Chuck Liddell discusses retirement, post-career job as UFC veep
Chuck Liddell retired in December to take a VP position in the UFC executive office
Known worldwide as 'The Iceman,' Liddell was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2009
Liddell enjoyed every aspect of his career, even less glamorous parts like training
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.