In 2001, a 23-year-old junior college wrestler from Memphis, Tenn. by the name of Quinton Jackson traveled overseas to serve as an easy foil for Japanese folk hero Kazushi Sakuraba. Few could have predicted the chain of events that would follow.
Six years and 17 fights later, Quinton had become "Rampage," a Japanese folk hero in his own right, adored by a nation for his powerhouse style and violent victories over the best Pride Fighting Championships had to offer.
Now, over a decade since he first voyaged to the Land of the Rising Sun, Jackson returns with a new task in mind. Sure he would like to emerge triumphant over Ryan Bader at UFC 144's co-main event, but next weekend is also about something larger.
Jackson hopes to reignite the once-vibrant flame of Japanese mixed martial arts that was doused by the death of Pride.
"I think if anybody has a chance, it's the UFC," Rampage conceded during Tuesday's UFC 144 conference call. "The UFC is the biggest show on the planet right now. I remember back in the days when Pride was the biggest show, but the UFC has surpassed them. I think if anybody has a chance, it's the UFC, and if I have anything to do with it, I'm going to go there and fight my heart out. Put on a big show and try to put on the most exciting fight the Japanese fans have ever seen, to maybe want them to have the UFC come back."
That desire for excitement is the exact trait which endeared Rampage to Japanese audiences back in the old days. Between the iron chains, the howling, and ruthless performances personified by his slam of Ricardo Arona, Jackson cultivated an image by appealing to the eastern culture of showmanship.
"I was young, I didn't care. I just wanted to fight and put on the types of fights for the crowd," Jackson explained. "They love that type of stuff because pro wrestling is real popular there, and I kind of brought that type of factor to MMA."
It was inevitable the legend of Rampage would sprout quickly in a land where entertainment is at a premium. In retrospect, Pride's slew of squash matches and circus fights may not have been very sporting, but they produced an undeniable backlog of moments. And if you ask Rampage, those moments have mostly gone missing since he headed back west.
"Honestly, if I gave my thoughts on the match-making in the UFC, Joe Silva probably wouldn't even talk to me anymore, so I'm going to keep quiet on that," Jackson admitted, somewhat surprisingly. "Just to be honest, I think Pride had their match-makers make exciting fights.
"I don't think people understand, in America everybody is worried about who's going to win, and this and that. Who's winning and who's winning. Like, it ain't all about that. It's entertainment at the end of the day. The fans, they want to see entertaining fights, and fans got that. I don't think America has that yet."
If Jackson's remarks sound bitter, they surely aren't meant to be. Rather than digs at the UFC brass, his words hang in the air as wistful reminiscences of an era that exists only in memories of those that lived it.
"I really miss the fans, I'm not going to lie. I really miss fighting there," Jackson revealed. "It's something personal for me.
"My kids are from Japan. My kids grandparents are from there, and they never really watched me fight back in the day ... My two younger kids can come and watch me fight, and the in-laws can be in the crowd and watch me fight. I've never had that before, so it's just something I want to do."
To say Jackson is looking forward to Japan more than he is to Bader may not be that bold of an assumption. But just because the usual trash-talk has subdued into a starker form of reflection, it would still be unwise to think Rampage has gone soft.
"I've got nothing against Ryan Bader at all," the fighter coolly concluded. "I'm still going to try to knock his head off, but there ain't going to be no hard feelings about it."