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Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz: Rivalry that once represented the best in MMA has some cringing

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Toward the tail end of the final press conference of the Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz trilogy fight, Golden Boy promoter Oscar De La Hoya, in his labored speaking style, pleaded the case of why his main event fighters should get to throw down one last time, for our heard-earned cash, at the ages of 48 and 43, respectively. Using the 40-something success of George Foreman and Bernard Hopkins, De La Hoya, who retired from boxing at age 35, suggested that one never knows when greatness ceases to be.

“Nobody can tell you, ‘You should retire or you shouldn’t fight,’’ he said. “The fighter must say it. The fighter must feel it. And that’s exactly why we’re here today, because both guys feel it. And nobody has the right to say anything. Nobody has the right to say, ‘You should hang them up.’”

He is both right and wrong. While free will and capitalism mean that fighters often continue to receive opportunities to compete long after they are athletically viable, fans routinely offer their opinions by accepting or rejecting such presentations.

Since Liddell began whispering about a comeback over a year ago, many have felt uneasy about the prospect of his return, having witnessed the troubling end of phase one of his career. In three straight fights, Liddell was put out, first by Rashad Evans in a scary KO, then by Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Rich Franklin. At the time, he was already 40 years old, and most breathed a sigh of relief when UFC president Dana White convinced Liddell to hang up his gloves and take a job in the UFC front office. But this is not a sport where fighters go quietly. Most who willingly enter a cage never really retire from fighting; fighting retires them. More bluntly, it throws them away, unwanted.

Fighters attempt to resist that, of course, most to disastrous results. Others buck the long odds to find a few final slivers of success.

Where exactly Liddell will fall on this spectrum is suddenly once again to be determined, and is a drama that some will want to watch unfold, and others will purposely avoid. It is a long way off from what his long, long, long-term rivalry with Ortiz used to be. The duo are honest-to-goodness pioneers in the MMA world, two of the first breakout stars of a sport that took years to find its legs.

When Liddell and Ortiz first met in the cage, it was 2004. After a few years of ownership by the Zuffa management group, the UFC was struggling to grow its footprint. Still, there were occasional signs of improvement, and at UFC 47, Ortiz and Liddell brought a ready-made storyline with them. Onetime friends, occasional training partners, their relationship had fractured when the light-heavyweight title was in play between them. That first fight between them drew well, ending with a Liddell TKO victory. But it was the rematch between them that caught fire.

Under the new spotlight glare delivered by The Ultimate Fighter television program, the UFC became red shot around 2005. As one of its coaches, Liddell came off like a star. At the conclusion of the show, he went on a tear, finally capturing the light-heavyweight belt while knocking out four straight opponents, including Randy Couture twice. Meanwhile, while all that was going on, Ortiz was also building his star power, mainly on the strength of his rivalry with Ken Shamrock.

All the way along, it felt like they were headed for a collision course. When the two finally met at UFC 66 in December 2006, it was electric. The stoic, power-punching, mohawked champion against the motor-mouthed, ground-and-pounding, colorful challenger intent on revenge captivated the masses. The show became the first MMA event ever to draw over 1 million pay-per-view buys, a number that for most of the sport’s history had seemed unreachable.

The moment was a triumph that sent shockwaves throughout the sports business world, and cemented the idea of MMA as an entity with staying power.

No one knew it at the time, but for both men, it marked a career apex. Liddell would lose his title his next time out, knocked out by Quinton Jackson, while Ortiz would struggle through the rest of his UFC run with injuries and losses until eventually moving on to Bellator, where he would go on to moderate success.

Ortiz, is in fact, coming off a victory, and based on his activity and Liddell’s eight-year layoff, Ortiz is a fairly large favorite to win.

While the result matters to the two combatants, it bears no larger relevance on the world fight scene. A victory won’t serve as a launching pad to something greater, and no championships will be threatened. It’s just a fight, one between two old guys who can’t stop doing what they love. Is that enough for us, or is that exactly the reason to say no?

However one answers that, it also must come with the realization that there must be a limit to this, that we can’t be doing this when the fighters are housed at rival senior citizens homes. The fighting instinct may always be there, and so might the instinct to watch the fisticuffs, but at some point, we must turn, walk away and say enough. Nostalgia can be a viable product, but not when it comes with a heaping side of cringe.

It’s revealing that most of Ortiz’s promotion of the fight has centered on the very idea that Liddell has looked old and slow. The logical extension of that observation is that he probably should have stayed retired. Ortiz is basically saying what De La Hoya believes we’re not allowed to say, and that’s just as well, because at least someone is telling the truth about what we’re about to watch—or avoid.

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