us; but what this has meant for Chuck is that he can no longer get away with the sloppy defense which has been a trademark of his game for so many years. Liddell drops his hands often and at times will do so while stepping backwards, which is a recipe for disaster and what brought him defeat at the hands of Jackson at UFC 71. It has been painfully clear to all of us that this old dog seemed unwilling to learn any new tricks, and this is why recent reports of his working out with American Top Team have been both shocking and intriguing at the same time.

John Hackleman told Fighthype in December that Liddell would be training with American Top Team in an effort to round out his skills and try to take advantage of their wonderful group of guys, and this is what makes it seem possible for Chuck to return to some of his former glory. By no means can Liddell fully alter his fighting style, nor should he throw it all out and start again at this stage, but he could perhaps work on bringing back his wrestling game while shoring up his defensive skills. Liddell can make up for lost reflexes by working on technique, and perhaps after suffering such a defeat at the hands of Evans it became painfully clear to him that something needed to change. John Hackleman is from all accounts a great guy, and someone you would love to have in the foxhole with you as you prepare for battle, but I think his relationship with Liddell got a little too comfortable and as a result it became increasingly hard for Hackleman to point out the errors of his friend’s ways. That is why a change of scenery could have been the best thing for him, and any time spent with American Top Team will surely signify that we could be seeing a return to the old winning ways for Liddell while possibly seeing a new "Iceman."

I've blogged repeatedly about Chuck's training at ATT which can only be a good thing, but I remain skeptical that a 39 year old dog can learn that many new tricks.

The best thing Chuck has going for him in this fight is a huge stylistic edge over Shogun Rua. Even in his best days, without soccer kicks and head stomps, Rua doesn't have a great finishing option against Chuck. That's even IF he's able to get the Iceman to the ground.

But if Chuck's reflexes really have declined or he fights (another) dumb fight and tries to force the action and headhunt, Shogun will have more than the proverbial puncher's chance.

Dana White started all of this talk but reeled it back in at the UFC 97 press conference. From Ariel Helwani:

UFC president Dana White recently mentioned that unless Liddell looks great on Saturday night against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, his days in the UFC may be numbered. However, at Thursday's UFC 97 press conference in Montreal, the UFC president put to rest any rumors that Liddell may have to look for a new employer sometime soon. 

"I think early on, when I first made this statement publicly, it got blown out of proportion like most of my public statements," White said. "He and I sat down before this fight was made and had a long talk. Everybody knows my relationship with him, and it was basically I was saying it, you know, out of friendship. People were like, ' Oh, so you're going to kick Chuck Liddell to the curb?' Far from it. Whether he's fighting or retired, he's going to be with the UFC till I'm dead."