If you walked up to a 175-pound fighter with no pro bouts to his credit and asked him if he wanted to fight 205-pound Quinton "Rampage" Jackson for a hundred bucks on a week's notice, chances are he'd look at you like you'd just declared yourself to be the rightful king of England.
That's today. That's the state of the fight game in 2010. But back in Memphis, Tenn. in 1999, that exact same proposal didn't seem so bad when it was put to Mike Pyle.
"I was set to fight someone in my weight class," Pyle remembers. "I was 175 pounds soaking wet, with my gi on. My opponent had gotten hurt at a jiu-jitsu tournament a week before. Why the hell he was doing a jiu-jitsu tournament a week before, I don't know, but the promoter...called me and said, 'Hey, there's a problem. Your boy got hurt, so how about Rampage?' I was like, okay, let's do it. That was all it took."
Back then Pyle, now a UFC welterweight on a two-fight win streak, was just 24 years old. He'd been doing jiu-jitsu for the last few years in the gym he created inside a shed behind his mother's house in Dresden, Tennessee. After a few amateur fights and a heap of jiu-jitsu tournaments, he wanted to find out if he had what it took to hang with the pros.
And in Memphis in the late 90's, the pros could be found down at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street.
"You could smoke and drink beer in there, all that," Pyle says. "It was a crazy place, but the New Daisy was great. It gave you a great start. ...People would see the early UFC's, and by that point I think they were only on their 10th one or something, and you'd think, man, I want to do that. The New Daisy would give you the opportunity to get in there and really see if you were cut out for it or not."
Though Jackson would go on to become a Pride veteran and a UFC light heavyweight champion, back in 1999 he was just as much of an MMA newbie as Pyle was. Still, since the two of them had run in the same circles for a couple years, Pyle had a good idea of what he was getting himself into when he agreed to the fight.
"I knew who Rampage was due to local jiu-jitsu tournaments and stuff. He was in a different weight class, but he was wrecking people, picking them up and slamming them and sh-t. So I knew who he was, and he'd already patented his howl at the time. At all the tournaments, when he would beat someone he would howl. You notice a guy like that, so I knew it was going to be an interesting fight."
Pyle weighed in for the fight at 175 pounds, he says. Jackson clocked in at 205. In addition to the size disparity, Pyle also had two broken fingers to contend with. The plan, he says, was to rely on his submissions skills off his back and, if he had to strike, to do so only with the palm of his hand to avoid aggravating the existing injury.
Neither strategy played out the way Pyle thought it would.
"We just got in there and started getting after it. We were trying to put each other away. Probably in the entirety of the fight I had him in like 10 or 15 different [submissions] – triangles and guillotines and everything I could think of. He was just picking me up and throwing me around like I was nothing."
At one point, Pyle recalls, Jackson actually threw him out of the ring.
"I don't remember what round it was, but I was ejected from the ring, unwillingly," he laughs. "Over the top rope, WWE-style."
The problem for Pyle was that, while he was able to lock on several submissions, Jackson's strength advantage allowed him to power out of all them. As the fight wore on his palm strikes turned into closed-fist punches – broken fingers be damned – and his choke attempts got more and more desperate.
"I was close a few times, and that's when the powerbombs would come," says Pyle. "That's how you'd know you were close to a sub, when you started earning some frequent flier miles. I'd think, okay, I've got a hold of him, and then he'd slam his way out. Man, we were both exhausted after the fight."
After a grueling three rounds of slams and submission attempts, the fight finally went to the judges. All three scored it for Jackson, though to this day you won't convince Pyle that he deserved to be pegged a loser that night.
"I thought I'd won it because I had so many attacks, and he was basically just defending everything. He never shook me or hurt me during the fight, but I never hurt him, either. I guess he was on top mostly, but I was going for subs the whole time. In my heart I felt I had won because I was trying to finish. But it is what it is."
Once the fight was over, the pain started to settle in. After abandoning his palm strike idea in favor of full-scale punches, Pyle's hand had swollen to the point where his cornermen had to cut his glove to get it off him.
Still, the fight had been "a lot of fun," Pyle says. Not only did his ability to hang with a bigger, stronger opponent confirm that he had what it took to compete in this sport, it also taught him some important lessons.
"One thing I learned from that Rampage fight is that just jiu-jitsu wasn't going to cut it. I was going to have to learn to wrestle, get my boxing and my kickboxing down, everything. It was kind of an eye-opener."
Pyle spent the next few years making the necessary improvements to his overall game, but he had to learn fast. His second pro fight came in 2002 against a little-known fighter named Jon Fitch.
Almost a decade later, all are UFC fighters, slugging it out on pay-per-view events in front of packed arenas – and for considerably more than a hundred bucks. For Pyle, who started out training in a 13 x 15-foot shed behind his mother's house in a small town in Tennessee, it seems almost too bizarre to be true.
"I never thought I'd get the chance to go do anything like this. I just really liked the idea of it," he says. "I just wanted to practice hard and train hard and learn, and now...who'd have thunk it, right?"