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Revisiting Liddell vs. Silva at UFC 79

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When Chuck Liddell faced Wanderlei Silva at UFC 79, most people didn’t know quite what to expect. It was a fight MMA fans had anticipated to a fever pitch in 2003, during that year’s PRIDE Light Heavyweight Grand Prix. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson had his own plans that year, however, thoroughly beating Liddell before the two superstars could meet in the tournament’s finals. As Liddell and Silva finally entered the Octagon in December 2007, four years, a dead promotion, and an ocean had been traversed to get to the actual match.

If anticipation had withered in the hardcore MMA fanbase (these were the only followers truly aware of Silva), the opposite was true for the fighters themselves. Both had been unceremoniously dumped from perches that once seemed insuperable and both desperately needed to reassert themselves at the other’s expense. Silva fell to a left hook from Dan Henderson and Mirko Cro Cop’s dreaded high kick; Liddell fell to the right hand of his nemesis Jackson and perhaps his own ego, as Keith Jardine rummaged his way to a decision victory over the former UFC champion. Neither man knew what destiny held for them after that night in December, but both knew a tragic story had gotten them to that very point.

As much as Liddell could blame his ego and idleness, Silva could blame his recklessness. With each man possessing -- or perhaps, possessed by -- glaring faults, their previous invincibility seemed almost unreal, mythical. And thus they finally met in combat not as gods but as men.

What became of their meeting cannot be typified from one angle. We, as fans, were rewarded with a glorious exhibition of violence, fortitude, and even desperation. It’s safe to assume that both men considered themselves fighting over one bone: relevance within the higher rungs of Mixed Martial Arts. While not far from the truth, it would take many months and a few more fights to accurately understand where Liddell and Silva stood in the grand scheme of things.

The loss might have deterred any fighter other than the one who calls himself Axe Murderer. As Silva has reiterated over the years, his primary objective in competition is to entertain the fans that pay to see him. In that sense, he was more triumphant at UFC 79 than he’d ever been. Since that fight, Silva has breathed new life into a stagnant career. He is 2-2 over four fights with just one defeat (a vengeful beatdown by Silva’s old whipping boy, Rampage Jackson) a genuine blight upon his record.

As for Liddell, the victory was considered a springboard to old heights. The Iceman was uncomfortable not being considered the best, stating again and again, “I want my title back.” What followed, however, was the harsh realization that it was but a brief apex before the steep decline of the elite athlete. Since then, Liddell has been at the mercy of Rashad Evans, Shogun Rua, and just recently Rich Franklin, who’ve all left Liddell catatonic on what was once his stomping ground.

It’s the virtual inverse of what one might have assumed on the morning of December 30, 2007.

Such is the cruel irony of a sport in which the pendulum constantly swings between triumph and defeat. Wanderlei Silva finds himself on the cusp of title contention in the 185 lb weight class while a uniform chorus pleads with Liddell to retire. But as cruel as it may seem to Liddell and as enlivening as it may seem to Silva, the chaos within the story reminds me why I'm a fan of MMA. This is the archetypal story of the pandemonium not only in the lives of these fighter but within the combat arena itself. In the mundane procession of days, this is the chaos lacking. This is the reason I keep coming back, again and again.