Jackson’s ascent a matter of divine intervention
LAS VEGAS – There are, as they say, two sides to every story.
In this case, there’s Juanito Ibarra’s story of how he connected with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and became the UFC light heavyweight champion’s trainer.
Ibarra said the men had known each other for years from connections in the fight game and that they had gotten together after Ibarra telephoned Jackson and the two talked, mostly about their religious faith, for 2½ hours.
“It was a very powerful, memorable conversation,” said Ibarra, who is convinced Jackson will be at his career peak on Saturday when he defends his title at UFC 86 at Mandalay Bay against Forrest Griffin. “I get (goose) bumps thinking about it.”
The irreverent Jackson, who is equally confident in his chances of victory, doesn’t recall things exactly the same way.
That telephone call Ibarra made? Jackson has no recollection of it.
“Why would I remember talking to some dude for 2 hours on the phone?” Jackson said.
Jackson said he doesn’t believe he knew Ibarra before they had gotten together. Ibarra once had trained ex-UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort and said he got to know Jackson as a result.
Jackson? Nope, doesn’t remember.
“Juanito is always saying we knew each other, but I’m telling you, I don’t remember knowing him,” Jackson said. “I don’t think I did, to be honest with you.”
That’s no surprise to Ibarra, who said Jackson is so caught up in his own world that he knows few people outside of his inner circle. The two went to the ESPY Awards together last year and Ibarra said he repeatedly was embarrassed as Jackson was unaware who many big stars were.
Reggie Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner from USC, recognized Jackson and came over to say hello. Jackson looked at Ibarra for help, Ibarra said.
“He had no idea who Reggie Bush was,” the Orange County, Calif.-based Ibarra said. “None. That’s just Rampage. All these stars, the celebrities, they all knew him and would speak to him and ask him to take a picture, and he didn’t know who any of them were. He knows Shaq, but that’s about it. And Shaq would tell him, ‘Hey, Rampage, this is so-and-so. He’s big. You ought to know him.’ But he didn’t know any of them.”
That’s likely because, as Jackson said during a media day workout on Wednesday, he does nothing other than raise his children, play video games, go to night clubs, train and fight.
He long has been one of the elite big men in mixed martial arts, parlaying brutal power, quick hands and desire into a lengthy career at or near the top of the game.
He’s only 30 but already has a relatively high 34 fights, going 28-6 with two wins over Chuck Liddell and victories over other luminaries such as Dan Henderson, Matt Lindland, Ricardo Arona and Kevin Randleman, among others.
Ibarra began working with Jackson in 2005, not long after it was obvious to everyone that Jackson and ex-trainer Colin Oyama were at odds. After Shogun Rua beat Jackson in a bout in which Jackson swears he was injured and that he shouldn’t have taken, he was ready to part ways with Oyama.
Things weren’t going well; he felt the trainer ignored serious injuries and generally was unhappy with the relationship.
“I used to see him fight in PRIDE, and I was always a fan of his,” Ibarra said of Jackson. “I used to say, ‘This kid, if he only knew how to be a professional … ’ His mouth was like trash. His antics in the ring were, well, let’s say I don’t think he knew what he was doing. But it was obvious there was a lot of raw ability there.
“I reached out to a guy I knew who knew him and asked if it would be OK if I could call him. I got the green light, and so I reached out and called him.”
The resulting conversation, regardless of who remembers what, led to one of the sport’s most successful partnerships.
Jackson finally has fulfilled his seemingly limitless potential and run off six consecutive wins, including back-to-back victories last year over Liddell to win the title and then Henderson to unify the PRIDE and UFC belts.
He finally looks like the fighter everyone felt he could be when he first took up mixed martial arts. He jokes that he took up the sport because he found out “I got to beat up white guys, and no cops were around to get me in trouble for it.”
Jackson has blossomed into a star since hooking up with Ibarra. And while a large part of that is due to Jackson’s wit and magnetic personality, just as much is about how well he can fight.
“I’ve always felt Rampage had the ability to become as big a star as there is in this sport,” UFC president Dana White said. “As a promoter, you’re looking for guys who are charismatic and who people are drawn to, and Rampage is that kind of guy. But you’re never really going to make it that big in this sport, no matter how good a guy you are or how funny you might be, if you don’t perform.
“The fans know this sport, and you can’t fool them. Rampage has always had a great deal of natural ability and you’d see it a lot when he was in PRIDE, but he’s really taken it to another level now.”
Jackson still was fuming after losing to Rua on a PRIDE show on April 23, 2005, when he said he barely could walk and his conditioning was horrendous.
He answered his phone, and Ibarra was on the other end. Though Jackson insists with a straight face that he doesn’t remember the call, Ibarra said the two bonded as they spoke of Christianity and their deep faith.
He said he began to trust that Jackson was committed to being the best and that Jackson began to suspect Ibarra was meant to be his trainer.
“We had a 2½-hour talk, and it was about Christ and being people of Christ, and talked very emotionally with each other,” Ibarra said. “He was talking about how he felt, and I told him I felt really bad about how he was treated in the fight (with Rua). I said, ‘Your corner cussed you out, and it looked to me like you had an injury and something was really wrong.’ I would have thrown the towel in. Forget the fight. The man wasn’t right.
“He said he felt like he needed to go somewhere new, and I said, ‘Hey, if you want to try it, let’s try it.’ And here we are.”
A win over Griffin, one of the UFC’s most popular fighters, would go a long way toward cementing Jackson’s status as one of the sport’s biggest names.
And he grudgingly gives Ibarra his respect, even though he doesn’t remember their initial phone call or even knowing him prior to teaming up.
“If Juanito tells you he’s the one who made me and built me into this fighting machine, it must be true,” Jackson said, snarling playfully. “I’m Juanito’s laboratory creation.”