Muhammad Ali used to boast before fights that he was in the best shape of his life. Evander Holyfield did the same, and most recently Oscar De La Hoya has become synonymous with the "best shape of my life" cliché.
It's rare when that sort of phrase is muttered in mixed martial arts. There are too many aspects of the game to work on, and the risk of injury while training for a fight is far greater than boxers face with the old Sweet Science.
Chuck Liddell (Pictures), the Ultimate Fighting Championship's light heavyweight king, is all too familiar with the training camp injury bug, having pulled this, torqued that or sprained whatever many times in the past.
In his last bout, "The Iceman" entered the Octagon against Tito Ortiz (Pictures) with a sprained knee suffered while training for the rematch, which he won in three rounds. And prior to facing Saturday's opponent, Quinton Jackson (Pictures), in 2003, Liddell endured yet another leg injury, this time to a quad which limited his training leading up to the fight.
But as Liddell, 37, prepares for a rematch against the last man to put a blemish on his stellar record, reports are the champ's in pristine condition -- or at least that's what a trio of insiders, including his trainer John Hackleman, are saying. In fact, Liddell's camp can't stop going gaga about how splendid their fighter looks leading up to the May 26 fight.
Like Ali, Holyfield and De la Hoya … Liddell is in the best shape of his life.
"This has been the best training camp we've ever had," gushed Hackleman, Liddell's head trainer. "He didn't get one injury, one strain or one pull. Everything went perfectly: perfect sparring; perfect wrestling; perfect conditioning. He's hitting harder now than he ever has and his timing and accuracy right now is un-friggin-believable. I still can't believe it. He hits things at every angle, moving away or moving in. He always finds the chin and his weight is on target so everything's right on. It's perfect."
"That's exactly word-for-word what I was going to say," chuckled Scott Lighty, Liddell's primary sparring partner for striking. "It's funny: Every time we get in there to get ready for fights, he gets better and better. I watch his sparring and his accuracy has really improved. He really can punch from any angle. I was trying different styles on him and moving differently, but he keeps hitting me."
"He looks really good right now," concurred John Lewis (Pictures), a longtime Liddell coach and friend. "His body's tight, his abs are tight and with those strong abs he's in really good shape. He's trained really hard. He's positive. He's relaxed as usual, so yes, he's definitely in top shape."
The absence of the injury bug aside, part of the reason Liddell might look so fantastic is that this is the first fight since his rubber match with multiple-time UFC champion Randy Couture (Pictures) that "The Iceman" has truly gotten up for an opponent. It could also be suggested that this rematch with "Rampage" is the one fight he's coveted more than anything else, a chance to wipe the slate clean. Or in other words, good old fashioned revenge.
"When Chuck trains for revenge fights, he's extremely focused," said Lighty, a professional kickboxer known mostly for his tenure with the K-1 organization. "He's always focused with other fights but there's always just a little more with these types of fights because he just can't stand to lose. He trains with just a little bit more of an edge and you can see him working every possible move that Quinton can do against him."
Lewis agreed to a point, but also suggested that in the time since Liddell's first encounter with Jackson, almost four years, the San Luis Obispo, Calif. fighter has grown tenfold.
"Chuck's a different guy than when he was in those days," Lewis said. "His training regimen is very, very fine-tuned now compared to how it was back then. He's beaten a lot of great champions since then, which has built his confidence mentally to know how good he really is. I think he's a whole different individual than he was back then. His training wasn't the best in those days -- not that he didn't train or have good training, it's just that his training overall, from his dieting to his conditioning regiment to everything as a whole, has improved greatly. Everything is fine-tuned and everybody on the team does their part. And he's not even the same guy today. You can't even compare that fight and that training."
"He's much different, as he's improved leaps and bounds more than probably anybody out there right now just in his overall skills, power and conditioning," added Hackleman. "I don't think that first fight was an aberration, but I don't think it's going to happen again. It's a whole different Chuck. Let me put it that way: I can't say that first fight was an aberration because then are all of Chuck's knockouts aberrations as well? It's just like how Chuck got beaten by Randy that first time. Everybody knows that would never happen again. Chuck's a different fighter now and it's mostly because of how his training is different."
Liddell has been on a strict diet and worked strenuously on his conditioning, something that plagued him in the back-to-back losses to Couture and Jackson in 2003.
While Team Liddell wouldn't specify what minor-yet-massive adjustments were made, it's safe to assume that if one compared film of Liddell's training from before anyone had heard of SpikeTV to today, the difference would be akin to mixed martial arts pre- and post-The Ultimate Fighter.
"I don't like to go into specifics about the training," said Hackleman. "Let's just say that Chuck is a changed man and it'll show against ‘Rampage.' He just gets better and better and that's mainly because of how his training has improved."
And that is the reason why this fight is so intriguing.
Both fighters have changed since they first locked horns inside the PRIDE ring in Japan. Liddell hasn't lost since and has laid out opponents like kitchen tile. He bounced back from defeat by dismantling Ortiz and Vernon White, and then swiped the title from Couture by knocking him out cold in the first round. To say Liddell has been on a tear would be an understatement.
The same can't be said about Jackson. The boisterous fighter from Memphis has tasted defeat thrice, bested by former PRIDE 205-pound king Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) on two occasions and once by Mauricio Rua (Pictures).
Some argue that Jackson has seen his best days, but those close to Liddell don't agree.
"I hear that a lot, but to be honest whenever I talk about ‘Rampage,' and this might sound weird or that I'm talking about one of my own fighters, but I love ‘Rampage,'" admitted Hackleman. "I think he's a great fighter, a great guy. If he wasn't fighting Chuck I wish I was training him because I love him. I don't think anything has happened to him. He just fought great fighters. I don't think he's gotten bad. I think it's just that his level of opposition has gone up. He's done well, but there are certain people who have beaten him. I don't believe he is washed up or anything like that at all."
Lewis agreed that Jackson is not a flash in the pan. Like Hackleman, Lewis thinks Jackson is just as dangerous, just as fierce as he's ever been, and to think this fight will be a walk in the park for Liddell would be foolhardy.
"Quinton is a very tough guy," stated Lewis, a UFC veteran. "He definitely is a worthy opponent for Chuck right now and he's certainly not shot like some people believe. He's a very strong individual. His hands and his striking have really come a long way and I consider him a real striker now, and he's won his last few fights. He's also hard to take down. He's very athletic and agile, so I think he's definitely a tough match in general for anybody, including Chuck."
Toughness and ability aside, everybody who has worked tirelessly with the defending light heavyweight champ is confident that their guy will triumph Saturday inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Liddell's firing on all cylinders and has battered his sparring partners like slabs of meat.
"I think ‘Rampage' is going to put up a great fight and it's going to be a war," started Hackleman, "but I just think Chuck has a little too much firepower at this point. He's so focused and like I said, Chuck has never looked this perfect."
"It's insane to see Chuck train and train alongside him," added Lighty, who hopes to follow in his training partner's footsteps as he plunges headfirst into MMA, possibly in the late summer. "It's not like Quinton's all about the fame and trying to hype up the media and when he gets into the ring he's a total pussy. He brings it; he comes ready to fight. He always comes ready for a war. But with how great Chuck looks, I just don't see ‘Rampage' beating him. I just don't see it happening."
On Saturday night, the world will find out whether Liddell's "perfect" training camp will equate to another highlight reel knockout, or if he'll wind up being more like De La Hoya and fall flat after being in the "best shape of his life."
And Jackson, the only man Liddell has not been able to beat, will find out better than anybody else.