Five years ago, UFC 107 was planned for Memphis specifically to bring Quinton Jackson home. It didn’t work out. Jackson landed a role as B.A. Baracus in the A-Team movie remake, and left it for B.J. Penn to create a bloody crevasse, just as long and wide as Beale Street, northbound along Diego Sanchez’s brow that night.
In the aftermath, Shelby County shared Sanchez’s scar. The city didn’t get to see its most beloved cagefighter in 2009, right as Jackson was revving towards a title shot.
In fact, the last time Jackson fought in Memphis (or any of its suburbs) was the first time he fought ever. That was against pre-mulleted Mike Pyle back in 1999. Fifteen years, 45 fights, one UFC title and dozens of trans-Pacific flights to Japan later, "Rampage" returns just across the river to his birthplace to take on Muhammed Lawal at Bellator 120 in Southaven, Mississippi.
Now at 35 years old and in a midst of a twilight resurrection, Jackson finally gets to howl on his native walkways. And because his homecoming will be against "King Mo," a guy that he (probably) doesn’t like all that much, he’s posting pictures through social media to demonstrate just how serious his conditioning is. (See him glisten here).
"I guess one of the things I’ve done differently is, I’m super-motivated in this camp," he says. "I just trained really hard, trained to take this fight to the next level for as long as I need to. And it’s a lot of different things. King Mo ran his mouth a little bit too much and I’m fighting in my hometown."
Whether you fall into the camp that the King Mo-Rampage beef is contrived or sincere, the bottom line is it’s a fight with some dire stakes -- particularly for Lawal, who is in a boom-or-bust situation. After racing out to a 7-0 record to begin his MMA career, and winning the Strikeforce light heavyweight belt over Gegard Mousasi, the 33-year old Lawal has gone just 5-3-(1) since then. He had to overcome knee injuries and a life-threatening staph infection which required multiple surgeries, and got him closer to the word "amputation" than he’d have ever expected.
The verdict is still out as to whether he is the same fighter that he was before the health scare. A pair of losses to Emanuel Newton and a subpar performance against Mikhail Zayats in the Season 10 light heavyweight semis have cast a few doubts.
But he still has that wrestling pedigree from his collegiate days at Oklahoma State, and if there’s anything that Jackson doesn’t appreciate, it’s "boring" wrestlers and strict "game-planners." You only need to reference his bout with Ryan Bader at UFC 144 to recall his feelings on the matter. Going back to his days in Pride, Jackson has always preferred the leather trade (and the occasional impromptu slam).
Not that Jackson isn’t working up a game plan himself, just in case the "bungalows" that downed Joey Beltran and Christian M’Pumbu in his last two fights don’t turn the trick. To help him dial in Lawal’s fight night cadences, Jackson spent much of his training camp picking up cues from Jason "Mayhem" Miller, who used to train with King Mo at Team Quest.
"I mean, Mayhem knows King Mo in and out," Jackson says. "Mayhem trained with a lot of different people in MMA, and he mimicked King Mo perfectly. Mayhem is a great training partner and sparring partner. He’s very knowledgeable in MMA. And you know, Mayhem saw me make a comeback, and that has motivated him to make a comeback. So he has decided to make a comeback in MMA. He finally got his knee fixed."
Bigger and better relevance becomes the stakes for Jackson.
If he prevails against Lawal in Saturday night’s main event to make it three in a row post-UFC, Jackson will fight Newton for the 205-pound title. That’s a sentence that would have seemed unlikely after his UFC swan song loss against Glover Teixeira in early 2013, when he dropped his third in a row.
And yet, here he is in a different setting, returning home to Memphis after 15 years in a game that was never meant for that kind of longevity.
"You know, my body’s feeling good, and I’m taking good care of it," he says. "I’m feeling healthy, so I’ll go until I get tired or something better comes along. But Bellator’s treating me really good, and I signed my deal with Viacom and I’m happy with the way things are going."