"There was no mystery in this," said White after Lidell was defeated by Rua 4:28 into the first round. "My promotion for the fight was this was going to be like watching Michael Jordan's last game. It's the end of an era tonight. You're never going to see Chuck Liddell on the canvass again. It's never going to happen. It's done. One of the greatest guys in this sport fought his last fight tonight."
It wasn't just that Liddell, who will be 40 at the end of the year, lost for the fourth time in his last five fights; it was the way in which he was losing. Three of his losses coming by way of KO or TKO within the first two rounds, including getting knocked out cold for a few minutes by Rashad Evans last September. His only win since 2006 was a decision over Wanderlei Sliva, who has also lost four of his last five fights.
White told Liddell after he lost to Evans that it would be his last fight. "I said this is it. You're retiring but he didn't want to." White had never seen Liddell knocked out the way he was against Evans and didn't want to put him in harms way again. The invincible "Iceman" who had gone undefeated for over three years and was breaking pay-per-view and live gate records had suddenly morphed into a pedestrian that looked and sounded like Liddell but certainly didn't fight like him in the cage.
After Liddell's loss to Evans, White flew to Las Vegas and met with Liddell to once again talk to him about retirement. The two-hour meeting ended with White giving Liddell one last fight.
"We sat down in Vegas and we talked about a possible retirement and he said I'm going to get back in the gym, I'm going to take this serious," said White. "I love him personally as a friend and as a fighter so how can I tell him no? He came out and did it his way. He did it the way Chuck Liddell does it."
Liddell had a hard time admitting that it was the end of his career after the fight, saying, "This could have been my last fight" before later adding, "It's probably safe to say it's the end."
When asked what his next move would be, Liddell smiled and said, "I'm going out tonight. I'm going to go drink tonight and have a good time."
It was a fitting last statement for Liddell, whose legendary knockouts were only met by his legendary after parties in Vegas. He then left the post-fight press conference early as White excused him to enjoy his last after party as a fighter.
It's ironic that the decline of Liddell's career coincided with the rise in popularity of the sport he helped usher in. When he fought Quinton "Rampage" Jackson two years ago, he was on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and ESPNEWS televised the weigh-in for UFC 71 live, both firsts for MMA. It was the first time many mainstream outlets began to cover UFC and MMA regularly although they would never see Liddell in his prime as he was for UFC 66, his last big win, when he beat Tito Ortiz by TKO. The event produced the highest live gate revenue in North American mixed martial arts history and is still the UFC's biggest pay-per-view success to date with about 1 million buys.
Liddell was clearly the main draw for most of the 21,451 at the Bell Centre and those that purchased the event on pay-per-view despite being relegated to co-main event status behind Anderson Silva's embarrassing defense of the UFC middleweight championship Thales Leites. While fans booed Silva's "fight," which had less excitement (and contact) than a couple practicing the tango, Liddell was given a lengthy standing ovation after his loss.
"When I saw him come into this fight, I just looked at him and smiled and said that's my boy, he's going in and going out the way he wants to go out," said White. "He's either knocking him out or he's going to get knocked out. That's Chuck Liddell, man, that's why he's the most famous guy in mixed martial arts. That's why gets standing ovations even when he loses. Fight fans love guys who are real fighters and you'll never meet a more real fighter than this."
Liddell could still be a huge draw for the UFC or any company that would want to give him another shot in the cage but that won't happen promises White, who will talk to Liddell about possible roles he might have within UFC next week when the two meet again -- this time not to talk about another fight, but his new life away from the cage.
"He's a huge superstar and we could still sell a lot of tickets but it's not about that," said White. "I care about him and I care about his health and its over. We all turn 40. You have to accept it and move on. Don't let guys hang around longer than they should. That's Don King and the old time guys. I don't care how much he draws; I don't want to see him get hurt. We made an agreement and he had his shot tonight. He's retired."
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