It came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the cold realities of the corporate world that one of the first thing Hollywood talent agency WME|IMG did after purchasing the UFC for $4 billion last summer was fire a large portion of the promotion's payroll. This, after all, is job one when one corporation swallows another: cutting costs and increasing efficiency by getting rid of redundancies, replacing unknown personalities with loyal soldiers, and erasing any job created out a sense of familiarity or personal affection. No wonder then that two of the first UFC employees to go (after an initial executive purge) were Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell, two former fighters who had played huge roles in the promotion's growth and who were thus rewarded by UFC President Dana White with lucrative, but essentially meaningless, front-office jobs—vice president of business development for Liddell and vice president of athlete development and government relations for Hughes. Anyone could have seen that those jobs were doomed the minute WME put pen to paper.
"They helped build this company when I was growing it," White said when the two men were let go last December, "and I told them both, I said, 'Unless I drop dead or it comes to a position sometime where I'm not controlling how much money is being spent and all that stuff, you guys will get a paycheck until that day.' And that day came."
And for a long while after it seemed like Hughes and Liddell had accepted their firings with grace. Hughes told MMAFighting.com at the time that he understood the UFC's decision to let him go. "I will move on," he said. "My family and I are fine." And while Liddell admitted months later that getting fired was "really disappointing," at the time he didn't say a word. He just went quietly into the fighter's good night.
Now, however, Liddell's placid resignation to his fate may be in doubt. Or rather to say there's a rumor going around based entirely on speculation and dripping with hearsay that Liddell's placid resignation to his fate may be in doubt. Or so we heard.
Earlier this week on his Believe You Me podcast UFC middleweight champion and world heavyweight shit-starter Michael Bisping claimed he heard a rumor that the former light-heavyweight champion Liddell, who hasn't fought in exactly seven years, is so angry at being let go by the new bosses at the UFC that he is considering taking his talents to that promotion's biggest competitor, Bellator.
"I'm in the circle, where people tell me things," Bisping said. "This is me putting out a disclaimer. If they hear me saying this I can say, 'I said it was third-hand information,' when really it might not be third-hand information." (Got that?)
"Somebody at the weekend told me that Chuck Liddell is really pissed," Bisping continued, "because he had a pretty sweet deal with the UFC when he left his job. He was an ambassador for the UFC. I believe he was making $1 million a year. That's the number I heard. … [B]ut now, of course, new UFC came in … I heard that Chuck was really pissed off, so that's why he's possibly going over to Bellator."
Bisping's speculative bombshell comes just a week or so after Liddell posted a picture of Instagram of himself and longtime rival Tito Ortiz squaring off over the caption "Why not?" and Ortiz responded on Twitter saying he'd rather lend Liddell money than fight him for it.
Now, in a reasonable world it would be absurd to think that any legitimate promotion would give a 47-year-old man who hasn't fought in seven years and who ended his career on the receiving end of three straight knockouts a chance to fight, but ours is not a reasonable world, and Bellator, with its devotion to big-money master's tour fights, is always flirting with the line between legitimate and circus. So while the rumors of Liddell's anger with the UFC brass may prove to be true let's hope they aren't enough to make the matchmakers at Bellator forget their morality and allow Liddell back into the cage. Some fights aren't worth your soul, no matter how lucrative they may be. No, better to take a page from the UFC's book and give Liddell a cushy job that won't involve getting his head beat in. If vice president of business development and vice president of athlete development and government relations are already taken, perhaps color commentator or post-fight interviewer? Something to keep a legend in the game safely?
Regardless of the job, though, Liddell may, if all these rumors pan out, find himself bristling under a similar kind of corporate disappointment with Bellator to what he found in his last days at the UFC. The wild-west days of MMA, when cage-fighting was still an outlaw sport and Liddell was its king, are long gone, replaced by a new sanitized multi-billion-dollar corporate landscape, one made safe for Madison Avenue and Hollywood and kids everywhere. And one wonders if there's a place for an old-world cowboy like Chuck Liddell in such a world, a world run by WME and, god help the Iceman, Viacom.