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.”
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.
|Rampage Jackson takes a knee to the gut from Forrest Griffin during their UFC championship bout in Las Vegas.
Forrest Griffin ambles into the workout room in the basement of Mandalay Bay on the Wednesday before the fight, almost unnoticed by the reporters, which is all the more difficult considering that he is 6 feet 3 inches tall. With his pale Irish skin, stick-out ears, and lantern jaw covered in reddish-brown stubble, wearing a green waffle-pattern long-underwear shirt and a pair of Sprawl athletic shorts, he looks like an elongated version of the actor Matt Damon preparing for a role in a remake of Deliverance. A former cop from Athens, Georgia, Griffin has a political-science degree from the University of Georgia and a deadpan sense of humor. In 2005, he assured his place in UFC history by winning a blood-soaked bout against Stephan Bonnar on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s reality show on the Spike television network. The fight was so spectacularly bloody that the show’s audience doubled, then doubled again, until nearly 10 million people were watching.
Standing on the mat in the center of the room, Griffin rolls his head and swivels his hips, works on some lateral movements, and then throws a few combinations. He picks up a rope and sends it cutting through the air with a flick of his powerful wrists, then trips and hangs his head. “I swear I’m really good at jumping rope,” he says. He whirs the cord from side to side, and starts jumping again.
“Sixty seconds,” his boxing trainer calls out.
Griffin is a famous workout junkie, and he continues to sweat even after the reporters lose interest. Finished with the jump rope, he laces on his UFC-regulation gloves—padded gauntlets that soften the blow from a fighter’s knuckles while leaving the rest of the hand exposed.
“One-two, step right to him,” his trainer chants, catching the fighter’s punches. “Give me six of those. Right on his chin now. Do it quick. Hard right hand.” Even in this setting, Griffin is unable to disguise the simmering fury that drives him.
Afterward, I leave the workout room with Griffin, and we find an empty room, where the fighter lies down on the floor to rest his back while Rampage Jackson entertains the reporters next door. I ask him whether he remembers getting hit as a kid.
“I remember getting hit a lot as a kid,” he answers. “When I got hit by my stepdad, it was usually because I deserved it.”
“What did he hit you with?” I ask.
“Just his hand, or his belt, maybe,” Griffin answers. “It was just on the backside, nothing crazy. You know, the same way I would discipline my kids.”
Training himself to avoid getting hit took a while. The first fight he won was in the third grade, against a much bigger kid who hit him hard a few times until Griffin retaliated. “I head-butted him, kind of in the face, and fell on top of him,” he remembers. “And his nose started bleeding, and he curled up, and then I just kind of hit him a little bit more.” His stepfather liked to hunt deer, and took Griffin along when he was 12 years old. “I went hunting with him because I loved guns,” he remembers, “and then he fucking killed Bambi and that was the last time I ever went hunting. Fuck, no. It’s horrible. They kind of whine when you shoot them.”
Griffin had a similar reaction a few years later when he first saw the UFC on pay-per-view. “Guys in T-shirts, crazy fat guys, guys that looked like pro wrestlers—people were just getting beaten,” he recalls. “It was kind of gross.” His feelings about the sport changed when the UFC instituted formal weight classes and got rid of the tight shorts that fighters used to wear.
Fighting is the essence of human competition, Griffin says. I ask him how often he loses track of himself in the heat of a battle.
“Oh, usually when you lose kind of a sense of what you’re doing, it’s a good thing,” he says happily. “You start doing what you always do, the things you know to do. ‘Oh, I’m here to do this, I’m here to do this.’ ‘Move my hips and turn away. I can’t turn away. I turn into him.’” In bad moments, he continues, time slows down to a crawl and you start thinking too hard about what to do next.
In a previous interview, Griffin had mentioned putting all the hype and magazine articles away in a box so that they don’t clutter up his thinking. When I tell him that I liked the line, he cocks his head and looks at me.
“Oh yeah, that’s true,” he says. “It’s a big Tupperware thing.”
“There’s an actual box?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he answers. “I mean, it’s both metaphorical and real. I don’t want fucking fighting shit all over my house, to inundate myself with that. Put it in the box, and then you got it if you need it.”
Singularity of purpose is Griffin’s strength. When I ask him whether he ever worries about hurting his opponent in the ring, he shakes his head no.
“One, I’m selfish. I want for me,” he answers evenly. “I’d cut you off in traffic, I don’t care.” He pauses and looks up at the ceiling, stretching out his injured back. “Two, self-preservation is an overwhelming instinct. It stifles and balances all others. Self-preservation destroys your humanity. It’s you or them,” he concludes. “In a fight, it’s always gonna be them.”
The fighters on the dais listen quietly as a handsomely besuited vice president of the MGM Mirage Corporation, which owns Mandalay Bay, opens the pre-fight press conference. “We couldn’t be more excited about this Fourth of July weekend,” the Mirage executive says. The UFC has brought 10 fights to the casino over the past three years, he adds. The estimated gate for Saturday’s fight is $3 million. His eyes low under a battered baseball cap festooned with faded glitter, Forrest Griffin looks even less comfortable than he did two days earlier, as Dana White, the UFC president, describes him as “the American dream.” White then recounts the story of the Stephan Bonnar fight. “It sounded like a freight train was driving through the place,” White says, cocking one eyebrow up. The combination of his shaved head, ripped jeans, black Pumas, and old CBGB T-shirt is a particularly obnoxious approximation of Ramones-style punk as handed down by the mall-culture vultures of Abercrombie & Fitch.
White tells me later that half his fighters make more than $100,000 a year, which he regards as “damn good money.” The fighters’ cut equals less than 10percent of the UFC’s gate and pay-per-view revenues. Boxers traditionally might receive half. He rejects the implication that he talks too much and hogs the limelight at the expense of his fighters. “I’m the fucking promoter!” he objects. “I come on and say, ‘Listen, we’re gonna do this fucking fight, it’s gonna be a great fight, this guy’s fighting that guy!’”
White grew up in Ware, Massachusetts, and moved to Las Vegas with his mother when his parents divorced, before dropping out of college and moving back to Boston. At the age of 19, he quit his job as a bellboy at the Boston Harbor Hotel to open up a gym under a courthouse in Southie.After getting shaken down by a deputy of the gangster Whitey Bulger, who demanded a tribute of $3,500 in cash, White fled back to Las Vegas, where he taught cardio-boxing to local businessmen who enjoyed the experience of getting hit in the face, and soon opened a few gyms. Among his clients were the Fertitta brothers—high-school friends from Vegas he had run into at a wedding.
One weekend, White and Frank Fertitta bumped into a UFC fighter named John Lewis, and decided that they wanted to learn “the ground game”—the sport’s trademark combination of Gracie jiu jitsu, Greco-Roman wrestling, and hard elbows to the nose, eyes, and skull. “It was fucking literally like taking the blue pill in The Matrix,” White remembers. “We became addicted to it and started training in it three or four days a week, trying to rip each other’s limbs off.” White also began managing some major UFC fighters. When he found out that the UFC was in trouble, he went to the Fertitta brothers, and together the three developed a new business model for the sport, in which the UFC would combine the traditional roles of promoter, manager, matchmaker, and sanctioning organizer.
“Basically, I’m in the contract business,” White explains. “I can sign them up for a one-fight deal or a two-fight deal or I can sign them up for a three-fight deal. Or I can get a guy like Chuck Liddell that I want to lock up for as many fights as I can.” White is also famous for rewarding showmanship by coming into the locker room after fights and handing out bundles of cash. “I don’t wanna see somebody running around in fucking circles,” he explains. “So to incentivize these guys, we give them bonuses—Fight of the Night, Knockout of the Night, Submission of the Night. We bonus ’em.”
When I ask White about the UFC’s habit of monopolizing revenues from pay-per-view broadcasts and from a heavily criticized new merchandising deal, he bridles.
“Let me ask you a question,” he says. “How many fucking people are out there right now buying a Larry Holmes doll?” he says, referring to the dominant heavyweight boxing champion of the mid-1980s. He flexes his broad weight lifter’s shoulders. “Now let me ask you another question: When’s the last time Rowdy Roddy Piper wrestled?” he continues, referring to the former pro-wrestling star. “Twenty years ago, when I was a fucking kid! You can still go buy the Rowdy Roddy Piper fucking doll at the store. Rowdy’s sitting on the couch watching fucking cartoons right now, getting paychecks in the mail.”
“So the fighters get what percentage?” I ask.
“I don’t know what the fuck off the top of my head the percentage is,” he answers, “but I could tell you this: if we do a fucking quarter of what World Wrestling Entertainment does, they’re gonna be very happy guys.”
Late at night, I drive across the highway behind Mandalay Bay to the back lot of Vegas, where low-rise buildings house the contractors who build the elevators and the swimming pools. Inside a prefab warehouse on West Hacienda is a brand-new octagon. The desert air has been heated to more than 100 degrees. Rampage Jackson is lying down in the center of the octagon, where one of the several Brazilians in his camp works on his back. Juanito Ibarra comes over to me and explains what’s going to happen next.
“He’s going to go through the whole fight right now in the ring,” he says. “He’s going to raise his hands in victory. He’s going to internalize the movements and visualize the fight. Then he’s gonna lay down and see it all again in his mind.” The trainer looks more dour than usual, and winces when he climbs up the steps to the ring—the effect of two broken ribs that he suffered in camp.
“Son, do you know how talented you are?” he asks his fighter.
Ibarra’s assistant, Zach, presses Play on Rampage’s boom box, which blasts a rap song by Kane & Able. Rampage puts the hood of his black sweatshirt over his head, and then he steps out of his corner to take on his invisible opponent.
“Keep moving them big shoulders,” Ibarra calls out. The fighter drops to his knees and begins pounding on the ground with his fists.
“Three more minutes!” Zach calls out.
“Stay with him!”
Rampage launches himself through the air and lands on top of Griffin, battering the crippled imaginary fighter. “Make him face the cage,” Junior calls out. “Hips down. Too high. Put his face to the other side. Now punish.” Griffin escapes, and Jackson delivers a high, hard kick, followed by a whistling combination. The round ends with the challenger trapped against a stanchion, absorbing more punishment than any man could possibly bear.
“He’s going to get desperate now,” Ibarra warns. “He’s going to go very wild on you. He’s going to go back to all his bad habits.”
When the fight is done, Rampage lies in the center of the octagon and relives the action round by round, beads of sweat rolling down his black legs. All around him, guys are stripping off their workout clothes and talking about girlfriends and finding cabs to take them to nightclubs and hotels.
“I fought tougher guys under worse conditions,” Rampage tells his kickboxing trainer, Chris Reilly. He pauses for a moment in front of a larger-than-life cutout of himself in a white fur coat and sunglasses. “His shoulder is bad.”
“His shoulder is bad, his knee is bad,” Reilly says.
“I can’t go this long between fights,” Rampage says, pulling a face at the thought that it’s been 10 months since he last fought to defend his title.
“You did what your body told you to do,” Reilly soothes him.
The afternoon weigh-in on July 4 attracts perhaps 5,000 fans. The UFC’s star announcer, the comedian Joe Rogan, hasn’t shaved in days and is wearing a black stocking over his hair, which suggests that he has come to the weigh-in after pulling a stickup at the nearby In-N-Out Burger. Rogan, who is a former U.S. tae-kwon-do champion, started working as a UFC announcer in 1997, making him a holdover from the bad old days, when the stands were often populated by an unhappy scattering of drunks. He is familiar to viewers of more carefully sanitized mass entertainment from his roles as the fix-it guy on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio and the host of the NBC game show Fear Factor. He introduces the fighters. Rampage Jackson appears on a giant video screen to announce, “I don’t think Forrest can bust a grape,” to which the challenger answers, “I’ll take more pain than anyone.” Juanito Ibarra appears onscreen and predicts that his fighter will win, adding, “I’ll retire if Forrest Griffin beats Rampage Jackson.”
The lights go out, the crowd rises to its feet, and immediately the area is illuminated by the LCD screens on sure-shot cameras, palm-size video recorders, and cell phones casting a glowing patchwork of blue squares and rectangles from floor to roof. Rampage is greeted by loud boos from the crowd of young men in their 20s and 30s, dressed in black T-shirts decorated with gothic tattoos that they are too shy to wear on their skin. Nearly all of them are white. Jackson puts back his head and howls. “All you Rampage-haters, get used to it,” he shouts out into the roiling, blue-lit dark, rattling his chains. “I’m going to be your champion for a long time.”
On the night of July 4, I go driving down the Strip with Ryan McKinnell, of the Web site mmamadness.com, and his friend Dave, who have decided to blaze a little weed and watch the fireworks burst over Treasure Island from the comfort of McKinnell’s black Mustang. McKinnell, a husky guy in his mid-20s, is wearing a black White Sox cap and a Metallica T-shirt. He is upset over the way the crowd booed Rampage. “They’re fucking warriors, man, each and every single one of them,” he says. “They step in a cage, they get locked in it, and they have to look across and know that the person on the other end of that cage wants to hurt them.”
McKinnell discovered mixed martial arts as a kid growing up in South Bend, Indiana, and he loves the sport with a pure passion that only male sports fans in their mid- to late 20s without another major object of affection in their lives can truly understand. Because today’s fighters have grown up in the sport, he explains, it is easier for them to combine the striking blows and defensive tactics of different disciplines without getting caught in between stances.
In a world of millionaire athletes, the closefistedness of the UFC’s owners may paradoxically increase the appeal of the sport—while the overt inequalities of the UFC pay scale provide fodder for outrage on mixed-martial-arts message boards on sites like Sherdog and MMA Weekly. “The second time Babalu fought Chuck Liddell for the title, for the fucking light-heavyweight title, Chuck Liddell made $250,000 with bonuses,” Ryan says, evangelical fervor lighting up his eyes as the fireworks pop out in pinwheels of red, white, blue, and gold in the curved reflective space above the dashboard. “Babalu, I believe, made $16,000. And that made me want to rip my hair out.”
Ryan rubs his eyes. Liddell is a special case, he says, being both the biggest draw in mixed-martial-arts history and Dana White’s favorite fighter. “He was being set up to be the next great fucking poster child,” he remembers of Liddell, who appeared on the cover of ESPN: The Magazine before being knocked out for the second time by Rampage Jackson.
I have a date with Liddell sometime after midnight. With time to kill, I hang out in the Jpop Sushi Bar & Lounge at Mandalay Bay and listen to a Miami Beach refugee celebrate America’s birthday on keyboards. Every 15 minutes, I dial a cell-phone number that someone gave me and leave another message on the Iceman’s voice mail. It is well past midnight when I finally reach him.
“Sure, come on upstairs,” Liddell answers, giving me his room number. I arrive at the room shortly after he does. Out of training for the past few months with a leg injury, he has developed a gut that balloons gently beneath his plain white T-shirt. Otherwise, he is a solid 39-year-old dude who dresses like an aging Huntington Beach punk, in blue jeans and a low-rise SoCal Mohawk. His fiancée is game enough to tolerate a reporter sitting on her couch at one in the morning.
Plenty of people have a stake in the outcome of tomorrow’s fight, and Liddell is one of them: if Griffin wins, the Iceman gets his title shot, provided he can get past his next opponent, a young fighter named Rashard Evans. “I think he’s got a good chance in this fight,” Liddell says, looking wistfully out the window of his one-bedroom suite at the dying embers of the July 4 parties along the Strip. “Styles make fights, man.” Griffin is longer, and in better shape, than Rampage, he continues. “I think he has a lot better shot than the plus-200,” he says, of the most recent betting line on the fight. “Money will go back and forth, but …”
Liddell started learning karate when he was 12, and started fighting for money when he was still in his teens, in Bakersfield and Las Vegas and as far away as Thailand and Brazil. “You’d make a couple hundred bucks for your expenses, pretty much,” he remembers of his early days in the sport. “A punch knockout, you get a bonus of a couple hundred bucks, and a couple hundred bucks more if it was a kick.” From the time he was a kid, Liddell says, he loved to fight. “I always say I never started a fight,” he says, pausing for a moment. “But I never let guys out of them too easy, either. I mean, I made you pretty much crawl out if you wanted to get out.”
The pay-per-view broadcast starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday night and goes until ten. By five, maybe 3,000 people are already in their seats, most of them gathered in the upper reaches of the arena. Empty seats in the celebrity section are reserved for David Spade, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mandy Moore, and Chuck Liddell. The supervising physician from the Nevada State Athletic Commission, whose name is Doc Brown, is the first to claim his seat at ringside. “I’ve probably worked 100 fights,” he says, explaining that he is known in most professional circumstances as Steven Brown, M.D. When I ask him what the chances are that he will have to leave his seat tonight and enter the ring, he nods his head. “I’ll be in there tonight, I guarantee it,” he says. It’s not that mixed martial arts is an especially brutal sport, he says, but rather that the fighters are so skilled that some form of injury is virtually guaranteed. Fractures and dislocations are common in mixed martial arts and boxing, he said. Head injuries happen in both sports, but the cuts in mixed-martial-arts fights are more frequent, and there is more bleeding. “Eight of 10 cuts you see have something to do with the scalp. It’s extremely vascular,” he says. Bleeding from the head looks horrendous, he explains, but it’s rarely lethal.
Behind us, Tito Ortiz and Jenna Jameson are taking their seats. Ortiz’s face looks puffier than it did when he was fighting regularly, while the famous porn star looks ghastly. Her stick-figure legs are covered with tattoos, and a pair of angel wings sprouts from her back. Her eyes make her look like a Siamese cat, less vacant than otherworldly. She talks to Ortiz, greets her fans, looks exasperated, and plays with her hair, but the weird look in her eyes never goes away. It’s like she is looking into an arctic hell where the sun never shines. She has a professional distaste for Dana White. “He started to compete with the fighters for attention,” she tells me. “That’s not good business.”
Ring announcer Bruce Buffer, who has a disturbing baby face with the high pompadour of an auctioneer from the cattle lots in Oklahoma, steps into the octagon to introduce the card. Then Josh Koscheck methodically uses his elbow to open up cuts on Chris Lytle’s face and head. By the time the fight ends, Koscheck’s frosted blond hair is streaked with red, while Lytle staggers around the blood-drenched canvas like a slaughtered cow.
I head for the back of the arena, where I have arranged to meet the singer Mandy Moore, who arrives exactly on time for our date, accompanied by two publicists and her manager. She got interested in mixed martial arts a year ago, when her girlfriends brought her to a fight after a bad breakup. “It balances me out, because I’m a little bit boring, to be quite honest,” Moore explains, brushing her light-brown hair away from her sweet teenybopper face. “I feel like it’s one of the only things in my life that gives me a little edge.”
I leave, and find Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, standing at ringside. He is surprisingly geeky, with long, straight hair flanking his sallow face.
“It’s something that requires being plugged into the universe in a very special way,” the rock star explains, in the distanced, even-tempered tones of an introvert who twists and shouts onstage. “I admire the amount of time they put into it. I admire their tolerance for pain. It’s a lot deeper than what meets the eye.”
A fighter’s dressing room before a fight is a study in controlled anxiety. Some men pace, others hide. Inside Rampage’s windowless dressing room, Ibarra is pacing around on the beige industrial carpet. Rampage’s championship belts are laid out on the couch.
In the center of the room, Rampage is being stretched by three men. The hood of his sweatshirt is pulled up over his head as the men quietly work him over. “Push on my leg,” Jackson demands. The men push down his butt and massage his shoulders, slowly and deeply, in preparation for the beating he will take. Jackson grunts softly. After a while, the stillness of the scene, and the occasional muffled sounds from the black-clad figure, take on the feel of a solemn ritual passage from one state of being to another, like the male equivalent of giving birth.
A man from the Nevada State Athletic Commission with Brylcreemed hair and a red jacket pokes his head through the door. “Let’s get them gloves on,” he says, checking Rampage’s hands.
“Son, you want to put on your cup now?” Ibarra asks. He straps the cup over the champion’s gray underwear as the fighter continues to take long, slow breaths. The silent 42-inch television screen in the center of the room shows men being repeatedly punched and kicked in the face. Rampage pulls his Nike shorts up over his cup, and then puts on his camouflage shorts with the Toyo Tires logo. Then he reaches up behind his neck and comes away with a white price tag, which had been dangling from his brand-newRampage T-shirt. “That would be embarrassing,” he says, tossing the tag on the floor.
Ibarra puts on the gloves, which are then sealed with a layer of red tape and signed by the commission man, certifying that no foreign objects are inside. “Can you help me?” Rampage asks, gesturing at his taped-up hands and then to the bathroom. Ibarra accompanies his fighter to the toilet to help him pee.
Back in the dressing room, the trainer looks at his champion. “What are you going to do?”
“Defend my title,” Rampage answers. He practices a body lock with Chris Reilly, who calls out commands. “Faster.” “Drop.” “Change levels.” The two men grapple on the carpet about 18 inches from the place where I have chosen to squat. Seen up close, there is something completely abstract about this kind of fighting. The two men are figures in diagrams illustrating the science of leverage and pressure.
Ibarra looks at his watch. “Champ, can I have a word with you please?” he says, drawing the fighter into the bathroom for a quick conference. Rampage emerges 30 seconds later and clasps hands with each of the men who have helped him prepare for the fight. “I just want to thank all of you guys,” he says, the emotion in his voice fighting with the imperative to save every last drop of his energy for the ring.
“Can I have a sip of water?” he asks Ibarra. As the fighter holds a disposable plastic cup of water between his gloves, Ibarra smears Vaseline on the outside of his wristband to apply to the fighter’s face between rounds. The room falls silent again. The only sound is Rampage’s slow, deep breathing.
“Do you hear that rhythm?” Ibarra asks me. “That’s his rhythm.” The fighter takes off his hood to reveal a shaved head, and practices another clinch with Chris. He howls like a wolf, and then breathes deeply. “I need some more water,” he says. The fighter looks over at me and gives me a long stare.
Ibarra gathers everyone together in the center of the room.
“Let’s pray, fellows,” he says, before asking for “no injuries, and victory in Jesus’ name.” The commission man raises up his head to speak.
“You got about two minutes before that walk,” he says. “Two minutes before that walk.”
Zach, Ibarra’s assistant, takes Rampage’s chain and wraps it around his neck. At the last minute, Ibarra grabs a scissors and cuts open the cuffs of Rampage’s sweatshirt so he will be able to lift it over his head when he enters the ring, and then everyone goes out the door and into the cement-block corridor that leads to the ring. His hood is off as he readies himself for the plunge through the black curtain and into the sold-out arena filled with more than 11,000 screaming fans. Ibarra stops him. “Hey, Burt, he’s the champion, he doesn’t go in first,” he calls out to the man in charge of logistics. “The champ goes in second.”
Rampage puts his hood back over his head and waits, a hulking, solitary figure breathing in and out in the fluorescent light.
Forrest Griffin enters the arena first, to a techno jig from the Dropkick Murphys followed by rising applause. Rampage enters next, to the sound of barking dogs. Reilly is carrying his UFC championship belt, while Ibarra trudges behind him. The crowd boos. Every few feet, someone yells out “Oh my God” like they’ve felt an earthquake. Rampage flashes his mouthpiece at the camera and snarls. There won’t be any judges needed for the fight, Rampage promises in the taped pre-fight interview on the overhead video screen. Both men weigh 205 pounds. Griffin is two inches taller than Rampage, with a four-inch reach advantage. He bounces and dances inside the ring while Rampage stands and looks mean, which is a pretty good indication of how the fight is likely to go.
The referee is a bald-headed Canadian named Yves Lavigne. “Okay, gentlemen, UFC belt on the line, protect yourself at all times, obey my commands at all times. If you want to touch gloves, do it now, then go back to your corner,” Lavigne says, following his spiel with a single one-word instruction: “Fight!”
Griffin starts off with a leg kick, then kicks Rampage again. The champion misses with an uppercut. Griffin kicks him in the head and then kicks him hard in the leg. Soon, a pattern is established. Griffin stands in the center of the ring and aims kicks and punches at Rampage’s head and upper body, using his length to keep the champion at a safe distance. When Rampage’s guard is up, Griffin changes levels and kicks at his knee. With 3:17 left in the first round, Rampage hits Griffin with a powerful three-punch combination. Griffin recovers, and resumes kicking at Rampage’s left leg. A minute later, Rampage lands a powerful left hook. Griffin wobbles, then recovers, and catches Rampage again on his left knee.
It is a simple and merciless strategy. With a minute left in the round, Rampage hits his opponent with a powerful uppercut and knocks him down, and then drags him to the side of the cage, where the stunned Griffin gets a precious 20 seconds on the ground to recover. Rampage appears to let him stand up, steps back, and lands another powerful punch. Then he kicks Griffin hard in the side.
In the confusion of Griffin’s corner between rounds, I can hear one sentence repeated twice: “You’re hurting his fucking leg.” The fighter nods. About six seconds into Round Two, Griffin kicks Rampage’s left leg, and then kicks him again. As Rampage’s knee buckles, Griffin rushes at the injured champion and catches him in a guillotine hold and tries to choke him out.
Unable to stand, Rampage falls to the canvas, where he spends the remaining four minutes and 48 seconds as Griffin hits him in the face with his elbows and forearms while the crowd makes a sound like an airplane taking off. When the round ends, Rampage gets up and limps to his corner. He’s still in the fight. “I want you to breathe. I want you to breathe,” Ibarra tells him, looking into the face of his injured fighter. “Don’t worry about that leg.”
In the third round, a new pattern emerges: Griffin aims at the injured leg, and whenever Rampage moves to protect it, Griffin kicks him in the head. Rampage’s big punches keep missing their target by three or four inches, but their scary velocity seems to inhibit Griffin from getting any closer to his crippled opponent.
By the fourth round, Rampage’s leg seems to loosen up, and he fights the fight that I saw him fight against his invisible opponent at the warehouse on Thursday night, landing powerful three-, four-, and five-punch combinations, taking Griffin down, cutting his face, and pounding him into the canvas as the crowd cheers. It is a dominant performance, the only problem being that it is happening in the fourth round of the fight. In the fifth and final round, neither fighter shows much sense of desperation. With two minutes left, Rampage hits Griffin with a powerful body shot, and Griffin kicks him again, and then hits him with a hard right. The bout ends and the two fighters embrace.
The referee prepares to raise one fighter’s hand in victory. Griffin starts to pull his hand away, then looks startled by the deafening noise that greets the words new world champion. Judge Adalaide Byrd had Rampage winning the last two rounds and Griffin the first three, while Nelson Hamilton had Rampage winning the first round and the fourth round and Roy Silbert had Griffin winning every round except the fourth.
“Did they see the same fight we did?” the Las Vegas Review-Journal guy asks. “Are you kidding me?”
As Rampage exits the ring, away from the cameras, it is clear that he can’t really walk. He leans on Ibarra for support on his way back down the cement-block corridor to his dressing room, where fighters and their entourages line the hallway.
“You fought like a champion!”
When Jackson gets to the room, his UFC belt is gone. The fighter looks stunned. “They take my belt?” he asks. He unwraps his gloves for the post-fight exam by the commission doctor. He will need X-rays of his thumb, left knee, and tibia, but nothing appears to be badly broken, and the doctor agrees that he can wait until tomorrow to go to the hospital. Griffin will spend most of the night in the emergency room.
“You worked hard, champ,” Chris Reilly says.
“Forrest worked hard, too,” Jackson says. He looks down at the bloody purple bruise on his trembling left hand, which has been released from its wrapping of tape and gauze. “I got bloody boogers,” he complains, raising his hand to his nose.
Dana White arrives and takes Ibarra into the bathroom for a private conference, before emerging to talk with Rampage. “You took it like a champ, instead of saying anything stupid,” he says, putting his hand on the fighter’s shoulder.
“He’s my son. I’m proud. He rested. He used his brain,” Ibarra said. “He came back and took the fight to Forrest on one leg.”
Now there are only five people left in the room. “Where’s my shoes?” Rampage asks. “Don’t tell me I left my shoes by the fucking cage.” He looks down at his chest. “Nobody put my chain on me after the fight?”
He trudges down the hallway to the post-fight press conference, leaning on Ibarra’s shoulder for support. He limps past the soda machine, where he is stopped for a moment by the magician Criss Angel. “That will make you stronger,” he says earnestly, adding, “Sometimes the journey is better than the destination.”
Rampage blinks. I am now the only one left in the fighter’s entourage. “You know what?” he confides. “I didn’t think Forrest could hang with me.” He looks me in the eye and asks whether I thought he won the fight. I tell him that he won the first and the fourth rounds but maybe backed off a bit in the fifth. He nods.
At 2a.m. I catch up with Dana White at the House of Blues.
“He went in there with a smart plan,” I say of Griffin.
“A fucking great game plan. And it worked because he did end up hurting that leg.” We talk about this and that for a while, and then I ask White what he talked about with Juanito Ibarra in the bathroom after the fight. The promoter’s face darkens.
“I’m not a Juanito fan,” he says. “He was mad because what he said, on the countdown show, he said, ‘I’ll fucking retire if Forrest Griffin beats Rampage Jackson.’ And fucking one of the dudes called him on it. One of the cut men said, ‘Are you retiring now, motherfucker?’”
“He does love his fighters, though,” I answer. “That’s one good thing about him.”
“I hope he does,” White answers. “If Rampage goes on a skid—let’s say he goes on a skid now. He lost this fight tonight, and he loses four more after it. And is kicked out of the UFC, retires from fighting. Right? Is Juanito gonna be with him for the rest of his life? I dunno. What do you think?”
I don’t know those guys well enough, I respond.
White looks at me hard.
“Nobody knows anybody well enough,” he answers.
Ten days later, I read the following news story on a mixed-martial-arts Web site:
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson arrested at gunpoint after a chase in Costa Mesa, Calif. …
Rampage, who relinquished his UFC belt on July5 by unanimous decision to Forrest Griffin, plowed his 2008 Ford F-250, complete with his image emblazoned on rear driver- and passenger-side doors, into multiple cars along Highway 55.
The story ends with the line, “Jackson’s trainer, Juanito Ibarra, did not immediately return phone calls.” Internet rumors suggest that Jackson had gone off the deep end and fired his trainer, who had been caught stealing from him.
I go to a boutique hotel in Minneapolis, where Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White are staying for a UFC bout. They had promised to tell me what they knew and let me see the fighter for myself. A week after the fight in Las Vegas, White says, he and Fertitta had dinner with Rampage up at the Red Rock Casino for what White expected would be a business meeting. The fighter seemed uninterested in talking business and ignored his food. Instead, he told the UFC president and the company’s billionaire owner how his cousins and brothers and sisters used to torment him. “They’d get him all fired up and he’d go crazy, and they’d laugh and call him Rampage,” White remembers. “After the dinner, me and Lorenzo were like, ‘Hmm. That wasn’t the dinner we were expecting.’”
When pictures of Jackson plowing through traffic hit the Web, White says he immediately got on a plane, and arrived at the police station before the fighter. “I called Lorenzo and our attorney at three in the morning, after I saw Rampage that night, and I’m like, ‘You guys have no fucking idea what I just saw. You have no idea what I just saw.’” The next day, the police went to Jackson’s home and took him to a psychiatric ward, where he was held for 72 hours. The immediate diagnosis was that the fighter was suffering from delirium induced by severe dehydration, reportedly caused by a week of staying up all night on energy drinks. When he was arrested, he hadn’t eaten or slept in four days.
As a publicist goes off to find the fighter, I ask White whom Rampage will fight next.
“It’s probably gonna be him and Wanderlei Silva,” White says.
“But Silva knocked him out twice,” I object.
“Yeah,” he answers with a shrug.
The prospect of Rampage being sent out in his current condition, having lost his title and his trainer, to fight a man who has already knocked him out twice, seems unnecessarily cruel. When I ask White whether he has suggested to Rampage that he might be better off with a different opponent, he shrugs again.
“This is the fight business, man. It’s a rough business.”
Rampage Jackson walks into the room, wearing sunglasses and a big smile. When he takes off the glasses, his face is puffy and bruised. I ask him to tell me what he did in the week after the fight.
“You know, what a lot of people don’t understand about me is, I have fun,” he says. “I laugh and joke around all the time. My life is a fun life.”
I ask him why, during that time, he stopped eating food and drinking water.
“I learned something about somebody I loved, and I still love to this day. I love him dearly, and it hurt me,” he says. “I stopped eating and stopped sleeping. I get touched by God, because I’m reading the Bible and I’m staying up and I’m fasting, and when you’re fasting, you get close to God.”
He was afraid to go to sleep, because he was close to God, and when God or Jesus reveals himself to you, the devil comes too, he says. After he came back home from the police station, he had everyone in his house reading the Bible. His door was open. People he didn’t know came in and out of his house. “This one guy I never seen before in my life, Asian dude, came to my door,” Jackson tells me. “I said, ‘If you’re a child of God, you can just walk into my house. If you’re not a child of God, you can’t.’ I remember saying that. That’s about the only thing I remember.”
A waiter comes to our table, and Jackson says he’s hungry and orders a hamburger. He is clearly functional, and yet, at the same time, he seems less robust than he was when I first met him. He is a proud man whose personality seems shot through with holes. Listening to him talk is like watching him try to fight on one leg. I ask him whether he thinks it’s a good idea to fight Silva so soon after being released from a psychiatric ward.
“Go back and watch that fight. I was kicking the hell out of Wanderlei,” he says. “Wanderlei has been a thorn in my side for a while. I want to fight him. Also Shogun, Sakuraba,” he continues, naming a few other fighters. “I want to fight Forrest too, later.”
When I suggest that Rampage wants to fight everyone who ever beat him, he nods.
“I feel like I’m the best fighter in the world. If I fight at close to 100percent, no one can beat me,” he answers.
It is unclear why Rampage believes he is anywhere near 100percent. The fact that he is putting Forrest Griffin at the end of his list implies that Dana White may have told him he will not be fighting for the title anytime soon.
“Have you been treated for depression?” I ask him.
“No. I’m not depressed. Do I seem depressed?” he asks me. “I’m happy—you see why I drive around laughing at stuff all the time? Do I look like a depressed person?”
He has been courteous to me for six weeks. He is tired of answering questions.
“Have you ever been a fighter?” he asks me, leaning forward across the table.
“You ever get your ass whupped?” he asks.
Once, I answer.
“How you feel after that ass-whupping?”
I tell him I felt unhappy enough that I never considered a career as a fighter.
Rampage looks at me across the remains of his burger. “Well, we got two different experiences. Two different hearts. I have the heart of a samurai. I have samurai spirit. God made me to be a fighter,” he says. “You know how many fights I’ve been in my whole life? Over a thousand, man. This is what I was made to do.”
He puts his face up close to mine. His eyes are tightly focused, and the wheels inside his head are spinning too fast. “Just watch my next fight and you’ll be drooling,” he says. “Watch it! The mind is the strongest thing in your body,” he adds, reaching out to me with both hands from across the table. “There’s a reason why you only use 10percent of your brain. You got to learn how to use the rest of your brain, homey. Your mind is real strong. Strongest thing I got.”
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.