Ben Fowlkes
Thursday April 16th, 2009

Chuck Liddell might be the only person in mixed martial arts who doesn't think his fighting future is at stake at UFC 97 on Saturday night. To Liddell, the bout isn't a test to see whether he still belongs in the Octagon at 39 years old. It won't prolong or end his career, much less define it. It's just "another fight."

So he says.

But whether Liddell is willing to admit it or not, how he performs against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in Montreal will largely determine the future trajectory of his career. UFC president Dana White said this much when he told a Canadian newspaper that he had "made it very clear to Chuck" that he'll "have to go out there and dazzle me, for me to want Chuck to still fight."

That conversation seems to have had little impact on Liddell, who downplays his boss' assertion that this is a do-or-die fight.

"I don't really care about that stuff," he said in a phone interview last week. "I probably wouldn't even know he said that if you guys didn't tell me."

Those who saw his knockout loss to Rashad Evans in September as a sign that the "Iceman" is slowing down, that his style is no longer effective, or even that he should retire, to Liddell, they're just naysayers with short memories.

"Where were these people when I beat Wanderlei (Silva)?" he said, referring to his decision victory over the former Pride champ in December 2007. "No one said my style wasn't effective then. No one said I should retire then. I lost a close decision against (Keith) Jardine that could have gone either way. Everyone acts like I got beat up against Rashad. I didn't. I was winning the fight and I just got caught."

Regardless of what Liddell's loss to Evans meant to the state of his career, Liddell's longtime trainer, John Hackleman, suggested bringing in 1976 Olympic boxing gold medalist Howard Davis Jr. to help the former UFC light heavyweight champion prepare for his bout with Rua. Liddell writes it off as nothing more than a little supplementary work on his striking defense, but it's still telling for a fighter who isn't known for bringing scores of new faces into his training camps.

In Rua, Liddell faces an opponent who is also at a career crossroads. Despite his accomplishments in Pride, which include winning the 2005 Grand Prix as a light heavyweight and becoming one of the world's top ranked 205-pound fighters before jumping to the UFC, the last two years of his career have been riddled with injuries and unfulfilled potential.

He was clearly not his old self in his UFC debut loss to Forrest Griffin in 2007, and he looked exhausted early on against a much older and slower Mark Coleman just three months ago. While Rua, 27, needs to prove that a series of knee injuries hasn't hobbled his once-promising career, he also needs to demonstrate that he can still show up in fighting shape.

"I'm expecting him to be in good shape," said Liddell. "I'm expecting the old Shogun, where he's explosive and hits hard. All I know is that if he doesn't show up in shape he's in big trouble. He's going to take a serious beating if he isn't in shape against me."

But you almost have to wonder whether anything less than a serious beating, complete with a definitive ending, will be enough to justify Liddell's continued presence in the UFC. As an ex-champion closing in on his 40s, Liddell said he is acutely aware of the stereotype he doesn't want to become: the fighter who stays in the game too long for his own good.

"I don't want to be that guy," he said. "No one does. But I've always said that I'll make the decision to retire in the gym, not in the cage after a fight. My body still works. I'm healthy. I fight for a living and I love my job. Why would I want to give that up if I don't have to?"

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