It all started on April 2, 2004—officially, at least. Unofficially, it began at least two years earlier.
On June 22, 2002, Chuck Liddell scored a late knockdown to secure a unanimous decision victory over mixed martial arts mega star Vitor Belfort. It was Liddell’s ninth consecutive professional victory and sixth in a row in the UFC. He was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the number one contender for the 205-lb belt then worn by Tito Ortiz.
But Ortiz refused to fight the “Iceman,” claiming a friendship that Liddell denied ever existed, despite the fact that the pair had trained together multiple times in the past. The he-said, she-said nature of the situation made it appear as if Ortiz was looking for excuses to get out of fighting a man who looked more and more unbeatable each time he stepped into the Octagon.
Five months later, Liddell fought in a feature bout on the same card when Ortiz defended his title against bitter rival Ken Shamrock in what was then the biggest card in the history of the UFC. It was widely assumed that Liddell was the top contender, but a fight between Ortiz and Shamrock made the most business sense for the organization. Both men put on dominant, jaw-dropping performances, raising fan interest in a bout between the two to feverish levels.
Ortiz again played the friend card, suggesting that he was less than interested in squaring off with Liddell. The Iceman began publicly calling out Ortiz at every turn, making it seem more and more like Ortiz was running scared, which did more to build Liddell’s legend than any of his previous UFC victories.
On April 2, 2004, the pair finally met. By that time, Ortiz had relinquished the belt after Randy Couture gave him a five round wrestling clinic. Liddell was also coming off a loss suffered at the hands of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the semifinals of the PRIDE 205-lb Grand Prix. The bout would establish the number one contender for the title after Couture had an opportunity to settle some unfinished business with newly crowned champion Vitor Belfort, who won the title from “The Natural” in controversial fashion.
Liddell dominated Ortiz en route to a second-round knockout victory. That victory secured Liddell as a cult fighting hero, one who would very soon cross over into mainstream stardom.
Liddell won seven consecutive fights over the next 37 months, all by knockout or technical knockout, which to this day remains the longest knockout streak in the history of the UFC. During that run of greatness, he captured and successfully defended the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship and skyrocketed to never-before-seen fame for a mixed martial artist.
The Iceman was truly a fighting icon during those days.
Of course, Rich Franklin was nobody’s light lunch in the mid 2000s. He made his debut as a light heavyweight prospect during the early stages of Liddell’s rise to greatness. Over the next several years, Franklin quietly amassed one of the most impressive runs in recent memory, both inside and outside the Octagon.
One week before Liddell destroyed Couture for the 205-lb title in a fight that set new pay-per-view standards for the Zuffa era UFC, Franklin put on an equally impressive performance in knocking out Shamrock in the main event of the finale of the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, a SpikeTV event that forever changed the future of the sport by thrusting it into mainstream consciousness.
Franklin’s career record following the win over Shamrock stood at an awe-inspiring 18-1, and he was still undefeated in the UFC. Many thought that “Ace” would be next up for Liddell. Instead, he dropped down to 185 lbs and snatched the UFC Middleweight Title from Evan Tanner. The win secured a coaching spot for Franklin on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter.
Needless to say, the 12 weeks he spent on SpikeTV and his ensuing defeat of David Loiseau in his first title defense also made Franklin a legitimate star. Not quite to the level of Liddell, but a star nonetheless.
Both Franklin and Liddell were the victims of violent coup d’états at the height of their popularity, which is almost always how life unfolds for reigning champions. Franklin’s fall from grace occurred first on October 14, 2006, thanks to the savage attack of the man now revered as the best in the sport, pound for pound, Anderson Silva. Seven months later, Rampage snatched Liddell’s title with a single counter right hand.
Fast forward a few years and both Liddell and Franklin are eager to recapture their former glory. Both men believe they have what it takes to become a champion for the second time. This time, however, they must face each other to determine who will take one giant step closer toward achieving that goal.
Say what you will about recent losses, but this is going to be a seriously fun fight for the fans.
Simply stated, Liddell has never been in a boring fight. He is a super predator who steps in the cage with one goal: scoring a knockout. And he is more than willing to take a shot in order to achieve that goal, which makes for thrilling exchanges. Liddell almost always wins those exchanges, too. Nearly 70% of his UFC wins end with his opponent defeated on the canvas. That number jumps to nearly 90%, if you only consider his fights in the last six years. That is why very few fighters are willing to stand toe to toe with the Iceman.
Count Franklin among those few because he won’t hesitate to stand and strike with Liddell or anyone else for that matter. Fans may be surprised to learn that he actually has a better knockout ratio than Liddell, when comparing their UFC wins—75% to 70%.
Franklin is indeed the more versatile of the two fighters. Yet, he far and away prefers to throw hands and feet with all foes. That is partly due to his love of entertaining the fans and partly due to the fact that takedowns are probably the weakest part of his game, which means that he can’t take down many opponents, even if he wanted to.
Liddell may opt to take the fight to the ground, if he finds himself in a bad spot on the feet, but Franklin won’t have that option due to Liddell’s legendary takedown defense, which reportedly is still as good today as it was a couple of years ago when he was the unquestioned king of the sport. As a result, this fight will largely unfold as a kickboxing match, which is never a bad thing for the fans, particularly casual fans who are still working their way up the grappling learning curve.
Probably the biggest key to victory for both men is footwork. Liddell wants to cut off the cage so that he can keep his quicker foe from hunting and pecking while circling on the outside, which means keeping Franklin on the inside of his left shoulder as often as possible. Franklin, who fights from a southpaw stance, wants to always keep his lead right foot outside of Liddell’s lead left foot so that he can easily circle away from the Iceman’s explosive right hand.
Of course, that isn’t the end of the analysis for either man. Not by a long shot.
Liddell knows that he has plenty of juice to separate Franklin from consciousness. He also knows that his best chance to win is by scoring a knockout, since one must assume that his faster, more active opponent will be ahead if the fight lasts the distance. But, as odd as this may read, Liddell needs to put thoughts of a knockout out of his head.
When guys press for a knockout, they tend to wind up and throw haymakers. Franklin is an expert at slipping and countering haymakers. He put on a clinic in that regard against Wanderlei Silva, who rarely fires a punch that isn’t thrown from a different zip code. If Liddell focuses on leading with nuclear right hands, there is no reason to believe that the fight will look much different than Franklin-Silva.
The better approach would be to use his jab to herd Franklin into his right hand. Liddell knows that Franklin wants to circle to his own right, thereby constantly moving away from his right hand. A good, hard, repetitive jab while Liddell steps forward at a 45-degree angle to his left will cause Franklin to either retreat straight back or circle left, either way he will remain in the red zone for Liddell’s right hand.
Once he has Franklin in position, the Iceman should let his right hand go, but again, he shouldn’t worry about the knockout. There is no need to wind up and throw it from San Luis Obispo. He just needs to touch Franklin with the right while thinking speed. The knockout will happen by itself in that scenario.
It is imperative in those situations that Liddell put his shots together, rather than relying solely on isolated right hands. He should, at a minimum, clean up the right with a left hook thrown upstairs or downstairs. Every now and again, rather than firing the right hand off his jab, Liddell would be well served to unleash a right high kick.
Franklin will never expect that strike. Nobody expects Liddell to kick because he is so deadly with his hands. The fact remains, though, that the Iceman is an exceptional kickboxer with a solid arsenal of kicks. Renato “Babalu” Sobral learned that after he used his jaw to catch Liddell’s left shin in one of most dramatic knockouts of 2002.
By throwing the jab first, Franklin’s attention will be diverted. He likes to defend jabs by catching them with his right hand, which leaves him blind to a right high kick as his own right hand crosses his vision to catch the jab. If Liddell follows the jab immediately with the kick, it should find pay dirt.
I know this will read like sacrilege to diehard Iceman fans, but I also think that it would benefit Liddell to take down Franklin in the first round, particularly if he is on his bicycle. Aside from taking down an exhausted Silva in the final round of their back-and-forth war to ensure victory, I cannot recall Liddell ever taking down another opponent in the UFC. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened. I just can’t recall it as I type. Regardless, there is no doubt that a takedown will completely dumbfound Franklin, who believes beyond any semblance of doubt that Liddell will come out headhunting. Throwing that sort of a monkey wrench into the fight is enough to get any fighter off his game, including an elite veteran like Franklin.
Once on the ground, Liddell should spend a little time grounding and pounding his foe. Franklin is a cardio monster, and pounding him on the ground will go a long way to emptying some of his massive gas tank. Liddell doesn’t have to worry about getting submitted, despite Franklin’s outstanding offensive guard, because he has some of the best submission defense in the division. The only thing he should be very wary of is allowing Franklin to take his back in a scramble. If a transition starts to unfold, Liddell should just stand up and resume the fight on the feet.
Following up jabs with high kicks and mixing in the occasional takedown should leave Liddell in a great position to win the fight. Sure, he can come out in trademark Iceman fashion win by knockout without doing much other than walking down Franklin and letting his hands fly. But mixing up his approach certainly will certainly help set up the highlight-reel knockout that he so desperately wants in his return to the Octagon.
Like with Liddell, Franklin also needs to utilize kicks if he wants to maximize his chances at defeating his iconic opponent. Keith Jardine basically laid out the perfect blueprint for defeating Liddell in their 2007 matchup. After weathering some very intense moments in the early part of the first round, Jardine was able to calm down, set the proper distance and begin hammering away at Liddell’s lead leg and ribcage with fully committed kicks.
Fans could see the energy and strength slowly drain from Liddell with each kick to his left leg and the left side of his ribcage. He began to move more slowly. His punches no longer had the same zip on them compared to the first minute of the fight. And his strike output dramatically reduced. I know the judges disagreed on the winner, but it was pretty clear, at least in my opinion, that Jardine won the fight.
Franklin can do the same thing. He knows not to sit in the pocket and slug it out with Liddell. Franklin gets knocked out more often than not in that situation. He knows that, so he won’t try it. He will instead come out circling to his own right to set the distance and then look to fire right jabs and left kicks to Liddell’s lead leg and body, just like Jardine did to Liddell.
Such an approach to dealing with a devastating puncher is nothing new to Franklin. He followed that same basic game plan, though not really focusing on leg kicks, against Dan Henderson and Wanderlei Silva. He lost to Henderson by a very controversial split decision, principally because Henderson was able to take the fight to the ground in the first two rounds, and convincingly defeated Silva. Thus, taking that approach to the fight will be old hat for the former middleweight champion.
The question, however, is whether Franklin can effectively engage, like he did against Henderson without getting clipped on the chin by one of the most devastating strikers to have ever stepped inside the Octagon.
As mentioned, Ace needs to use a lot of lateral movement to try and prevent Liddell from locking in on his target. When he does plant his feet and engage, which will happen several times during the fight, he should not get greedy. He should instead get off a two- or three-piece combination and then get out of Dodge, always exiting to his right. Franklin should do that even if he senses that Liddell is somewhat wobbled.
Few men in the history of the sport can match the Iceman’s power while moving backward. It almost defies understanding that he can throw what appears to be an arm punch while retreating and still generate knockout power, but he has done it multiple times. Franklin must therefore proceed with caution at all times. He has the technical skill to pick apart Liddell on the outside, if he wins the battle of foot position, circles to his right, darts in and out with strikes and focuses on kicks to the leg and body.
I know I typically give my prediction at the conclusion of each breakdown. Honestly, I just can’t call this one. Franklin should be tailor made for Liddell. He isn’t a threat to score a takedown. He is not a knockout striker—at least, not of the one-strike variety. And guys with far less power than Liddell have rocked him with punches and knees.
Then again, Franklin has made a career out of proving the experts wrong. He is absolutely as game as they come, and nobody formulates and then follows a game plan better than Franklin (Georges St-Pierre probably just took offense to that statement—rightfully so).
This one is going to come down to who can dictate the distance of the fight, and that is very difficult to predict. If someone put a gun to my head, I’d pick Liddell because power oftentimes carries the day. At the very least, he should not be the betting underdog.
Then again, I picked Rampage by knockout over Evans, so what do I know?
• 40 yrs old
• 6-2, 205 lbs
• 76.5-inch reach
• 21-7 overall (16-6 UFC; 2-1 PRIDE)
• 1-4 in last 5 bouts
• 6-4 in last 10 bouts
• Currently on a 2-fight losing streak (second time that has happened in his career)
• 12 of 18 UFC/PRIDE wins have come by KO/TKO
• 5 of 7 PRIDE/UFC losses have come by KO/TKO
• Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion
• 22 UFC bouts ties for the most all time
• Ranked 2nd all time with 16 UFC wins
• Tied for 7th all time with 7 UFC title bouts; his 5 wins in those bouts is 5th all time
• Tied for 4th all time with 4 consecutive successful UFC title defenses
• 7-fight UFC winning streak ties for 5th all-time (Liddell did it twice)
• Holds the record for the most consecutive UFC knockouts with 7
• Fight of the Night (UD3 over Wanderlei Silva on December 29, 2007)
• 896 days since Liddell last won a fight (UD3 over Wanderlei Silva on December 29, 2007)
• Current layoff of 420 days is the longest of his career(KO1 by Mauricio Rua on April 18, 2009)
• 35 yrs old
• 6-1, 205 lbs
• 76-inch reach
• 27-5, 1 NC overall (12-4 UFC)
• 3-2 in last 5 bouts
• 6-4 in last 10 bouts
• 5-1 in UFC’s 205-lb division
• Only 4 professional fights have lasted the distance (3-1 record in those fights)
• 8 of 12 UFC wins have come by KO/TKO
• 4 of his 5 professional losses have come by KO/TKO
• Former UFC Middleweight Champion
• 16 UFC bouts ties him for 9th all time
• Tied for 7th all time with 12 UFC wins
• 7-fight UFC winning streak ties for 5th all time
• Fight of the Night (UD3 over Wanderlei Silva on June 13, 2009)
• Current layoff of 266 days is the longest of his career (TKO1 by Vitor Belfort on September 19, 2009)