LAS VEGAS – After six years of near misses and strange twists and turns in negotiations, Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva finally faced each other in a mixed martial arts bout Saturday.
It was worth the wait.
MMA fans had been teased for years by the prospect of a showdown between two men who rank among the greatest light heavyweights in the sport's history.
There was the time when Liddell traveled to Japan to meet Silva in a bout in a Pride Fighting Championship tournament. One round before they were scheduled to meet, Liddell was beaten by Quinton Jackson.
And then there was the time when Pride officials brought Silva to Las Vegas, where UFC officials were so confident they had a deal in place that they brought Silva into the cage to face Liddell during one of its biggest pay-per-views in its history to that point. But the fight didn't occur when negotiations crumbled.
There were many other snags in negotiations, both before and after, that at times it seemed the bout would never occur.
On Saturday, though, Liddell and Silva showed in a shootout for the ages why fans had been salivating at the prospect of seeing the sluggers locked in a cage together.
"Wasn't that incredible?" a bug-eyed UFC president Dana White exclaimed as he hugged just about everyone he bumped into in Liddell's joyous locker room.
It was perhaps fitting that in a battle between two men where the unexpected always ruled, the unexpected occurred in their finest hour Saturday when the bout went to a decision instead of ending in the predictable knockout.
Liddell won a unanimous verdict and regained much of the mojo he'd lost in back-to-back defeats, to Jackson at UFC 71 and Keith Jardine at UFC 76.
Judges Adalaide Byrd and Dave Hagen each had it 30-27, giving all three rounds to the 38-year-old former champion. Tony Weeks scored it 29-28, giving Silva the second round.
In a fight that was one of the best of recent times, Liddell had just a little more of everything and pulled out a victory in a bout that had the sellout crowd of 11,075 roaring from start to finish. And it was a Liddell not seen much in recent years.
The one-time collegiate wrestling star at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo had become one-dimensional in recent years, eschewing his wrestling and ground skills, instead relying upon his vaunted power. But he took Silva down twice – "It was easy. Really easy," Liddell said – and worked the former Pride champion over from the ground. One of the benefits of the takedown was that he was able to dole out punishment as Silva was getting up.
It was, Liddell said, a way to give Silva more to worry about than just defending the right. The plan worked to perfection, as Silva was never able to open up on Liddell like he'd done on so many opponents en route to becoming one of the biggest names in the history of the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championship.
Liddell applied the cherry on top of the sundae late in the third when he unleashed a spinning back fist that caught Silva on top of the head. Though the punch didn't land flush, it seemed to startle Silva. He backed to the cage and Liddell landed three rights that nearly put him out on his feet. Silva was bleeding, from his ear from a cut above his eye, and barely kept his balance.
"I'll tell you what, he takes a lot better shot than I thought he could," Liddell said. "I hit him with a lot of right hands and I kept thinking he'd go (down), but he recovered fast. He was right there. That was really impressive."
Silva, who was taken to a local hospital after the fight, hit Liddell with punches that most times would have ended the fight. But Liddell, who is known for the strength of his chin, stood up to them repeatedly and came back firing.
Liddell said he was never in danger of going down, but said he was quite aware of the danger Silva posed.
"I was never what I would say was buzzed," Liddell said, sitting on a bench in his locker room moments after the win. "But he hit me with a couple of really good shots where I'd say, 'Damn, this guy can punch.' I couldn't just rush in there on him."
The win was among the sweetest of Liddell's illustrious career. He had been angry at many of the Pride fans who had taunted him for not having fought Silva.
Liddell had always wanted the fight, desperately, but because the men were in different organizations it couldn't be made. The taunts finally got to the normally unflappable Liddell after a while.
"I never had anything against Wanderlei, but it was those Pride fans who got me," Liddell said. "They're getting on me about not fighting the guy. I'm like, 'I'm in UFC and he's in Pride. What do you want me to do?' I would have fought him in the backyard if I could have."
But MMA fans are fortunate it happened before a sellout crowd and what figures to be a large pay-per-view audience, despite the competition from the New England Patriots' bid for a perfect record on free television.
If it's not the fight of the year, the fight that beats it out for that honor will clearly have been one for the history books.
An exuberant Liddell, who had been derided for his partying ways, proved conclusively he's back in the mix.
"I want my title back," Liddell said, grinning.
If he fights Jackson, who has beaten him twice, like he fought Silva on Saturday, he'll give himself a great opportunity to get it back. But this night was not so much about one man's quest for the belt as it was a celebration of what the sport can be at its best.
"That," White said, "is why I worked like a dog for seven years to get this fight made. That was absolutely unreal."