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It's 6:30 a.m. when Irvine resident Quinton Jackson emerges from a red Econoline van off a road near Big Bear Lake. He stretches his stiff legs, leashes his 80-pound American Mastiff puppy Andronicus, and drags himself onto a running path. His training partners, now out of sight, left the van moments earlier and bolted off like two streaks of white lightning.
After more than 30 professional fights, Jackson is less than three weeks from the most important battle of his career. He is at the very top level of the brutal game of mixed martial arts and widely considered one of the sport's most powerful and dangerous competitors. But right now, he just looks tired and disoriented. For the past six weeks, his typical day has consisted of eating, training, sleeping, eating, training, eating, training, eating and sleeping.
Until four months ago, Jackson—better known by the nickname "Rampage," a moniker his cousin gave him as an 8-year-old because of his temper—was a relatively obscure fighter, at least in the United States. In the Japan-based Pride Fighting Championships league, Jackson's success got him into movies, TV commercials and newspapers all over that country. The only way Americans could catch a glimpse of him was on pay-per-view television, which only hardcore fight fans were watching.
But earlier this year, Las Vegas-based Zuffa Entertainment—owned by Station Casinos tycoon brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta—bought Pride Fighting and, with it, Jackson's contract. Zuffa also owns Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), probably the best-known mixed-martial-arts organization, certainly in the U.S.
Jackson had already fought an entire career's worth of bouts and beaten many of the best fighters in the world. But in the eyes of many UFC fans, Jackson was just an unknown obnoxious black guy from a foreign league on his way to being knocked out by one of the UFC's most popular fighters, Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell.
Liddell, champion of the UFC's 205-pound weight class at that point, had defeated his previous seven opponents. He has a huge fan base, not only because of his fighting skills, but also for the intrigue built around his persona. Liddell is steely eyed and composed. He's humble. He speaks in a cool, smoky whisper. He has what looks like a six-pack underneath his perpetual beer gut, and he parties with beautiful women.
Fans love Liddell's bouts because he refuses to let his opponents take him to the ground. He fights on his feet. He circles the ring, watches his opponent with the bored expression of a lion in the wild, and then explodes. With Liddell, the match can—and does—end at any moment. In the UFC's coveted 18- to 34-year-old white male demographic, the man is a marketer's dream.
Jackson was next on Liddell's hit list. Las Vegas oddsmakers had Liddell as a 2-1 favorite; that Jackson beat Liddell in 2003 wasn't considered important.
It's the night of the May 26 fight with Liddell at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas, and the audience welcomes Jackson into the arena with thunderous boos. He walks out accompanied by a gangsta-rap soundtrack and his trademark 10-pound log chain around his neck. He howls like a wolf. Although he isn't sure why, Jackson is clearly the villain to Liddell's hero.
The two fighters stare each other down in front of a crowd of 15,000 and the largest pay-per-view audience in UFC history—more than 2 million people have paid $40 a pop to witness this battle. Liddell looks flinty and cold, like Clint Eastwood. Jackson stares rabidly at Liddell and clenches his jaw, like a growling pit bull.
The crowd chants, "Chuck! Chuck! Chuck!" like it always does. The brawl begins, and after a minute and a half of dancing around, testing each other out, Liddell goes for a body punch, leaving himself exposed. Jackson catches him in the nose with a right hand.
Liddell drops like a sack of manure and, on his back, seems to be staring up into the arena lights. Jackson pounces. The referee stops the fight. The crowd boos Jackson even louder.
That night, Jackson's career skyrocketed to a whole new level and, in a way, began all over again. He went from being one of the world's most respected fighters (by other fighters and millions of international fans) to one of the most recognizable fighters in the UFC. A few more impressive title defenses, and he could be firmly entrenched in American pop culture as a household name.
Only one thing stands in his way: Murrieta's "Dangerous" Dan Henderson, another Pride-to-UFC transplant. Henderson holds the Pride Fighting belts in both the 205- and 183-pound divisions, a first in mixed-martial-arts history. Jackson says he's more worried about Henderson than he was about Liddell. Henderson, while smaller, is a former Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, a heavy-handed hitter, but Jackson is confident he will win. The nationally televised bout on Spike TV, taking place Saturday in London's O2 Arena, will be Jackson's first available sans pay-per-view.
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Sitting in the Econoline van waiting for Jackson to finish his run is his manager/trainer, Juanito Ibarra, who lives in Lake Forest. Jackson's training partners—the U.K.'s Michael Bisping and Corona resident Zach Light—sprint the last leg to this designated pickup spot and pace around, catching their breath. Jackson and Andronicus trail behind them, somewhere out of sight.