LAS VEGAS – Chuck Liddell has embodied everything that is great about mixed martial arts.
He's intelligent, soft-spoken and as humble as they come. But when the bell rang to signal the start of a fight, nobody fought harder or created more havoc than the guy who came to be known as "The Iceman" because of the concussive power of his fists.
Liddell announced his retirement Wednesday during a news conference at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas that was packed with fans and media, ending an era in which he literally helped put the sport on the map.
When UFC president Dana White and casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta completed their purchase of the company nearly 10 years ago, Liddell was one of its three most popular fighters, along with Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz.
Upon his retirement, Liddell – who moves into a role as executive vice president of business development with the Ultimate Fighting Championship – remains at the top of the list in terms of popularity. He's become an A-list celebrity because of his fierce style inside the cage and his open, approachable manner outside of it.
"People love real fighters, and no one ever fit that description better than Chuck," White said. "He loved this sport and he loved to fight. He didn't care about money. He didn't care about anything other than fighting. I was Chuck's manager before, and I can tell you that the only fights Chuck and I had in all the time we were together were that he wanted to fight more.
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"He was a gunslinger. He went out there and put his heart and soul into every [fight], and the fans picked up on that. He was the first real superstar of the UFC, of at least the time that we owned the company."
Back in January 2001 when White and the Fertittas purchased the UFC, the perception existed that the sport was barbaric and its fighters were little more than barroom brawlers. While Liddell was no stranger to the nightlife, he also redefined the perception of what an MMA fighter is.
Liddell owns a degree in accounting from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is a thoughtful, well-spoken man who barely speaks above a whisper. But he became the Babe Ruth of MMA by fighting with reckless abandon and going for the knockout against any and all comers.
In his prime, he was nearly impossible to take down, had a granite chin and punched as hard as anyone in the sport. He knocked out Couture – who, at 47, is himself making noise about retirement – to win the UFC light heavyweight title at UFC 52 on April 16, 2005. He was part of the first UFC card to sell more than a million on pay-per-view, hitting 1.05 million for his rematch with Ortiz at UFC 66.
That was his last true highpoint, however. He lost five of his last six fights and was knocked out in four of them. His incredibly competitive spirit urged him to fight on, even as White, his close friend, urged him to quit.
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"I've done this all my life and it's all I know – competing," Liddell said. "I've never been out of season. I've gone from karate to wrestling to football, and I was always competing all the way through. It's hard to make that decision to retire. I talked to my family, I talked to my coaches, John [Hackleman], about it.
Eventually, he came to the conclusion that retirement was the wisest course.
"I'm just not able to put it together anymore," he said. "I still compete with everybody in the gym, but I'm not able to put it together out there anymore. I don't know whether it's time or what it is, but I can't take a shot very well anymore. If that's what it is, fine. I have kids and I want to play with them and love them for the rest of my life. There are other things to do. This is something that I can be excited about."
Liddell, who turned 41 on Dec. 17, began to say that he was disappointed he went out on a losing note. But he stopped himself quickly, knowing he wouldn't have been able to make the decision to step away had his chin not betrayed him.
"I would liked to have gone out on a winning streak, but I don't think I would have left if I had been winning," he said. "I would have wanted to fight one more time to get a win, and if I won then, I would have just wanted to fight again. It's one of those things."
When he was between fights, Liddell traveled the country with White, reciting the sport's gospel. He answered every question patiently, even if he had done so thousands of times before. Each new city was a new opportunity to make a convert, and Liddell poured himself into that line of work.
When White and the Fertittas bought the UFC in 2001, most fighters also had second or additional jobs because there wasn't enough money in it to support themselves. Liddell fought because of his passion to compete, and not for the money. That passion rubbed off on the fan base.
Liddell became a multi-millionaire while fighting in the UFC and is one of the primary reasons for the sport's explosive growth. In 2004, Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, was $44 million in debt and the Fertittas told White to quietly look for a way out.
But in 2010 it promoted 33 fight cards in six countries on four continents between its UFC and WEC brands, and the UFC now is estimated to be worth $1 billion.
"When I first started in this sport, the end of the rainbow was probably a $50,000 check for a fight," Liddell said. "I have sponsors pay me more than that to wear a shirt now. It's grown so much. 'The Ultimate Fighter,' we didn't know what that was going to do. It was a last-ditch effort save it. They were $40-something million in the hole, and the first couple of weeks they couldn't even sell advertising.
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"They got the ratings back, and it was like, 'Wow, people do like the sport.' I always thought the sport would get here some day, but I would be lying if I said I thought it would get here this fast."
The sport is bigger than any one man, and it would have made it regardless. But Liddell pushed it far ahead of where it would have been without him. He is as important to the sport's growth as anyone.
And his new job will enable him to continue to help grow the sport that is as synonymous with him as his Mohawk haircut.
"Chuck is a part of this management team here, and this isn't some [expletive] PR job we've given him," White said. "He's diving into it full-time. He's going to do serious stuff, and I can't think of anybody who is a better partner to add than Chuck. Just like he was as a fighter, he's going to be phenomenal in this next stage."
- Chuck Liddell
- Dana White