Chuck Liddell file photo: Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com
Of all the things Chuck Liddell has become recognizable for, a chiseled physique has never been one of them.
But at 40 years old, Liddell, the most recognizable mixed martial arts star in today’s mainstream culture, has found a way to turn that around. The San Luis Obispo, Calif., native enters his 28th professional bout on Saturday against Rich Franklin at UFC 115 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, with a decidedly leaner look.
“He’s probably in better shape than he has been in his whole life,” said longtime trainer and friend John Hackleman.
It’s a common and sometimes overstated sentiment made by fighters and their camps prior to bouts, but with Liddell -- who’s slightly protruding gut has been the fodder for Internet chat sites many times in the past -- the hype seems to fit the bill.
Hackleman, who’s trained Liddell ever since he rode up to the central California Hawaiian Kempo instructor’s gym on his motorcycle 18 years ago, credits Liddell’s latest squeeze, Heidi Northcott, as a main catalyst for the celebrity fighter’s recent transformation.
“Heidi loves to work out,” said Hackleman. “She works out twice a day -- full-on, hard workouts -- so she’s a fanatic and she pushes Chuck to be too.”
Hackleman said Northcott, who was once tied to former MLB player Jose Canseco, is different than Liddell’s past girlfriends.
“Even when Chuck was in the off-season and not training, some of Chuck’s other exes wanted to party,” said Hackleman. “Heidi tells Chuck they’re not going to party, they’re going on a beach run. She tells him he’s not going to eat this cake; he’s going to eat these strawberries. She’s all about diet and exercise. Chuck came into camp with a six-pack.”
Northcott seems to be a key domino in a chain of recent life improvements the notoriously party-friendly Liddell has made at a necessary time in his career.
Liddell, who infamously slurred and stumbled his way through a Texas morning TV show interview in 2007, has lost three of his last four bouts. The former UFC light heavyweight champion’s career was nearly taken away from him in April 2009 when UFC President Dana White tried to force his retirement following back-to-back knockouts from Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua.
Instead, Liddell took an assignment with ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” last fall and shed an initial 20 pounds in a $10,000 bet with White. Liddell met Northcott shortly around this time, which made keeping his momentum a much more manageable prospect.
In January, Liddell re-joined the cast of Spike TV’s “The Ultimate Fighter” for its 11th season, coaching opposite one-time training partner Tito Ortiz.
“It was like a mini camp for him,” said Hackleman, who assisted Liddell on the show. “He got to train with a lot of good fighters on his team and Tito’s team too -- we were really good friends with them.”
A major component of the season was the oil-and-water relationship between Liddell and Ortiz, who were scheduled to face one another at UFC 115 until Ortiz withdrew from the bout in need of neck surgery. Hackleman said the thought of facing Ortiz a third time motivated Liddell to stay on the straight and narrow during tapings in Las Vegas.
“I think being around Tito lit that fire more than anything else,” said Hackleman.
It was Liddell’s distaste for Ortiz’s dramatic overtures that fueled the usually stone-faced fighter’s anger and frustration captured on the show, said Hackleman.
“I don’t think he hates him,” said Hackleman. “He doesn’t like him and he thinks Tito’s kind of a douche-bag, but I don’t think he hates him.”
For Liddell’s most recent camp, Hackleman again enlisted Howard Davis Jr., a 1976 Olympic boxing gold medalist and American Top Team coach, and 2000 Olympic freestyle wrestling silver medalist Sammie Henson to fortify the fighter’s defensive tactics.
Hackleman argued that Liddell’s most recent defeats have been overblown and are certainly not signs that the aging fighter has lost his step.
“He got knocked out once. He got knocked out by Rashad. The other one -- if it had been boxing it would have been an eight-count and he would have been fine,” said Hackleman, who fought as both a pro boxer and kickboxer himself.
Regardless, Hackleman said Liddell has utilized his 14-month sabbatical wisely.
“I see that his timing is perfect and his explosiveness is a little more than usual, but other than that, it’s the same: hitting people hard,” said Hackleman. “We’ve been working on his defense, which is unbelievable now. He’s working a lot of ground. All of the bases are covered. It’s going to be hard one for Rich to figure out.”
Even UFC President White has recently wavered on his adamant stance that Liddell should hang up his gloves.
“My big beef with Chuck was his lifestyle. He’s changed his lifestyle,” said White during a press conference in Vancouver on Thursday. “We’ll see what happens on Saturday.”
Hackleman makes no predictions when it comes to Liddell’s final exit from the Octagon.
“You got me,” said Hackleman. “This could be his last one or he could fight 10 more. It’s up to him.
“Now, I think now he’s just having more fun living a more wholesome, health-conscious lifestyle. I think he’s beginning to realize that that can be just a rewarding as VIP lines in different clubs. Now he’s finding it can be just as fun and rewarding for him to, on the weekends, turn in a little earlier so he can take a hike through the mountains or do beach runs.”
Hackleman said Liddell now reminds him of the fresher-faced, hungrier version of the fighter he first laid his eyes upon sitting on his bike outside the gym 18 years ago.
“I think he’s a little more centered and a lot more simple,” said Hackleman. “Simple is always better. His life was so complicated. It’s complicated trying to be in a thousand places at once and pleasing a thousand different people at once. It’s not healthy. Now he’s just simple, old-school Chuck again.”