MONTREAL – When Chuck Liddell, the biggest star in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, left the Bell Centre cage on Saturday night, the reaction was no different than many of his greatest wins. He got a lengthy standing ovation from a sold-out arena.
But this time the ovation came after he was stopped in four minutes, 28 seconds by Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in what his promoter, UFC president Dana White, insisted was the last match of his career.
"He can still sell out shows and he can still sell pay-per-views, but he's done," said White, who had said beforehand that Liddell would need not just a win, but an impressive win to continue his career. "He helped build this company and he helped build this sport, but it's done. Even Michael Jordan turned 40, and he was done."
Liddell, who turns 40 at the end of this year, stopped short of outright announcing his retirement, either in his postmatch interview or later at the news conference.
Liddell said he would go home on Monday, talk with his friends and make a decision, but later hinted more strongly his career was over.
"It's probably the end," said Liddell, who has been with the UFC since 1998.
Liddell, who wrestled at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and was trained as a kickboxer, captured the UFC light heavyweight title from Randy Couture on April 16, 2005, right after the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show ended with the two as coaches.
In doing so, and winning a rematch the next year from Couture, he became the biggest star in the company as the sport exploded in popularity on basic cable television and pay-per-view. His win over Tito Ortiz on Dec. 30, 2006, was the biggest fight up to that point in UFC history, the first event to top 1 million buys on pay-per-view.
His popularity continued even after he fell from the top, following a knockout loss to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson on May 26, 2007, which began his career slide. Even though Anderson Silva, considered by many the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, was the headliner and defending his middleweight title as the UFC set its all-time record with 21,451 fans packing the Bell Centre, it was clearly Liddell who was the biggest star and biggest draw on the show.
A granite chin long allowed "The Iceman" to get away with leaving his hands low to set up his powerful right counter strikes, but age took its toll on his ability to withstand a blow. In his four fights leading up to Saturday night, he was knocked down at least once in every fight.
The loss was the fourth in Liddell's prior five fights, which rendered any chance of his avowed goal of getting the championship for a second time.
Liddell's charm as the sport's biggest star came largely because, in a world with people who loved to talk big, he was a man of few words, who would sheepishly say, "I just like to fight." He termed being an MMA fighter "the greatest job in the world."
Liddell stated before Saturday's fight that he would never fight for another organization. White said Liddell would work for the company in a public relations standpoint, suggesting he would probably work with Marc Ratner in talking with legislatures and athletic commissions in getting the sport fully regulated in the few states it isn't, and then in new countries.
"We had a two-hour meeting in Las Vegas," White said about the agreement the two made shortly after Liddell's loss to Rashad Evans on Sept. 6 in Atlanta. "I wanted him to retire, but he wanted one more shot. I made a series of guidelines. He had to train hard. He had to change up his training. He had to stay out of the night clubs. He did all that. He came here in great shape and went out like the stud that he is. If he had won a decision, this still would have been it. Anything less than an impressive win was going to be it. Yeah, we can still make money with him, but that's not what it's about here."
Liddell (21-7) came out fired up. He could not match Rua's speed, but he cut Rua in the early minutes with a hard punch. When Rua took Liddell down, Liddell did his trademark move of getting right to his feet without taking any damage.
Liddell responded by taking Rua down but backed off immediately, figuring his best shot at finishing was on his feet. But Rua quickly caught Liddell with a left that put Liddell to the canvas. Seven punches later, it was stopped.
White, who got his start in MMA as Liddell's manager, said that after seeing Liddell down for several minutes after the Evans knockout that he didn't want him fighting again. But one could argue, as Liddell did, that he was ahead on the scorecards when the knockout came, and that punch would have knocked anyone out.
This time, there was no denying the reality. Whether a younger Liddell could have beaten this Rua is a question, but the younger Liddell would not have gone down or been finished by Rua's big left.
For Rua (18-3) he went from almost being written off to being back in the thick of things in the light heavyweight division. He appeared to be in the best physical condition of his career, just three months after a fight – a less-than-impressive win over Mark Coleman – where he appeared to be in the worst condition of his career.
"When I fought Coleman, my knee was 100 percent," Rua said through manager and interpreter Edouardo Alonso. "But I still needed to adapt to the space of the octagon. I was in much better shape because of the constant training."
For insiders, Liddell vs. Rua, had it taken place between 2005 and 2007, would have been one of the sport's ultimate events. Liddell was the king of UFC, while Rua was the best in the same weight class in the Pride organization in Japan, the other major league group at the time.
"I dedicated myself to this match," Rua said. "I left Curitiba [Brazil, his hometown, where he has trained his entire career] and went 300 miles away [to Sao Paolo, Brazil]. I trained, ate and slept and did everything right so I could give a better performance."
And it was enough to stop a legend.