Jonathan Snowden's piece earlier today reminded us that Chuck Liddell may have tarnished his legacy with sub par training in his final run as UFC champ. But to my mind there's a much bigger question about Chuck, was he really the best fighter of his era?
For the record, I've got Liddell near the top of the MMA All-time Mountaintop. He's up there with Royce Gracie, Kazushi Sakuraba, Frank Shamrock, Wanderlei Silva, Tito Ortiz and Fedor Emelianenko on my immortals list.
No less an authority than Jordan Breen says he was (transcript via Fight Opinion):
"At this moment in time, I would still call him the best Light Heavyweight ever."
"He has the greatest bulk of Top 10 wins and impressive performances against notable guys from his era that we've seen. I do think that will change, I mean the UFC just has so many top Light Heavyweights at this point in time that if we get a guy now, if you know Shogun put together a reign like Liddell his resume would just look insane so I mean that's another argument."
The biggest problem with anointing Chuck the best of all time, is that it was never 100% established that he was the best LHW of his era. It's not Chuck's fault. The reality is that throughout his peak era of 2001 - 2007, the UFC was facing a very tough competitor in PRIDE and they monopolized much of the best talent in the division.
So Chuck at his very best, despite dipping his toes into the PRIDE waters, never got to fight Wanderlei Silva at his peak from 2000-2004, never got to fight the surging young Mauricio "Shogun" Rua of 2005/2006, and lost badly to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson not once but twice in 2003 and 2007.
Regardless, by my count Chuck Liddell beat nine top-ranked fighters in his day (Pele Landi-Jons, Kevin Randleman, Guy Mezger, Murilo Bustamante, Amar Suloev, Vitor Belfort, Babalu Sobral, Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture).
This outshines Wanderlei Silva's five (Guy Mezger, Dan Henderson, Kazushi Sakuraba, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Ricardo Arona), Mauricio Shogun Rua's four (Rampage, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Ricardo Arona, and Lyoto Machida -- Randleman wasn't top ranked when Shogun beat him), Tito Ortiz' five (Jerry Bohlander, Guy Mezger, Wanderlei Silva, Evan Tanner, and Vladimir Matyushenko), Rampage Jackson's five (Kevin Randleman, Murilo Bustamante, Chuck Liddell, Ricardo Arona, Matt Lindland and Dan Henderson), or Randy Couture's three (not counting heavyweights here -- Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Vitor Belfort).
There are some arguable calls in there, mostly having to do with how close to peak some of those guys were when they got beat, but be warned, I'll be watching the comments with the ban hammer in hand. Fighters will be respected in this thread. I don't want to see a single "Jerry Bohlander?!? He sucked" from you ignoramuses.
By my count, it's inarguable that Chuck racked up more wins against top contenders than anyone of his era. Let's run through the notables in the full entry.
It will forever remain unknown if the Chuck of 2005 could've beaten the Shogun of 2005, but I'd wager that based on their 2007 bout that Chuck would've beaten Wanderlei. I don't think he'd have beaten Rampage in a lifetime of trying though. But it's interesting to think that had Liddell trained for Keith Jardine the way he trained for Rich Franklin he would've gotten a third bite at that apple
But let me close the main piece with this quote from Jim Ross (HT who me):
Liddell should have a job for life in UFC as he laid many blocks in the foundation of the fastest growing sports entity in the world.
Your work is done Chuck. Thank you so much for all the memories. Now take your passion, charisma and knowledge and help UFC grow even bigger by focusing outside the Octagon.
He notched his first big win in his second MMA fight -- taking a decision over the legendary Jose "Pele" Landi-Jons, already famous as the trailblazer of the Chute Boxe style. Pele was too small to be fighting Chuck, but that's how things were done in 1998. At the time Pele had a 13-2 record over the best competition fighting in Brazil. Most expected Chuck to lose.
Then in 2001, Liddell got the first of the epic wins that established his Sprawl n' Brawl style as kryptonite to wrestlers when he KO'd former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman. At the time Randleman was 9-4 and moving down to 200lbs after dropping the heavyweight title to Randy Couture and he'd go on to take a decision over Babalu Sobral at UFC 35. The Randleman that Chuck destroyed bore little resemblance to the clownish loser of the PRIDE era that Randleman became.
Then Chuck went to Japan and beat Guy Mezger in the PRIDE ring. Mezger is truly one of the forgotten men of MMA history. If you actually watch the fight today (or Mezger's 2000 "loss" to Sakuraba), you'll see why Guy Mezger was so highly regarded back in the day. A solid kickboxer who had honed his ground game in the Pancrase meat grinder, Mezger actually dropped Chuck with a hard shot before Liddell finished him late. Up to that point, Mezger was 12-4 in MMA (Pancrase doesn't count) and had only been soundly beaten by Tito Ortiz and Wanderlei Silva.
When Liddell notched his win over Murilo Bustamante, Butamante was viewed as one of the best fighters from the best camps (Carlos Gracie Jiu Jitsu). He'd already gone to a draw with 285lb wrestler Tom Erikson and beaten Lion's Den star Jerry Bohlander. He would go on to drop a division and beat Dave Menne and Matt Lindland. Murilo also took Rampage to a split decision in the opening round of the very same tournament where Rampage would finish Chuck. Admittedly, Liddell's win over Bustamante was less than satisfying as he won a decision based largely on his ability to foil Murilo's take downs and not much more. But just take my word for it kids, when that fight was booked, smart people went "ooooo" great fight and Liddell wasn't expected to win.
He followed that win by beating Amar Suloev who brought a 13-2 record against some of Russia and Brazil's best. Suloev was a well-rounded fighter, dangerous both standing and on the ground. Arguably undersized for Chuck, he would go on to notch wins over Yushin Okami, Dean Lister, and Murilo Bustamante.
It was his back-to-back wins over Vitor Belfort and Renato "Babalu" Sobral in 2002 that really established Chuck at the very top. Belfort was already known as more erratic than phenomenal, but he still remained very dangerous and brought a 10-2 record to the fight. And Vitor gave Chuck a great fight. Belfort's 1998 annihilation of Wanderlei Silva also gave MMA-thmeticians plenty to bolster claims of Chuck > Wanderlei after Chuck dropped Belfort in the third to take a hard fought decision.
Beating Sobral in 2002 was impressive, but arguably less impressive than beating him again in 2006. But nevertheless, Babalu was the epitome of the dangerous wrestler/grappler that Chuck just feasted on. Babalu already had a 20-4 record and Fedor, Dan Henderson and Kevin Randleman had all been forced to be satisfied with decision wins over Sobral. Part of Sobral's image problem today comes from Chuck's highlight reel KO's over him. He would go on to put together a very impressive ten fight streak before losing again to Chuck. MMAthmeticians noted Sobral's 2003 win over Shogun Rua when trying to compare the UFC vs PRIDE.
Chuck had a rough 2003, getting finished by both Randy Couture and Rampage Jackson, but he did finish Alistair Overeem. Obviously the 205lb Overeem was not the monster he is today, but it's still a solid win on the Liddell resume.
Then Chuck finally got locked in the cage with Tito Ortiz who'd been avoiding fighting him for years at that point. Tito's best days were already behind him, but let's not forget he was 10-3 with his only unavenged losses coming to Frank Shamrock at his peak and Randy Couture. Tito's six fight run as UFC light heavyweight champ is still unmatched. Chuck showed with this fight that he truly had the formula to beat the best ground and pound artists in the game.
For me, it was Chuck's two wins over Randy Couture to avenge the 2003 loss in 2005/2006 that represent his apex. Couture had shown a way to beat Chuck in their first fight, using sharp jabs and tight footwork to get inside on Chuck and then beat him down in the clinch. Liddell showed he could adjust his game plan by dismantling Randy twice.
It's not often mentioned, but the great Chuck vs Randy vs Tito vs Belfort series is one of the best round robins in the history of the sport. After seeing each of the four face each other, a definitive pecking order was clearly established, with Chuck at the top. I really wish Babalu had gotten to face any of the other three because I believe he might have been the second best fighter of that group at his peak.
NOTE: It's absolutely critical to establish that post-facto evaluations of fighters to degrade wins over them is not valid. There are too many moving factors in MMA to allow for the kind of "in retrospect fighter XX wasn't really any good because he later lost to Y and Z". That's horseshit and infuriates me. There are too many variables in an MMA career for us to ever have perfect knowledge. When two fighters at the top of their career arcs meet, we can only rate the winner based on how his opponent was ranked before the fight.