Chuck Liddell is back in MMA -- and he doesn't plan on leaving

Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz will square off for the third time on Nov. 24 in Las Vegas. Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

"Remember, I was supposed to fight him after he fought Ken Shamrock," Chuck Liddell recounted on Monday, looking back with bemused fondness on his age-old rivalry with Tito Ortiz and its bitter beginnings. "After I fought Vitor Belfort, he jumped in the ring and said he was going to kick my ass after he was done with Ken Shamrock."

With every name he dropped, "The Iceman" dated himself by another decade or so. Shamrock is a 54-year-old throwback to the formative era of MMA. Belfort, though only recently retired, is 41 and in his own way a relic of a different time.

"Then," Liddell continued, "after I knocked out Babalu ..."

That would be Renato "Babalu" Sobral, whose run in the UFC ended 11 years ago -- a full six months after the last time Liddell and Ortiz shared a cage.

When those two renew their acquaintances on Nov. 24 at the Forum in Inglewood, California, in the MMA debut of Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, it will be the third meeting between the former UFC light heavyweight titleholders. Their championship days were long, long ago. Ortiz, 43, had a five-fight reign beginning in 2000. Liddell, 48, won the belt in 2005 and held onto it through four defenses, the last a TKO of Ortiz. That was a rematch of a 2004 fight that had played out with the same concussive finality.

And now, eight years after he walked away from his fighting career and nearly 11 years since his last victory, Liddell has been goaded back into the cage by the renewed challenge of, well, beating up a guy he's already knocked out twice. Actually, although it might seem that way from his palpable can't-wait-for-fight-night glee, Liddell is finding his motivation not entirely in the irresistible opportunity to once again punch Ortiz in the face. The more deep-rooted reason the man with the fearsome Mohawk and Fu Manchu is putting the gloves back on is because he looks inside himself and still sees a fighter with something to prove.

"I wasn't really ready to leave when I left," Liddell (21-8) said during his Monday appearance on Ariel Helwani's MMA Show, reflecting on the three straight knockout losses that prompted his good friend Dana White to entice him into retirement in 2010 by offering a job as the UFC's Vice President of Business Development, otherwise known as Vice President of Not Getting Brutally KO'd Anymore. That cushy position went away, though, after WME-IMG bought the promotion in 2016 and downsized the staff.

Maybe it should come as no surprise, then, that without an MMA role outside the cage, Liddell wants back in.

"I love this sport. I love fighting. I love training," he said. "And I feel that I've still got some fight in me. Part of it is people told me I couldn't. If you tell me I can't do something, I like to prove to you that I can."

Enter Ortiz (19-12-1), who clearly is in that no-can-do camp. Unlike Liddell, Ortiz has remained at least somewhat active as a fighter. He's fought nine times since Liddell's retirement, most recently for Bellator, including last year's rejuvenating submission win over Chael Sonnen. That would seem to make Ortiz the sharper fighter today, although the difference between sharp and dull in this too-late trilogy bout is not exactly going to be at prizefighting's cutting edge.

"He keeps saying I'm a shell of the man I was [and] now he can beat me," Liddell said. "Why would you even want to promote that? 'The only reason I can beat you now is because you're a shell of the man you used to be'?"

That Liddell is a shell of the explosive champion he was in 2005 and 2006 is hardly up for debate, though. His fighting prime crashed and burned until he had little choice but to exit the game, and combat skills do not sharpen from years of doing whatever it is retirees do. His opponent recognizes that, and so do his fans and, apparently, even his friends.

In the weeks since the Ortiz fight was announced, Liddell has heard not a word from White, who in the past would have reveled in watching his friend throw bombs at Tito's head. Liddell's longtime trainer, John Hackleman, has come out against the comeback, although the fighter does expect the coach to be in his corner on Nov. 24.

"He has his opinion and we've spoken about it," Liddell said. "And I made my decision and he understands it. He's there for me."

As for the California State Athletic Commission, after considering Liddell's age and inactivity, the regulatory body ordered not only random drug tests but also a neurological exam. As part of the test, the fighter is given a list of numbers and asked to count them down in reverse order.

"I went through the whole list," said Liddell. "Everyone forgets I was an accounting major. I'm good with numbers."

OK, then, here are some relevant numbers, repeated back for reconsideration: 48, as in Liddell's age; eight, as in his years away from the sport; three, as in the consecutive KOs that abruptly halted his career.

Those are harshly unforgiving numbers for a fighter to face up to, and not surprisingly they aren't the numbers Liddell is allowing to enter his consciousness. He's instead pondering what the pay-per-view sales figures might look like, and he has high hopes.

"I'd like to do over 300,000," he said, even though he's surely well aware that no MMA pay card outside the UFC has sold to even half of that amount of households. Still, because his slice of the pie will be bigger than it was even when he was UFC champion, Liddell said, "The chance at a home run, the chance at a big payday, is great."

Liddell is quick to insist, however, that his return to MMA is no mere money grab. It's not even all about the invitation to punch out Tito one more time. No, this departure from his comfy retirement is about Liddell himself. The figure he is most focused on is No. 1 -- the guy with the steely eyes whom he stares at in the mirror every morning when he tends to his Mohawk. For that unfulfilled soul, this fight with an old archenemy is not a matter of the past or even the present. It's about the future.

That is not to suggest that Liddell is back in the fight for the long run, though on Monday he did say he still has "enough left in me to make a run at some of these guys." (Some of these guys? Yikes.) Ultimately, he reeled in any prolonged expectations for inside the cage -- "I'm going to do what my body tells me I can do" -- and mostly put his energy toward taking stock of where else he can contribute to the sport for which he has rekindled a romance.

"It's kind of cool doing this and getting back into it and how many people have come up to me and said I've inspired them to get back into doing something they love, or to go and start working hard at something, or to try something they didn't think they could do," said Liddell. "I am going to open a gym after this. I am going to stay in the sport, competing at least as a coach, if nothing else. This whole journey gets me back to my love of the sport, to being in and around the sport. I missed it."