Dissection by Dallas: Liddell vs. Franklin

By CagePotato contributor Dallas Winston
To see past installments of Dallas’s incredibly thorough (and usually accurate) fight breakdowns, click here.

The UFC’s infusion of Pride and other overseas fighters had a significant impact on the nearly invincible aura surrounding Chuck Liddell and Rich Franklin.

Only a few short years ago, the duo had thoroughly cleaned out their respective divisions as UFC champions, shellacking any and all takers with unorthodox striking that commonly ended in highlight-reel knockouts, until Pride’s demise opened the flood gates for an influx of hungry new blood.

Before first meeting Anderson Silva in 2006, Franklin boasted a stout 20-1-1 clip, ending all contests but one by stoppage — fourteen of which were handled in the opening frame — with some mysterious karate guy accounting for his only stain on the carpet. Since that dark eve of the profoundly deviated septum at UFC 64, Franklin has notched a mediocre 5-4 run, checkered by three brutal first-round beatings and one tight decision loss, all dealt by former Pride fighters (although Vitor Belfort’s classification should remain amorphous).

In only his third professional fight in an event intended to flesh out the up and coming “Young Guns” at UFC 19, Liddell was coaxed into an arm triangle by Jeremy Horn, who almost beat then-God Frank Shamrock the previous year. “New Mohawk Guy” was scratched off the list of prospects. What followed was a sterling cycle of wins that rank amongst the sport’s most resplendent: Liddell cleaved through ten straight foes marked by notables like Kevin Randleman, Belfort, and Murilo Bustamante en route to light-heavyweight gold; then hit a 1-2 skid after experiencing some of Captain America’s special treatment and splitting a pair of fights in Pride versus Alistair Overeem and Rampage, but ultimately regained his prestige by laying waste to the remaining UFC contenders with seven consecutive TKO’s.

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“The Iceman” would then seek revenge against the man who had elbowed him severely enough in the Pride ring to elicit guttural grunting and gurgling noises that typically accompany a healthy bowel movement. Round two of the Rampage saga triggered the first of four upcoming losses in his next five ventures; he managed to retain consciousness in only one.

Despite similar career trajectories, all the pressure seems to be on Chuck here. One-dimensional or not, his Machida-like strategy was once virtually unstoppable, but inevitably rendered dysfunctional when his footwork got sketchy and the odometer rolled on his chin. The decline of his resilience to punches can likely be tied to the fact that Chuck had bested some phenomenal strikers throughout his career, but the only true power puncher on his resume preceding Rampage was Belfort.

After his nimble patterns of movement and mythical beard strength unexplainably vanished into thin air, Chuck was out of his element. He turned up the volume on his forward movement and aggression versus Keith Jardine and Rashad Evans, but the former pinpointed his heavy forward stance with sharp leg kicks and found open holes others could not, and the latter reinforced the sentiment that charging into range and throwing uppercuts with your hands down can be a rather ill-advised approach.

The other important arrow that’s become absent from Chuck’s quiver is the simple beauty of his straight right hand. Liddell’s shtick as champion could be boiled down to calculated movement and angles anchored by a basic left hook and a right that was coiled and sprung loose at light speed with the stopping power of an M-60 at close range. Simple, but effective.

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This glimpse of the past illuminates the tools Liddell needs to rediscover and redevelop for success in the present and future, and that task in itself may be Chuck’s biggest burden: physically, mentally, and technically speaking. I’m not sure he knows exactly what his style is or should be nowadays.

Congruent to Liddell, Franklin was mostly a counterpuncher who played off his opponent’s reactions to formulate his attack, and became more brazen after tasting mortality. Overall, his game-plan and mechanics have been steadier, with fewer failure-modes being added to the drawing board. Franklin still represents the type of striker that Chuck used to eat for lunch, which is one that focuses on finesse over power and intellect over aggression.

In his heyday, Chuck would ingest a smattering of medium-powered blows until he landed the showstopper, but I’m not sure the deteriorated Liddell can pull that off anymore. Chuck’s best bet is to patiently bait Franklin into the role of the aggressor and potshot while circling out, resuscitate the laser-sighted right straight, and mix things up by leading with ancillary basics like low kicks and a long, active jab. Dare I suggest that he fit pigs with wings and ice over hell by rifling in for a quick takedown to surprise Franklin and accrue points on the score cards? His deviation from proven fundamentals like these once made his style a distinctive anomaly, but now merely isolate where it’s lacking.

Conversely, Franklin’s cerebral and technical flavor may be the perfect undoing for the contemporary “Iceman”. Those who found Franklin’s chin did so with world-class use of angles and head-movement deep inside the pocket, a scenario that Liddell will probably steer away from and supplement with more selective shots from outside. Though not as abstract, Rich also employs fragments of the looping punching style referred to as “casting” like Chuck does, which wreak havoc on the defender with unusual timing and cryptic arcs of travel—but clean, straight punches should be his bread and butter on Saturday night.

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The way Franklin unloads his powerfully accurate kicks should allow free use of the technique, and could be his weapon of choice based on Chuck’s susceptible stance and unwillingness for anything even remotely related to the ground. What I’ve always enjoyed the most about Rich Franklin is his creativity, and his fight with Edwin Dewees typifies that. When Dewees had two-plus points down, where most fighters kick the legs or flurry with wild punches, Rich bombed massive kicks to the midsection, threw in some vicious knees for good measure, and took advantage of legal tactics where Pride rules normally thrive.

Franklin also excels at fanatically altering his pace and mixing his strikes in fluent combinations that divert his adversaries’ attention from trying to mount offense to pure defense and survival, and if Rich can reign that policy in to acceptable limits of measured ferocity with tighter defense, I see him weathering a few exciting outbursts from Chuck and skating to a competitive decision victory.

Logic and longwinded analysis aside, I would be thrilled to see an exuberant Liddell wind up and deliver the nostalgic meat-hook or bore a hole through Rich’s soul with his signature right. But Chuck’s chances are too parallel with “the puncher’s chance” — there is too much stress on the mental aspect of combat, and the sudden screech to his momentum leaves too many questions to address.

My prediction: Franklin by decision