The losses would haunt Rampage. They'd spur him onward like a Brazilian cattle-prod. Emotion and desire that would build inside the American's fists and heart, gathering and festering, gaining strength, until the rivals met again some years later, in a very different venue, under very different circumstances.
Rampage went on fighting in Pride, winning spectacularly (ask Hirotaka Yokoi) and losing violently (Shogun Rua can tell you about that one) until 2006. Then Rampage, ever the opportunist, tried his hand at something new.
It was perhaps the last great decision of his career.
Enter the Octagon
I can still remember the induction of Rampage Jackson into the ranks of Ultimate Fighting. It was at UFC 67, against Marvin Eastman, and Anderson Silva-my favorite fighter-was going up that night against an overweight Travis Lutter. I remember watching as Rampage approached the cage, a chain swinging round his neck, tattooed and terrifying. I remember as he paused, clenched his fists, and howled to the lights above. I remember Eastman, who'd had an early win over Jackson at a King of the Cage event, pacing in his corner, a huge mound of gleaming muscle and testosterone.
And I remember the referee stepping back and shouting: "Fight!"
It seemed a good portend that Rampage made his debut on this card. Alongside him, future champions Lyoto Machida and Frankie Edgar also had their inaugural UFC fights, both victorious, as well as yet another Pride celebrity, Mirko "Cro-Cop" Filipovic, who also won his fight via TKO in the first round. And the champion, Anderson Silva, another veteran of Pride, submitted jiu-jitsu specialist Travis Lutter by way of triangle choke in the second round.
A pattern Rampage had no trouble following.
He knocked out Eastman at 3:49 of the second round. Afterwards he said it felt good to avenge the loss and that Eastman was a nice guy, but that tonight it was " time for some black on black crime."
A great card, and indeed a good portend.
His next fight was announced to be against Chuck Liddell, the light-heavyweight champion. It was a moment both fighters had been waiting for: Rampage for his title; Liddell for revenge.
They met in the cage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, on May 26, 2007. I was at this fight, a row or two from ringside, and I was excited. I love going to fights. Professional or amateur, MMA or boxing, there's no comparable feeling to sitting live at a fight. There's an electricity in the air that other sports simply cannot match; the buzz of violence; as if the event is being attended by a choir of invisible, angry spirits. May 26 was no exception. Nobody was sitting down; everybody was cheering and screaming as the lights overhead danced and the music blared and the fighters entered the cage.
I was rooting for Liddell. The Iceman was one of the first fighters to attract me to the sport of cage-fighting: a stand-up, knockout extraordinaire with a background in traditional martial arts, someone who used his wrestling abilities to keep the fight off the ground. I was a boxer. I preferred the strikers.
Rampage, as Mars would have it, didn't give one iota about my preferences. Liddell's hands were low and he was moving backwards (never a good idea)-"Raise your hands!" I remember yelling-and at 90-seconds into the first round the challenger floored him. You could hear Liddell go unconscious. It sounded like a shovel smacking a steak. My jaw landed in my hotdog. The stands erupted into roaring adulation.
And Quinton Jackson from Memphis, Tennessee, was the champion of the world.
The Good Times
Rampage, who was already a fight-fan household name, became the new face of the UFC. Everybody was talking about him. And as a status fighter he was given status fights. His first title defense was against Dan Henderson, who was then the light-heavyweight champ of Pride, in a title unification bout. When I heard about this fight I was giddy-it was a fight-fan's dream: a unification bout between Pride and UFC; a fight that would, for all intents and purposes, determine the best fighter in the world. I resolved to watch.
It was a dark September night in 2007, and the fight was being aired on Spike. Watching a championship fight is great; watching it free of charge is better. I was in high spirits as the opening bouts began; it was a card rife with stoppages. I was particularly impressed with Houston Alexander, whom I'd watched earlier that year in Vegas make his debut against Keith Jardine, winning by savage knockout. He repeated his performance, this time against Alessio Sakara.
After two lackluster decision bouts, featuring fighters Michael Bisping, Matt Hamill, Cro-Cop, and Cheik Kongo, it was finally time for the main event. I was on pins and needles.
Overall, it was an okay fight. It wasn't what I'd been hoping for. Both fighters seemed reluctant to really dig in and bang. I remember lying on the floor of my living room, the only light coming from the television, and with every passing round my excitement ebbed. As a viewer, you should never feel the progression of a round, and as the fight went on I found myself counting down the minutes.
Still, a historic fight. A unification of Pride and UFC. An end to the rivalry. And Rampage, at the end of it, emerged victorious. He won a unanimous decision over Henderson, and as I stood and powered off the t.v. I reflected that I'd just watched a man become the undisputed best.
CHECK BACK SOON FOR PART 3 OF THE GUTTERING STORM: THE RISE AND FALL OF RAMPAGE JACKSON