The Bottom Line: Lone Winner

By Todd Martin Nov 27, 2018


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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It was a depressing time to be an MMA fan on Saturday. Golden Boy’s first foray into mixed martial arts was on balance no less awful to watch than YAMMA Pit Fighting, but it concluded with one of the worst scenes the sport has ever produced. In advance of the fight, most suspected Chuck Liddell had no business returning to action, seeing as though he was about a year away from his 50th birthday and almost a decade after Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White talked him into retiring following a series of knockout losses.

As Liddell’s fight with Tito Ortiz progressed, all doubt as to the wisdom of the event rapidly evaporated. Liddell, one of the most important and beloved fighters in the history of the sport, clearly had no business fighting at this stage of his life; and that point was brought home quickly and violently at the hands of a rival Liddell had emphatically bested twice when both men were in their primes. Worse fighters have been allowed to compete in professional MMA, but it’s hard to recall a fighter more compromised from his athletic peak than Liddell. Everyone associated with the event felt like a loser for having been associated with the sad spectacle.

For fans who did purchase the event on pay-per-view, they experienced the sort of scene that has been all too common in boxing over the years. They got to see the former superstar taking a completely unnecessary beating that makes you feel stupid for having thought anything else might have happened. MMA is a younger sport and thus there hasn’t been as much time for these sorts of scenes that make the whole sport feel a little bit dirtier.

Sports fans, save perhaps for supports of the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, don’t tend to watch sports in order to feel sad. Yet it’s hard to imagine any fan coming away from the Golden Boy pay-per-view having any other emotion. There was nothing enjoyable about the nature of Liddell’s loss, nor was there any unintentional comedy as there sometimes is in the most farcical of bouts. It was a total downer for the spectator, pure and simple.

At least fans are only responsible in so much as they paid to witness the event. The California State Athletic Commission bears greater blame for having sanctioned the fight in the first place. California is a respected commission and Andy Foster a well-regarded figure, but they failed by allowing the fight to take place. Liddell superficially looked like he was in good shape, but just watching his open workout before the fight raised some serious red flags. Those issues became more pronounced watching Liddell in the minutes before his knockout. Sometimes there can be second guessing of a fight after it takes place, but this was something the commission should have been able to recognize beforehand.

When Texas sanctioned the infamous Kimbo Slice-Dada 5000 fight that jeopardized the lives of both men, it was no surprise. This was after all the Texas commission. California’s commission has a far stronger reputation, and this was precisely the sort of fight that deserved heightened scrutiny before being approved. There is an argument to be made for allowing accomplished athletes to compete knowing the risks involved, but if ever there were a time for the commission to stand up for the health of the participants, this was it.

Foster wasn’t the only respected figure who came away from this fight looking bad. Antonio McKee has developed a reputation as one of the sport’s best trainers, and he put that reputation behind the effort to train Liddell for a fight that Liddell’s longtime trainer John Hackleman labeled a travesty. A trainer doesn’t bear the same responsibility for the fight taking place as the athletic commission, but a trainer is supposed to be honest with his fighter and look out for his safety. Sending Liddell out there wasn’t McKee’s finest moment.

When Oscar De La Hoya entered into MMA promotion, he managed to point to some positive motivations for doing so. Golden Boy Promotions helped boxers get a bigger piece of the pie for their efforts, and he promised to do the same for MMA. It seemed like positive PR, even if the show didn’t end up being immensely profitable. Now that the event is over, De La Hoya surely can’t feel great about the enterprise. The event was poorly received, and the Golden Boy brand was associated with that negative stigma at a time when it could simply be taking in the shine from Saull “Canelo” Alvarez’s record-breaking deal with DAZN. Moreover, early indications are that the show did not do in the ballpark of the numbers De La Hoya was throwing around in advance of the event. This could end up being a one and done in the MMA space for Golden Boy, and if so, it was on balance a real disappointment.

The one seeming winner in the whole enterprise is Ortiz, who knocked out his longtime rival. However, Ortiz sure didn’t feel like much of a winner in the process. Few gave him much credit for the win, given Liddell’s condition. He found himself in the aftermath of the fight defending his obliviously over-the-top celebration and punches to a clearly unconscious Liddell more than receiving congratulations for the win. If Ortiz’s goal was to make a point about his historic rivalry with Liddell, he clearly failed. However, it seems more likely it was just about a big potential paycheck. On that front, Ortiz may be in for disappointment. That paycheck is contingent on drawing a big buy rate, and Ortiz seemed unrealistic in his expectations before the fight. Few came away from the fight thinking of Ortiz as a big winner, and things may get worse when the numbers trickle in.

On a night that left so many with disappointment, there was one unlikely figure who got exactly what he wanted: Liddell himself. Yes, Liddell lost in brutal fashion to a longtime rival and it’s unlikely to do wonders for his long-term health. However, Liddell knew that risk going in. This didn’t appear to be about the money, either. Liddell just always has loved to fight.

That was apparent in interviews he did after he retired, admitting he wasn’t all that satisfied with a decision that was heavily encouraged. It was clear in the cosmetic shape in which he showed up that he relished the opportunity to train again for an actual fight. It was evident yet again in his upbeat post-fight Instagram post. Liddell wanted to do what he loves one more time, and it’s unlikely he’ll look back on the experience with disappointment. He got to scratch that itch.

Liddell’s desire to take that fight in spite of how everyone else ended up feeling about it is why it’s always going to be so hard to protect fighters from themselves. Elite athletes in particular have a competitive thirst that they are always going to want to find ways to quench. That’s why Liddell-Ortiz 3 leaves a feeling of melancholy more than anger. Regardless of how individual fans, promoters, commissioners and trainers acted and regardless of the risks involved, Liddell was going to want that extra fight. He’ll be far from the last fighter with that mentality. The rest of us may not like it, but Liddell got his satisfaction.

Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.

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