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It was a night that may have marked the end of an illustrious career while giving new fans in Vancouver, Canada plenty of examples of what makes MMA the incredible sport that it is. Sportsmanship, respect, fighting through adversity, the drama of the comeback and the impact that four ounce gloves can have on the outcome of a fight were all on display north of the border.
Coming into the event, it was clear from all of his interviews as well as every photo we saw of him that Chuck Liddell had learned his lesson. A recommitted, reinvigorated and focused Iceman was necessary if the man who dominated the Light Heavyweight division was still going to be able to compete at the highest level. Gone was the partying, the rumors of a little too much alcohol (or a lot too much if you listen to Tito Ortiz) and the one dimensional striking approach that betrayed him as the rest of the division caught up with him and started putting him on the wrong end of the knockout. Chuck got it…message received.
But it wasn’t enough.
Chuck’s appearance told the story of a man who was in great physical condition but the real proof that this was a different Liddell than recent fights past came early in the first round when he was throwing leg kicks with both force and accuracy. Just ask Rich Franklin’s left arm, which got broken courtesy of Chuck’s right shin. Midway through the round, Liddell took Franklin down and hammered him on the ground for a short while and even attempted a choke as the two former champions scrambled to their feet. More evidence that Liddell the feared striker had done the work to transform himself into Liddell the more well-rounded mixed martial artist.
And then it happened. With ten seconds left in a round that he looked to be winning, Rich nailed Chuck with a right hand that sent him to the canvas unconscious with a leg bent back that brought images of Rashad Evans to mind when he lost the title to Lyoto Machida at UFC 98. But the Iceman may have lost more than a belt as referee Herb Dean stopped the fight with five seconds left in the round. He may have lost the opportunity to do the thing he loves to do most in the world on its biggest stage. And in that split second where Rich aced his next test at 205 and put Chuck on ice, we were again reminded of how utterly unforgiving four ounces gloves can be. And that same split second revealed the heart that beats in the chest of a champion that allows him to overcome the adversity of a broken arm in the heat of combat and finish the most popular fighter in the history of MMA.
For his part, Franklin looked uncomfortable after the fight when he went over to Chuck and saw him still laying on the ground, recovering and wondering what just happened. It was the final example in GM Place of the respect and sportsmanship that had permeated the evening. The co-main event saw Pat Barry fight a man for whom he had the ultimate respect in Mirko Cro Cop, himself a legendary figure when the history of MMA is discussed and written about. The famously stoic Cro Cop changed the striking landscape with his devastating high leg kicks and aggressive, pinpoint striking style. Stoicism be damned, Mirko and Pat’s impromptu hugs, extra touches of gloves and exchanged smiles and laughs let us know how much these two professional athletes were enjoying competing against one another. Barry, himself an accomplished kickboxer, floored his idol twice in the first round and looked to be poised and ready to accept the striking torch that he was favored to take from Cro Cop. But Pat slowed considerably in the second and third rounds as Mirko picked up the pace, landed the better strikes and took advantage of him on the ground as he exposed the still glaring weak point in “Get Hype’s” arsenal. And in an ironic twist, Cro Cop, the feared striker, reminded us why the word “mixed” precedes “martial arts” as he choked Barry out to earn Submission of the Night. You have to wonder why Barry showed up at 248 pounds, eleven to fifteen pounds heavier than his previous UFC appearances. Can’t imagine that helped his gas tank.
• Dunham Steps Up…Evan Dunham dominated Tyson Griffin to remain undefeated and move into the next tier of UFC lightweights. The taller Dunham used his reach and effective counterstriking to keep Griffin at bay, but his superior ground game told the story. The second and third rounds saw Dunham, a BJJ Black Belt, take Griffin to the ground and control him for the remainder of the rounds by sticking to him like glue and making it impossible for Griffin to shake him off as he defended numerous submission attempts. A frustrated Griffin put his hands up and looked at the referee several times as if Evan being on his back with a bodylock was the BJJ equivalent of a lay and pray. It isn’t. Amazingly, Dunham got a split decision with one judge giving the fight to Griffin, 29-28. That judge should never be allowed to judge an MMA fight again. Seriously, ridiculous.
• Condit Comeback…Carlos Condit got beat up for two rounds by hometown 20-year-old future superstar Rory McDonald. Then the most animated version of Greg Jackson that I’ve ever seen screamed at Condit that he had to go to war and finish the fight in the final round. That’s exactly what the former WEC champion did, by the skin of his teeth, when the referee stepped in with just seven seconds left in the fight. Condit’s ground and pound beating looked to have potentially fractured McDonald’s orbital bone, but nothing can minimize the potential the Canadian has to be something special at 170. For his come from behind win, Carlos puts himself back in the mix at 170 while earning the Fight of the Night bonus with Rory. McDonald displayed the class of a veteran in his post fight interview where he gave credit and respect to Condit and refused to question the ref’s decision while committing to go back to the gym and come back a better fighter. He will.
• Great Dane…We expected that Martin Kampmann would be the more technical striker than BJJ black belt Paulo Thiago, but who would have expected him to be the more dominant grappler? Kampmann beat Thiago everywhere for all three rounds and showed why he should be ranked in the upper echelon of the welterweight division. A great win for the Hitman, who has now compiled a 4-1 record at welterweight, the same record he had put together at 185 before moving down to 170.
• Am I the Only One…who was bothered by Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg eulogizing Chuck Liddell at the end of the broadcast? I’m a huge Rogan fan and think he’s one of the UFC’s true MVP’s but can we at least give Chuck the chance to talk about his future before rushing him out the door…again? It’s not like he got decimated for the entire fight and looked like he had no business in the Octagon. He was winning the round with ten seconds left against a former world champion and I still think he’d beat another former champ named Tito Ortiz…again. Not saying it will happen or that it even should, but I wouldn’t be shocked.