One of the most fascinating studies in sports is looking at an athlete who is considered one of the greats and observing them when they are down but not fully out. Recent example include Brett Favre in football, Michael Jordan in basketball and even Barry Bonds in baseball which is probably a case study in how not to end your career.
For MMA, insert Chuck Liddell into the conversation. The man has been one of the major forces behind helping define the sport but like every great athlete, Liddell now finds himself at a moment of truth in his career.
His upcoming fight against Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua at this Saturday's UFC 97 will allow him to forge forward for one last run at the title or cause him to tumble further down the rabbit hole, the one where former greats reside when they hold on longer than they should. It’s a kind of purgatory where only the prayers of the most devoted fans are heard and rendered as payment into the proverbial “sports heaven".
However, in an exclusive B/R interview with Liddell, the "Iceman" made it known that he is still able to compete at the highest level.
“Since my fight with Rashad, life has been good," Lidell said. "I went through one of the best training camps of my career and I have been able to put it all together for this upcoming fight. A lot of people want to make a big deal about my fight with Rashad. I was doing pretty good in that fight and got caught. I have corrected any mistakes and am ready to move forward.”
Many pundits might argue that Liddell got caught because the sport is passing him by. The sport has certainly seen several episodes of punctuated equilibrium* in its brief 16-year existence.
*A slow, continuous movement, evolution that tends to be characterized by long periods of virtual standstill ("equilibrium"), punctuated by episodes of very fast development of new forms.
The most recent fast development has been dubbed MMA 2.0. No longer can a fighter just be a master of one art, but a master of several. They can’t just be a master of integrating those several martial arts, but they must also be phenomenal athletes to boot.
A fighter like Georges St. Pierre is considered by many to be the torchbearer for this new breed of fighter. Brock Lesnar, isolated in his MMA laboratory, is in furious pursuit of keeping his own torch lit.
Can Chuck Liddell still be a force to be reckoned with during this period of punctuated equilibrium or will he be replaced by a sea change taking place in the sport?
To help address his mistakes or to help him evolve as a fighter, Liddell enlisted the help of the guys over at American Top Team, considered to be one of the best training camps in MMA.
“I spent some time down in Florida and since then, I have brought a part of their camp to mine," Liddell said. "It has been very beneficial to work with them. Everything was covered. I am in great shape right now. Everything is working for me and I am ready to go.”
If Danillo Villefort and the guys over at ATT have done their job, Liddell may come out working better then ever. When asked about the desired title shot, Liddell was as straightforward as his still toxic striking.
“In terms of another title shot, I am taking it one fight at a time," he said. "But I am too far removed from the titleholder, who is now Rashad Evans. I have put my time in, in terms of my career, so I will get back there one win at a time and it shouldn't take more than two to three wins.”
One obstacle that will remain in front of Liddell’s desire for gold is Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, a man who has beaten Liddell twice - once early on in a PRIDE affair and more recently in a title fight where one right hook by Jackson took away Liddell’s light heavyweight title and erased a seven-fight win streak. The last man Liddell had lost to, in fact, was Jackson in that aforementioned PRIDE fight.
Liddell delivered an empathic response when asked if Jackson had gotten to him mentally.
“Jackson has in no way gotten into my head," he said. "I don’t ever let any of that bother me. With the fights I have lost, I always want another shot and think that I can beat them. I am definitely hungry for another fight with Quinton Jackson, whether it’s a title fight or not.”
A third fight between the two seems likely at some juncture. Jackson is currently healing his wounds and awaiting the winner of a UFC 98 fight between title holder Evans and No. 1 contender Lyoto Machida.
Those three fighters seem destined to fill out the top three rungs in the light heavyweight ladder for the foreseeable future. Whether or not Liddell can stay juxtaposed with those three is contingent on him beating Rua this Saturday.
When asked about whether or not Rua was still a dangerous opponent or rather a high-profile fighter he can easily beat, Liddell answered by affirming Shogun’s status.
“A lot of people are blowing Shogun’s fight with Mark Coleman out of proportion," he said. "He was coming off an injury and he gassed early on in his first fight back. He was still out of shape, probably didn’t go as hard as he should have in camp, but I don’t think that will be the case in this fight. I am expecting, counting on him, to show up in great shape.
“That being said, I am going to execute Shogun Rua if he gasses in this fight. He will show up in great shape, though. It will be a war and a great fight for the fans.”
Liddell fans have accumulated many great memories that will become priceless treasures over time. Whether or not the "Iceman" adds one more great memory to the psyche will be answered soon enough.
Fifty years from now, Liddell will be remembered as one of the pioneers of the sport, but for now, that doesn’t matter. All that matters is the fight in front of him, and then the one after that. So it goes for Liddell and it always will.