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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Chuck Liddell and Dana White spent countless hours together in the last part of the last century and in the early part of the new one, swapping stories as they crisscrossed the country spreading the gospel of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
White was the indefatigable promoter who would never take no for an answer, working maniacally to build mixed martial arts into a mainstream sport. Liddell was the hard-partying, hard-charging slugger who always managed to bring the fans out of their seats with a highlight-reel knockout.
Little changed on Saturday, in what is almost certainly the final fight of the Hall of Famer's storied career, when he was stopped by Rich Franklin with five seconds left in the first round of their bout in the main event of UFC 115 at General Motors Place.
"He went out with guns a blazing," White said.
Liddell had to plead with White for a final chance to compete after having been knocked out in three of his previous five fights entering Saturday's match. He'd been knocked out by Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 71, by Rashad Evans at UFC 88 and then by Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 97 in Montreal on April 18, 2009.
White felt Liddell had taken enough punishment and was spending more energy carousing than he was training for his fights. He essentially announced Liddell's retirement after the loss to Rua.
But Liddell, who went from fighting for purses of less than $1,000 to earning paydays in excess of $1 million, couldn't bring himself to retire so easily.
"I just love to fight," Liddell said, repeatedly, before the bout.
So, he struck a deal with White: He'd clean up the lifestyle issues that concerned his friend and one-time manager and get himself into the kind of shape he'd been in when he was in his heyday. In return, White agreed to give him another chance.
And, indeed, Liddell's body looked fit and trim, much more like that of a 25-year-old than a 40-year-old.
He also went out with his style of fight, stalking Franklin and gunning for the knockout with every shot he threw.
"He follows big when he thinks he has you hurt," Franklin said. "But I was never as badly hurt as he thought I was."
Liddell was doing well in the bout and likely would have won the first round on the scorecards if it was completed. Not only did he land several good punches, but he was throwing high kicks, which he hadn't in years, and he mixed in some wrestling.
But his lust for the knockout, in a way, cost him the fight on Saturday.
He missed a big right hand and he swung so hard that his momentum carried him forward into Franklin. Franklin fired a right hook that had everything he could muster on it. The blow landed on Liddell's mouth and badly split his lip, almost down to the chin.
Liddell was out instantly, but Franklin landed a shot before referee Herb Dean could get in to stop it.
"Chuck Liddell came in fantastic shape; he worked hard for this thing and I think him and Rich Franklin tonight fought the type of fights that made them both famous and made them both world champions," White said in tribute to his friend, who was taken to a local hospital to be examined. "Those two went at it, nonstop, toe-to-toe. It was a fun fight."
The fight had major stakes for both men. Franklin was coming off a knockout loss to Vitor Belfort at UFC 103 in September and was a loser in two of his last three.
While most of the pre-fight attention was focused on Liddell and whether he could get it back together to, as he said, make a final run at the UFC light heavyweight title, the bout had significant implications for Franklin as well.
The light heavyweight division is one of the UFC's deepest. If Franklin had lost to Liddell, it would have been his third defeat in four outings and retirement might have been in the offing.
Franklin didn't want to acknowledge it, but he conceded after the bout that he understood he was walking a high-wire as well.
"It maybe was somewhere in the back of my mind, but I really try to push that stuff out," Franklin said. "What happened to me in my last fight will not predict what will happen to me in my next fight. I really believe that. On any given night, Chuck and I could do this 100 times and there would be several different outcomes.
"This happened to be my night, and last fight it wasn't. But you can't help but think that, 'Well, if I drop three of four, where would that leave me?' Any time you put your back against the wall in a no-win situation, where 'if I don't win this, it's over,' you take your mind off the important thing and that's focusing on my performance."
Franklin fought more than half of the fight with a broken left arm, suffered when he successfully blocked a high kick from Liddell about two minutes into the match.
He wasn't planning to quit, he said, but he knew it would help his cause if he could do something to end the fight quickly. When the bout ended, he beamed devilishly, because he knew he didn't have to figure a way to win the bout without his left arm.
"I was just happy the fight was over because I knew my arm was broken," Franklin said, explaining his grin. "I definitely wasn't going to quit. I've broken bones before and continued fighting, but there was part of me that was trying to figure what kind of strategy I was going to use to win a fight with a broken left arm."
Franklin pulled it out and so his career will continue forward, but Liddell will be left to move on to other things. White, who said, "I love Chuck Liddell," said his friend would have a job for life with the UFC.
But the man who was one of the most significant fighters in UFC history and who helped the company achieve the soaring popularity it now enjoys wanted that job to be swapping punches, at least a bit longer.
He goes out, though, on his own terms, having fought the best of his era and beaten nearly all of them. He finishes with a 21-8 record and a spot in the UFC Hall of Fame.
Six of Liddell's eight losses came against men who held a UFC title at one point in their careers (Jackson, twice; Couture, Evans, Rua and Franklin) and who themselves are among the best fighters in the sport's brief history.
Franklin called the victory "bittersweet" because he didn't want to become known as the man who retired Liddell.
The former middleweight champion scored the knockout, but it wasn't really Franklin who retired Chuck Liddell.
It was the calendar. Liddell got old and his chin betrayed him.
He went down, though, the way he fought his entire career, firing big punches and bringing the fans from their seats.
Few have ever done it better.
- Chuck Liddell
- Rich Franklin