Adding to the expected trouble, the Hollywood side of Jackson virtually promised fans a show, saying he planned to revert to the action-packed Rampage of old from his PRIDE days in Japan. He painted himself into a corner by railing against boring fighters and walked out to the cage to the old PRIDE theme song to remind himself of his vow until the last possible second.
The wild Rampage came back at UFC 123, but it was a refined wildness, controlled and in control.
Jackson's split-decision victory over Machida was not the crushing knockout he hoped for, and it couldn't steal the spotlight back over BJ Penn's 21-second knockout win, but in a sense it was something better: it was a performance long on maturity.
"It was really tough staying with the game plan," Jackson said afterward. "I was just focusing on cutting off the cage and staying close to him. Someone like Machida, that elusive, is tricky."
During event week, Jackson criticized Machida's style for being overly focused on defense rather than offense, and he finally had the opportunity to see if he could penetrate Machida's wall. Just about a year ago, many people thought Machida's style was so unique, so complex that it wouldn't be solved for years. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua seemed to figure it out on two occasions -- regardless of what one panel of judges thought -- and now Jackson has done the same.
Jackson did it by pressing forward for most of the first two rounds, stepping inside when Machida let loose with leg kicks to throw punches, and roughing Machida up against the fence.
While the power punches, particularly the hooks he's known for, weren't quite the weapon he hoped them to be, Jackson showed that he had other options and used them, a welcome change from some recent fights when he's essentially been a boxer in an MMA cage.
While 80 percent of his strikes were arm strikes, he landed 15 of 16 kicks according to Compustrike, took Machida down once, and controlled the clinch for long stretches.
Afterward, Jackson admitted he had a newfound respect for his opponent's style.
"Even though he's elusive it really made for an exciting fight I think," he said. "I remember trying to punch him and he was already [somewhere else]. I was thinking, 'Oh, man, he's quick.' I've got more respect for his style. I wish I could move that good. I have more respect for his style. I wouldn't want to watch it, but I have more respect for it."
In the immediate aftermath of the bout, Jackson surprised viewers by saying he thought he'd lost, raising Machida's arm and telling Joe Rogan that Machida "whipped" him, but later, he said he got caught up in the moment just seconds after a rough third round ended.
Machida certainly made a run to take the fight in the final frame, catching Jackson with a left hook that turned into a solid combination. He eventually took Jackson down and looked to finish, moving into full mount. Machida looked for an arm bar and that's when we nearly got a PRIDE moment.
Jackson began lifting Machida for a powerbomb, but Machida wisely surrendered the hold instead of being slammed down to the canvas. Machida's flurry was enough to win him the round, but not the fight.
Compustrike stats showed Jackson outstriking Machida in both the first and second rounds. He landed 25 strikes to Machida's 12 in the first, while he closed the second with a 21-9 advantage.
Jackson said he'd be willing to give Machida an immediate rematch, but UFC president Dana White quickly shot that idea down in the post-fight press conference
Ironically, in Jackson's bid to turn back the clock to his PRIDE days, there is one thing that he is probably glad didn't make the trip from the past, and that's PRIDE scoring criteria, which judged the fight in its entirety rather than round-by-round as in the unified rules which govern American MMA. In that light, Jackson may have lost a decision. As it was, it was as close as can be without going against him.
Old Rampage? Not quite. But for a fighter who many thought no longer cared about the sport, against an opponent whose defense is usually close to impenetrable, maybe he was something better.