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Quinton “Rampage” Jackson's rematch with Muhammed Lawal at Bellator 175 on Friday went exactly as most expected. In this case, that's not a good thing; if anything, it's bizarre and off-putting.
Jackson is 38 years old and turns 39 in June. He weighed in at 253 pounds. During the conference call for the event less than two weeks beforehand, Jackson didn't even know what weight at which he was contractually able to clock in.
“You ain’t fighting me at heavyweight,” Jackson told Lawal on the March 22 call. “You fighting me at a catchweight.”
“No. Heavyweight, player. Ain’t no catchweight here,” Lawal answered. “It's at heavyweight, dog. Two-sixty-five is the weight class. Heavyweight. I don’t do no catchweights.”
“Wait, wait, you’re telling me I can weigh 265?” Jackson asked. “Is this what you’re telling me?”
This was a red flag and an even larger red flag after "Rampage" showed up at his heaviest ever. However, Jackson's career has been filled with red flags, yet his combination of ability and star power always kept him front and center in this sport. For 15 years now, Jackson has been an MMA star. In May, it will be 10 years since he clobbered Chuck Liddell in their rematch to become UFC light heavyweight champion.
In the week leading up to the Lawal rematch, Jackson told ESPN's “SportsCenter” that his biggest regret in his MMA career was that he started fighting at all. He said he wished he'd stayed in Tennessee and worked in his family's construction company. This coming from the fighter who used to put his personal cell phone number on the Sherdog and Underground forums, circa 2002-2003, encouraging fans to hit him up at their leisure.
Jackson hasn't “cared” about a fight the way you'd want an MMA fighter to “care” since probably his “Ultimate Fighter”-concluding showdown with Rashad Evans in May 2010, and even in that performance, "Rampage" seemed disinterested, sloppy and willingly moved his back to the cage. His once-outstanding boxing was reduced to the same left hook-right hook swings. He still had great takedown defense, but he couldn't do anything to turn takedowns he stuffed into offense; he was nothing like the thrilling fighter who once hit pro wrestling slams as counter-wrestling fodder.
Almost seven years after the Evans loss, Jackson fought the same way and lost to Lawal. What is more bizarre is that it's exactly how Jackson fought in their controversial first bout, which he won. For the past seven years or so, "Rampage" has seemingly gone through the motions, just fighting in short bursts. Incredibly, it has worked to some extent: Going into the Lawal rematch, Jackson had won five in a row.
This is what makes Jackson's current predicament so very strange. His career has had so many ups and downs, such profound physical and psychological tolls, that it's hard to believe it keeps going. However, it's not going to stop, as his current situation is made more hard-to-understand by his contractual status: Bellator MMA President Scott Coker told Ariel Helwani on “The MMA Hour” in the run-up to Bellator 175 that Jackson was contractually obliged to head back to the UFC after this bout.
You know, the UFC that had to get a superior court in the state of New Jersey to overturn an injunction so Jackson could take on Fabio Maldonado at UFC 186 in Montreal. Try this on for irony: Jackson has said that the straw that broke the camel's back between him and the UFC was in February 2012, when UFC President Dana White publicly chastised him for missing weight for a bout with Ryan Bader.
“Bellator said, 'We'll get you movies. We'll get you sponsors. It's better for the brand and it's better for the sport,'” Jackson said in June 2013. Now, as he closes in on 40 years old, he wishes he had never been a part of it.
The fight game breaks down fighters' bodies -- and their souls, too. Jackson had a personal meltdown of sorts in 2004 before his rematch with Wanderlei Silva. It led to his becoming a born-again Christian, a move that many fans and journalists at the time thought may spell the end of him as a top competitor. After losing the UFC light heavyweight title to Forrest Griffin in July 2008, he was involved in a hit-and-run with a pregnant woman, an incident to which he eventually pled guilty. He had a personal falling out and ensuing costly legal battle with former trainer and manager Juanito Ibarra.
Meanwhile, the whole time Jackson was moving further and further away from the body-slamming hot-shot prospect who electrified Pride Fighting Championships audiences. When this sport extracts that sort of physical and emotional cost from you simultaneously, onlookers expect the worst and usually with good reason. Most fighters do not exit this game with dignity.
This is the dynamic that makes Jackson's current position so hard to fully process. A great athlete who falls out of love with a sport is typically not one who sticks around, let alone has any modicum of success. This is even more trying if, at the same time, that same athlete is obviously less dedicated and focused and also physically depreciating. All of this has been true of Jackson for some time. Yet what remains of "Rampage," those ephemeral flashes of his past self that appear and disappear in a heartbeat, are still “enough.”
It's enough, somehow, to score him ugly wins over notable if not elite competitors. It's enough to still be a well-known, marketable MMA commodity to a major promotion, even if the charisma and personality that made him a star in the first place has evaporated. Jackson still has one of the toughest chins in MMA history, can land a hard punch from time to time and can wrestle. He can still crack a one-liner here and there.
If it wasn't Jackson, I'd be expecting him to hang up the gloves, as I thought he may do several times in the past, but I know better now. I literally know better: Like I said, he now has a legally binding UFC contract to play out. It's hard to believe it's the last time we'll be subjected to a morose Jackson dealing with the media, complaining about past and present promotional treatment and generally downplaying his interest in MMA.
However, I think about the powerbomb on Ricardo Arona every day of my life, sometimes maybe twice, 10, 100 times. I'll keep waiting for another bittersweet flash or two in the cage, ever further away and ever dimmer.