Quinton Jackson thought it was his last chance to fight in Japan. So, in 2012, the fighter known as "Rampage" went against doctor's orders and didn't pull out of his fight against Ryan Bader at UFC 144 despite a torn meniscus. Bader, now the Bellator heavyweight and light heavyweight champion, won via unanimous decision.
On Saturday, Jackson will make his return to the country where he made his name with Pride Fighting Championships more than 15 years ago, at a time when Pride was on the same level with the UFC as the two top MMA promotions in the world. It'll be his most high-profile fight in years. "Rampage" takes on fellow legend Fedor Emelianenko in the main event of Bellator Japan at Saitama Super Arena, the site of some of their greatest triumphs.
"Everybody knows I love fighting in Japan and those are my favorite fans," Jackson said on Ariel Helwani's MMA Show in October.
Jackson (38-13) has fought 18 times in Japan, mostly with Pride. The Memphis native was the Pride 2003 middleweight grand prix runner-up, and a former top challenger for the Pride middleweight title. Jackson, 41, stopped Chuck Liddell by TKO in the semifinals of that middleweight grand prix when both were considered among the top fighters in the world. "Rampage" went on to beat Liddell for the UFC light heavyweight title in 2007.
Emelianenko (38-6, 1 NC) is a former Pride heavyweight champion and 2004 Pride heavyweight grand prix champion. The Russian standout has fought 26 times in Japan, most recently for Rizin Fighting Federation in 2015. Rizin is co-promoting Bellator Japan and will have its own annual New Year's Eve show on Dec. 31, also at Saitama Super Arena. Emelianenko, 43, is on his retirement tour with Bellator, and this is likely his final fight in the country where he became one of the greatest fighters of all time.
"Who wants to fight their favorite fighter?" Jackson said of Emelianenko, someone who he's idolized. "But it's my job to fight. Bellator is sending me to Japan. It was hard for me to turn this fight down."
Here's a look at what to watch at both Bellator Japan and Rizin 20.
How much does Emelianenko have left for his farewell tour?
Emelianenko returned from a three-year retirement in 2015 and then signed with Bellator somewhat surprisingly in 2017. While once thought to have completely petered out, Emelianenko proved he could still fight when he stopped Frank Mir on April 28, 2018, and Chael Sonnen on Oct. 13, 2018, en route to a spot in the finals of the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix in January. Bader ended up flattening Emelianenko in just 35 seconds.
With Emelianenko's Bellator contract up, most assumed "The Last Emperor" had had his last fight. Not so. Emelianenko re-signed with Bellator in June for what was called his "retirement tour." The bout against Jackson in Japan is the first stop. Win or lose, it's likely that a final bout in Emelianenko's home country of Russia will be in the offing next year. There's also a high likelihood of an elusive bout against on-again-off-again rival Josh Barnett.
How much Emelianenko will have left against Jackson is anyone's guess. Jackson still has knockout power and boxing, though he's much slower and less agile at heavyweight (and at 41 years old) than he was at 205 pounds. Emelianenko still has his power, too, so the most likely outcome here is a finish.
Where does "Rampage" go from here?
Kudos to Jackson for being candid leading into this fight, not that he was ever one to pull punches, either inside or outside the cage. But "Rampage" has been up front about why he continues to fight -- it's for the money. Jackson doesn't care about legacy, he doesn't care about history. None of that stuff has ever resonated with him. He's a prizefighter, and as long as the prizes are relatively rich, Jackson is going to continue stepping into the cage.
If Jackson can beat Emelianenko, he'll still have modest value for Bellator moving into 2020, even at his advanced age. When you look at his résumé lately, it's not as bad as some would guess. "Rampage" has won six of his last eight fights, most recently a TKO of the shop-worn Wanderlei Silva in September 2018.
There are a few names in Bellator's heavyweight division that jump out as possible "Rampage" opponents: Barnett, Mir, Roy Nelson, Matt Mitrione and Sergei Kharitonov. None of those matchups are going to draw record ratings, but all have some intrigue with the right promotion. Jackson has to beat Emelianenko first, though. If he loses, those fights become a lot harder to sell.
Will this be Michael Page's catapult into tougher challenges in 2020?
Page has won two straight by first-round knockout following his own knockout loss to Douglas Lima in the Bellator Welterweight World Grand Prix semifinals in May. On Saturday, the always exciting "Venom" will face UFC veteran Shinsho Anzai. Page has asked for a rematch against Lima, now the Bellator welterweight champ, but he won't receive it unless he gets by Anza.
Page turns 33 next year. It seems like it's now or never if he hopes to become one of the faces of Bellator. He's wildly charismatic and one of the most entertaining in-cage performers in all of MMA. But "MVP" is still looking for a signature win against a high-level opponent after six years with the promotion.
Is Kai Asakura Japan's next big MMA star?
The Rizin 20 main event was supposed to pit bantamweight champion Kyoji Horiguchi against Asakura, the man who knocked out Horiguchi in just 68 seconds in a non-title bout on Aug. 28. Unfortunately for all parties involved, though, Horiguchi tore his ACL and he'll be out until late 2020 at the very earliest. Asakura will now fight Manel Kape in the Rizin 20 headliner, which is a decidedly less attractive bout for the marquee.
Asakura, though, seems to be the real deal. He's 26 and has won six straight. The stoppage of Horiguchi was incredibly impressive. Horiguchi had won 13 in a row going back to his time in the UFC, and he was the Rizin and Bellator bantamweight champion. After he beat Horiguchi, Asakura built on that by stopping UFC veteran Ulka Sasaki in 54 seconds, breaking Sasaki's jaw.
It'll be interesting to see what Asakura can do against Kape -- who he has already beaten -- and beyond. If he is still on a winning streak when Horiguchi returns, that's sure to be a blockbuster matchup for Japan, a country with an MMA scene that rivaled, and in some cases exceeded, the one in the United States.
How will Bellator and Rizin continue to work together as co-promoters?
One of the stories of 2019 that flew under the radar was the continued cross promotion between Bellator and Rizin. That will be highlighted on Dec. 29 and Dec. 31 with fighters from both promotions going up against each other.
Bellator president Scott Coker and Rizin CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara have developed a business relationship going back to when Coker ran Strikeforce and Sakakibara headed Pride. Bellator's Patricky Freire is going for the Rizin lightweight grand prix on Dec. 31, Bellator's Lorenz Larkin takes on Rizin's Keita Nakamura on Dec. 29 and Rizin golden girl Rena Kubota meets Bellator's Lindsey VanZandt in a rematch from Bellator's Madison Square Garden show in June.
The eclectic matchmaking has been fun for fans, but has it all worked business-wise? Some think Horiguchi fighting four times in eight months, including a grueling fight against Darrion Caldwell for Bellator, could have been one of the causes for his knockout loss to Asakura and the knee tear. Rizin's headliner last year was an exhibition boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Japanese kickboxing phenom Tenshin Nasukawa, but this New Year's Eve card is not nearly as over the top.
Cross-promotion can be good for fighters and fans when done correctly. If it makes business sense for Bellator and Rizin, it will surely continue. But what lies ahead remains to be seen as we move into a big three-day stretch for both promotions.