Japan has been good to Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson. Scene of such crimes as 2003's knockout of Kevin Randleman and 2004's epic slam victory over Ricardo Arona, as well as a series of Grand Prix showings, Yokohama, Saitama and Tokyo were offered a taste of Rampage long before he became one of America's most famous fighting figures.
In fact, depending on who you talk to, many believe the foundations and soul of the true Rampage -- of raw, visceral and violent tendencies -- remained in Japan when PRIDE merged with the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2007. What American fans have since witnessed is beyond question a superior product -- refined, mature and calmer -- but many long for the days when a shackle-free Jackson power-bombed with abandonment in Japan.
Maybe there's something in the air or water, in which case perhaps we can expect Jackson to roll back the years this coming Saturday, when he confronts fellow American Ryan Bader in Saitama at the UFC 144 Pay-Per-View. The fight marks the first time Rampage has returned to the land of the rising sun since defeating Yoon Dong-Sik in February 2006. Post-Japan he is 8-3 and has won, defended and lost the UFC world light-heavyweight championship. He has knocked out Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva and Marvin Eastman, and been taken the distance with everybody else, save for Jon Jones, who halted the Memphis mauler last time out via fourth round submission.
Rather than a sentimental celebration of his skills and success, Jackson's return to Japan on Saturday night will go some way to determining just how much the charismatic 33-year-old has left to offer the sport of mixed martial arts.
Though far from 'shot,' Jackson has lost comprehensively to Jones and Rashad Evans in the past two years and has seen his stock as a genuine title contender plummet every so slightly. Accustomed to winning and defending world titles, Rampage now finds himself in a curious position -- top contender, yes, but, given the fickle nature of fighting sports, perhaps only one defeat away from dissolving into gatekeeper status. After all, there can be no doubt that, should he lose to Bader on Saturday night, any fleeting hope of one day challenging for his old belt will be shot down in flames. Bader, lest we forget, is 1-2 in his last three bouts and has also, for the time being, seen his own world title aspirations fall flat, thanks to defeats against Jones and Tito Ortiz.
So, with that said, it is to be expected that Rampage starts as favorite this weekend. Hardly a 'gimme' opponent, Bader will unquestionably test Jackson's hustle and hunger -- in striking and wrestling departments -- but, should, if track records are anything to go by, come off second best in both. That's providing we are still witnessing the glory years of the rough and ready Rampage, the guy Japanese fight fans fondly recall knocking out foes with right hands and slam dunks. If that Rampage remains present in the building, it's hard to see Bader doing what Jones and Evans were able to do. Yet, should Japan fail to recognize the Rampage they once knew, there is little doubt 'Darth' Bader, strong, determined and heavy-handed, has the tools to give a former champion a forceful push towards the back of the queue.
That is, in a nutshell, what makes Saturday night so important and Rampage's return to poignant. Think about it; despite a glut of Japanese fighters appearing on this UFC 144 card, including Yoshihiro Akiyama, Yushin Okami and Hatsu Hioki, I'd be surprised if anybody receives the kind of love and warmth of reception that Jackson can expect to embrace moments before he trades blows with Bader. You see, Rampage, the adopted son of Japan, endeared himself to PRIDE followers perhaps more than any other visitor during the organization's epic run of fights and fighters at the start of the millennium. He of the wolf howl and silver chain can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of Japan, and that bodes well for Saturday night. This may be as close to a home crowd as Jackson has ever experienced, in fact, having fought the majority of his post-PRIDE career in Las Vegas.
For these reasons I expect Jackson to be as inspired and productive as he's been for a while on Saturday night in Saitama. If a return to Japan, and a reunion with his disciples can't ignite a bit of the old je nais se quois, then I'm not sure what will at this stage in his illustrious career. Throw into the equation the fact that Rampage, 2-2 in recent outings, simply cannot afford to lose to a contender of Bader's ilk, and it should be a given that he pulls out all the stops and illuminates the Super Arena the way he did for the best part of five years. Japan expects.