Quinton Jackson and I weren't supposed to share a flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo, but circumstances demanded it.
He was headed to Japan for the first time; this trip was my fourth. Jackson was nothing if not curious, which is among the many things I learned about him during that journey in the summer of 2001. As we flew over the Pacific, Jackson wondered a million different things about Pride FC, Japan, its people and food, and though he couldn’t have imagined it at the time, the country would become his professional home for the next five years.
I saw "Rampage" fight for the first time 13 months earlier at King of the Cage 4. A slugfest against a debuting Marvin Eastman was tucked near the bottom of a lineup that included Duane Ludwig, Falaniko Vitale, Fabiano Iha and Daijiro Matsui. Wearing a heavy chain around his neck and a wrestling singlet on his body, Jackson didn’t appear to know how to do anything but be tough. He certainly didn’t know how to fight, not in a professional sense, and lost on points. Jackson, however, wasn’t easy to forget. Recognizing his potential, promoters Terry Trebilcock and Tedd Williams matched him with eight guys you've never heard of to build up his record.
The 11-month winning streak was convincing enough that Jackson, who by then had earned a reputation on the Southern California fight circuit as an exciting prospect, got a call to fight Japanese superstar Kazushi Sakuraba at Pride 15. He didn’t know what Pride was. Didn’t know who Sakuraba was. But he said "yes", and was booked to fly out on Wednesday of fight week. He didn’t make the flight, of course.
An anonymous tip alleging Jackson was an armed felon attempting to flee the country prompted airport police to arrest him at gunpoint on charges of probation violation. Eight hours in jail, bail having been paid, Jackson hopped on a flight the next day.
He could tell a story, had a good one to share, and an eager listener.
At the time Jackson blamed the arrest on his chief second, Chris Brennan, who wanted to fight Sakuraba himself, “Rampage” claimed. A couple of days later, with Brennan in his corner, Jackson nearly slammed his way to a shocking win.
This sort of melodrama has accompanied Jackson at every stage of his career. Over the last two weeks, for instance, “Rampage,” now a grizzled veteran and former champion, has talked a lot, sparked headlines, and created a story. He was done with the UFC, he said. He wanted out because he felt disrespected and underpaid. He also made waves when he told Fighters Only Magazine he utilized testosterone replacement therapy against Ryan Bader.
All that led to Tuesday’s news that, no, he wasn’t going to get his release from the UFC. Instead, he’d have to make good on the terms of his deal with Zuffa and fight Mauricio Rua again. Jackson frolicked around on Twitter, promising 10 more years of fighting thanks to his TRT prescription.
See, whether it’s played-up nonsense Pride tried to pitch Japanese media about Jackson being homeless and living in a bus, or true-to-life realities that make him among mixed martial arts' most unique and reported upon figures, Jackson is always happy to sell.
Acting as a second job came later in life, but it’s fair to say Jackson has long been a performer. Even when he’s at his most serious, there’s plenty of showmanship to be found when he fights. All he ever wanted to do is entertain. That’s how he passed time growing up in a rough patch of Memphis. And at the age of 33, that’s basically what he’s doing now, only with a bonus of large checks attached to his performances.
For certain periods, “Rampage” became one of the few mixed martial artists to hit it big. His famous knockout of Chuck Liddell in 2007 capped ESPN’s first real venture into covering the UFC and mixed martial arts. Liddell was the man everyone knew coming in. Jackson was the man everyone knew coming out. One fight later “Rampage” tussled with Dan Henderson for the right to unify the light heavyweight division, and claimed the No. 1 ranking.
This period was Jackson’s brightest moment as a professional. He enjoyed great wins in Japan, including picture-perfect efforts like the night he dismantled Kevin Randleman, yet Jackson’s 2007 represented the culmination of what so many people felt he was capable of.
The issue with his flavor of entertainment: sports is a results-based business unfolding in a finite window. Selling, promoting and entertaining are extremely useful when they fall in line with winning. But “Rampage” hasn’t done so consistently since UFC gold adorned his waist. For Jackson to have a chance at spinning his greatest yarn, that must change starting with his attempt at retribution against Rua later this year.