Get in the Cage!

After this weekend, Irvine’s Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson just might make mixed martial arts everyone’s favorite spectator sport

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.

Rampage works out in Big Bear with his manager and trainer, Juanito Ibarra. Photo by John Gilhooley.
Rampage works out in Big Bear with his manager and trainer, Juanito Ibarra. Photo by John Gilhooley.

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.

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.

"I know it's a white sport," he says. "To be honest, I'm all for white people having a fighting sport. I think white people need something besides boxing. I think that's good. It's an extreme sport, and white people are good at extreme sports.

"I just so happen to be a black guy who's good at this sport," he continues. "They say wrestling's a white man's sport, too, and I wrestled. I was okay at it; there's some good black wrestlers. I just think the world needs to quit stereotyping and seeing race. It's 2007, for God's sake; we're all human."

When Jackson talks about race, he seems to say whatever comes into his head without really caring how he's perceived. Later, he proclaims, "All black folks look alike. All white folks look alike. All Asian folks look alike, and all Mexicans look alike."

Jackson moved to Orange County in2001. Because of the concentration of professional fighters and mixed-martial-arts gyms in the county, it's considered an epicenter of the mixed-martial-arts world. These days, he mostly trains with Tito Ortiz—OC's most popular UFC fighter, known as "the Huntington Beach Bad Boy"—at the HB Ultimate Training Center on Beach Boulevard.

He has a home in a quiet Irvine neighborhood, and the day after he beat Liddell, Jackson says, a neighbor—a middle-aged white woman—reproduced his signature howl as he was standing in his driveway. Another neighbor sent him cookies.

Not all of his neighbors recognize him, though. "Some of my neighbors called the police on me once," he says. "I was checking my sprinklers, and they thought I was peeking in the windows. I guess that's an honest mistake, right?"

But Orange County—which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is less than 2 percent black—isn't his favorite place to hang out. "I've always felt out-of-place in Orange County," he says. "I don't feel like I fit in. I feel more welcome and more at ease in LA."

Jackson says he notices the explosion of popularity of mixed martial arts in Orange County, particularly in Huntington Beach, but even though he's a fighter himself, it's not all positive. Lately, it seems to him, people train in mixed martial arts just to pick fights.

"Those guys give real fighters a bad name. Those aren't real fighters. A real fighter is disciplined," he says. "Those guys are like bullies; I've never liked bullies. They probably wouldn't be able to hang with a real fighter. That's why they go to bars and try to mess with average people. Because they are cowards.

"I know there are a lot of people like that in Orange County, and that needs to stop. These guys, they think they're tough. They've got all these tattoos and stuff. But in reality, if they go to my neighborhood [in Memphis], they'll get their ass whooped—by kids. It would be embarrassing.

"A lot of people fought on the streets where I'm from. It was part of growing up in Memphis," he says. "I wasn't a violent kid or a bully. But the schools I went to . . . you know, it's not Orange County, I'll put it that way. There's a lot of poor people. Just being kids."

Though Jackson now says street fighting is stupid, that's exactly how he started out in Memphis. He began wearing his signature 10-pound log chain around his neck while a teen. But street fighting wasn't taking him anywhere, so he got into wrestling, which he says changed his life. After failing numerous times, he got serious as a 17-year-old high-school freshman, skipped 10th grade and completed 11th before transfering to a junior college on a wrestling scholarship for his senior year. "I never got to go to the prom," he says.

"Dangerous" Dan Henderson, Jackson's opponent on Saturday, doesn't share his street-fighting pedigree, but instead spent his early years as a wrestler out of Victorville. He competed in the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics and started training in mixed martial arts in 1997, when his wrestling career was waning. Spending 10 years after high school as an amateur grappler left Henderson with few career options, he says, so professional fighting seemed like a logical step.

Henderson, 37, with a record of 22 wins and five losses, also fought in Japan and became a superstar athlete there. He once beat three fighters in the same night and, most recently, on Feb. 24, knocked out Wanderlei Silva with a left hook.

Silva, known as "The Axe Murderer" for his bloodthirsty fighting style, beat Jackson senseless twice, winning both matches. In their first match, Silva kneed Jackson in the face and head 17 times. Jackson staggered helplessly until the ref finally stopped the match. The second time, Silva drilled him in the face with his knee so hard he collapsed and flew, unconscious, through the ropes and outside the ring.

Inside the Team Quest gym in Murrieta, Henderson talks to his wife, Alison, who is pregnant and ready to give birth. The couple have chosen to have the child delivered by C-section early so it won't conflict with Henderson's fight in London, he says.

"The UFC knew that our due date was right during the fight," he says. "They said, 'Deal with it,' basically, or they'd find somebody else for the job."

Scars creep through his tightly buzzed brown hair. His cauliflower ears look as though they've been batter-dipped and deep-fried. The brown-eyed Henderson has a calm, almost shy demeanor and smiles when he talks. He's thinner and more wiry than Jackson; he says he'll probably be outweighed by 20 pounds come fight time.

"I've fought lots of heavyweights," Henderson says. "Probably three-quarters of my fights, I've given up at least 15 pounds. I think I'm a tough fight for anybody at any weight. It's just my style. A lot of that is mental; a lot of that is technical. A small portion of that is actual size and strength.

"It's just a matter of being mentally there, right there in that moment, and being up for that fight," he says.

If Henderson wins, he could be the first fighter not only to hold belts in separate weight divisions, but also to unify a Pride Fighting and UFC championship.

"This fight is a big goal for me. After that, I just need to defend it and stay on top . . . just until I retire. I still have goals to reach and small goals along the way, but the ultimate goal would be for me to retire after defending the belt—being the top, undisputed guy in the world."

When asked if he will be intimidated by Jackson's howling, chain-wearing and vicious stare-downs, Henderson laughs. "I don't pay attention to that. A lot of fighters have their own little thing. He's not the first one to have his own little thing. I just go out there and fight."

When the van arrives at a rented Big Bear Lake house, the fighters jump out, and Jackson politely asks if the interview can continue on the outside porch. He pulls two from a stack of green plastic outdoor chairs and sits back in one, still looking tired. Just outside the front door, a child-sized four-wheeler is parked.

Jackson says his four kids visit him often while he's training. It helps him maintain his sanity and remember why he's working so hard. But traveling around the world to fight takes its toll on family life. Jackson refuses to talk about his divorce.

"It sucks. Being away from my kids sucks. The kids don't understand why you're not there—all they know is you're not there," he says. "I don't know if it's the best life for them, but they'll probably get a good education. And it's probably safer for them living in Orange County than where I grew up."

If Jackson stays in Orange County, he'd like to open a barbershop. There aren't a lot of places where a black guy can get a reliable haircut here, he says. "Stay away from Supercuts!" he warns from experience.

Yawning, Jackson asks to be excused. He wants to get a nap in before the next round of training begins, and the flight to London leaves later that night. He finds a couch next to where another fighter slumbers; 15 people live in this house.

Joey Davis, whose 13-year-old son, "li'l Joey," trains with Jackson, wants to change the channel on the TV. Back to the Future III is playing. Davis wants to watch ESPN. Jackson grumbles, "No."

Davis sits back down.


The Jackson-Henderson fight airs on Spike TV. Sat., 9 p.m.

dolson@ocweekly.com

For an audio slideshow about Rampage Jackson, click here.

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