Chuck Liddell is the most accomplished fighter in mixed martial arts history. Until a few months ago, his career also was history.
The 40-year-old Iceman has lost four of his last five fights, and many people thought he was more interested in enjoying his fame than doing the training that created it. He partied, landed endorsements and danced with the stars while his performances slipped and his weight grew.
UFC president Dana White, his close friend, essentially announced Liddell's retirement last year after yet another knockout loss for the fighter who once had the sport's best chin.
Somewhere in that endless party, Liddell (21-7) persuaded White to let him fight on. After the longest layoff of his career and what he claims was his most effective training camp in quite some time, he'll take on Rich Franklin on Saturday night in UFC 115 in Vancouver.
"I plan on making another run for the title," Liddell said. "My timing is on. I'm in great shape. I'll let you know after the fight if I have ring rust. I don't see it being a problem. I think that's psychological for some guys. I love being in the ring, so hopefully that's going to let me avoid having any ring rust, whatever it is."
Liddell's weight ballooned between fights in recent years, but the light heavyweight kept himself around 225 pounds for over a year, winning a $10,000 bet with White that he could control his weight. That's the type of motivation that appeals to Liddell, whose competitive nature wasn't dulled even after ascending to a new level of fame in recent years.
"I've been staying in shape and keeping in shape and not letting myself get out of shape," Liddell said. "I used to get out of shape in the offseason, and come back and spend most of my camp getting in shape. This time, I showed up in camp in shape. I've been working since November, straight through pretty much to here."
UFC 115 is the league's debut in Vancouver, feeding the seemingly insatiable Canadian appetite for mixed martial arts with the fourth major UFC event in Canada in just over two years. The UFC realizes it's still viewed with arched eyebrows in newer markets such as Vancouver, but Franklin (27-5) and Liddell have been among MMA's top ambassadors for years.
"It's like going back in time when you talk to people who don't educate themselves (about MMA)," Liddell said. "You know they think we're a bunch of Neanderthals. I've got a college degree. (Franklin) is a math teacher, for (heaven's) sake. We're normal people, we train hard, and this is our form of competing."
After the local government sanctioned the fight, the show became the fastest sellout in UFC history, with essentially every seat in GM Place snatched up 30 minutes after sales began.
The card also features Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic's fourth UFC fight in a year against heavyweight kickboxing specialist Pat Barry, along with fights for Brazil's Paulo Thiago and heavyweight Ben Rothwell.
It's not just Liddell entering the fight hoping to prove he can take a punch: Franklin, the former middleweight champion and respected UFC veteran, was knocked out by Vitor Belfort in his last fight in December. Franklin took that fight on relatively short notice when the UFC needed a headliner, but he wasn't able to build on his impressive win over Wanderlei Silva three months earlier.
The 35-year-old Franklin needed a prolonged rest, so he turned down a few invitations to return until White called with the chance to finish up "The Ultimate Fighter" in Tito Ortiz's place.
"This was about the time frame that I wanted to jump back in anyway," Franklin said. "I had some time off, had the ability to physically reset, mentally reset, and the timing was perfect."
Franklin wasn't the first choice to meet Liddell. White put Liddell against Ortiz as coaches on the most recent season of "The Ultimate Fighter," the UFC's reality television show. The coaches are supposed to fight each other at the conclusion of each season, but Ortiz dropped off the show and out of the bout with a neck injury.
Franklin had heard the stories about Liddell's poor conditioning for recent fights, and the Cincinnati fighter thought he might have an advantage -- until he saw Liddell's own ripped physique.
"I don't think I ever would have sought after a fight with Chuck Liddell," Franklin said. "So the only reason why I would have accepted this in the first place is because he actually asked me. When you have an opportunity to fight somebody like Chuck, that's just not something that you can turn down."
Liddell vs. Ortiz would have been the third chapter in a long, unfriendly UFC rivalry, after Liddell stopped Ortiz in their first two bouts. Liddell vs. Franklin doesn't have quite the same cachet, since these two veterans have never fought before and seem to like each other -- but it might be a better fight.
"I respect Rich, and I think he's a bigger challenge than Tito, for sure," Liddell said. "So that motivates you more to get in the gym. I've got to be prepared for him. He's going to show up in shape. He's going to be there to fight, so I better show up ready to go, or I'm going to pay for it."