When Dana White first attempted to end Chuck Liddell‘s MMA career in 2009, the move was met with mixed feelings by the MMA community. Though it was admirable to see a fight promoter put his friend’s health before profits, it seemed unfair that Liddell had no say in his own retirement. After all he gave to the sport, didn’t he deserve to go out on his own terms?
At the time, Liddell was riding back-to-back knockout losses against Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua. He had reached the end of the line as a top competitor, and didn’t need any more concussions in his life. And yet, he convinced White to give him one last dance against Tito Ortiz. Then, Ortiz pulled out of their fight, and Rich Franklin stepped in and knocked Chuck out again.
In a way, it was the saddest knockout of Chuck’s career because of how well he was doing up until he lost consciousness. He was clearly motivated and in great shape — but after 12 years of standing and banging, it only took a single off-balance hook to shut his brain off.
I’m sure Dana White regretted the way the situation turned out, and the role he played in allowing Liddell to suffer another head-trauma. And I hope he learned a lesson that he can now use in dealing with Matt Hughes.
Hughes, of course, now finds himself in the same situation that Liddell was in following the Rua fight in 2009. His last two contests against BJ Penn and Josh Koscheck (at UFC 135 last weekend) ended in lights-out KO’s — yet he couldn’t bring himself to say the words “I retire” in the post-fight interview. Admittedly, it’s not the best moment to ask a fighter about his future when he’s just waking up from a loss. But now that a few days have passed, I hope Hughes realizes that campaigning for another fight does him no favors. It only gives him another opportunity to put his longterm health in danger by getting knocked out again. And as all followers of combat sports know, getting knocked out only becomes easier the more times it happens to you.
MMA is still such a young sport that we haven’t gotten to see generations of old veterans descend into dementia, like we have in boxing. (How young is MMA, exactly? Of the 39 fighters who have held belts in the UFC since the promotion began awarding official championships in 1997, 38 are still alive.) I think we’re suffering from the invincibility of youth — the naive idea that nothing bad will ever happen to us because nothing bad has happened to us so far.
And it’s bullshit. This sport will have its Muhammad Alis, you can believe that. Chuck Liddell’s speech cadence is noticeably different now than it was when he was a UFC rookie. It’s great that he’s finally stopped fighting, but I worry if the end came one knockout too late.
Ultimately, MMA promoters have to take some responsibility to tell fighters “no mas” when they start to become knockout magnets, because the fighters sure as hell aren’t going to do it themselves. Matt Hughes has reached that point where cage-fighting really isn’t in his best interest anymore, yet he can’t bring himself to retire because of the “competition sickness” that infects almost every athlete.
Bottom line, Dana White needs to do it for him, right now, and permanently. Going out on two losses is a bad end for a former champion, but becoming a cautionary tale is even worse.
- Ben Goldstein