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If this is the end?

Thomas Gerbasi, UFC - The first time I ran into Chuck Liddell, it was at the then-customary rules meeting before his May 2001 bout with Kevin Randleman. There were no camera crews following him, no flock of reporters jotting down his every word – he was just another fighter in a room full of them, competing in a sport that wasn’t even back on pay-per-view yet.

By Thomas Gerbasi

The first time I ran into Chuck Liddell, it was at the then-customary rules meeting before his May 2001 bout with Kevin Randleman. There were no camera crews following him, no flock of reporters jotting down his every word – he was just another fighter in a room full of them, competing in a sport that wasn’t even back on pay-per-view yet.

My nephew, who was shooting pictures for me at the time, thought there was nothing cooler than the tattoo on the side of Liddell’s head - the kanji symbols for “place of peace and prosperity” – and not only did he photograph it, he went on to have a casual conversation with him about everything but fighting.

That was nearly eight years ago. The day after the rules meeting, Liddell knocked out former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman in 78 seconds, and it was the beginning of his transition from California cult hero to worldwide mixed martial arts superstar. Today, everyone knows who Chuck Liddell is; camera crews follow him around, flocks of reporters jot down his every word, but remarkably, he remains the same person he was in 2001. Sure, the bank account’s bigger, the clubs are nicer, and the trappings of fame more expensive – both literally and figuratively – but of anyone in professional sports today, Liddell has remained true to what got him here in the first place.

“I’ve got a lot of friends that I’ve hung out with for 10-15 years that still hang out with me, and I don’t think they’d let me start acting like a jerk,” he told me in 2006. “They knew me when I was the guy going to college and working behind the bar. Plus I still live in the same small town, and things like that (celebrity) aren’t really that big a deal around here. I think I’m a normal guy, and I try to be as normal as I can.”

That’s rare in a day and age where image and spin is everything. Liddell has the same Mohawk, the same trainer (John Hackleman), the same friends, and the same attitude. Of course, on this side of the Octagon, eight years of covering Liddell has its challenges, but while hearing him simply state that he just loves to fight and loves knocking people out will never allow him to fill up notebooks like a Bernard Hopkins, that, frankly, is part of his appeal. Liddell has always boiled fighting down to its bare essence. For him, when he stepped into the Octagon, it was a fight – not a chess match, not a clashing of styles or comparison of techniques. He was going to hit you, you were going to try to hit him, and more often than not, you were going to fall down. It was a fight, plain and simple, and no one wanted to win that fight more than him.

“From chess to checkers when I was a kid, I’ve always been competitive,” he said in 2003. “I hate to lose. I hate to lose at anything. I’ve gotten a lot better about mellowing out about fun games, but there was a time when I’d get pissed about everything. Whether it was shooting pool or anything, I just hated losing. I’ve kind of moved that focus and tried to keep it to my professional life.”

That was bad news for the men he faced in the Octagon. After a 2003 that saw losses to Randy Couture and Quinton Jackson sandwich a win over Alistair Overeem, Liddell went on an over three year tear from 2004 to 2007 that not only established him as the game’s unquestioned superstar, but as the most terrifying light heavyweight in the game. Strangely enough though, as Liddell’s fame grew, the respect he received (and still receives) from his peers never waned. Liddell was a true fighter’s fighter, and that’s an accolade you can’t buy or receive from newspaper clippings or television appearances.

“I think the reason people like me is because I’ll fight anybody, anywhere, I don’t talk bad about people that don’t deserve it, and I’m not a guy who’s out there trying to trash talk and make a name for myself,” said Liddell in 2006. “I earned the name that I have – I went out and fought for it. I’m not trying to make it off somebody else. And I go out there, I fight hard, and I fight to win. I think other fighters have respect for that because that’s what they’re doing.”

And during his reign of terror over the UFC’s 205-pound weight class, he wasn’t beating cupcakes, as his seven fight unbeaten streak over that span included wins over world champions Randy Couture (twice) and Tito Ortiz (twice), as well as respected contenders like Babalu Sobral and Jeremy Horn. What made this run even more spectacular was that he won all of those bouts by knockout, punctuating each with the only outward sign of emotion you would ever see from him, a post-fight scream that became his trademark.

“I’m just excited,” he said in a typical understatement. “I don’t get very excited very often about too many things, but that’s one of the things I do. I prepare for two to three months for a guy, and you end it quickly like that or you have a good fight and you win, I’m excited.”

Unfortunately, the screams haven’t come too often in the last couple of years, and with only one win in his last five fights, it looks like Liddell may have reached the end of the line at 39 years old. Granted, there is no shame in losing to Jackson, Keith Jardine, Rashad Evans, and Mauricio Rua, but as mentioned earlier, losing at anything is unacceptable for Liddell, and it may be better for fans old and new to remember when “The Iceman” was “The Iceman”. Even his friend and former manager, UFC President Dana White, was somber at the post-fight press conference after Liddell’s bout with Rua, saying, “Tonight was the end of an era. One of the greatest guys in the sport fought his last fight.”

Liddell, who wants to discuss his future with his family, friends, and team before making an official statement, did admit that “This could have been the last time,” when asked Saturday night about returning to the Octagon.

But let’s not have this be a funeral for a great career. Instead, let’s remember what Liddell has meant to the UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts. That is a type of celebration that Liddell would probably do anything to steer clear of, as he was never about the attention, getting pats on the back, magazine covers, or glowing television features. He was always about the fight, and when I asked him a couple years ago how he would like to be remembered a hundred years from now, his answer wasn’t as terse as it usually was, and it spoke volumes.

“As a fighter,” said Liddell. “As someone who didn’t duck anyone, someone who fought everybody that came up, and that always came out there to fight tough. I love to fight, I love the fight game, and I went out there and performed.”

That he did.

So, if this is the end…Thanks Chuck, it’s been a helluva ride.