by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
What a difference just a few months make. Not too long ago ESPN had forsaken all UFC advertising and all but declared MMA unfit for coverage.

Fast forward to now and you’ll find ESPN embracing, slowly, MMA and the UFC into their programming.

Whether it’s event results on Sportscenter, live weigh-ins on ESPNews, or the cover of ESPN the Magazine, you can’t hardly turn on the ESPN family of channels without finding some reference to the world’s fastest growing sport.

For their part, ESPN talent either embraces or continues to deny MMA and the UFC’s place amongst the sports pantheon.

There are those old school, comfort zone individuals such as Pardon The Interruption’s co-host Tony Kornhieser, who steadfastly oppose the sport; there are those who embrace the cutting edge of the sports culture, such as Jim Rome Is Burning’s host and namesake, Jim Rome.

Rome is a name that’s familiar to many sports fans. Long known for being opinionated and brash, he’s an example of the new era of sports pundits who place emphasis on the now, rather than the past.

Never one to shy away from controversy, Rome consistently pushes the sports envelope with his opinions: whether subtle – such as his insistence on calling basketball legend Michael Jordan “45” [referring to Jordan’s jersey number in his short-lived stint as a minor league baseball player and initial return to the Chicago Bulls]; to the moderate – an insistence to mention how baseballer Barry Bonds is “juicing” [in reference to consistent accusations of Bonds’ alleged steroid abuse]; to the extreme – getting into a live on-air scuffle with former NFL quarterback Jim Everett on Rome’s initial ESPN show [in which Everett became enraged by Rome’s assertions he was soft and thus called him “Chris” Everett in homage to the female tennis player]. Rome is no stranger to pushing the limits of the establishment.

So it’s only fitting that he now seemingly sides on behalf of the UFC and MMA, where some of his more elder contemporaries are not.

Case in point was this Wednesday’s edition of Jim Rome Is Burning where Jim welcomed UFC Light-Heavyweight Champion Chuck Liddell as his guest for his “Alone with Rome” interview segment.

Prior to introducing Liddell, in his opening “Burning On” segment, Rome set the battle lines between boxing and MMA by saying, “Boxing is a dying sport and MMA is part of the reason why. Deep down boxers have to know that or they wouldn’t crack as hard on the Mixed Martial Arts as they do.”

It was amidst this backdrop that Rome introduced Liddell and asked, “Chuck, why do you think that Martial Arts, MMA are coming so quickly and boxing is dying on a vine now?”

To which Chuck responded, “I think it takes elements of boxing and adds a lot more elements to it and makes it more exciting. People like to watch us fight.”

The conversation then turned towards comments made by boxing champions past/present Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Bernard Hopkins about MMA and the UFC.

Rome, earlier in the broadcast relayed Mayweather’s thoughts on the sport, “Boxing is an art, but UFC is a fad.” And he went as far as to say that if Liddell got in with a boxer, in Mayweather’s words, “He’d get punished.”

Rome followed that up by playing audio portions of a live radio interview he did with Hopkins on Tuesday, in which the former boxing champion said, “You can go into the nearest bar in L.A. in the hood and find an ultimate fighter. I’m not saying that they don’t train, they don’t get up and they don’t run, but there’s not skills actually the way boxing is.”

“The UFC started when I was 7, 8, 9 in the heart of North Philadelphia. And again, it might seem like I’m hating, maybe I am, maybe I’m not – there’s no skills in ultimate fighting – it’s just fighting,” added the 42-year-old Hopkins.

And so Rome gave Liddell the opportunity to express his thoughts on the words of Mayweather and Hopkins, which Chuck was more than happy to do.

“Well you know, that’s them grasping at straws,” said Liddell. “That they’re losing to us and that they’re… what do you call it… intimidated by the things that we’ve been doing.”

Chuck continued, “C’mon Mayweather, in a UFC [cage], I got a 135-pounder [Antonio Banuelos] at my house that could kick his ass.”

Liddell then reiterated that things might not go the same however if an MMA fighter went into a boxing ring against a boxer such as Mayweather.

However, when pressed further upon the subject of athletes crossing over to face each other, Chuck replied, “Well it depends on what rules they are [fighting under]. Boxers are always saying that kickboxers weren’t as good as boxers, because when they came into boxing that they weren’t doing well.”

Liddell continued, “Well when boxers come into kickboxing, they don’t do too well either. You know, [Ray] Mercer went over, [Francois] Botha went over in K-1 and both of those guys didn’t do so good.”

The conversation then segued to Chuck’s upcoming rematch with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson this Saturday in Las Vegas, Nevada, for Liddell’s UFC Light Heavyweight Championship.

“I’ve been after this fight since 2003,” commented Chuck. “So I’ve been wanting this fight for a long time. I’m excited. Three months of training’s over for this fight and I’m ready to go.”

Rome then asked if Liddell thought he needed to put an exclamation point on the fight by not just winning, but winning in spectacular fashion, to exorcize the demons of his loss to Jackson in PRIDE four years ago.

“I’m going to need to knock him out, I’m going after him,” exclaimed Chuck. “That’s the way I like to end fights any way, I don’t like taking it to the judges.”

Before concluding the interview, Rome brought up the respect issue that MMA’s fighters have for each other – the sportsmanship they seem to show more of than some athletes in more mainstream sports.

“There’s definitely a fundamental respect between fighters,” explained Liddell. “If they’re willing to get in there and do what we do, I respect that.”

But Rome asked about Chuck’s longtime nemesis Tito Ortiz, Liddell explained that sometimes things do go beyond hyping a fight and touch a personal core and thus he summed up his thoughts on Ortiz thusly:

“There’s not too many guys in this sport I don’t like – and he’s one of them.”