Next weekend (Feb. 25, 2012), Quinton Jackson makes his return to the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.
It was on this hollowed ground where "Rampage" first gained worldwide recognition and evolved into the champion he would one day become. Battles with Ricardo Arona and Wanderlei Silva are etched in the minds of mixed martial arts (MMA) fans across the globe with Jackson being on both sides of a beating.
At UFC 144: "Edgar vs. Henderson," the Memphis native returns to Japan to take on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 8 winner Ryan Bader. More than 10 years since he first stepped inside a Pride Fighting Championships (Pride) ring, Jackson returns a much different fighter than he was in 2001.
He is a former champion and was once recognized as the best 205-pounder on the planet, two credentials that eluded him during his tenure with Pride. The main reason for this was Wanderlei Slva who put the American to sleep twice in Japan. "Rampage" has since gotten his revenge as well.
Indeed, Jackson has changed, adapted and evolved beyond the man who stepped inside the ring against Kazushi Sakuraba at Pride 15. Before his UFC 144 tilt, we'll take a closer look at that fight ... the "birth of Rampage" as it were.
Let's dive in:
The bell sounds and "Rampage" makes his way to the center of the cage, unloading a huge hook with deadly intentions. Sakuraba ducks under and grabs onto a leg, working toward a single-leg takedown. They circle, the Japanese fighter trying to get his opponent onto the mat while the American does all he can to avoid ending up on his back. The veteran wins out and quickly ends up in Jackson's half-guard.
Even though "Rampage" is a few less years into the game than "Saku," he's not by any means green. With an amateur wrestling background and a host of fights under his belt in California, Jackson is more than ready to go toe-to-toe with Sakuraba. He uses the corner post to wall walk his way back to his feet, while also threatening with a guillotine choke.
With both fighters once again vertical, they clinch up and the Japanese legend attempts to jump into Jackson's guard. The Memphis native responds the only way he knows how: He slams him. Sakuraba's body is barreled into the canvas, but he continues to work. A triangle choke is attempted, but Jackson lifts his opponent again for a second slam. They jockey for position on the mat and "The Gracie Hunter" once again attempts the triangle choke submission.
A third slam. And then a fourth!
But, Sakuraba doesn't relent and nearly has the submission cinched up. Jackson lifts Sakuraba up again, but instead uses his newfound leverage to wiggle out of the move rather than punish his opponent with yet another slam. Back on the mat, "Rampage" appears to be breathing heavily as lifting a 190-pound man over and over is -- even for an athlete on the level of Jackson -- an exhausting task.
The Japanese fighter quickly transitions into an armbar attempt, which Jackson defends how else, but with another slam. He picks up his opponent again and nearly tosses him over the ropes and to the outside while the Saitama crowd gasps in disbelief.
"Saku" is spared the tumble, while Jackson is able to avoid yet another submission.
Both fighters are back on their feet and you can almost literally see the energy seeping out of Jackson's body. A weak combination is thrown with little to no power and when Sakuraba dives in for a takedown, "Rampage" offers no defense whatsoever. From half-guard, "Saku" easily slips in sidemount with Jackson offering only a few knees as offense. The Japanese fighter begins to work toward a kimura and nearly has it locked in, but Jackson offers an impressive defense by sitting up straight forcing Sakuraba to lose the leverage needs to torque his opponent's shoulder back.
Jackson tries to explode out from under his opponent, but ever the savvy grappler, "Saku" scrambles and ends up taking the American's back. Jackson avoids danger and they wind up on their feet with "Rampage" having hold of one of his opponent's legs. He attempts to lift Sakuraba up but the Pride veteran is once again working towards a kimura and when they collapse to the mat, it's the Japanese fighter who ends up on top.
"Saku" teases a leglock, but then quickly gets behind Jackson before just as quickly sinking in a rear naked choke, which forces "Rampage" to tap.
Jackson will return to Japan six years to the day he defeated Dong-Sik Yoon in what would be the American's final appearance for Pride. When he steps inside the arena next week, he'll take on an opponent in Bader who is still smarting from the sting of two straight losses. Both of Jackson's opponents were heralded as prospects -- Yoon for accomplishments in judo competitions, Bader for collegiate wrestling credentials -- and while "Rampage" handled Yoon fairly easily, he now carries the weight of an additional six years of wear-and-tear on his shoulders.
It's more so when taking into account the level of competition Jackson has faced since leaving Japan.
Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, Jon Jones. A murderder's row of elite light heavyweights have left the 33-year old Memphis native with a fight age much older than his actual age.
Can "Rampage" put down the young lion at UFC 144? Or will "Darth" ruin Jackson's Saitama return?