Quinton Jackson didn't invent "Rampage" so much as grow into him.
From a rambunctious, troubled kid raised in a rough part of Memphis, Tenn., who was so wild playing video games that his cousins conjured the nickname; to wrestling his way into -- then fighting and getting arrested out of -- junior college; to bouncing through several stages of a successful, frustrating and legally challenged mixed martial arts career, which hits 14 headline-making years Saturday in Chicago, this dual person(a) is Jackson's most consistent trait.
In that sense, adolescence tore Jackson down the middle -- even if the man we know via mixed martial arts uniformly, and mostly to his benefit, embraced the alter ego throughout much of his life.
The fact a menacing-if-you-don't-know-him guy was effectively split in two speaks to a relationship of convenience that provided an engaging, controversial and complicated talent the opportunity to be many things to many people. Fighters saw a threat. Fans saw someone to love. Family saw a meal ticket. Promoters, managers, trainers and agents saw a megastar capable of making beaucoup bucks.
How Jackson managed it all while remaining, in the loosest sense of the word, sane is something those near and dear to him have wondered and worried about along the way.
Entering the Octagon at the United Center versus Glover Teixeira for what’s expected to be his final UFC bout (he says he wants out, and Zuffa appears eager to oblige), Rampage (and he’ll be Rampage at that moment) must focus on an omnipresent piece of himself.
This will be Jackson, now 34, feeling no pain. This will be Jackson feeling nothing, really, save the instinct to survive, which has long been buffed away by money and other trappings of fame.
This will be Jackson, fighting.
He fought on the streets for the whims of crack dealers. He fought to get away. He fought to make a better life. He fought to maintain. He fought and triumphed. Fought and failed. He fought battles that were worth waging and others that weren’t. He fought because it’s what he did.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to cover many personalities, none brighter or more confounding than Rampage. Fragile, too. Jackson needs constant reassurance. From friends, trainers (there have been many), fans. Even media. After it was announced that Jackson would meet Igor Vovchanchyn on Sept. 29, 2002, at Pride 22, he called me.
His first question: “Can I win?”
I told Jackson he could before reminding him that the hammer-fisted Russian heavyweight was no joke and just as easily could be the first man to stop him in 18 pro fights. Rampage slammed Vovchanchyn around like no one had before. It was beyond impressive. As was much of what he pulled off in competition over the years. After Vovchanchyn came a fight with former UFC champion Kevin Randleman, which in my estimation was the best Jackson ever looked. Tuned up under the tutelage of Colin Oyama -- a no-frills coach out of Orange County, Calif. -- Rampage pounded a Tyson-esque uppercut-hook combination into Randleman’s head. This represented the middle of the best stretch of his career: a seven-fight streak that included victories over Murilo Bustamante and a classic performance over Chuck Liddell in the 2003 Pride Grand Prix.
Rampage didn’t take the tournament, falling in the finals to his nemesis Wanderlei Silva -- one of the great wars in MMA history. Even still, he made his mark. This was a budding 24-year-old stud with as much potential (in and out of the cage) as any fighter in the light heavyweight division.
Then things got different.
Eleven months later, prior to an anticipated rematch with Silva, religious epiphany moved the freewheeling, fun-loving, troublemaking, oft-insulting Rampage to born-again Christian status, and, oddly, inspired a fast the week before the fight. He missed women, and read an article on the Internet that suggested not eating would help fend off the Devil.
His relationship with Oyama fell apart, opening the door for trainer Juanito Ibarra. Ibarra, like Oyama, called Rampage on his nonsense. Ibarra also spoke the language of religion, and helped lift Jackson to his professional peak in 2007 when he knocked out Liddell to capture the UFC light heavyweight title, then decisioned Dan Henderson, the reigning Pride 205-pound champion, in the Octagon.
Jackson had everything in front of him. His career was exploding. The UFC was exploding. But then he imploded. He put together a horrible performance against Forrest Griffin to lose the title. Then he seemed to lose his mind in the aftermath, suffering the most embarrassing episode of his life after steamrolling over city streets in his elevated Ford pickup truck.
Was this Rampage? Or Jackson? Legally, of course, there wasn’t a difference.
The UFC stood by him and provided bail money. By the end of the year, Jackson had a chance to fight his old foe Wanderlei Silva again. Well past his prime, Silva went down hard. Rampage could still punch.
Starting with the loss to Griffin, Jackson is 4-4 since 2008. Now he wants out of a UFC he paints as tyrannical. Though, having followed him from the start, much of it rings similar to the reasons he disparaged Pride, and wanted out of his relationship with Oyama, and later Ibarra. He feels disrespected. Used. Like a piece of meat.
Jackson has rarely dealt well with taking personal responsibility, at least so far as his career goes. And that, to me, is how he’ll be remembered. As a guy who had everything in front of him, who worked only when he had to and, then, only when he was pushed to.
Such was the depth of Jackson’s potential that he ultimately won a UFC title, managed to land a major motion picture and branded himself as few fighters have in this sport. What sounds like a success isn’t, necessarily. It was as if, no matter what decisions he made, he was going to be remembered. For being himself. For being his alter ego.
For all of it.