If Chuck Liddell is going to return to MMA, his longtime coach is willing to support him.
John Hackleman, the founder of The Pit training center and the head coach who helped “The Iceman” reach the pinnacle of the sport from 2005-07 as UFC light heavyweight champion, admitted Monday that although he is not a fan of Liddell’s comeback plans — which Liddell unveiled last week to MMA Fighting — he is nonetheless open to helping his 48-year-old Hall of Fame student in any way he can.
“I don’t like it, at all,” Hackleman explained Monday on The MMA Hour. “In fact, I don’t like any of my fighters to fight. I wish they were all just training at my gym and were having fun, and that’s what I started The Pit for back in 1985 and I never want anyone to fight. To me, it’s not fun, never has been.
“So, I don’t want him to fight anymore. But with that said, if he does [want to fight again] and he really has to do it in his heart, then I’m behind him 100 percent.”
Liddell is one of the most popular champions in UFC history. “The Iceman” hung up his MMA gloves in 2010 at the behest of UFC president Dana White after suffering a trio of consecutive knockout losses at the hands of Rashad Evans, Mauricio Rua, and Rich Franklin. In the aftermath of his retirement, Liddell was given an executive role within the UFC, however he was laid off from that role in 2016 following the sale of the organization to Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG. Liddell has teased a potential MMA return ever since.
Having finally made his decision official last week, Liddell said he is targeting a November trilogy fight against his old rival, fellow UFC Hall of Famer Tito Ortiz, to be staged in either Las Vegas or California. Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions is Liddell’s preferred frontrunner to promote the contest.
Hackleman said he hasn’t yet discussed specifics with Liddell, however he is willing to help “The Iceman” prepare for his comeback however he needs.
“I’ll do whatever Chuck needs,” Hackleman said. “Whatever Chuck needs in his heart, if he wants me to come work with him for the fight, if he wants me to work his corner — if he wants me to do both, then I’ll do both.
“He knows exactly how I feel about him fighting,” Hackleman added. “And he knows I love him and I got his back, but he knows how I feel about it. So I’m not going to beat a dead horse and I’m not going to be that nagging little b*tch. So I’ll just — whatever he has to do, he’s going to do, and as someone that loves him as a family member, I’ll be there for him even if I don’t like it. Just like, you go to your kids’ [events] when they play their instruments in their concerts, you go; you go to all their stuff, their games; even if they’re sitting on the bench, you go, because you love your kids. I love Chuck and I’m going to do whatever I can to help him realize his full potential in his life.”
Hackleman explained that his training sessions with Liddell over recent years have been few and far between, however he has nonetheless been impressed by how much his former pupil has retained skill-wise despite his advancing age.
“When I do see him, when we do our really infrequent training, he looks just like he did back in the day,” Hackleman said. “But that’s not against a real competitor. So it’s easy to be a gym fighter, and I’m not saying that’s what Chuck is, but I can’t judge how he’s going to react in the cage by how he hits a bag. But with that said, he still has a sh*t-ton of power and he still has his moves, and that kind of stuff is in his muscle memory. His takedown defense, his punching power, his fight IQ. You don’t lose that kind of stuff.”
Hackleman also acknowledged the concerns that many within the MMA community have voiced about how Liddell’s return could impact his long-term health, especially given the way Liddell’s career inside the Octagon came to such an abrupt and violent end.
Hackleman said that he shares many of those same concerns, but not more so than he would for any of his other students.
“I have safety and health concerns about everybody fighting, but not him more than others,” Hackleman said. “I mean, he was stopped in a few of his last fights, but to be honest, most boxers get stopped that many times in any given training camp, especially in the old days when sparring was much more full-on and much more prevalent in training camp. He hasn’t had a lot of knockouts, so that’s not what I worry about for him specifically. I just worry about that for all of my fighters, because I want them all to be safe.”
Hackelman admitted that Liddell’s preferred choice in opponent also plays a small part in how he feels about things.
Liddell has defeated Ortiz twice in the past, brutally knocking “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” out in 2004 and 2006 on a pair of blockbuster UFC pay-per-views. And Hackleman doesn’t see the outcome changing if history gets a chance to repeat itself later this year.
“It’s like f*cking the fat chick again,” Hackleman said. “It’s like, you don’t want to do it in public again. You had to do it, because times were hard or you got forced to do it for whatever reason, but you don’t want to keep doing it. And I respect Tito for a lot of reasons, but Chuck beat him twice already. He stopped him twice. And that’s all I mean by that analogy. I’m not putting down Tito at all. Tito is a pioneer and he’s a stud. He’ll fight anyone anytime, he’s done sh*t in the UFC. I think he’s a great fighter. Chuck has his number.
“The Jon Jones thing, that was, like, pushing it a little too far on that edge right now, but Tito as an opponent — Tito is a good opponent for Chuck, and we know that just by the history.”