When Chuck Liddell lost a decision to "The Ultimate Fighter" alumnus Keith Jardine on Sept. 22 at UFC 76, the queries came at him like, well, Jardine leg strikes. The questions piled on, but Liddell fielded them as calmly as he did Jardine's kick assault to his left thigh.
He didn't wince or weep.
One could only imagine how curt Matt Hughes would get with the press if he was coming off two losses, and was contemplating his standing in the sport, and pondering how much time he had left as an active fighter.
But Liddell (20-5) fields the questions ("Are you too old?" "Do you still have the desire?" "Did you live the high life too much and not take training seriously?") with a remarkable level of restraint.
Liddell turned 38 on Dec. 17, and on Dec. 29, he will step into the Octagon at UFC 79 in Las Vegas to meet Wanderlei Silva in the most important test of his 10-year pro career.
After back-to-back losses, Liddell needs a win if he is to stay relevant, and receive that next title shot he craves. That title shot is no longer inevitable, as it was after he ate a Quinton Jackson knuckle hero. A loss to Silva (31-7-1), the former PRIDE middleweight champion, would render Liddell, as likable as he is, a past-his-prime legend. But if he's feeling that weight on his shoulders, he isn't letting on.
"I'm coming after Wanderlei," he told ESPN.com. "I'm going to knock him out."
But Chuck, is it possible, just maybe, that your best days are behind you, that at 38, the reflexes might have eroded a smidge, that your sell-by date has passed?
"I don't think so," he answered. "I'm on it, I'm sharp and my training is going great."
As for his last fight, against the "Dean of Mean," Liddell admits that he wasn't as pumped as he might be against someone like Silva, with whom he has flirted with for several years.
"It was hard to get up for that fight," he said. "Maybe I didn't get fired up enough for Jardine."
Introspectiveness is not a most-desired trait in a fighter.
Contemplate too much, and you waste valuable training time. Question your skills, or your chin, or your place in the sport too much, and you are inviting self-doubt to take space in your head. Why let it in -- it ain't payin' rent. Excessive introspection can be a recipe for tentativeness, and that's a recipe for losing. Liddell has not, he said, allowed himself to get into what-if sessions.
No, "What if I lose for the third time in a row?"
No, "What if, at 38, my reflexes have slipped some, and my best days are behind me?"
He won't go there.
"It's a bridge I'll cross if I get to it," he said, without being curt or condescending, though he'd already been asked about the age thing dozens upon dozens of times. "I'm planning on going and knocking this guy out."
This fight, had it been made in 2006, would have been a pay-per-view megafight. As it stands now, Hughes vs. Georges St. Pierre III will close the Dec. 29 show.
Silva is coming off consecutive losses himself. The 31-year-old, coming off KO losses to Mirko Cro Cop (September 2006) and Dan Henderson (February 2007) has had to gamely field the questions about age and reflexes as well.
But Liddell will not enter even for a split second into the woe-is-me world.
"It's hard to shake the confidence I've had for so long," he said. "To look back is a waste of time. Sure, I look back at what I did technically, and think about what I need to do to move forward."
The repetition from the press, repeatedly bringing up the losses and the age, blah blah blah, doesn't plant seeds of doubt in his head.
"I've never counted on what others have said," Liddell stated. "About eight or nine years ago, I read some stuff, people talking about Matt Hughes and [Tito] Ortiz, and I was reading the comments, and people had no idea what they were talking about. I got friends, like 20 to 30 people around me I listen to, who I take into consideration what I should do. I'm still performing at the level I can win at, and if I feel I slowed down and I can't compete anymore, I will retire."
Silva too is on message, and maintains that he's primed to exit the cage with the win.
"I've been training a lot, and this is a very, very important fight for me," he said. "I need to win. I'm going to win. I've been training four months for this; you are going to see my conditioning now."
Hughes, the nine-time UFC welterweight champion, weighed in with his take on the losing streak, and Liddell's effectiveness as a fighter.
"Two losses in a row, I don't think that's a factor," he said.
"Couture is 44, and some people say he's the best he's ever been. Chuck's not that old. I had two losses in a row at one point [in 2000 and 2001] and I was about to retire. Then I won the title, and won a bunch in a row. If you haven't had two losses in a row, you haven't been fighting the right people. If Chuck comes in shape against Silva, it will be a great match for him."
So, the press can ask the questions in 10 different ways, and Liddell won't take the bait. He won't give that money quote, about this being the fight of his life, a fight he needs to win to maintain his professional standing. The man still feels like he is the Chuck Liddell who made the cover of ESPN The Magazine and struck fear in the hearts of 205-pounders from here to Japan.
"I still love fighting, I'm still motivated," he said. "I'm gonna knock Silva out. I don't see it ending another way."
Michael Woods, the managing editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.