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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – About 15 months after he declared his close friend retired at a news conference in Canada, UFC president Dana White spent much of his day on Thursday explaining why Chuck Liddell is fighting again on the other side of the country.
White spoke glowingly about changes Liddell made in his lifestyle, which was one of the requirements that White demanded of Liddell in order to agree to allow him to fight again.
"One of the ways I put my finger on the pulse and really find out is when I hear feedback from night clubs that he was absent," White said. "Chuck Liddell was nowhere to be found."
He raved about the way Liddell committed to his conditioning and noted he'd never seen Liddell in better shape. Liddell's midsection is, indeed, firm and taut and he's even showing the beginnings of a six-pack, a rarity for a guy whose love of the night life is second only to his love of a good fight.
Liddell said he was only about six or seven pounds over the light heavyweight division's 205-pound weight limit when he arrived in Vancouver for his fight in the main event of UFC 115 on Saturday at General Motors Place against ex-middleweight champion Rich Franklin.
He's proven everything he's had to prove that he's deserving of continuing his career and making a final run at the UFC's light heavyweight title except for one fairly significant detail: Whether he can still take a punch.
Liddell, arguably the most popular fighter in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, is 1-4 in his last five fights and has been knocked out in three of them. He hasn't scored a knockout or TKO himself since he stopped bitter rival Tito Ortiz on Dec. 30, 2006. He is legendary for his punching power, but one of the secrets to his success has long been his ability to take a shot and keep coming. But in the last three years, his chin has betrayed him.
Liddell, though, remains undaunted and, even at 40 and without a win in more than two years, believes he is still one of the elite fighters in the world.
"I think I'm different, but I'm still good," Liddell said. "The other talent is getting good, too. The difference now is there was a time when no one could beat me. Now, it's that there is no one I can't beat. It's a little difference, but I'm still there. I can still win this thing."
On his way to the championship, he'd intimidate opponents with his ability to take their best punch. In his UFC debut, at UFC 17 on May 15, 1998, in Mobile, Ala., Noe Hernandez caught him early with an overhand right on the chin.
The overhand right was Hernandez's money punch and it landed perfectly. When Liddell walked through it, Liddell noticed the look in Hernandez's eye.
"That crushes a guy," Liddell said. "That's very disheartening."
He concedes that although Mauricio "Shogun" Rua is a big puncher, the shot that Rua landed at UFC 97 last year in Montreal was not that big of a punch. White essentially announced Liddell's retirement that night and Liddell half-heartedly said, "This is probably it."
Liddell wasn't ready to give up that easily, however. He landed a gig on "Dancing with the Stars" and won $10,000 in a side bet with White when he made 215 pounds after beginning his workouts for the show a shade under 240.
That began to sew the seed of a return in White's mind, because he'd become concerned that Liddell was spending more time carousing than training. Liddell admitted as much, but he knew that what he needed more than anything after the loss to Rua was rest. He didn't so much as hit the mitts until December and didn't spar for the first time until February.
"I didn't spar for all that time to give myself a rest and, hopefully, the chin is back," Liddell said. "They say you can recover it and so hopefully I did. And I'm working hard to try to protect it a little better, too."
A big part of Liddell's task will be to convince White that his chin is no longer a question. He doesn't necessarily have to win to get White's blessing to keep fighting – though that wouldn't at all hurt – but he can't afford to be dropped with the first clean punch that Franklin lands.
White knows full well what a challenge Franklin can be. Franklin lost a close split decision to Dan Henderson in Dublin, Ireland, at UFC 93 last year, but Henderson came out of the fight terribly banged up.
White flew with Henderson back from Ireland to Las Vegas to begin filming "The Ultimate Fighter" and said Henderson showed the results of the battle for weeks.
"Dan Henderson was busted up, hurt bad," White said. "It took him a few weeks before he felt normal again. Rich Franklin is tough and people don't realize it. Chuck's in for a tough fight."
Given that, if Liddell gets through the fight without getting knocked out, it will be a big step in his favor.
White, while insisting he's proud of the way Liddell changed his lifestyle, said he's worried about the durability of his friend's chin. Another knockout almost certain would mean an end to the Hall of Famer's career.
"There is a belief that once your chin goes, it goes," White said. "We've seen it with guys in boxing and in MMA. But the other thing is, Chuck Liddell was a zombie, man. He was literally walking around like a zombie. You can't go out and party every night and then go and roll into a camp for four weeks and go out and fight. It doesn't work.
"This guy took a long time off, which I'm usually not a fan of, either. Ring rust is real. I believe in it and I've seen it with tons of people. In Chuck Liddell's case, though, he needed that time off. He needed that time off. As goofy as this sounds, it's true: The time on 'Dancing with the Stars' was good for him. He took it seriously and he started to get into shape for that show and he continued it all the way through 'The Ultimate Fighter' until today."
He's hit all the benchmarks. Now, he just has to produce when the lights go on and the cage door is locked.
"I want to keep fighting because I love to fight, I love to compete and I think I'm still good at it," Liddell said. "There's a lot of things I can be doing with my life. I do this because I love it and because I believe I still can do it. Now, it's up to me. I got the chance and now I have to go take advantage of it."