John Hackleman, the bald, goateed trainer most closely associated with Chuck Liddell, considers himself somewhat of an authority on punch-drunk fighters. After more than 30 years in martial arts as a student, boxer, top-ranked kickboxer and coach, the proud registered nurse claims an ability to recognize early signs of dementia pugilistica.
As best as he can tell, his prized fighter is just fine. Because if Liddell wasn't, Hackleman swore, he wouldn't be fighting for the first time in 14 months Saturday.
"I've had umpteen fights myself," Hackleman said. "I've seen thousands of fighters. I know when there's an acute injury and a chronic injury. You talk to Chuck. He might mumble a little, like he always has since he was a kid like I do. But he doesn't slur his speech. He's sharp as a tack."
That's noteworthy considering the former UFC light heavyweight champion's recent results, which prompted many, especially his close friend and promoter Dana White, to loudly call last year for Liddell's exit from the sport that made him famous. But even as Hackleman embraces the idea of Liddell's never fighting again -- "I want him to retire so we can have a more fun life" -- the off-color 50-year-old trainer believes the decision to continue belongs to no one other than "The Iceman," who's earned that much after 28 fights.
"I never said 'OK, you gotta quit, you're getting hurt, and this isn't good for you anymore,' " Hackleman said. "It's always been on him. If you want to fight, fight. It's a pain in the ass training and traveling.
"It's not about whether I'm OK with it or not. I'll do whatever Chuck needs. Chuck needs me in his corner, I'm there. Chuck needs me teaching classes, retired from fighting, I'm there. I can't go inside his heart and manipulate it. His heart says he wants to fight right now, so he'll fight. Unless I see him continually getting hurt."
Hackleman is capable of telling fighters to get out of the game, once suggesting to a struggling combatant that it was time to try something else. Whether he can pull the same thing with Liddell, "The Pitmaster" -- so named for the hillside training area Hackleman built on his parcel of land near the Central California coast, where Liddell first sparred him 19 years ago -- hopes he never has to find out.
"You can't say 'glass jaw' to a lot of guys, because anyone gets hit on the chin they're going down," he said. "Some people are more susceptible for whatever reason. [It's concerning] when it happens more frequently and easier with punches that didn't seem that hard, even though you can't really tell. If it's a pattern, I'll say something."
Yet that's exactly what those on the other side of the debate believe they've seen from Liddell: slowed reflexes and an elevated propensity for getting stunned by shots that would not have slowed him in the past. First Quinton Jackson shook the now-40-year-old light heavyweight with a left hook in 2007. Rashad Evans finished him with an overhand right that was the best example of a knockout in 2008. And Mauricio Rua touched Liddell to the chin in April 2009, making his legs disappear in Montreal. Even Liddell sensed things weren't right following the loss to Rua, telling SI.com last summer that he was hopeful his "brain can heal over time. The shot last fight is something that normally wouldn't hurt me. I think I need at least some time off from getting hit. I'm going to take time off sparring then."
He did just that, two-stepping away from MMA onto Dancing With the Stars. Seven months passed before the pair worked together again, and only after Liddell flew to Las Vegas to convince White that he was ready to fight. The UFC president relented on his stance that Liddell was done in the Octagon, and instead proposed putting him on season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter, after which he would fight Tito Ortiz for a third time. Ortiz, of course, has since been replaced by Rich Franklin, in what was supposed to be the last fight on Liddell's contract. Sources tell SI.com, however, that Liddell is poised to sign a new deal with the UFC.
Liddell persuaded Hackleman to serve as a coach during the show's taping by suggesting they treat the seven-week shoot as a pre-camp camp. On set, Hackleman found a "revitalized, renewed, reinvigorated, reborn," well-conditioned Liddell, and for that he thanked the fighter's new flame, Heidi Northcott.
"Chuck grabs a piece of cake or something, she takes it out of his hand and gives him a strawberry," Hackleman said, laughing. "On his days off she wants to go for hikes and beach runs. I could take credit for a lot of things but this is a huge part on her. She turned him around.
"I didn't have to worry where's he going at night. What's he doing? What am I going to read on TMZ? When he's with Heidi I know that he's at home, eating granola and going to bed early."
Being in shape paid off, unless you were a Liddell sparring partner. Hackleman said Liddell was "good to the point that it was bad" because he hurt two people in a camp that featured coaches like 1998 freestyle wrestling world champion Sammie Henson, Olympic boxing gold medalist Howard Davis, and submission experts from American Top Team and 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu.
"I've never seen him hit this hard, brutalizing sparring partners without even trying," the coach said. "It was scary to watch."
Power is often the last thing to desert a slugger and against a southpaw like Franklin, Liddell's right hand could win him the fight. No matter what Hackleman sees from his man in Vancouver at UFC 115, he'll attempt to talk Liddell into walking away, moving to Hawaii, running Kenpo Karate gyms. Mostly for Liddell's benefit, but not entirely.
"I don't want to be a fight trainer," Hackleman said. "I don't enjoy getting guys ready for fights. When Chuck retires, he'll take over the fight team and I'll oversee things. My life will be much more rewarding then just traveling around, working fights, working corners, getting all sick to my stomach. I can't wait till those days are over."