The hints kept coming, week after week, battering fans like a classic Chuck Liddell combination. First it was a video of the 47-year-old former UFC champion pounding poor Jay Glazer with elbows that sent the NFL insider reeling, despite hitting nothing but his heavily padded hands. A week later Liddell posted a photo of himself with sculpted abs and his trademark mohawk, looking very Octagon-ready and "in deep thought."
Finally, early in May, Liddell's longtime coach, John Hackleman, threw gas on the flames. Was Liddell coming back to the cage? Hackleman told the Anik and Florian podcast that he didn't see why not.
"Like I always said, it's whatever is in his heart," Hackleman said (transcription by MMAjunkie). "And plus, three million bucks? Who is gonna tell someone, 'No. I'm not going to allow you to make $3 million?' Which is more than most people make in three lifetimes."
The whole thing made Liddell laugh, something Hackleman is good at accomplishing. He had gotten in shape to film a television commercial, not to prepare for a return to the cage. But Hackleman was happy to get people in the MMA world riled up if he could.
"Let me tell you about Hackleman," Liddell told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "The first time we ever had a big television network come out to cover one of our fights, it was CNBC. It was a big deal to be on a show like that because UFC was first becoming mainstream.
"They talked to Hackleman first and then they came to me all excited. 'He said you got so scared before a fight that you have to crawl into bed and cuddle with him the night before.' And they were serious. He made them believe it. I just started laughing. Hackleman is nuts. My favorite kind of nuts. He likes to mess with people."
In the journalism business, that's what's known as a "non-denial denial." You'll note that Liddell, in sharing this anecdote, didn't confirm or reject the rumor of his return.
"Someone said Anderson Silva and GSP would be a $12 million fight," Liddell said of Georges St-Pierre. "I told people that for $12 million, I'd fight them both right now. At the same time. People took that as 'He's going to fight again.' It was a joke. But if you came up with $12 million, yeah, of course I will fight again. I've got a puncher's chance against anybody."
Fighter retirements are rarely written in ink, and few in the new sport of mixed martial arts have given up fighting entirely. Liddell, however, looked to be one of the few to make it stick. An early client of UFC President Dana White back in the days when White was a manager, Liddell was offered a plum job as the UFC's vice president of business development after losing five of his final six fights.
"I went to a lot of places, especially new markets. If it was a place that wasn't real familiar with the UFC, I was one of the names they knew," Liddell said. "Here's an example—we were trying to get on one of the Air Force bases for a show to benefit the troops and were having trouble getting on there. I went out there and met the troops with the base commander the first day I was there.
"The second day he told me, 'I had no idea who you were when you came, but after I saw how all my guys reacted to you, now I get it.' Three months later, we fought on that base. That's the kind of thing I was doing, just trying to help the brand grow."
That all changed when WME-IMG bought the promotion for $4 billion last year and purged much of the senior management staff—including Liddell.
"When I heard rumors they were selling the company, I asked Dana about it and he said 'Don't worry, you'll be fine. You've got nothing to worry about.' I was cut on the third round of cuts," Liddell said. "It was disappointing. Really disappointing for sure.
"I was told it was a lifetime job. Dana called me personally and told me the morning before they announced it. I understand. It's business. They paid a lot for UFC and need to make some of that money back. They didn't think I could help them with that, I guess."
In the seven years since Liddell stepped into the UFC's Octagon, a new option for aging fighters has emerged in the form of Viacom's Bellator MMA. Many of Liddell's former rivals like Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz have competed for Bellator on Spike TV, often drawing huge numbers on Friday night. It's a development Liddell has been watching closely.
"I saw Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock fight last year and said, 'I haven't sparred in six months and haven't fought in seven years. I could get up off the couch and beat both of those guys right now.' It was terrible. I would be embarrassed to fight those guys."
You can be forgiven if you think Liddell sounds like a man gearing himself up for a return to action. Again, he doesn't reject the notion out of hand.
"It's a risk/reward thing. Someone would have to make it worth fighting," Liddell said. "If someone came to me with crazy numbers, I can't say I wouldn't do it. But I don't see anybody coming up with those numbers.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.