NEWARK, N.J. – When former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell sees the level of attention superstar-in-waiting Jon Jones attracts, he can't help but look back on the early days of his own career.
There were no overflow crowds back then, no Times Square billboards, no million-dollar gates and no cable TV coverage.
"When I was coming it was different," the UFC Hall of Famer said on Friday. "We didn't have Spike TV back then. We were barely even on pay per view."
But while the former champ won't pick a winner in tomorrow night's UFC 128 main event at the Prudential Center, in which Jones will challenge champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua for the UFC light heavyweight title, the former undisputed king of the 205-pound weight class has been impressed with how the man many expect to become the new standard-bearer has reacted to the hype.
"Talking to him, I can tell he still has his feet on the ground," Liddell told the assembled at the New Jersey Devils' practice rink. "He doesn't let all the attention get to him."
Liddell, who now works as a UFC vice president in a public relations role, was brought in for a chat with UFC fan club members as a prelude to the weigh-ins, in which both Jones and Rua made the 205-pound limit.
"I don't know who made [Jones] a 2½-to-1 favorite," said Liddell. "Different people see different things. I know that Jones has a chance. 'Shogun' has been around a long time. I can't pick a winner."
The former champion was asked a wide range of questions and generally avoided giving direct answers to "Who was your toughest opponent?"-type inquiries. But Liddell couldn't maintain his poker face when a fan asked if his long-time rival, Tito Ortiz, could defeat anyone in today's light heavyweight division. Liddell burst out laughing, then after regaining his composure, said "I don't know."
Liddell didn't hedge on one item – whether he'll fight again.
"I'm not planning on coming back," he said. "I had a great ride. I enjoyed the ride. There are some things I might have done different toward the end, but I had a great career." The former champion expressed a strong opinion on women's mixed martial arts. The UFC has long resisted adding female fighters to the roster, but recently purchased Strikeforce, the industry leader in women's MMA. This has led some to question the future of the women's division.
"It's up to the UFC to decide who is going to fight." said Liddell. "I love watching women fight. There are some great technical fighters. I've trained some, they're great fighters and they're great to watch."
The weigh-ins went off without a hitch, as all 24 fighters made weight.
Jones barely paid heed to Rua during their photo face-off and abruptly left the stage after a quick handshake.
Rua was unamused. "I really feel that's disrespectful," the champion said through an interpreter. "That's OK, tomorrow night we'll see who is the better man."
"I've got the biggest opportunity of my life," said the 23-year-old Jones. "I've got to execute the situation."
Jones and Rua both got big reactions from the capacity crowd at the rink. Also getting vocal responses were veteran Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic and New Jersey fighters Jim and Dan Miller and Kurt Pellegrino.
Maurcio "Shogun" Rua (205) vs. Jon "Bones" Jones (205)
Urijah Faber (135½) vs. Eddie Wineland (135½)
Nate Marquardt (186) vs. Dan Miller (185)
Brendan Schaub (245) vs. Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic (229)
Jim Miller (155½) vs. Kamal Shalorus (155)
Eliot Marshall (205) vs. Luis Cane (205½)
Anthony Njokuani (155) vs. Edson Barboza Jr. (155½)
Mike Pyle (171) vs. Ricardo Almeida (170)
Kurt Pellegrino (156) vs. Gleison Tibau (155)
Joseph Benavidez (136) vs. Ian Loveland (135)
Nick Catone (194) vs. Constantinos Phillipou (195)
Erik Koch (145) vs. Raphael Assuncao (145)