Profile December 2008


Quinton Jackson wears a steel bicycle chain around his neck, has a tattoo of a black panther on his enormous bicep, and has a tendency to howl like a wolf. He is also born-again, the loving father of four children—and known for delivering the hardest blow in the history of professional sports. Now, in attempting to defend his Ultimate Fighting Championship title, he is also trying to hold onto his sanity. An intimate portrait of a mixed martial artist—and of the growing American fixation with the warriors who earn their living beating each other bloody.
Francis Specker/Landov

I’m the best fighter in the world.

I’m the ugliest fighter in the world.

Can’t nobody hurt me.

Stripped to the waist inside a tiny sweatbox gym inside an A-frame house on an industrial street near Big Bear Lake, California, a mixed-martial-arts fighter named Quinton “Rampage” Jackson is quick-stepping around a heavy bag, making it jump with thudding four- and five-punch combinations while chanting his mantra.

Juanito Ibarra, the fighter’s trainer, looks pleased. “I brought up his jab two inches for this fight,” he says. Jackson, the defending light-heavyweightchampion of the UFC—Ultimate Fighting Championship—will take on Forrest Griffin over the July 4 weekend at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Ibarra expects that Griffin will try to use his longer reach to keep Jackson from scoring a quick knockout, and that his efforts will be unsuccessful. “They have to have a plan to beat Rampage. They have to follow it to a T,” Ibarra says. “Their margin for error is tiny.”

Also see:

Interview: Heart of a Samurai
David Samuels talks about spending time with one of Ultimate Fighting's most vicious, and haunted, practitioners. By Conor Clarke.

Interview: Lorenzo Fertitta
A conversation with Lorenzo Fertitta, the billionaire majority owner of the UFC.

Interview: BJ Penn
David Samuels interviews Ultimate Fighting Champion BJ Penn.

Interview: Arianny Celeste, Octagon Girl
David Samuels has a chat with one of Ultimate Fighting's bikini-clad ring-card-carrying girls

With two minutes left in his workout, Rampage mounts a final assault on the heavy bag. An invisible string seems to connect the fighter and the trainer who controls his daily rhythms. Both men are born-again Christians with an overpowering hunger for love, and each uses that weakness to manipulate the other throughout the six weeks of training camp. They speak in their own shorthand about a prospective hire at one of their gyms. “He don’t say much. A Christian man, knows the Bible, don’t eat pork,” Rampage says, punishing the heavy bag with a series of brutal uppercuts.

Rampage Jackson has knocked out jiu-jitsu black belts, Greco-Roman wrestlers, Thai kickboxers, and judo champions using an arsenal of punches, body slams, and choke holds sanctioned by the UFC, which is the leading promoter of a mongrel sport that is wildly popular among younger fight fans and martial-arts disciples who revel in the adrenaline-fueled combination of athleticism and bloodshed. Jackson, who has the biceps of an ironworker, the torso of a linebacker, and the quick, delicate feet of a ballet dancer, is known as much for his theatrical appearance and behavior as for hisconsiderable talents as a fighter. He wears a steel bicycle chain around his neck and large diamond studs in his earlobes, has a black panther tattooed on his left bicep, and howls like a wolf before he fights. His big muscles, his ghetto tattoos, and his reputation as a bit of a weirdo all contribute to his intimidating presence inside the UFC-regulation cage, an octagon surrounded by a six-foot-high chain-link fence with padded stanchions in the corners. Since being born again in 2004, Jackson has toned down some of his more devilish antics, and amended the Street Soldier tattoo on his right arm so that it reads Rampage God’s Street Soldier. He drives a jacked-up $200,000 custom monster truck with his face on it out to clubs in Los Angeles where he is invariably seen with attractive women (his four children have three different mothers), and otherwise comports himself in a way befitting his riches and fame and outsized personality.

His time on the heavy bag is up, and Jackson enters the cage to practice his jiu jitsu against a young fighter named Paulo Gazze, who is built like a baby bull. “Close the triangle, or he’ll pull your leg up!” warns Junior, the man who trains Rampage in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Gazze, one of perhaps two dozen martial-arts ronin who spar daily with the champ, mounts Rampage’s back and goes for a Kimura, or reverse shoulder lock, known to traditional judo students as ude-garami. Encoded in the simple anatomical logic of this move is the exquisite balance of physics and pain that rules the sport. The fighter slides his opponent’s wrist up along his back to his ear, forcing him to submit, or “tap out.” The Kimura was named after Masahiko Kimura, perhaps the greatest judo practitioner of the past 100 years, who used the move against Hélio Gracie, the first national sports hero of Brazil. Gracie trained the elite of his country—including generals, a dictator, newspaper and magazine publishers, and movie stars—in his streamlined version of the Japanese martial art, which is commonly known in mixed-martial-arts circles as Gracie jiu jitsu. When Gracie refused to submit, Kimura broke his arm, and the ude-garami became known in Gracie circles as the Kimura. In 1978, one of Hélio Gracie’s seven sons, Rorion Gracie, left Brazil for Southern California, where he became an extra on Hollywood movie sets while teaching Gracie jiu jitsu out of the garage of his suburban home, in Hermosa Beach. In 1992, Rorion Gracie conceived of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a no-holds-barred tournament that would demonstrate the superiority of his family’s fighting style over all others.

Watch a highlight reel from the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

In 2001, the UFC was bought for $2million in cash by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, the billionaire owners of the Station Casino chain, in partnership with a cardio-boxing trainer named Dana White. Helped along by the Fertitta brothers’ deep pockets and by White’s fanboy enthusiasm for mayhem, the UFC now regularly fills 12,000-seat arenas across America and has approximately 250 fighters under contract, the wealthiest of whom can make upwards of $1million per fight. A recent article in Forbes suggested that the UFC’s corporate worth was more than $1billion.

Climbing out of the cage, Jackson reaches down and pats the head of his dog, Andronicus, a fearsome-looking shepherdmix who meekly licks the fighter’s fingers. “He loves too much,” Rampage says. Then he throws back his head and howls, a weird sound that he has been making since he was 12 years old.

“It’s his birthday today, so I’m letting him screw off,” Ibarra explains. Beneath a jaunty porkpie hat with the emblem of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, his face is a study in the melancholy fatalism unique to boxing trainers and older men who love beautiful younger women. His basset-hound features descend into drooping jowls and a natty goatee. His grandfather worked on the docks for 50 years, and he says his uncle became a vice president of the ILWU when it was run by the communist labor organizer Harry Bridges. “That’s how I got money to train fighters, and get burned by fighters,” Ibarra explains.

After a particularly humiliating loss in Japan during which the newly born-again Jackson was publicly berated by his corner men before being taken to the hospital with broken ribs, Ibarra called the fighter and offered to train him. “I kept hearing through the gyms that Rampage went crazy because he found Jesus Christ,” Ibarra remembers. The trainer shared his own experience of being born again, which followed the soul-crushing ordeal of losing the fighter Oscar de la Hoya, who went on to become boxing’s richest fighter under the tutelage of another trainer. What Rampage lacked was exactly what Ibarra had to teach—technique, control, and an older man’s knowledge of the fight game. Ibarra’s plan involved building up Jackson’s skills to the point where he could win and keep a championship while creating a network of profit-participation deals that would make both men rich. “He has his own rims out now and his own energy drink, his own toy, and we’ve got some other things in the works,” Ibarra explains. “No one uses his name without paying big bucks.”

His workout done, Rampage puts on a fresh shirt and heads back to the log-cabin condo where Ibarra’s son is cooking an all-protein lunch with lots of garlic and no sugar. On the counter by the stove are large plastic jugs of powdered supplements—vanilla-flavored Max Pro, Nutritox, and Get Hard—along with a number of individual bananas on which someone has written Rampage in black Magic Marker. His daily schedule, which is affixed to the refrigerator with a magnet, begins at 5:30a.m., when he wakes up and consumes a protein bar and a bottle of water. At 6a.m. Rampage goes for a run and then has another bottle of water. At 7a.m. he eats a breakfast of three eggs and oatmeal. At 9:30 a.m. he gets a protein shake, followed by wrestling and jiu jitsu, which is followed by steak and vegetables and a single piece of fruit.

After Rampage finishes his lunch he shows me his black Audi two-seater and invites me for a ride to the car wash. He has a long face and his eyes are set high up on his skull, giving him a mournful, dignified appearance. “I like defense,” he explains, when I ask him to describe his style as a fighter.“I noticed when I started wrestling that I was a defensive wrestler and that people make mistakes.”

His parents split when he was young. The most powerful presence in his childhood on the streets of Memphis was a neighborhood drug dealer who first noticed Jackson when he was 8. “He said, ‘Police isn’t gonna be noticing you. They won’t think an 8-year-old has drugs. So hold these drugs and hold these guns. If the police come, watch the drug dealers run, you just play with your ball,’” he remembers hearing from his mentor, whom he describes as a master con artist. “I’d sit on the street and put my crack in a Skittles bag. I knew the law. If the crack was found 15 or more feet away from you, they couldn’t put it on you. So I’d throw the Skittles bag 15 feet away over my shoulder in the grass. It looked like trash in a bad neighborhood. It looked like trash with more trash.” The last he heard, his mentor in the crack game was fresh out of jail and living with his mother.

The main criticism of Jackson as a fighter has always been that he lacks the ability to fight out of the clinch, a knock that comes from two fights he lost to his nemesis, a Brazilian fighter named Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva, in 2003 and 2004. Both fights ended when Silva kneed Jackson in the head and knocked him out, a move that is legal under UFC rules. The first time, Rampage says, he was tired from having defeated Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell that afternoon, and he made the mistake of ducking down under a high kick instead of blocking it. “I stayed down there like a dummy,” he remembers. “He knee-kicked me in the face.” The memory of ducking under the kick still gives him nightmares, he says. In the second fight, Silva dazed Jackson with a hard right hand, stood him up, kneed him in the head, and knocked him out again. Rampage nods when I ask him whether he knows that Silva is training Forrest Griffin for their title fight at Mandalay Bay.

Jackson is glad to tell the story of how he was born again. During a two-week partying binge that followed a victory over the Brazilian fighter Ricardo Arona, whom he knocked unconscious with his trademark body-slam, which has been judged to be the hardest blow in all of professional sports by National Geographic’s Sports Science television program, Jackson woke up one night in the middle of a terrifying dream. The devil had his hands on his chest and was preparing to remove his soul. “He had some female spirits around him and he was saying ‘It’s okay,’” Jackson says, his eyes widening at the memory. “Then I heard this strong voice say, ‘Do you know this man?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ He said, ‘It’s not okay.’ And I woke up and grabbed my chest and made a noise that I’d never made before in my life.”

The fighter woke up gasping for air, and spent the next few weeks feeling increasingly frightened and alienated. Some time later, Jackson suffered another moment of chest-gripping terror that was triggered by a radio ad for a Universal Studios theme-park attraction after he had dropped his son D’Angelo off at preschool. “The first thing it said was ‘The curse of’ something—I can’t remember,” Jackson recalls. “And it says, ‘Your soul is mine.’” The voice weirdly echoed Jackson’s dream, and left the fighter feeling even more freaked out. “Later on, when I turned the radio back on, when I got used to being a Christian,” he remembers, “I said, ‘Oh, that’s a damn commercial for the Revenge of the Mummy ride.’”

Rampage’s wife is Japanese, and is known in Jackson’s camp as Mama-san. The children in her care range from pale-white D’Angelo, the oldest, who is an albino, to coal-black Raja, to Rampage’s two younger children, who are half-Japanese. The entire family is waiting for us when we return to training camp. D’Angelo, who has brought home a report card filled with A’s, gets a big hug from his father. “You can get anything you want,” Rampage says proudly, before turning to Raja. “You’re very smart. But you need to achieve,” he tells his son, who has only recently joined his siblings in Mama-san’s care. Raja looks hurt but doesn’t back down. He stands close to his father, his hands at his sides.

The children have come equipped with presents for their father’s 30th birthday. “Oooh, Kung Fu Panda!” Rampage says, unwrapping a gift. Mama-san hands him a card that says I Love You With All My Heart, signed by his children. The fighter’s eyes mist over. “Ah, this … Y’all make me very happy. If there weren’t so many people here, I would cry,” he says. Instead, he roars like a lion at his daughter, Na-Na, who laughs merrily.

When I leave, Rampage smiles at me, and then slaps me in the face with his open right hand. In the time I’ve spent with Jackson, I’ve seen him hit several casual acquaintances in the same way. He hits me exactly as hard as someone slapping aftershave on their cheeks in the Old Spice television commercials. It tingles for a moment and then the sensation is gone. Rampage claps his hand on my shoulder and shows me his teeth, then laughs. The message is that his body is a finely tuned instrument over which he has exquisite control. With the same amount of effort, he reminds me, he could have knocked me cold.

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David Samuels is the author of Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a collection of essays and reporting, and The Runner: A True Account of the Amazing Adventures and Fantastical Lies of the Ivy League Imposter James Hogue.

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