ATLANTA – Have no doubt that unless he voluntarily decides to quit, Chuck Liddell will land another big Ultimate Fighting Championship match. He'll come prancing to the ring to the roars of a crowd that loves him no matter what.
But unless the UFC's biggest attraction begins to diversify his game, he's not going to have any more of the triumphant victories that have made him the face of mixed martial arts.
"The Iceman" was knocked out with a single overhand right in the second round of an otherwise uneventful fight Saturday by Rashad Evans at UFC 88 at Philips Arena. Like he'd done when he lost his light heavyweight title to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson last year, Liddell missed an uppercut and paid for it by getting knocked out.
The cold, hard facts are these: Liddell has lost three of his past four and has not beaten a fighter coming off of a victory since he blew out Tito Ortiz in December 2006. Since, Liddell has been TKO'd by Jackson, lost a desultory decision to Keith Jardine and won a stirring victory over Wanderlei Silva.
In each of those bouts, there were no surprises in Liddell's game. He moved forward, looking to load up on the fight-ending right hand.
A superb kick boxer, the 38-year-old Liddell has largely eschewed his kicks. A former college wrestler, Liddell seems to have no use for his wrestling. And though he has very good jiu-jitsu skills, he hasn't shown them in years.
Liddell has enough power in his hands to win any fight he takes. But the competition is increasing so quickly and fighters are diversifying their games so much that Liddell can't simply rely on being a gunslinger any longer.
"It would complement his striking if he would mix it up more," said one of Liddell's peers, 38-year-old former PRIDE champion Dan Henderson, who captured a unanimous decision earlier Saturday over young gun Rousimar Palhares.
Henderson pointed out that Liddell mixed his attack well against Silva in December, taking him down several times in an effort to give the hard-hitting Brazilian something to worry about in addition to his hands.
There was none of that on Saturday, though, just as there was none of it against Jardine or Jackson last year.
"I've been working on my takedowns and I've been working on everything," said Liddell, who was sporting a nasty welt under his right eye. "I just got caught."
There's no reason, though, that Liddell needs to resort to becoming the one-dimensional striker he's been more often than not in the last two years.
Even the best fastball pitchers are unable to throw the 98-mph heater past good hitters if that's all they throw.
And for the better part of two years, Liddell has simply relied upon his 98-mph heater.
Naturally, given his age and his losses, there will be plenty of talk about retirement. And, asked about it at the post-fight news conference, Liddell was non-committal.
"I'm definitely going to take a little time," Liddell said. "I've always said that when I retire, I'll decide in the training room and not after a fight."
Though the calls will come, there's no need for him to retire. He's not taking a lot of punishment and hasn't demonstrably slowed. He was knocked out twice with one punch and lost a close decision in the other.
He possesses everything he needs to once again be a dominant player in the UFC's marquee division, but he's simply put most of his tools back into the box and has chosen to rely only upon his hammer.
Liddell's longtime friend, UFC president Dana White, appeared crestfallen in the cage after the bout. He admitted to being shocked at the result at the post-fight news conference.
And White knows it cost him a lot of money, because with a win, Liddell was slated to fight Forrest Griffin for the UFC light heavyweight belt that would have pitted arguably the company's two most popular fighters against each other in a bout that would have had the cash registers overflowing.
Instead, that title shot will go to Evans, who surely has earned it.
Liddell has to regroup and fight his way back into contention. With men like Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Silva, Evans and Shogun Rua, among many others, in the division, Liddell is going to need to win at least two fights before White should even consider giving him another crack at the championship.
When he returns to training in his hometown of San Luis Obispo, Calif., Liddell will need to work on correcting the mistake with the uppercut he's made in his losses to Jackson and Evans. In both cases, he threw a right uppercut from outside, missed, and got caught with a counter shot.
"I guess that's a bad habit," Liddell (21-60 said. "I see that shot and I land it a lot, but I guess I leave myself open when I throw it. I need to get back in there and stop doing it. It's something to work on."
Evans (12-0-1) was able to get comfortable because all he had to work on was preparing for Liddell's strikes. If he had to worry about getting kick, or had to fend off a Liddell takedown, he might not have been so loose and confident.
He simply circled most of the night, looking for that one opening which would give him the career-defining win. When it came, he took full advantage.
Evans proved he's one of the world's elite fighters and may have beaten Liddell at his most diverse best.
But until Liddell starts using all of his weapons, no one will ever know.
- Rashad Evans