When Quinton "Rampage" Jackson signed with Bellator last year, there was little talk of him entering tournaments and going for championships. But after one fight, he's jumping in all the way for a run at Bellator's light heavyweight title.
He's hoping the first leg of a successful journey starts at Bellator's season opener on Feb. 28 on Spike TV in its usual Friday night slot at 9 p.m. ET, taking place at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn.
Jackson (33-11), a former UFC light heavyweight champion who one of MMA's best known active fighters, faces former Bellator light heavyweight champion Christian M'Pumbu (18-5-1) in the first round of a four-man tournament to get a title shot. Mikhail Zayats (22-7) takes on former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion "King" Mo Lawal (11-3, 1 no-contest) in the other semifinal that night.
The tournament winner will face the winner of a March 21 title fight in Wichita, Kan., where champion Attila Vegh (29-4-2) defends his title against interim champion Emmanuel Newton (22-7-1), who holds two wins over the past year against Lawal.
The show will also feature the opening round of an eight-man featherweight tournament. Because Bellator usually has four, and a maximum of five fights on its live broadcast, at least one featherweight tournament match will be on the Spike.com prelims that night. Participants in the tournament were not announced.
"Yeah, I wasn't interested in doing the tournament," admitted Jackson, who ended a three-fight losing streak in the UFC with a first-round knockout of Joey Beltran in his Bellator debut on Nov. 15. "For a tournament, I like how Pride was, two fights in one day (in the finals). My manager told me I should fight in the tournament so I can win the belt. Why not be champion? A lot of things come with the championship belt. My manager talked me into it, and this is the toughest tournament in MMA. I want to establish myself as top of the food chain."
Jackson, 35, who insisted his ailing knees are back at 100 percent, faces M'Pumbu, a 36-year-old kickboxer who was born in Congo but now lives in France. M'Pumbu is an undersized light heavyweight who would actually be a small framed middleweight by current standards. He captured Bellator's tournament for the title in 2011, but after his tournament win, lost a non-title to Travis Wiuff, and then dropped his title to Vegh via decision on Feb. 28. This will be his first fight in exactly one year.
At the press call on Monday to announce the tournament, Jackson kept, on purpose, botching M'Pumbu's name, but then saying it's all in fun, calling him names like Christian A boo-boo and Christian M poo-poo.
"People shouldn't take anything I say personally," he said, when asked if M'Pumbu might be offended by Jackson continually making fun of his name. "I like to joke around a lot. If you take it seriously, it reflects on you. And really, his name is complicated for me to pronounce."
Zayats, a Russian who is a former world champion in combat Sambo, lost a tournament final to Newton in March, but rebounded by knocking out Aaron Rosa in 47 seconds on Oct. 11.
Lawal, who along with Jackson and Tito Ortiz were Bellator's most heavily promoted signings since going on SpikeTV. The former national champion wrestler is trying to rebound from his second loss to Newton. When signed, Lawal was expected to dominate Bellator's light heavyweight ranks.
At 33, the former world-class wrestler had multiple surgeries due to a staph infection in his leg in 2012, and may not have fully recovered, as he didn't have the same wrestling game as in the past in his second fight with Newton on Nov. 2 in Long Beach. .
"I'm not going to sit here and say I'm changing up my whole game plan, and you are going to see a new fighter," said Lawal. "That's just not me. I know what I do. I know who I am, and that's who you are going to see on Feb. 28, plain and simple. Me. It's all about getting that belt."
Jackson and Lawal had a very public feud a few years back, but it was somewhat settled. If they were to meet in the tournament final, it would likely the most talked about company fight, with the exception of the two Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler bouts.
"Well, there's no secret that King Mo and I didn't see eye-to-eye years ago," said Jackson. "I don't know what his problem was. We did a signing together with MMA Elite. We were civil. We're human beings, not wild animals. But we don't hang out. We don't go clubbing. He's a fighter just like I am. You put someone in the cage with me, and I'll try to knock King Mo out. As long as he keeps his mouth shut, I won't try to kill him."
Jackson noted that he has no interest in a fight with Tito Ortiz, which had been scheduled for November, before Ortiz fractured his neck in training. He also said he hasn't heard a word about a potential fight with Roy Jones Jr., which at one point was talked about as a potential Bellator pay-per-view bout.
"I'm worried about Christian M'Pumbu," he said. "He's the only person on my mind."