There was a feeling at the post-fight press conference for UFC 88 "Breakthrough" that we had seen the last glimpse of an icon. Gone were the nights of blistering knockouts and savage yells to the crowd. Instead, we had a beaten and bruised fighter refusing to say he was thinking about retirement. Rashad Evans' knockout victory over Chuck Liddell not only changed the Light Heavyweight Championship picture, it also ended the story of a MMA legend...For now.
In September of 2002, 39 year old Randy Couture lost to Ricco Rodriguez. It was his second straight loss, both coming by stoppages. After the fight, there was a sentiment Couture was finished as a top contender. It was clear the younger fighters had surpassed him. The only person who did not feel this way was Couture himself. He knew he still had the will and determination to continue fighting at the top level. All he needed was a chance to prove it. Eight months after his loss to Rodriguez, Couture stunned the MMA world by stopping Chuck Liddell and capturing the interim Light Heavyweight Title. He was the first UFC fighter to win titles in more than one weight class. A feat that has only been accomplished once since that time.
In September of 2008, 38 year old Chuck Liddell faces the same questions Couture did six years ago. He is too old and the younger competition has caught up to him. MMA fighting has changed, while Liddell has stayed the same. He is not in the same condition he once was. His gut is bigger and his determination smaller. In the second before the bell rang, hardly any one questioned his status as a top contender. Less than ten minutes later, just about every one believed his time was up.
When Liddell got knocked out by Quinton Jackson, he was defiant after the fight. He blamed himself for making a mistake. His next time out against Keith Jardine it was again his fault because he was not mentally ready. Even Dana White said Liddell did not look right before the fight. This past Saturday night, there were no excuses. Liddell was ready and came out swinging. He took the first round with an aggressive style that brought back memories of his greatest triumphs. Then he missed an uppercut and got caught with an overhand right. His only excuse this time was being too eager to end the fight.
In the coming days, Liddell will return to The Pit with his long time trainer John Hackleman and assess the situation. There are no signs the pair will give up, but it appears Liddell could be ready to make a change. He cannot run through his opponents like he once did. A new mindset must be instilled in Liddell, which makes him a more patient fighter. His hands are still quick enough to connect, as seen in the first round against Evans when he repeatedly hit the quicker fighter with single shots and combinations. The turning point will come when Liddell realizes he can win fights without knocking people out. Three rounds of punishment is just as good as a three minute knockout.
Meanwhile, 45 year old Randy Couture is spending his time preparing for yet another comeback and the chance to once again prove the Mixed Martial Arts world wrong. If there is one thing MMA fans love, it is fighters who overcome obstacles and do what is thought to be impossible. Chuck Liddell faces just that in his attempt to resurrect his career and take the road less traveled. The story of "The Iceman" is far from over.