Last February, the 29-year-old from Memphis, Tenn., started off an auspicious year in which he finally cashed in on his potential.
Always known as a big-stage performer, Rampage shined on the biggest stage in the mixed martial arts world in 2007. Flanked by his trainer and close adviser, Juanito Ibarra, Jackson made his way into the Octagon for the first time in his career.
Sporting a chain around his neck that seemed to come off the set of a Ford F-150 commercial, and offering the same howl he perfected while fighting in Japan, Jackson endeared himself to American fans.
It was a year in which Jackson (29-6) showcased his love for a brawl while offering clear evidence that he is a high-level mixed martial artist. The bout with Henderson -- billed as a first-ever UFC-Pride unification title fight -- was showcased off pay-per-view on a tape-delayed broadcast on SpikeTV.
A huge audience tuned in as Jackson -- who also earned the key to the city of Memphis, signed a shoe-endorsement deal and had his own energy drink released -- delivered one of the most competent efforts of his career, more than matching games with the smart Henderson.
Having previously bested Matt Lindland (a dominant clinch player in the middleweight division) in a closer-than-expected decision, some speculated that Henderson would be too much for the boisterous Rampage.
While Henderson gave his best effort, Jackson was simply too big -- and too good -- to get caught.
Jackson has since decided to take time off to heal. He also negotiated a new deal with the UFC that will make him a coach on Season 7 of "The Ultimate Fighter," after which he is supposed to fight Forrest Griffin.
That chance at super-stardom, which Jackson seems to possess all the traits for, would not have happened if not for the dominance he displayed in 2007.
Like Jackson, each fighter owned a UFC belt at the conclusion of the 2007 campaign. Couture made the most noise throughout the year, both for stunning efforts in the Octagon and his surprising stance against the UFC to close out the year.
Returning from a one-year retirement that acted more as a hiatus, Couture, at 43, dominated Tim Sylvia to capture the UFC heavyweight title. Several months after his March return in Columbus, Ohio, "The Natural" validated his status as UFC champion with a thrashing of significant favorite Gabriel Gonzaga.
Perhaps more importantly -- and the more compelling argument to make him 2007's fighter of the year -- Couture severed ties with the UFC, blaming a lack of respect (shown largely in compensation, Couture said) and the inability to fight Fedor Emelianenko after the Russian said no to the UFC.
A war of words ensued between the revered fighter and the UFC, namely company president Dana White and co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta. Each side offered previously unconfirmed details regarding fighter compensation and contract terms, leading to the first out-of-the-cage MMA news story that attracted widespread coverage from mainstream media.
Couture (16-8) said recently that he intends to wait out the terms of his UFC deal in hopes of fighting Emelianenko in the last quarter of 2008. The UFC, however, has continuously implied it will vigorously defend its contracts, making a courtroom showdown between the current champ and the megapromoter almost inevitable in 2008.
Silvia was less dramatic but more devastating. The 32-year-old Brazilian middleweight pummeled Travis Lutter, Nathan Marquardt and Rich Franklin in three UFC title defenses while jumping to the top of pound-for-pound lists.
Plain and simply, Silva (20-4) had a great 2007. Yet in a year when Rampage Jackson stopped the unbeatable Liddell and outfought Henderson, and The Natural stunned the world again, he comes up third.
In the end, it was Jackson's level of opposition and budding stardom that gave Rampage the nod from Sherdog.com.
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