Golden Boy Promotions, Oscar De La Hoya’s outfit, promoted its first mixed martial arts event on Saturday night at the Los Angeles Forum. It was built more like a boxing card than a traditional MMA one, with the main event getting almost the entire focus and the co-feature getting a polite bit of lip service. The main event in question, somehow, was the third fight in one of the sport’s most famous rivalries, Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz. To reiterate: this event happened this past Saturday. You may be wondering how the fuck this happened.
Combat sports are unforgiving, sure. Exploitative, absolutely. Completely washed up and even noticeably impaired fighters getting licensed to fight when they shouldn’t is something that happens with startling regularity. And yet Saturday night felt different.
Liddell was a nightmarish stylistic matchup for Ortiz, his former training partner, knocking him out both times they fought—which were in 2004 and 2006. Liddell parlayed that feud and his status as light heavyweight champion into being the UFC’s biggest star for a time, only for it to come crashing down when Quinton “Rampage” Jackson brutally one-shotted him in his first title defense after the Ortiz rematch. Then that just kept happening, again and again and again. Liddell’s vaunted ability to take a punch was gone, and he went 1-6 in his next seven fights with all but one of the losses coming through terrifying one-shot knockouts. UFC President Dana White, who is Liddell’s friend and former manager, basically demanded he retire while also giving him what was effectively a no-show job for him so that he would have no concerns about money. For a fighter who’d done a great deal for the sport when it was still in its relative infancy, it looked like a dignified if overdue retirement.
Two years ago, though, White and his high school classmates, the Fertitta brothers sold the UFC to Endeavor (formerly WME-IMG), and the “thank you” jobs for retired fighters were quickly axed. (The Ultimate Fighter season 1 winner and former champion Forrest Griffin was kept on, allegedly because the Vegas resident had decided to treat his honorary gig like a real job and actually showed up at the nearby UFC offices.) Liddell had been making noise about returning to the cage, and that only got louder once he was on his own after being cut from a job that he said was promised to be a lifetime gig. And where there are two old, beat-up, marketable fighters with what had once been lucrative rivalry, there’s always a promoter to exploit it. Well, exploit them.
As much of a physical wreck as Ortiz is, he’s usually looked like an athlete in his most recent fights. In his last fight, 22 months ago for Bellator MMA in the very same Los Angeles Forum where he faced Liddell on Saturday, Ortiz completely ran through the inarguably past-it but still basically competitive Chael Sonnen. There’s a longstanding and ongoing circular debate about how punchy Ortiz is or isn’t, but it’s hard to tell given that he’s never been the most coherent of speakers; he has minimal losses to strikes, with his last two TKO losses coming via body shots in 2011.
Liddell is a different story. He retired specifically because he had lost all ability to take a punch, and his issues in that area only appeared to be getting worse. While he had actually looked very good in his last fight before the knockout, that was almost a decade ago, and he had lost his previous fight after eating a punch that was scary precisely because it didn’t look like it should have put him down. Play-by-play announcer Mike Goldberg, seemingly thinking the same thing, uncharacteristically yelled “OH NO!” when Liddell went down.
The question, as the fight grew closer, was whether it would really be that much worse than the many similarly bleak “comeback” fights that had preceded it. Most of the really bad stuff, like the batterings that Ken Shamrock, Kazushi Sakuraba, Gary Goodridge, and Don Frye took well past the point of no return, were unregulated. Liddell-Ortiz III wasn’t on some Japanese pro wrestling freak show card—it was going to be in California, in a sanctioned and regulated bout promoted by a major fighting concern. It’s the California part that matters most: the state sanctions more MMA than any other state athletic commission, has made numerous investments in fighter safety, and helped coordinate the most organized amateur MMA program in the nation; the commission is run by a retired fighter in Andy Foster.
But they’re still an athletic commission, and athletic commissions have a tendency to be sketchy as hell. Even California does things like suspending Alexander Shlemenko for failing a steroid test even though the package with the fighter urine samples arrived at the lab with fewer vials than it was supposed to and then tripling the suspension length over what their initial notice to him said. The idea that Chuck Liddell should be anywhere near a cage in his current condition is similarly sketchy. But it was not too sketchy for California on Saturday. It was easy to predict what would come next.
It had, in fact, been easy to predict for months. A video of Liddell hitting pads in the gym during the summer was concerning, and his performance at last week’s open workouts wasn’t much better. On the broadcast, that was explained away as Liddell having a style of striking that didn’t look good during mitt work but was effective in the cage. But as soon as Liddell started the walk to the cage it was clear that there was more wrong here than Liddell being an awkward karate fighter. His gait was halting and unsteady, his arm and hand movement seemed to lack dexterity, and his eyes were disturbingly vacant for someone who seemingly knew where he was. It was disturbing well before the bell rang.
And once the fight started, the picture couldn’t have been more clear: Liddell, whose command of distance was so vital to his game that he routinely gave the UFC a phony and notably shorter measurement of his reach to mess up his opponents’ preparation, was barely touching Ortiz, who is himself no master striker. Once an overly tentative Ortiz realized there was nothing to be afraid of where his opponent was concerned, he started touching Liddell. Everything that touched him hurt him. The first really committed punch that Ortiz threw was the one that put his former training partner out.
I’ve been watching MMA consistently since my dad brought home a screener of UFC 2 almost a quarter century ago. I’ve seen some bad shit during that time. Tons of bad, dangerous officiating, from referees letting fighters get bludgeoned to commission inspectors routinely ignoring that a fighter just told their coaches that they can’t see and everything in between, up to and including Paulo Filho repeatedly looking at and talking to an invisible man during his second fight with Chael Sonnen. The aforementioned drubbings of zombified legends, which are usually held in Japan, are up there among the worst of the sport. But the way Chuck Liddell looked on Saturday, and that he was allowed to fight in the condition he was in, was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in MMA that was perpetrated and sanctioned by a theoretically respectable, major athletic commission.
The abuse of Don Frye was appalling, but he at least looked athletic and somewhat competitive before James Thompson hit him with dozens of unanswered blows while the referee prayed for a comeback. Ken Shamrock was allowed to fight long past the point he should have retired, but he at least could walk in a straight line. Chuck Liddell belonged nowhere near where he found himself on Saturday night. That the fight was allowed to happen at all is a travesty, and a terrible cruelty both to this fighter and the sport. The shame of it should follow everyone involved in making the fight for a long time.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.