Who Wins This Fight: Chuck Liddell In His Prime Or Today’s Jon Jones?

You’ve got to be a pretty confident person to compete in mixed martial arts at the highest levels, and that label definitely applies to Chuck Liddell, one of the UFC’s original superstars. He was knocking guys out back in 1998 when the sport was still widely called ‘Vale Tudo’, or ‘Anything Goes’ fighting.

As one of the greatest light heavyweight champs the sport has ever seen, he has a right to be cocky. But earlier this week he made some comments about fighting Jon Jones that has a lot of fans engaged in passionate debate.

“I still think if he fought someone like me in my prime he would have a lot of trouble,” Liddell said on The Fighter And The Kid Podcast. “The problem is he doesn’t hit hard enough to hurt me and he’s not going to out-wrestle me. He’s not going to out-wrestle me and I hit too hard for him. I would catch him sooner or later. Styles make fights.”

“What he does really well, if you’ve got a guy that’s a great striker, he can out wrestle them. If he’s got a guy who’s a wrestler, he can out strike him, out point him. For me? I’d be big trouble for him because if he took me down he wouldn’t be able to keep me down … if he even got a takedown. I will hit him. I’ll put my hands on him. I could still give him trouble.”

Of course Jon Jones got wind of the interview and responded briefly over social media…

Let’s ignore for the moment whether or not Chuck would still give Jon trouble and instead entertain the idea of Prime Chuck vs Current Jon.

There’s a few factors to take into account here. First, Chuck Liddell’s dominance came at a time when the UFC’s light heavyweight division was made up of wrestlers and jiu jitsu black belts, with very few power punchers in the mix. Most of those guys – the Quinton Jacksons, Wanderlei Silvas, and Shogun Ruas were over in Japan competing for PRIDE Fighting Championships. Ironically, many have downplayed Chuck’s legacy with the same argument he’s currently using against Jon: that a heavy-handed striker with great takedown defense would have given him fits.

Chuck was actually one of the first greats to harness those two abilities effectively. Through the ’90s, strikers struggled to stay on their feet against grapplers. But the 2000s saw guys like Chuck Liddell use their wrestling pedigrees, not to take fighters down but to keep the fight upright. Thus ‘sprawl and brawl’ was coined, and Chuck Liddell was a master of it. Unable to get the fight to the ground, his opponents were stuck engaging in a firefight with the durable and aggressive Iceman. Few made it out with their consciousness intact.

It’s hard to say how well Liddell in his prime would have done against a roster of deadly strikers instead of grapplers like Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, and Babalu Sobral. Many of the losses he sustained later in his career could be attributed to excessive partying and wear his chin had sustained from a decade of hard sparring. The Iceman was just as intense outside the cage in Vegas as he was inside – the night before his first fight against Randy Couture in 2003, UFC president Dana White found Liddell partying at the Hard Rock Hotel at 3AM. Maybe we should have a debate on who partied the hardest after we wrap this talk up.

There’s also the fact that Jon Jones stands on the shoulders of fighters that came before him, including Chuck Liddell. In that way it’s unfair to compare the modern fighter of 2016 to guys from a decade ago. Back in 2005, a lot of mixed martial arts striking was derided as ‘bad kickboxing’ by top boxing coaches like Freddie Roach. In 2009 Georges St-Pierre teamed up with Roach and mastered the underutilized jab, pummeling BJ Penn into quitting on the stool and shattering Josh Koscheck’s orbital bone. Before that, the jab was seen as little more than a set up for more effective strikes.

The point here is if Jon Jones were coming up at the same time as Chuck Liddell, he’d be a completely different fighter. The coaching he gets today simply didn’t exist back then, and many of his attacks had never been used successfully in caged combat. The front kick Anderson Silva patented on Vitor Belfort’s face. Brian Ebersole’s cartwheel kick. Whatever the hell it is Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson is doing. Going from 2016 to 2006 is like looking at a moves list from Street Fighter 5 versus Street Fighter 2.

Back in 2006, some guy named Anderson Silva looks like a shaved wizard dodging shots and effortlessly punishing anyone who tried to hit him. A year later Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and his coach Juanito Ibarra brought countering to the masses and that blueprint to beat Liddell really started to come together. This is why time travel movies and imaginary time travel fights always have such big plot holes. It’s not fair at all to send 2016 Jon back to fight 2004 Chuck – he’s got enough future fight tech in his head to Matrix anyone he faces. Perhaps we should consider sending 2004 Chuck to 2012 and giving him the same training Jones gets at Greg Jackson’s. Or maybe we should stop arguing over this and go get some beers instead.

This is all a very long and roundabout way to say that everything regarding a fight between Chuck Liddell and Jon Jones is so hypothetical that’s it’s not even worth seriously debating. The advances we’ve seen in fighting over the past decade are nothing short of mind boggling. Why don’t we take this moment to appreciate the evolution of mixed martial arts both men have played a part in, instead of trying to speculate on who would beat who’s ass?