Chuck Liddell is one of the most popular fighters in MMA history. His allure to casual fans was instrumental in bringing the UFC to its current heights. The Ultimate Fighter obviously played a huge role in this as well, but the fact that Liddell was in his heyday when the sport began to explode in the states helped matters exponentially. His style of fighting was something people wanted to see, pure and simple. A Cali-based, mohawked puncher with piercing blue eyes, you knew you were getting something memorable when Charles David Liddell stepped into the Octagon. All of these things are facts. Truths.
Here’s the thing: I found him dreadful to watch.
This personal view spilled over into all of my other perceptions of him.
When I see a fighter that catches my eye, there’s no real blueprint for skills or aesthetics to guarantee enjoyment or disdain in my personal viewing experience. For example, I love the technical brilliance of guys like Lyoto Machida, Anthony Pettis, and Renan Barao … but I also love watching guys like Takanori Gomi and the New & Improved version of Dong Hyun Kim bite down on their mouthpiece and swing from their fight shorts. Chris Lytle is still probably my favorite MMA fighter of all time, and he could do both. It’s a case by case basis.
So here’s where we begin: I hated the way Chuck Liddell threw punches. It was like someone screwed his arms on backwards, made him snort an eight ball, and told him to punch a hole through a dangling pinata. It made me vomit into my mouth a little. The fact that Floyd Mayweather once chose to single out Liddell for his example of “why MMA fighters could never make it in boxing” is no accident. A pro boxer watching Liddell in his prime must have been excruciating, confusing, and sad … and not necessarily in that order. Does that mean that a guy like Liddell couldn’t still potentially light guys up in as a pro boxer? No. But it was a legitimate point.
The second point I want to bring up about Liddell is his long and storied history of poking guys in the eye right before he finished them. I know, I know … I can hear all of you scolding me for my obvious consumption of Haterade.
“You’re just a tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist! Chuck would have won all those fights anyway! You hate Chuck because you’re an unhappy person that hates the way his life turned out! You’re grasping for straws!!”
Liddell certainly could have won those fights without jabbing his finger into the eye of many men, but it’s a moot point; the fact is, Liddell’s strategy of pawing with his left hand left many men staggering backwards, looking for a referee intervention that never came. This didn’t happen once or twice, either. Off the top of my head, I can think of four instances: the first Tito Ortiz fight (Ortiz reels backward, openly grabbing his eye and looking to the ref for help, then gets finished in highlight reel fashion against the cage roughly 15 seconds later), Randy Couture (who claimed that an early eye poke in their second bout changed his strategy), Kevin Randleman (who goes down awkwardly from a weird left hook, and starts screaming at John McCarthy when he stops the fight), and Vernon White (to me, the most blatant example … White spins all the way around clutching his face). Chuck Liddell was not a “dirty” fighter; that’s not what I’m suggesting at all. I’m suggesting that he repeatedly used a technique that he learned via his Kenpo backround, and I’m suggesting that to ignore the profound effect it had on many of his biggest wins is to simply ignore objective reality.
(While we’re on the subject of Kenpo technique … Liddell’s style was a direct result of the teachings of John Hackleman. It’s simply the way he teaches stand up techniques, and it led to some funny instances. For example, remember when Gan McGee got knocked out by Tim Sylvia? He went into that fight essentially trying to replicate the style of Liddell. Nothing topped the comedy of watching a giant, plodding, athletically deficient neanderthal coming out dropping his left hand and pretending to be composed and in the zone like a young Roy Jones Jr.)
My next issue with Liddell is his resume. You could make the argument that he came along a little too early for his own good, and this has merit. He deserves credit for staying relevant as long as he did, as he began his career the same night that Pete Williams knocked out Mark Coleman, and followed that up with a 30 minute long, bare knuckle slobberknocker with Jose “Pele” Landi-Jons in Brazil. He did it for a long time. This cannot be denied. However, examining the wins he racked up during the height of his popularity doesn’t exactly blow your socks off. Ortiz, White, Couture, Horn, Couture again, Sobral again, Ortiz again. Solid, to be sure. But there aren’t any all time greats on that list.
Liddell became famous, even outside of casual MMA circles. During the lead up to his second fight with Quinton Jackson at UFC 71, he got a cover interview with ESPN Magazine. The interview came from this angle: “Blood and guts cage fighter has a soft side! He has kids! He likes West Side Story! ” Something about it irked me, even though it obviously wasn’t Liddell’s fault that ESPN decided to feature him. The whole thing just seemed to scream “This guy’s run is officially over. We can’t possibly jinx him more than we already have. Jackson fans, eat your heart out!”
To recap: Hated the way he threw punches, scoffed at the Rocky III-esque coverage he got before the second Rampage fight, questioned his resume, was somewhat bothered by his quiet arrogance.
I softened on him a bit towards the end, as I am wont to do with aging brawlers who lose the ability to take punches. It happens to all of them, and it’s just a matter of how many emasculating embarrassments they’re willing to put up with before they retire. He admittedly had an all time classic fight with Wanderlei Silva, a back and forth war that saw two men bringing the best out in one another. As Liddell put it, “That’s just two guys standing there and banging each other.”
Towards the very end, he started getting badly knocked out. I’m not going to sit here and act like I took a creepy amount of pleasure when this happened, but I didn’t dislike it, either. Something inside of my soul knew that it was exactly what was supposed to happen to a technically deficient guy who waded in with reckless white guy abandon, took your best shot, and banked on his ability to brain you with his own.