Liddell’s fiercest opponent may be himself

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LAS VEGAS – There was a time Chuck Liddell might have had the strongest chin in mixed martial arts. Hit him with a big shot and he’d grin maniacally and fire a power-packed punch of his own in return. Few men could take the blows Liddell could absorb and remain conscious, let alone upright.

And now, it seems, neither can Liddell.

The most popular fighter in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been knocked out in three of his last five bouts, including his last two, and was urged to retire by his close friend, UFC president Dana White, following a knockout loss to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 97 in Montreal in April 2009.

Chuck Liddell's performance has tapered off in his latest bouts but he's opting to return to the Octagon.
(Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

Liddell is not a man without options, and he doesn’t need to fight to make a living. He’s got plenty of money, and White has promised him a job for life. Yet, despite the warning signs, he’s opted to return to the cruelest sport.

He’ll appear as a coach in Season 11 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which will debut March 31 on Spike TV, and then will fight bitter rival and opposing coach Tito Ortiz at UFC 115 on June 12 in Vancouver.

Fighters are unlike any other athletes alive and accept risks that few others would ever consider. There’s something inside of them that is different from the rest of us that makes them willing to put their bodies in harm’s way again and again.

Athletes in other sports who overstay their welcome simply suffer embarrassment. A pitcher who loses four or five miles off his fastball doesn’t leave the game with brain damage; he only suffers the indignity of a bad record and a bloated earned run average. But a fighter who has been repeatedly knocked out and comes back for more risks a lot more than just another defeat.

Liddell, 41, who has an accounting degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, is well aware of the risks any fighter accepts. Despite his recent losing skein, though, he insists he’s at no greater risk than he was when he was in his prime and the most-feared gunslinger in the UFC.

They all say that, of course.

Sometimes, they’re right, but overwhelmingly they are not. When they’re not, even in the best-case scenario, they wind up with something like pugilistic dementia.

Liddell took eight months off without so much as hitting a mitt after his loss to Rua in order to allow his body to heal. He dearly loves to fight and kept a brutal pace, not only by fighting some of the world’s best punchers but also by sparring regularly in the gym. After he was blasted by Rua, he knew a long rest was in order.

“That’s one of the reasons I took some time off,” Liddell said. “It takes time to heal. I didn’t even hit the mitts until January, and I’ve only had a couple of light sparring sessions since then. One of the reasons I took some time off was because I thought I was being hurt by shots that don’t normally hurt me in the Shogun fight.

“That’s what prompted me to want to take a year off. I never thought about retiring. I still think I can beat people. I still think I can fight.”

In his defense, he’s faced some of the meanest men any man could face. He was knocked out by a shot from Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 71 that probably would have knocked down a wall.

He survived a three-round firefight with Wanderlei Silva and was knocked out in UFC 88 by a lightning-fast shot he did not see from Rashad Evans.

But when he was knocked out by Rua, White had seen enough and took the initiative at the post-fight news conference to announce Liddell’s retirement.

“He can still sell out shows and he can still sell pay-per-views, but he’s done,” White said that night. “He helped build this company and he helped build this sport, but he’s done. Even Michael Jordan turned 40, and he was done.”

Liddell didn’t come out definitively one way or another, but in the face of White’s unrelenting pressure to retire, Liddell said at the news conference, “It’s probably the end.”

The more he thought about it, though, the more he decided he could still compete. He simply could no longer keep up the pace he kept as a younger man. Liddell took the rest of 2009 off. He decided not to throw and, more significantly, not to take any more punches for the rest of the year.

Last month, on one of the final days of filming of TUF 11, he looked very physically fit, broad through the chest and shoulders with a flat stomach. But a ripped body has nothing to do with how well a fighter can take a punch.

Liddell, though, has no concern. He believes he’s done what he needs to do to protect himself and is convinced he’s still among the top 205-pounders in the world.

“I can still beat anybody in the world at my weight, so make of that what you will,” Liddell said. “The difference now is, there was a time when I didn’t think anybody could beat me. Now, it’s a slight shift. I don’t think there’s anybody I can’t beat.”

Ortiz, clearly, is one of those men. He’s already knocked Ortiz out twice and wasn’t interested in facing him a third time when White initially broached the subject.

“I didn’t want to give him the exposure,” Liddell said.

White, though, is as persuasive as he is strong-willed, and he convinced Liddell to take the spot as a coach on TUF and to fight Ortiz after the season ended. Liddell reluctantly agreed, but it wouldn’t be long before he’d be champing at the bit to get his hands on Ortiz again.

Especially after Ortiz told reporters at TUF 11 media day that Liddell is a recovering alcoholic and that White did an intervention to get him treatment.

“Thank God that Dana gave him an intervention, and he’s sober now,” Ortiz said. “He’s been sober since November, and he looks like a different person. It’s awesome. I’m proud of him, really proud of him. A lot of people can’t do that. I kind of went through that myself, but I looked in the mirror and I realized that wasn’t the life I wanted to lead. Liddell avoided rock bottom and a disastrous outcome.

“I’m proud he’s found sobriety. A lot of fighters, and a lot of people in general, don’t do that. They fall off the face of the earth, and sometimes they’ll find them in a hotel, dead, or behind a wheel, dead. Thank God Chuck isn’t one of those guys. Thank God he found sobriety, and I’m proud of him, very proud of him.”

Liddell denies he’s an alcoholic or that White did any sort of intervention. He conceded he likes to drink and said when he does, he frequently gets rip-roaring drunk. He said, however, he could start and stop when he wants.

White also denied doing any sort of intervention and chalked it up to “Tito being Tito.”

Liddell, though, was suddenly eager to fight Ortiz again.

“I just didn’t want to give him the press, or give him the exposure from the show, for nothing,” Liddell said of Ortiz. “Dealing with him for 40-something days, I wasn’t really too excited about that either. I just don’t like the guy, and I really didn’t want to be bothered. I finally agreed and on the first day, he goes out and says I had to have an intervention and that I’m an alcoholic.

“The intervention, according to him, was in September. I didn’t stop drinking until late November when I started getting ready for the show. It’s one of those things, that as I’ve gotten older and older, I’ve taken longer to get ready for fights. I treat my body better and better now as I’ve gotten older. So what he says, it just isn’t true and didn’t fit in with anything close to what the facts are.”

Liddell says he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol since he began training for the reality series and won’t until after he meets Ortiz in June. He’s going to come hard after Ortiz when the fight starts to make him pay for his comments.

“Coming into this, the only thing that worried me about fighting him was coming in with that attitude that, ‘Oh, I’ve already knocked this guy out twice,’ and treating it like a tune-up fight,” Liddell said. “But I was confident that somewhere within the span of the show, he would do or say something that would get me motivated to train the right way. And guess what? First week, he did. I was like, ‘Done and done.’ I’m ready to go after him. I’m going to train to bury him. I’m going to hurt him. I’m going to knock him out.

“I got him in the third and I got him in the second, now I’m going for the first. I want the hat trick.”

So Liddell soldiers on, believing he can reclaim his past glory. He believes he can get to the top in what is the deepest weight class in the UFC. If he gets the knockout against Ortiz, as he’s done twice before, he’ll almost certainly continue to fight. And he’s going to face increasingly better opposition the more he wins.

White tried to save Liddell from himself and force him to retire after UFC 97. But when Liddell insisted, White essentially threw his hands up in the air.

“I’m his friend, not his father,” White said plaintively.

Liddell insists he’ll walk away when he doesn’t believe he’s capable of competing. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but the fighters are usually the last to know when they’ve lost it.

Liddell doesn’t believe he has. For his sake, I sure hope he’s right.

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 12, 2010