By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Ibarra, who's in the driver's seat wearing his ever-present bucket hat with a flipped-up brim, has been training boxers—and now, mixed-martial-arts fighters—for 23 years. He says he gravitated to Jackson because he saw potential, but there were some things he didn't like about him.
"Here I see this incredible, explosive fighter that didn't know his own ability, and he cussed too much," Ibarra says. "Every word was F, F, F, F. I said, What's wrong with this kid?
"But there was something in him," he says.
Ibarra called Jackson on the phone following his 2005 loss to Brazilian Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. In that bout, Rua unloaded knees and kicks to Jackson's face and body. Jackson, who could barely muster the energy to lift his hands to block the onslaught, seemed to have nothing in his gas tank.
"I seen that something was wrong with him," Ibarra says. "It looked like he was hurt. Whether it was from the fight, I don't know. It didn't look like he got injured from a punch. I'm thinking in my brain, Why don't someone throw in the towel because something's wrong with this kid?
"Well, [Rua] put the whoopin' on Rampage, and he lost the fight. It ended up that Rampage had an intercostal tear in his right rib and a broken rib—he couldn't breathe. You can't breathe, you can't fight. I know what that feels like," he says. Ibarra says Jackson's trainers berated the then-26-year-old after the loss.
Ibarra, who is a born-again Christian, learned that Jackson had recently converted as well. He asked Jackson for just 15 minutes with him, and after that, the two were inseparable. Ibarra says God has given him a plan for Jackson. He says Jackson's fighting fame will allow him business opportunities that will take care of him for the rest of his life, including parts in movies and spokesman roles in car racing and rodeos.
"I'm a true believer in the Lord, and he's given me a plan, a vision, with Rampage," Ibarra says. "And I told Rampage, I'm going to build you an empire. Just listen to me, and at 33 years old, you'll have more choices than you've ever had in your life."
Four years and probably a dozen more fights, he says, and Jackson can get out of the fight game.
Jackson trots up the path with Andronicus about 10 minutes after Bisping and Light finish their run. If there was ever a case for the adage that dogs resemble their owners, this would be it. When Andronicus reaches maturity, he'll be more than 3 feet tall and weigh up to 200 pounds.
Looking energized, training partner Light jumps into the van's front seat. He's the smallest of the three at 5-foot-8. He has an almost unrealistically cut physique, similar to the 1985-model Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV.
Bisping, who speaks with a Liverpudlian accent à la the Beatles, takes the middle seat. Also known as "The Count," Bisping is quickly gaining popularity in his homeland thanks to his charisma and looks. If David Beckham gained 30 pounds of muscle and became a hand-to-hand combat warrior, he'd be Michael Bisping.
Jackson looks tired, but he isn't sweating. He sprawls out on the back bench seat, which has been collapsed into a bed.
He jokes that all the fighters he trains with get along with one another, but not with Ibarra. "He makes us do horrible, horrible things," Jackson says. "He makes us get up at 6:30 in the morning and run."
Talking about how he went from one of the most popular and feared fighters in Japan to being an unknown and initially hated underdog in the United States, Jackson says the reasons are simple and complicated. On the simple side, he says, Liddell was one of the most popular guys in UFC and "no one knew who the hell I was." He says that since so many fans are new to UFC, they are "not educated" about the world of mixed martial arts. Jackson, now 29, has been fighting professionally for eight years, has 27 wins and six losses.
On the not-so-simple side, Jackson says, he is an unapologetically bombastic black man from the streets of Memphis. He's proud of his roots, and he doesn't act like he thinks some expect him to act: grateful and quiet.
"Why should I look like every other fighter, walk down, be quiet and not show who I am? Hide my personality. Why should I do that? You can't please everybody," he says. "You can knock somebody out quick. You can whoop their ass, and people will still boo, so why worry about it?"
Bisping says he doesn't think fans in London will boo Jackson at Saturday's fight like they did in May at the MGM Grand. He says fans there are more "open-minded" and will cheer just to be entertained by a fighter of Jackson's caliber.
Jackson calls mixed martial arts a white sport. Its fans in the United States are mostly white men, as are many of its most popular fighters. He says the sport's attraction to white-male viewers is one of the reasons it reportedly outsold boxing in pay-per-view buys in 2006, according to the Associated Press. Jackson says he doesn't have a problem with that.