January 11, 2011

That backward-leaning, chest-pressed-forward mad dash around the cage, arms in full wingspan, eyes wildly open and facial muscles still twitching from an explosion of ecstatic zeal, will never be forgotten. Not many UFC fighters could celebrate a win like Chuck Liddell. Not many could fight like him, either.

But the man they call "The Iceman" has no more fight left in him. At a pre-UFC 125 news conference a couple of weeks ago, company president Dana White and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta announced that Liddell is done. They made the announcement because Liddell couldn't. When they brought him up to the podium to whoops and cheers from the fighters, reporters and fans in attendance, Chuck could barely speak a few words of thanks to his fans before choking up. After a pause, he quietly said, "I love this sport."

Retirement was a long time coming for Liddell, to be frank. White actually proclaimed that Chuck was through a year and a half ago, after he was TKO'd by Mauricio "Shogun" at UFC 97, Liddell's fourth loss in five bouts. But Chuck still wanted to fight, so he signed up to coach Season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter with the promise of then facing the other coach, Tito Ortiz. His longtime nemesis pulled out with an injury, however, so Liddell instead fought Rich Franklin at UFC 115 last June. Chuck actually looked to be the better man that night as the first round wore down, until Franklin, desperate to finish because a kick had broken his left forearm, connected with a short right that KO'd Liddell with five seconds left before the horn. Afterward, White gave his guarantee that Liddell was finished as a UFC fighter.

But not finished with the UFC entirely. White and Lorenzo were at the news conference also to unveil the hiring of Liddell as executive vice president for business development. They gave no specifics about his duties, but from hearing them speak about what Liddell has to offer, this did not appear to be one of those just-put-the-old-guy-on-the-payroll moves, like a retired Joe Louis being hired by Caesars Palace as a casino greeter.

Liddell is no Joe Louis, in celebrity or stature, but he's the closest thing MMA has had. His reach extended far beyond the octagon, from a comical guest appearance on HBO's Entourage to a clumsy tango on ABC's Dancing with the Stars. And as a fighter he was a Hall of Famer, his career highlighted by a trilogy of high-profile, higher-energy bouts with Randy Couture, Liddell winning two of them. His first victory over Couture earned Liddell the UFC light heavyweight title, and he defended it four times before losing the belt to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in May 2007, shortly after becoming the first MMA figure to make the cover of ESPN the Magazine. The inglorious end of his career notwithstanding, Chuck Liddell was a towering figure.

I spoke to Liddell last week after he arrived home from UFC 125. We talked about some past glories of a Hall of Famer and some future ambitions of a newly minted exec, plus a few silver linings and strange twists.

SI.com: So, Chuck, I was just sitting here with my 7-year-old watching a Harry Potter movie and I said, "Hey, pal, I've got to pause the video for a few minutes so I can go talk to The Iceman." He was cool with that, although I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm on the phone with a comic book superhero.

Chuck Liddell: [Laughs] That's what it would take to compete with Harry Potter.

SI.com: OK, so there you go: superhero, a new career for you to consider -- although you've already got enough transition in your life these days, don't you think? You've just ended one career. You're starting a new job. You're engaged to be married. That's a lot of life transition, all at once. Are you feeling steady on your feet these days?

Liddell: There is a lot of stuff going on, although I'm used to a lot happening at once, and that helps. But still, it's a hard thing, accepting the fact that it's time to move on. My whole life, I've been training for something, whether it be baseball or football or wrestling or martial arts.

SI.com: What was it about your last fight, against Rich Franklin, that told you it was time to move on?

Liddell: I was in great shape for that fight. I'd done everything right in training. And I was winning the fight. I had the fight won, really, if I could have made it through the last few seconds of the round. But things didn't turn out right. And afterward I talked to my coach, John Hackelman, and we decided it just wasn't there for me anymore. I was no longer able to take a shot.

SI.com: Is it hard to swallow that your Hall of Fame career ended with three knockout losses?

Liddell: I went out fighting the way I like to fight. I went out swinging. I could have changed my style and maybe won in a different way. But I wanted to keep fighting the way I always had, which is exciting for the fans.

SI.com: As an exciting fighter, you were a hot commodity for the UFC, right to the end. Yet Dana White, who stood to make a lot of money off of putting you in the cage, was very vocal over the last couple of years in saying he thought you should retire. You and Dana go way back. How did his comments affect your friendship?

Liddell: He had an opinion, and I admire the guy for stating his opinion. That's how he is. But he always left the decision up to me. When I asked for another fight, he gave me a fight. And when I decided to hang 'em up, he had something else for me.

SI.com: That would be your new job as executive vice president of business development.

Liddell: Right. I love the sport, and this job is the best way for me to stay involved in it moving forward. I've been around MMA for a long time and I wanted to continue to grow the sport. We haven't settled on all the specifics of my job, but I know they want me to be in on all of the meetings giving my ideas for advancing the UFC.

SI.com: What happens to the Mohawk now? It's an intimidating look inside the octagon, but will you need it for business meetings?

Liddell: [Laughs] I haven't decided yet. So far it's staying, but we'll see.

SI.com: Now that you're in an executive position, are there things you'll try to change in the sport? Judging, for example. Your right fist ended a lot of your fights early, but when bouts go the distance, the scoring can be an adventure.

Liddell: It's a very complex sport, so judging is going to be very complex, too. And not everyone is going to agree all the time on who wins a fight. Some people give more weight to gaining top position on the ground than they do to keeping distance with a jab. There are a lot of things to look for. I actually think judging has been getting better overall, but I still see fights where I can't believe the scoring. It's a matter of educating the judges, and the referees, too, and it takes time.

SI.com: What's the biggest thing you bring to the table for Dana, the Fertittas and the UFC?

Liddell: I have a passion for the sport, and I've been around since they bought the company -- so I know where we came from. I can remember a time when we couldn't get any media coverage. Now we're on the sports pages, and as people get to know the fighters, you're going to see the sport featured in the leisure section of the newspaper, too.

SI.com: Let's talk about your own leisure time. Now that you don't have to train for fights and make weight, what will you allow yourself to do that you never could before?

Liddell: Well, I never let myself go snowboarding while I was an active fighter. And I've done it a couple of times recently and had fun. But not too much will change. I'm still going to be working out, training with guys who are fighting. And it looks like I'm going to be busy with the new job as well.

SI.com: Speaking of things outside the sport: Which was more fun, Entourage or Dancing with the Stars?

Liddell: Those were very different experiences. Entourage was just fun; I had a good time. Dancing with the Stars was hard work. It was interesting and fun, too, but it was hard work. And it was kind of frustrating for me. I'm used to telling my body to do something and it does it, but everything was just a little bit different in dancing. It was humbling.

SI.com: So you sacrificed a little dignity in order to get the UFC some great exposure.

Liddell: Yeah, and all that exposure was with a demographic we're not usually seen by. It was pretty much the opposite of our usual demographic. And it was good for those people to see a fighter in a different light, not as a Neanderthal beating people up.

SI.com: OK, I've always wanted to know this, and couldn't find the answer on Wikipedia or from any other unimpeachable source. So I'll just ask: Where did the nickname "The Iceman" come from?

Liddell: John Hackelman gave that name to me a long time ago. I was, like, the 16th fight on a card, and John came looking for me around the 10th fight so he could wrap my hands. He found me sleeping in a corner of the locker room. He couldn't believe I was that relaxed before a fight. And after that he called me "The Iceman."

SI.com: It makes sense that you'd be relaxed, being from San Luis Obispo. Are you aware that your California hometown was named the happiest city in America?

Liddell: This is the first I'm hearing that. But yeah, it's a nice town to live in.

SI.com: In addition to yourself, among the prominent people who've called San Luis Obispo home are actor Zac Efron, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and the writer Jack Kerouac. Which of those people do you most relate to?

Liddell: [Laughs] I know who they all are, but that's as far as it goes. I'm a fighter.

SI.com: What made you a fighter?

Liddell: It's just something I was always good at. I remember saying to a friend when I was in high school, "The thing I'm really good at, I can't make money doing." I was talking about street fighting. Who would have guessed I would end up making a living as a fighter for so many years?

SI.com: What made you good at fighting?

Liddell: I like the competition of fighting, and always have. When I started in MMA, you needed wrestling, in order to defend takedowns, you needed striking, and you needed ground work, jiu-jitsu. Those are the three elements you had to learn. And back then the top guys were good at one and were learning the other two. But when I came in I was good at two elements -- I was a good wrestler and a good striker -- so I just had to learn some jiu-jitsu. I had that advantage.

Even the fact that I was willing to learn put me at an advantage. Randy Couture was the same way -- when he came in, he wanted to get better at everything. But there were a lot of guys back then -- and even still -- who wanted to prove that their style of fighting was superior. They didn't want to learn anyone else's stuff; they just wanted to win with their stuff.

SI.com: What do you remember from May 15, 1998, in Mobile, Alabama -- UFC 17, your mixed martial arts debut?

Liddell: I actually had fought once before that, an open-handed fight on a small local card. I ended up kicking the guy in the head and knocking him out.

SI.com: Oh, OK. But your first official fight under MMA rules was at UFC 17 vs. Noe Hernandez. What do you remember?

Liddell: Other than the weigh-ins? [Laughs] Those were the days before the sport came of age. When it was time for me to weigh in, they pointed me to where I was supposed to stand and I said, "On that scale?" They weighed us in on a bathroom scale, not one of the balanced ones we use now. I'd been saying to myself, "I've made it to the big time. This is going to be great." And then this -- I had to laugh. My opponent weighed in two pounds over, and I thought, "Why doesn't he just lean backwards?"

What I remember from the fight was that the one thing I knew about the guy was that he had a big overhand right. He'd knocked out a couple of guys quickly with it. So I told myself, "Watch out for that big right." Then the fight began and the first punch I got hit with was that overhand right.

SI.com: But you survived it, won a unanimous decision, and went on to win 11 of your next 12 before losing to Randy Couture in your first title fight. But two years later you fought Randy again and knocked him out to become light heavyweight champ. Was that the biggest win of your career?

Liddell: It's hard to pick one, but that fight with Randy probably was it. It was right after we coached on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, and it was the biggest pay-per-view the UFC had up to that point, by a lot. And I finally won the title I'd been after for so long, and did it by avenging a loss. And I did it the way I like to: I knocked him out.

SI.com: You and Randy are forever connected because of the great trilogy of fights you had. But you're also inevitably linked to another fighter, a guy you beat twice and was scheduled to fight again, even though you had nothing left to prove against him. You know who I'm talking about.

Liddell: Yeah.

SI.com: I can hear the dislike in your voice, and I haven't even mentioned the man's name. You know, I bet you can't listen to the Latin jazz of Tito Puente simply because of his first name. I bet you can't watch the Boston Red Sox play because their manager is nicknamed "Tito."

Liddell: [Laughs]

SI.com: Let's move on from He Who Must Not Be Named and go to another irritating topic. You won 21 and lost 8. Which loss still gnaws at you?

Liddell: No one more than the other ones. I'd like to have all of my losses back. But it's too late for that.

SI.com: As you move forward, are there any unresolved feelings about fights that didn't happen? Are there any guys you didn't get in the cage with who you wish you had?

Liddell: I don't think so. I got to fight all of the guys in my weight class, other than the newer guys.

SI.com: Let me pose the question a different way. If you could magically wake up tomorrow at any fighting weight, from 145 pounds to 265, and in the prime of your career, what guy would you most love the challenge of fighting?

Liddell: There are a lot of really tough guys out there. Whatever weight I was at, I would want to fight the guy who had the title.

SI.com: It's all about the belt.

Liddell: It's all about the competition.

SI.com: But none of those fights are going to happen, of course. The fighting career is over. You've made it clear that it's hard for you to move on. But are there things you're not going to miss about fighting and training for fights?

Liddell: Not really. I enjoyed everything I did. I'll miss it all.

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