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How would prime Chuck Liddell do in UFC’s modern Light Heavyweight division?

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A combination of analysis, guess work, and discussion regarding legendary former champion Chuck Liddell. Let’s debate!

UFC 47: Liddell v Ortiz

Well, it’s been roughly three weeks since the last Let’s Debate! piece, and despite the best efforts of Dana White and UFC, there have not been any fights nor will there be in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, most folks are stuck at home, doing their best to stay sane and pass the time.

Such is life in 2020.

Until “Fight Island” kicks off hopefully next month, there’s still plenty of hypotheticals to talk out. For example, just the other night, I shared to Midnight Mania how Chuck Liddell explained his interest in fighting Jon Jones (if he was hypothetically still in his prime).

This is progress from the former champion, who as recently as 2018 still wanted to fight Jones in real life. Still, it sparks an interesting question: how would “The Iceman” of legend handle the modern UFC Light Heavyweight division?

To give my best shot at answering that question, I went back and watched the fights of Liddell’s 2004-2006 win streak, which most would point to as the prime of his career. Liddell scored seven straight wins in that period (five of them in title fights) and stopped each of his opponents via knockout.

Feel free to do the same — they’re fun fights! — then join me in attempting to place Liddell among the ranks of the 2020 Light Heavyweight division.

Breaking Down Prime Chuck Liddell

Even as a definite pioneer, Liddell was never the most complicated fighter. As a wrestler with a Kenpo Karate background, Liddell popularized the “sprawl-and-brawl” style, forcing grapplers to stand up to him and his formidable power punches.

While Liddell could definitely walk down opponents and corral them into power punches (for example, when Liddell clobbered Alistair Overeem in PRIDE), he famously did his best work on the back foot. From the outside, Liddell would blast an occasional inside low kick and occasionally flurry. As his opponent pressed, Liddell would first look to establish his left hand with a lot of pawing action, using his constant arm swaying to muddy the waters between a snappy jab (often thrown while already partially extended) and heavier left hook.

Randy Couture in particular spent a lot of time getting stymied by these lead hand strikes. When Couture did really surge forward and search for the clinch, Liddell would either angle off and catch Couture turning to face him, or he’d plant his feet and shoot a straighter cross down the center.

Now, let’s consider the opposition ...

LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT RANKINGS

CHAMPION: Jon Jones

  1. Dominick Reyes
  2. Thiago Santos
  3. Anthony Smith
  4. Jan Blachowicz
  5. Corey Anderson
  6. Volkan Oezdemir
  7. Alexander Gustafsson
  8. Glover Teixeira
  9. Aleksandar Rakic
  10. Nikita Krylov
  11. Johnny Walker
  12. Misha Cirkunov
  13. Magomed Ankalaev
  14. Ronaldo Souza
  15. Mauricio Rua

The Big One: Could Liddell Land On Jon Jones?

In a single word, no.

Liddell had the knockout power to keep things interesting, and Jones is no longer putting on his best performances. Even considering those factors, it’s hard to imagine 2005 Liddell closing distance against the insanely long and varied kicks of Jones. Jones is happy to side kick and circle for 25 minutes — it took a similarly built fighter with great movement (Reyes) to finally land power punches on “Bones,” and Liddell just never demonstrated those aspects.

In truth, Liddell’s general lack of a active distance striking would likely prove his biggest issue against many of the fighter’s listed above. Liddell became a household name due to throwing everything with real power, but there’s a reason that’s rarely the game plan at the highest level.

Let’s take a small step down the rankings ...

“On A Good Day”

There are two fighters in the Top 5 who I’d give Liddell at least an okay shot of cracking: Anthony Smith and Corey Anderson. Now, I wouldn’t pick Liddell outright in these match ups personally, but still, there’s real potential for an “Iceman” knockout here.

Most likely, Anthony Smith’s range kicks and long punches allow him to extend the fight late without stepping into something major. Plus, the guy is just tough as nails. At some point he’d likely be able to score a trip takedown and submission — basically, the Volkan Oezdemir fight. However, Smith has never proven incredibly difficult to hit, and Liddell’s powerful hips would likely deny the early shot.

The recipe for a Liddell knockout inside two rounds is there.

Similarly, Anderson has the lateral movement, distance strikes, and takedown offense to really frustrate Liddell. To reiterate, most of Liddell’s great knockouts happened when fighters pushed forward on a straight line, a strategy that has grown less popular over the years because of innovators like Liddell. “Overtime” does not move straight forward ... most of the time.

Anderson does have a history of bad decision making that result in brutal knockout losses. Throwing a low kick from inside the pocket against Jan Blachowicz with no set up? Bad move, and a similarly poor decision against Liddell would end brutally.

Odds And Ends

One of the more interesting hypothetical match ups: Liddell’s long-time training partner, Glover Teixeira. Without insider info on their training camps, it’s quite conceivable that either man could stop the other. On one hand, Teixeira is the more well-rounded man, and his excellent Brazilian jiu-jitsu means that springing up from a takedown — a Liddell signature — is no easy task.

However, trading overhand rights with Chuck Liddell? That’s a dangerous game.

As for the lowest ranked fighter I would definitely trust to pick up a win over Liddell? Magomed Ankalaev. The dangerous Dagestani’s skill set of brutal range kicks, solid counters, and excellent wrestling would prove a problematic combination for Liddell, who — like in the Jones match up — would be unable to hang back and counter successfully. In truth though, that’s something of a BS answer, as Ankalaev is likely better than half of the fighters ranked above him anyway.

When all is said and done, my completely hypothetical ranking? 11! That may sound like an insult, but a lot has changed in the 14 years since Liddell reigned supreme.

Now, there are surely fans who feel I’ve severely underrated — or overrated? — the Hall of Famer. If either of those descriptions fit you, tell me why in the comments section, and feel free to discuss other potential Liddell match ups. In addition, if anyone has a request for a future legend to be brought into the modern fold (Fedor? B.J. Penn? Miguel Torres?), bring ‘em on below!