Buried in a 58-page pitch to potential investors was a plan for the UFC’s future that former fighters like Chuck Liddell might have been very interested to read. That plan included ways to increase profits through various “cost-saving opportunities,” such as tightening up certain “compensation practices.”
One such practice? The use of “long-lived consultants.”
That was in the summer of 2016, right around the time the UFC was sold to WME-IMG following weeks of denials, both to the public and internally to employees, about rumors of a sale.
Former UFC light-heavyweight champion Liddell had been retired for roughly six years by that point, all of which he’d spent on the UFC payroll. That seemed to be a big part of the reason he retired when he did. Following Liddell’s third straight knockout loss, UFC President Dana White urged his longtime friend to hang up the gloves, and he succeeded with help from the promise of a perpetual paycheck for a do-nothing gig as a UFC “executive.”
It was the first time the UFC had paid one of its stars to perform the service of not fighting, but it wouldn’t be the last. Former UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes would also wind up retiring to take a similar gig (“one of those Chuck Liddell jobs,” he said once years earlier, while discussing the prospect of retirement and rubbing his hands together at the thought) in 2013.
For the moment, at least, Griffin and Nogueira still have their jobs; Liddell and Hughes don’t. Perhaps not coincidentally, Griffin and Nogueira are both known for actually doing stuff relating to their jobs, while both Liddell and Hughes seemed intent on driving home the point that they were collecting checks for what they had done, and not what they were doing.
Still, for a time this system worked. It offered a solution to a problem. Pro fighters are notorious for not knowing when to quit. While promoters can refuse to give them any more fights, they can’t stop a competitor from stepping up with an offer to fill the void. If you care enough about an aging fighter’s health or legacy – or you just want to keep him out of the hands of another promoter – paying him to do nothing is an effective strategy.
Trouble is, it’s also expensive. The old Zuffa might have been willing to eat that cost, but the new regime was less enthusiastic. So what’s a guy like Liddell supposed to do now?
He seems to be asking himself the same question. On a recent episode of “The MMA Hour,” Liddell admitted he’d been caught by surprise when the UFC job that was supposed to be his for life suddenly evaporated.
“Life changes,” Liddell said. “And I think at first I took it a little hard, but now I look at it as a blessing in disguise. It’s got me re-motivated to go out and find what I really want to do.”
That’s where it gets tricky. The whole reason the UFC was paying Liddell was because it worried that what he might really want to do is fight some more.
Now Liddell is 47. His last win was nearly 10 years ago, but that’s not a significant barrier to entry in today’s MMA landscape. Over in Bellator, the home of MMA’s senior tour, company president Scott Coker says Liddell would need “a battery of tests” before he could fight. Then again, when you’ve already promoted a fight between Dada 5000 and Kimbo Slice, you might have to forgive people for assuming that your medical standards aren’t that high.
If Liddell did come out of retirement for Bellator, there’s Chael Sonnen, beckoning him to join in a prolonged debate to be followed by a show of geriatric athletics for the enrichment of all parties involved. There, too, is old friend Tito Ortiz, who Liddell probably still punches in his sleep on particularly restful nights.
And you could see why Liddell would be tempted to join them, couldn’t you? Especially if he feels like the UFC paid for what was left of his prime and then dumped him once it needed to cut costs.
You have to wonder how the UFC president would feel then, watching his old buddy back in the cage, but this time under another banner. It’s exactly the scenario White was trying to prevent, but in the end he might only succeed in delaying it.
Plus, no matter what you think of the practice of paying fighters to quit, the experiment seems to have a limited future. Who would trade whatever’s left of their career for a cushy UFC gig now, especially since there seems to be no better than a 50-50 chance of holding onto the job?
That leaves us right back where we started, with a stubborn problem that combat sports can’t quite solve. Old fighters, when confronted with the question of what they really want to do next, so often decide that it’s the thing they did last. If you’re looking for a different answer, it’s probably going to cost you.
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