Sometimes when retirement folks get to reminiscing about the old days in the fight game, there’s a little gleam in the eye that basically says: And make no mistake, young fella, I can still do it. For Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, that feisty gleam was enough for boxing’s Golden Boy to get involved with MMA, an early bird special of a bout that promises to cash in on an unresolved rivalry spanning back some back 14 years. The date and venue weren’t immediately provided, but a 15 percent discount is available to anyone with an AARP card.*
The first words that sprung to mind when the trilogy fight became official on Monday? Oh, for f&%# sakes.
Fighting really is the saddest damn thing, and it never follows a straight line. In the same calendar week that Josh Koscheck, Johny Hendricks and, of all people, Rashad Evans announced their retirements, Liddell and Ortiz — two icons from a more innocent time — come shuffling back in. Liddell is 48 years old, and hasn’t finished anybody since 2006. Ortiz retired emotionally after beating Chael Sonnen in early-2017 in Anaheim, going so far as to have his son ceremonially leave his gloves in the cage as he made his final exit. It was the most poignant highlight of Ortiz’s career, because it struck a poetic endnote that drowned out a decade’s worth of trash talk Mad Libs.
It also turned out to be a production.
Not that anybody really should have believed it would end like that. In fighting, the only thing that pairs better than fire and ice is capitalism and second thoughts. All it took was the UFC to give up on trotting Liddell around as its official mascot and for Ortiz to catch wind that the ol’ Hun of San Luis Obispo might be contemplating a return. Now, thanks to Oscar de la Hoya, we have the trilogy fight that’s just a little past the “sell by” date (stamped at May, 2009). Back then, Ortiz and Liddell was rock & roll. That was when Mohawks, painted toenails and peroxide felt like the very fringe of civilized society, and thus perfect for the rebellious spirit of MMA. Nowadays there are creatures like Mike Perry roaming these lands.
Creatures that give Liddell and Ortiz fresh coats of avuncular warmth.
No, this is Cheap Trick performing at the Farmer’s Market. Even if you love yourself some old school MMA legends, there aren’t too many “feel good” angles to take when contemplating Liddell-Ortiz III in 2018. It doesn’t help that “The Iceman” hasn’t looked like The Iceman since the just-retired Evans knocked him out at UFC 88 in Atlanta. That’s when the Liddell eulogies started showing up in volume. By the time he lost to Shogun Rua at UFC 97, it was a foregone conclusion that the vintage Liddell — the one who threw his arms back to howl after each victory, and posed on the cover of UFC Magazine wearing a t-shirt of himself peeing on the word “Ortiz” — wasn’t coming back. When Chuck got knocked out by a one-armed Rich Franklin at UFC 115, the credits had long rolled.
That fight remains one of the saddest, most merciless main events of all time. The kind of thing you never want to revisit. Not if you cared about Liddell.
None of that is great context for a comeback a decade later, not even against an old nemesis who has gone 4-7-1 since losing to Liddell at UFC 66 (which doubled as Chuck’s last TKO victory). The fact that Liddell had to be chased from the game in such a cruel way has long stood as a lesson as to how hard it can be for a legend to accept it’s over. We all had to watch his chin go in real time. In fact, the evaporation of his chin — as well as the long term effects he may have received in taking extra shots along the way — have all become part of the Liddell experience. He was a full-on cinematic symbol of top-of-the-world triumph meeting an inevitable decline.
Of course, Ortiz having discussed his various injuries over the years in such great detail doesn’t exactly make him an ideal punching bag, either. He’d have us believe he’s a Frankenstein made up of heart, rejiggered vertebrae and unparalleled drive, which isn’t exactly something you need to see destroyed. Besides, in his transformation from “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” to — ahem — “The People’s Champion,” he’s become a peculiarly unhateable figure. He’s just become Tito, the guy who’s in a perpetual state of retired non-retirement, as faithful as the new moon and as full of beans as ever.
Personally, I loved the old Liddell-Ortiz feud. It was the original “bad blood” rivalry that gave the UFC so much of its vital color back in the day. If the trilogy had happened in 2009 like it was supposed to, or even 2010, it would have been past due and a little sad, but still relevant to essential spirit of the sport. MMA was younger then, too, and there was a feeling of collective mischief to it all. Liddell and Ortiz belonged to that. They helped define it. That was a long time ago, though. It’s cool to break into the old man’s liquor cabinet when you’re 18, which is how the original Liddell-Ortiz feud felt back in the mid-aughts.
But it just feels sad to do so when you’re 30.
(*Just kidding, everyone pays full price! Pay-per-views are age blind).