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Nothing kills careers faster than disinterest, and Quinton Jackson has put out several notices that his attention may be elsewhere.
The onetime light heavyweight champion took a major film role in "The A-Team," announced his retirement, retracted it and eventually settled on the idea that he would fight -- solely for money. The minute film work became more profitable, he said, was when he decided where he'd be headed. Jackson's current film role is as a mercenary, and he's doing a method job of it.
There's nothing wrong with fighting as a means to a financial end, but for many athletes, a check is secondary to a passion for competition. Some of the sport's most highly paid fighters entered the industry at a time when there was no promise of big endorsement deals or new tax brackets. The idea you could become a millionaire in an activity prohibited by most states was a delusion.
Jackson has long maintained he doesn't love fighting, is no particular fan of it and does something he's good at in order to provide for a sizable family. If Saturday's bout with Rashad Evans is unique, it's because it appears to be one of the few times Jackson is emotionally plugged in to the proceedings: The two have nipped at each other for months in a personality conflict that's probably equal parts dislike and job incentive.
Jackson as an engaged fighter is interesting. But if he's got one foot out the door, how engaged should his audience be?
What: UFC 114: Jackson versus Evans, an 11-bout card from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas
When: Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on pay-per-view, with a live prelim show at 9 p.m. on Spike
Why you should watch: Because Jackson and Evans have expended so much energy hazing one another that putting on a poor showing now would only add injury to insult; because seven-second KO record holder Todd Duffee could have the athleticism to hang with the Shane Carwins of the division; and because booking Michael Bisping, Diego Sanchez, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Aaron Riley makes for one of the more substantial undercards in recent memory.
Fight of the night: Jackson-Evans, two wrestlers who prefer to stand up and have the motivation to keep stepping forward.
Hype quote of the show: "Don't believe the hype. It's all about performing night after night out there. That's the only thing that is real, getting in there and performing when it's time to go. I'd be the first to tell you I still have a lot left to prove." -- a grounded Duffee, to Yahoo's Kevin Iole.
Q: Will an extended layoff hurt Jackson?
A: Jackson hasn't competed since a March 2009 UFC event where he defeated Keith Jardine in a plodding decision; the 14-month layoff that proceeded it will be the longest of Jackson's decade-long career. While shooting "The A-Team," Jackson also put on an appreciable amount of weight, inching closer to the 250-pound mark.
Inactivity and a carb-heavy lifestyle are not friendly to fighters, who are often encouraged to relax between fights by their ability to snap into shape quickly. While the pounds drop off, the body is still not as collected as it would be if Jackson maintained top fitness year-round; Evans has fought twice in the time Jackson was absent and spent what other time he had helping teammates gear up for fights. If preparation is most of the battle, it would be hard to imagine a fit Evans didn't have the leg up going into training camp.
Q: Do "grudges" mean as much as titles?
A: UFC events without a title bout typically perform below pay-per-view business parity, but that business rule can usually be negated with an extended trash-talk build. Evans and Jackson have done their part and then some, spending months on cable and then another six months running each other down. For men who realize their finances depend on how badly they appear to dislike one another, a seed of animosity probably gets exaggerated for cameras and recorders.
If Jackson-Evans performs above expectations, you can anticipate other fighters finding new and creative ways to make an athletic competition personal.
Q: Can Duffee live up to his billing?
A: Duffee will be the first to shrug off any suggestion he's a future heavyweight contender, but any lack of boasting on his part is a space easily filled by teammates and observers -- all of whom consider Duffee to be on a level with the best. More proof? One UFC fight in, and Duffee has already made the cover of Muscle and Fitness. That's what being an in-shape 260-pound contender can do for you.
Duffee's first big test comes Saturday against Mike Russow, who will provide some indication of what happens when a high-level wrestler tries to get Duffee on his back. It's a question that will determine the fate of most fighters in the heavyweight division, currently owned and operated by mammoth grapplers like Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin.
Q: Is "UFC: Undisputed 2010" a pay-per-view booster?
A: The UFC has gotten its major media play in the past two weeks practically doubled thanks to the release of "UFC: Undisputed 2010," a follow-up to last year's successful video game venture. Company representatives have been doing as much press for that as for Saturday's card.
In addition to indoctrinating new fans into the intricacies of the sport, the game may provide a shorter-term benefit: elevating audience awareness to the point that a pay-per-view running opposite an NBA playoff game might not necessarily be any worse off for it.
The most telling moment of Saturday's Jackson-Evans fight may come in its conclusion: Who will approach the other first to offer a handshake and the expected "all is forgiven" man-hug? Both? Neither? If the two refuse to face one another, is that proof enough that their yearlong feud was genuine and not for ticket sales?
For some, real or fabricated may not matter: Both men have done such a good job of presenting dislike for one another that it approaches the theater of pro wrestling. Who cares if they share a
cab to the arena? It's also a kind of built-in fertilizer for the action of the fight itself: Small things take on greater meaning when the fighters have raised the stakes for themselves. That's what Jackson and Evans have done: The winner gets a shot at the belt. The loser takes a shot of something else. Probably several.
What it means: For Jackson, an opportunity to quiet critics who think he's lost focus on fighting; for Evans, a chance to regain form lost in the Lyoto Machida fight and still largely missing in the Thiago Silva bout.
Wild card: Conservation: With so much ego already on display, neither man may be willing to risk too much to make something happen.
Who wins: Inactivity is any fighter's worst opponent; if he struggled with another Greg Jackson-branded fighter in Keith Jardine, he'll have a rougher time with Evans, who adds wrestling to Jackson's economical style. Evans by decision.