Former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell is fighting a battle of meaning in the public eye: can one punch change everything?
Liddell, 38, built his reputation giving and taking punches. From 2004 to 2006, he cleaned out the sport's marquee division, collecting wins against stars like Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz, who, like him, built the foundation for the UFC's explosion in popularity.
But a new guard has encroached upon Liddell's legacy, and chinks have begun to appear in his armor. Spearheaded by the minds at Jackson's Submission Academy in Albuquerque, N.M., Liddell has lost to three out of his last four opponents, and his light heavyweight title to Quinton Jackson at UFC 71.
A spectacular knockout loss to Rashad Evans at UFC 88 brought the subject of retirement into sharp focus. After the fight, Liddell said he'd decide in the gym, not in the pressroom, whether to hang up his four-ounce gloves.
Nearly two months later, Liddell is sitting on the mats at training home The Pit, texting away on his beloved Sidekick. He has just celebrated his son Cade's birthday, and is beat from a month and a half of travel.
Not a whole lot's changed in his lifestyle. He's still criss-crossing the country doing publicity junkets for the UFC, as popular as ever. A recent itinerary took him from the Philippines to Hawaii to Nebraska, in no particular order.
Trainer John Hackelman stands by the heavy bags in the brightly lit room, about to take a staff member to lunch. He says the conversation following Liddell's loss to Evans was pretty short.
"Chuck, how you feeling?" he recounts. "Do you want to go on? 'Yes.' Alright, let's go. I don't think one punch -- I'll never say lucky punch because Rashad trained for that punch too long -- is going to separate Chuck from his career. It landed just like Chuck knocked out many, many, many opponents and they didn't all quit right away. It was the first time Chuck was KO'd, and I don't think that would warrant talks of retirement."
Liddell bristles at the idea of one fight changing everything.
"You don't ever want to get caught like that in a fight, but it happens," he says. "I don't think that says I can't perform anymore. Up to that point in the fight I was winning the fight. If he hadn't caught me, most likely we would have gone another round and a half, or maybe I would have caught him."
Of particular irritation are critics who say Liddell's striking style sets him up for defeat. Outsiders have often characterized it as a "looping" punching style, focused exclusively on the knockout punch. Obviously, it's worked for Liddell more than it hasn't. But against Evans, who used a more compact striking style, many questioned whether it was outdated.
"I think it's unfair," Liddell told MMAWeekly.com. "I do have some great looping punches but most of those are started off by some good straight punches, good solid punches. But I do like to throw with power, and it shows. I've done well with it."
It's a situation he has been largely immune to until now. Once unquestioned, he finds himself defending his legacy. All he wants to do is fight.
"I have one fight I get caught, and all of a sudden my striking is no good?" Liddell poses. "That's kind of how you guys feel in the sport. You media guys, (if) you lose a fight -- nobody was saying that when I beat Wanderlei (Silva). Nobody was talking about how my striking was overrated. Now eight months later, I lose a fight, and my striking is no good."
Liddell does acknowledge his mistakes in the Evans fight, and says he's still working on "bad habits." In the gym, he could get away with dropping his hands, leading with body shots. As he knows now, those days are over. The key is a stricter gameplan -- everything measured to maximize offense and defense.
"It'd be me changing my game plan, not my style," Liddell says. "I mean, you're not going to change how I punch, how I strike. (I can) change what I decide to do just like I did for Wanderlei, I planned on taking a couple of shots. That's not changing my actual style. My style includes everything, it's just what I decide to use in the fights."
Hackelman says he wouldn't want his prized student to change. At this point in Liddell's career, there's not much he can.
"Keeping the hands up is great to say, everybody knows they should do it, but it's a big problem for fighters of all levels," he says. "You could get the best fighters on the planet in boxing, kickboxing, MMA, everyone drops their hands, because of simple physics of gravity. Everyone's going to drop their hands occasionally, and when you do, you expose certain things, so yeah, we'll work on that. You just work on some of the things that need to be tweaked, that's all."
Then Hackleman goes stiff, keeling over on the mats. He gets up with a big smile. This MMA business can't be too serious.
Liddell says he anticipates another fight in early 2009, but thinks the UFC is waiting to see how the light heavyweight picture looks at the end of December before giving him an opponent. One idea, Anderson Silva, was floated at the post-fight press conference for UFC 90. Though he doesn't call fighters out, Liddell welcomes the idea, and says a fight with Silva would be a perfect place to showcase different skills.
"I think it would be a great fight," he said. "I think I match up well. I hit very hard, and I'm a big 205-pounder. And he's going to have to worry about me taking him down. I have a good shot mixed in the middle of that. So he's definitely a guy that I would take some shots on."
That said, Liddell only has so many opportunities to get his title back. He still burns for it, and another setback could be devastating. But another one of his patented knockouts could silence fickle MMA fans... and that's the way he'd like to go out.
"My timetable is still the same," he said. "I want to make another run at it. I think another loss could put an end to making a run for it, cause I think that would put me way too far out of title contention. Now, I still feel like I get a few wins, get a title, get a few defenses, maybe. So we'll see."