In January, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney stood in a Huntington Beach, California gym surrounded by reporters. He was just days away from premiering his promotion on its new television home, Spike, but one of the most pressing lines of questioning he received was about a fighter he did not have in his stable.
As Rebney discussed the possibility of recruiting Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who at the time, was preparing to complete the final fight on his UFC contract, he glanced towards the gym's walls. On one side, there was a large photo of Jackson knocking out Chuck Liddell. On another, there was a shot of Jackson glaring at the camera with his gloved hands at his hips, wearing his trademark chain around his neck. A third shot showed Jackson howling in the cage.
At least symbolically, Rebney was surrounded by him.
At the time, Rebney made it clear that he was a fan of the former UFC light-heavyweight champ. He mentioned how he had watched him fight in PRIDE and learned an appreciation for Jackson's toughness as a fighter and colorful personality as a showman. But there was some lingering doubt in his head about whether Jackson could fit into Bellator's framework.
"How he could conceptually fit within the format and the structure we have, that would be one I'd have to get smarter people than I to sit down around a table and discuss," he said then. "I don't think he'd deny he's at the latter stages of his career. He's not right in the infancy or the middle portion of his career. He's suffered a lot of injuries but he's still a rock star at a very high level."
While it sounded at the time like Rebney had hesitations about a potential deal, on Tuesday, we found out he couldn't stay away from Jackson's gravitational pull. As MMA Fighting reported, Jackson inked a deal to compete for Bellator and wrestle for TNA Wrestling.
The signing is to date the promotion's biggest splash in the free agency pool. It also may be its biggest gamble.
Bellator's formula has always been discovering and cultivating its own talent. From Michael Chandler to Pat Curran and beyond, that's been the slow and steady path to growth. It was at least one means of minimizing confusion with the UFC. It was as if they were saying that Bellator was never a place for retreads or washouts. Sure, they took the occasional chance on young and dynamic fighters with UFC pasts, like Roger Huerta and Paul Daley, but for the most part, they stayed away from the biggest names, the ones that come with paydays and baggage.
Jackson is a sea change in philosophy, even if he is the lone exception.
It's impossible to know exactly what "Rampage" was making in his last days in the UFC. Each of his last three fights took place in a state or country that doesn't publicly disclose salary information. His last disclosed purse was two years ago, when he made $250,000 to beat Matt Hamill.
That was also his last win. It's been two years since Jackson raised his hand in victory. His losses are to Jon Jones, Ryan Bader and Glover Teixeira, so it's not exactly as if he losing to nobodies. But in that time, he's fought 10 rounds, and only won a single one of them on a single judge's scorecard.
So he hasn't been winning, and that's part of what makes him a risk. But the gamble is calculated, and perhaps Bellator has some secret plan of maximizing his value. Jackson's fate will certainly rest on how Bellator uses him. Their tournament format is one best suited to young, hungry fighters who don't mind competing frequently and are in-shape year-round. In recent years, Jackson has been injury-prone and has fought a battle with weight between bouts. While Bellator tourney entrants can fight as many as three times in three months, Jackson's only fought twice since the start of 2012.
Perhaps that's what Rebney meant in January, when he called the possibility of signing Jackson "one of those square-peg, round-hole situations."
"But sometimes, you can make those work," he concluded.
There will be challenges. For example, after signing "King Mo" Muhammed Lawal last year, the promotion would be hard-pressed to make a more intriguing, attention-stealing matchup than Lawal vs. Jackson. The two have had a rivalry in the past, and they are two of the organization's biggest names.
But they can't do that, at least not now. That's because Lawal is already locked into a four-man light-heavyweight tournament this summer, while Jackson is not likely to debut until the fall. That means there's the potential for each to fight several times before finally getting to each other.
Best-case scenario: Lawal wins the tourney and captures the belt, and then Jackson wins his way through another tournament and fights Lawal. But that's well off into the future. It's just another case where the tourney format limits options.
But the headline is what it is: Bellator got themselves a draw. Sports is a star-driven business, and sometimes it's easier to buy one than to build one. And for now, Bellator has a happy fighter. Jackson was miserable in his final year with the UFC and openly said he wanted out. He wanted to be somewhere where he felt respected and appreciated. Bellator will probably make him feel like a king. But as entertaining as Jackson may be, he is also extremely sensitive, and always one thing going wrong away from feeling like the world is against him.
Bellator has signed themselves a 34-year-old who has plenty of highlights in his vault and plenty of miles under his belt. As Rebney noted himself in January, Jackson is at the latter stages of his career, and there is only a short window to capitalize on whatever he has left. What exactly is that? No one can be quite sure. But big-time sports require big names, and in MMA, Jackson is that. In signing him, Bellator and Spike have sent a message. They're players in the game. They're willing to gamble.