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To hear Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Oscar De La Hoya tell it, the now confirmed Nov. 24 bout between Ortiz and Liddell will likely be the biggest career payday for the two MMA legends. That’s because Ortiz and Liddell are genuine promotional partners with De La Hoya, getting greater spoils if their fight is a success while also taking greater risk if the fight flops. It’s a definite positive for fighters that they are finally getting dealt into profits more strongly than they have in the past, and the question now is whether this particular event is one that will generate the sort of interest its promoters are expecting. There’s reason to be skeptical on that front.
Much of the analysis regarding Liddell-Ortiz 3 has centered on the ages of the fighters. Liddell and Ortiz are two of the biggest names in the history of the sport, but their peaks as fighters came over a decade ago. It’s understandable that in a fight pitting a 48-year-old Liddell against a 43-year-old Ortiz many are going to argue that fans simply don’t want to see fighters continue to compete past a certain age. However, age isn’t ultimately the root of the problem.
The second biggest fight on the horizon for MMA behind only Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov is Daniel Cormier-Brock Lesnar. Cormier is rapidly approaching 40 while Lesnar already passed that milestone. That won’t prevent Cormier-Lesnar from being a spectacular success on pay-per-view. Likewise, fans gravitated towards Randy Couture’s fights after he passed 40 much more than when he was younger than 40. There have of course been times when fans lost interest in aging MMA fighters, but there are plenty of examples, too, of fans not caring or older age working in fighters’ favor.
If the key factor working against Liddell-Ortiz 3 isn’t age, then what is it? Simply put: stakes. Promoters often forget when using big stars from the past that there needs to be some way that the upcoming fight ties into the stars’ overall legacy and thus has intrinsic meaning. If a fight simply feels like a one-off novelty where the winner is largely meaningless, it can sometimes still attract an audience on free television, but it rarely moves numbers on pay-per-view.
If Chuck Liddell’s return were to come against Jon Jones, as abhorrent as the fight would be morally, it would still likely generate a massive amount of mainstream fan interest. That’s because Liddell would have the opportunity in one night to prove how he could do against the best of the next generation. The odds of Liddell winning would be exceedingly low, but if he somehow pulled it off, it would be arguably the biggest win of his career. Thus, there would be a sense of importance to the result, no matter how obvious the outcome. This same principle led to the overwhelming success of the McGregor-Floyd Mayweather boxing mismatch.
Liddell and Ortiz don’t seem mismatched at this stage of their careers. Liddell has beaten Ortiz multiple times, while Ortiz is now younger, has been much more active and likely has the sturdier chin. It’s a fair fight to make for those reasons. The problem is that the result of the fight doesn’t appear to affect the legacy of either man, for different reasons.
On Liddell’s end, he has the opportunity to beat up Ortiz for the third time. One gets the impression that Liddell would still jump at the opportunity to do so at a nursing home in another 40 years; he enjoys tormenting his longtime rival like Lucy delights at torturing Charlie Brown. It’s just that Liddell doing so again wouldn’t tell us anything that hadn’t long ago been established. Liddell convincingly beat Ortiz in the latter’s prime, and that’s when the stakes were the highest.
On the other side, Ortiz at least has the opportunity to change the story. By defeating Liddell, he could avenge two of the key setbacks in his career; and it would surely offer great satisfaction given how long observers have been saying Liddell has his number. The problem for Ortiz is that the excuses for his win are already baked in. Liddell has been long retired and repeatedly knocked out. If Ortiz beats Liddell, most will conclude it simply means Liddell has nothing left. Ortiz will get precious little credit, and it certainly won’t change the perception of his overall career.
When they fought for the first time, Ortiz was the big star and Liddell the former training partner looking to prove he was better. Liddell’s win was a key moment in their switching positions. Liddell became the top man by the time the sport exploded in popularity. When they fought the second time, the title was on the line and Ortiz was gunning for revenge. Liddell’s win set him up for future title fights, while Ortiz has largely fought in special-attraction fights ever since. This third time, there is no comparable narrative. They’ll get in there and fight one more time and then basically return to the same positions they were in.
There’s no begrudging Ortiz and Liddell for seeking one more big payday or for that matter just wanting to compete one more time in a sport they played instrumental roles in shaping. However, this fight will not sink or swim based on respect. It needs to intrigue and to excite. It’s hard to do those things when there’s only a vague sense of what the competitors are fighting for. Liddell, Ortiz and De La Hoya have two months to tell that story, but it won’t be the easiest of pitches.
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.