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Pick any piece of media leading up to Saturday's UFC 114, and you'll find Quinton Jackson swearing up and down that he was prepared for Rashad Evans.
"Best shape of my life," he told training partners (and, conveniently, television cameras). The movie set-fed flab he showed up wearing for training camp had melted away; he was properly irritated at Evans; he was arguably the harder puncher and more violent fighter. If you gave it only a passing thought, Jackson might have convinced you that a 14-month layoff and months out of shape don't matter.
Of course they do. Of course they did.
Jackson had his moments in the fight -- particularly a third-round rally during which he knocked Evans down -- but he lacked the fuel to follow up. Evans darted in and out of danger, used his strikes to set up his takedowns and generally looked like a fit athlete who had his head on right.
Jackson's biggest issue was one that afflicts a portion of all professional fighters: the belief that fighting has an offseason. It's OK to indulge in artery-collapsing food and play time if you can snap back into shape quickly, right? But does anyone stop to think about what even a few months of carrying around an extra 30 pounds does to your joints, your heart and your work ethic?
Jackson is already pointing the finger at his movie commitments: pressure from the studio to avoid injuries, shooting that eats into his training time and the distractions of new celebrity. But no one demanded as part of his obligation to acting that Jackson remain sedentary or become so unplugged from his first career that he announced his retirement. Randy Couture shoots films and still looks impossibly capable in the ring. (I've also never seen him walk around at 250 pounds. That helps.)
Fighting as a part-time investment, both physically and emotionally, is a recipe for disaster. Nowhere is that on more grueling display than in the UFC. There are no "warm-up" bouts to coddle fighters coming off a layoff, injury-induced or otherwise. Virtually every fighter in the organization is a stone-cold mercenary who would rip your head off if the payoff were more sponsorship deals and a title shot. Clocking in for half-days can work in Japan, where fighters can alternate legitimate matches with circus tours; in the states, it's suicide.
Jackson has a big choice in front of him. Although common sense holds that he has a lifetime to act and only a few years to perform as a competitive athlete, the irony of Hollywood is that the film industry may be interested only while Jackson is a UFC commodity. That means possibly bagging a career in acting for the highly uneven promise of pursuing success in an increasingly competitive UFC field at age 32, with 10 years already logged on the circuit. Jackson's UFC deal is lucrative, but dropping another fight or two could put him in serious danger of getting clipped.
The ideal would be for Jackson to take film offers when they come and not allow himself to soften up between fights. But he's still facing athletes who have no such similar distractions.
Athletes want to be musicians; actors want to be athletes. No one ever seems completely satisfied with his lot in life. But Jackson might have proved that actors can't be fighters.