The magnetic light heavyweight from Memphis, Tenn. put his mark on mixed martial arts Saturday evening by stopping hard-hitting UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell early in the first period of their scheduled 25-minute title fight.
Tonight's UFC main event inside a sold-out MGM Grand Garden Arena boiled down to two very separate yet intertwined questions:
Would Liddell, who found redemption versus Randy Couture (Pictures) and Jeremy Horn (Pictures), fulfill his quest for a clean slate by taking out the last man to defeat him? Could the challenger, who was hounded by questions surrounding his mental strength heading into the 205-pound showdown, perform at a high enough level to thwart Liddell's mission?
Clearly both answers were going to be known at the same time, but no one expected to find out so soon.
Less than two minutes into the opening period of the five-round clash, referee John McCarthy dove in to save Liddell from serious punishment after Jackson countered a risky hook to the midsection with a fully-extended overhand right that met the champion's jaw.
"Ya know, I got caught," said the 37-year-old Liddell, who absorbed a handful of strikes while he remained dazed on the canvas. "What are you gonna say man? I made a mistake, got caught. Nothing else you can say."
Each considered among the top five in their weight in the world, Liddell and Jackson circled inside the spacious 30-foot Octagon to start. The 28-year-old challenger displayed none of the jitters that he so candidly revealed following his UFC debut victory against Marvin Eastman (Pictures) in February.
Always a tad paunchy, the champion stayed on the outside, even when Jackson egged him on to scrap. Using footwork that was a major focus of the Juanito Ibarra-led training camp, Jackson cut off the cage and refused to provide Liddell any comfort in the first minute of the expected war.
Much of the announced crowd of 14,728, which stood from the moment Jackson walked to the cage a challenger until he left a champion, showered Rampage with boos. Yet the challenger remained focused and as action picked up remembered to press forward, not with the rabid intensity he displayed while pummeling The Iceman in 2003, but with the discipline of a fighter who learned important lessons after falling short in previous major championship challenges.
"He didn't have high emotions, he was very calm," Ibarra said about his charge, who makes his home in Irvine, Calif. "And it worked."
"We were willing to take [Liddell] five rounds," the veteran trainer said. "We were willing to kick with him, punch with him. Fight in a straight line. Angles. We were ready for anything."
Jackson didn't have time to establish the jab that played out so effectively for him in the light heavyweights' first clash in Tokyo. But the new champion didn't need a stiff lead hand when Liddell hastily went to the body.
"He saw an opening and he took it," said Liddell's chief trainer John Hackleman, who four years ago ended The Iceman's night against Jackson when he threw in the towel 13 minutes into the brawl. "The risk highly outweighed the benefit of that technique and he paid the price."
Going to the body without a combination in front of it opened the Iceman to a counter attack from his younger, faster opponent, said his trainer.
"I was doing my thing," said Jackson, who with the technical knockout at 1:53 of the first round raised his record to 27-6-0. "The right hand landed right on the jaw, right where I planned for it to go, and it was des-ti-ny."
"I expected Chuck to come out fast, I really did," Ibarra said. "I expected him to pressure us fast, but I had Rampage's movement stepping, stepping so he couldn't come in a straight line and trade with him if he wanted to trade."
Liddell (20-4-0) never looked comfortable, even uncharacteristically scowling during the pre-fight instructions in the center of the cage.
"Rampage had the answer tonight," said Hackleman. "[He] did great."
Saturday's bout marked the first time in seven fights -- and the first time since Liddell met Jackson in 2003 -- that the San Luis Obispo-based striker fell on the wrong side of the ledger, preventing what would have been his fifth UFC title defense.
In that span he finished Randy Couture (Pictures) and Tito Ortiz (Pictures) twice, avenged a submission defeat to Horn, which occurred early in his career, and also toppled Renato "Babalu" Sobral and journeyman Vernon White.
Outside of Matt Hughes (Pictures)' tremendous run in the welterweight division, Liddell's run of seven stoppages in seven UFC bouts was one of the more remarkable stretches from any fighter to grace the Octagon.
Considering his age and the talent the UFC has accrued with the acquisition of the PRIDE Fighting Championships, which the company's president Dana White made official at Saturday's post-fight press conference, it's possible we've seen the best of Liddell in the Octagon.
Current PRIDE two-division champion Dan Henderson (Pictures) was introduced as Jackson's first challenger, marking the first title fight between current UFC and PRIDE champions.
"It only makes sense, finally getting the two champions together," said Henderson, 35. "That was [the Fertittas, owners of the UFC] idea when they bought PRIDE. I'm honored to be the first one of these match-ups."
Jackson will be required to avoid the trappings of a title-holding fighter, particularly as the sport -- and specifically the UFC -- blows up to heights even MMA's most wishful supporters didn't dare imagine.
Will he be like Hughes and put a virtual lockdown on the division? Or will Jackson follow the path of Georges St. Pierre (Pictures), win a title and lose in his first defense?
"It never was about the belt," said Ibarra. "It was always for the win. The belt is a bonus. Like I've always said -- I was taught this by Eddie Futch, the great boxing trainer -- it's easy to climb the mountain, but it's hard to stay on top."
A competitive welterweight clash saw Armenian Karo Parisyan (Pictures) outpoint Salt Lake City, Utah's winded but game Josh Burkman (Pictures) (8-4-0).
Following a competitive opening round in which both fighters showed their capabilities, the 24-year-old Parisyan (17-4-0), best known for his high-elevation judo throws, took over with solid right hand leads and the threat of vicious head-over-heels takedowns.
Rarely setting up strikes behind a jab, Burkman, 27, looked primarily for power shots. His failure to do more than wing wild punches cost him, and as a result the judges -- Tony Weeks 30-27, Jeff Mullen 30-27, Lester Griffin 29-28 -- all had it in favor of Parisyan, who afterwards pleaded for a UFC 170-pound title shot.
"I own a dominating victory over Matt Serra (Pictures), and he's the champion today," said Parisyan, who fights out of North Hollywood, Calif. "I want to come back and fight Serra or Hughes. Whoever wins that fight. I want my title shot."
Chicago middleweight Terry Martin (Pictures) made it two in a row at 185 pounds with a victory over veteran Ivan Salaverry (Pictures) at 2:04 of the first. Fighting out of Seattle, Wash., Salaverry (12-5-0) offered the odd inside leg kick, but little else.
Shorter but more powerful, Martin, 26, tried and failed to slam Salaverry to the mat several times before finally succeeding. When action went to the floor, the 36-year-old Salaverry was slow to react as Martin (16-2-0) rained down sloppy strikes that forced referee Mario Yamasaki to call a halt to the contest. After the fight, Salaverry had a brace around his left shoulder and noticeable swelling about his face.
"My father told me right before he passed away that I was going to dominate the 185-pound division," Martin shared with the crowd. "I want to tell Anderson Silva that I'm willing to stand with him. The question is, is he willing to stand with me?"
The upset of the night belonged to 35-year-old East St. Louis native Houston Alexander (Pictures), who upended light heavyweight contender Keith Jardine (Pictures) in just 48 seconds.
Making a splash in his UFC debut, Alexander (7-1-0, 1 NC) straightened Jardine, 31, with vicious uppercuts, putting his Albuquerque, New Mexico-based foe on the ropes seconds into the fight. Jardine's mouthpiece fell out as he took one final blow, and Steve Mazzagatti jumped in to protect "The Dean of Mean," who fell to 12-3-1.
"That's punching power right there baby," said Alexander, watching himself on one of the big screens inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena. "That's real punching power right there."
Televised action began with a pair of reality TV stars. In what some would call a substantial upset, Canadian Kalib Starnes (Pictures) defeated fellow The Ultimate Fighter veteran Chris Leben (Pictures) by unanimous decision.
Leben, 26, appeared sluggish off the opening bell, and though he tried to rally with power punches, the more dynamic Starnes (8-1-1) connected at a much better percentage. In the third, Leben landed his best blow of the fight when he planted a kick to the liver that sent Starnes reeling.
The Oregonian tried to capitalize, but to the 32-year-old Starnes' credit he pulled off a beautiful jiu-jitsu sweep from the bottom and wore out "The Crippler" (16-4-0) with a steady diet of punches from inside the guard. Judges at ringside saw it in Starnes' favor (Patricia Morse Jarman 29-28, Chris Lee 30-27, Jeff Collins 29-28).
"Screw the judges, screw the scoring," said Leben, who walked out to the cage to 2Pac's Picture Me Rolling, perhaps a warning to UFC brass as his contract is near an end. "I judge my fights by what the fans think. I think that was probably one of the most exciting fights of the night."
Curitiba, Brazil's Chute Boxe academy, which has produced greats like Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) and Mauricio Rua (Pictures), returned to the UFC for the first time in several years as young Thiago Silva (Pictures) made his Octagon debut against Californian James Irvin (Pictures).
Following an early scramble, Irvin, 28, planted his leg as Silva, now 10-0-0, maneuvered for a takedown. The intense stress forced Irvin's right knee to give way, and the light heavyweight screamed as he fell to the canvas. Despite scoring a win, it was an unfortunate evening for the 24-year-old Silva, who hoped to show American fans his dynamic skills.
After the fight, members of Irvin's camp indicated that "The Sandman" (12-4-0, 1 NC) suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which will likely keep him out of action for several months.
Despite stepping up on short notice and fighting 20 pounds above his normal weight limit, Alan Belcher (Pictures) looked surprisingly good against light heavyweight Sean Salmon (Pictures) (9-3-0), who has become somewhat of a punchline after Rashad Evans (Pictures) knocked out the Columbus, Ohio native with a high kick earlier this year.
Salmon, 29, and Belcher, 27, danced in the clinch before an opportunity presented itself. Belcher locked up Salmon's head and jumped up so he could wrap his legs around the wrestler's waist. Threatened by a guillotine choke, Salmon slammed Belcher (10-3-0) to the canvas but that did little more than secure the submission, which came by tapout 53 seconds after the opening bell.
Thirty-year-old Din Thomas (Pictures) welcomed fellow lightweight Jeremy Stephens (Pictures) to the UFC with a beautifully executed armbar finish, 2:44 of the second round. Stephens, a young kid at 21, held his own through the round and a half of action, defending Thomas's varied attack, especially rear-naked chokes.
The end came as Thomas worked from the bottom of the guard. He moved for an armbar, secured it and finalized the fight after being slammed onto the canvas. Though Stephens (8-2-0) didn't protest hard, his first reaction to the stoppage was one of disbelief. Replays were inconclusive regarding whether or not he tapped out to the hold, but Thomas, now 20-6-0, was happy to take credit for the win.
Action on the UFC 71 card began with Wilson Gouveia (Pictures)'s dominating submission win over Carmelo Marrero (Pictures), who moved down for the first time from heavyweight to fight at 205 pounds.
Gouveia, 9-4-0, had his way with Marrero due in large part to leg kicks. The 28-year-old Brazilian delivered stinging Thai kicks that had Marrero, 26, ailing not long after the fight began.
Following yet another low kick, Marrero (6-2-0) fell to the canvas, where Gouveia moved and locked up a guillotine choke at 3:06 of the opening round.