LONDON – Seconds after the greatest athletic accomplishment of his life, Quinton Jackson was exulting in victory, only to be greeted by a cascade of boos from fans who were irate he had knocked out their hero, Chuck Liddell. It sounded, and felt, like being in Chicago when they announced Rex Grossman had entered the building.
It felt like being in Chicago when they announced Rex Grossman had entered the building. Jackson, one of the most engaging and likeable fighters in mixed martial arts, was caught off guard by the jeers that rained down upon him from the MGM Grand Garden crowd at UFC 71 in may after he had won the UFC light heavyweight title with a stunning first-round knockout.
"My own people booed me," Jackson said Thursday, feigning hurt.
But they likely won't boo him on Saturday when he meets Pride light heavyweight and middleweight champion Dan Henderson at London's O2 Arena in a title unification bout that UFC president Dana White said could be the most significant fight in the sport's history.
"This is a huge, huge event," White said, noting the O2 Arena is already sold out and the gate will be the biggest for a fight in London since 1995.
But if the pressure is bothering Jackson, he's doing a good job of hiding it. He has been his usual playful self since arriving in London several weeks ago and has already done a good job of charming the British media.
As White was responding to yet another call to ban MMA, Jackson interrupted to provide his take on the subject.
Ballet, rather than MMA, should be banned, Jackson said.
"They should ban ballet, because that's dangerous," Jackson said. "Those guys could get a hernia or something with those tight-ass pants on. Who's with me to start a campaign to ban ballet?"
You never know what is going to come out of the guy's mouth. And it used to be that you didn't know what was going to happen in his fights. He was a model of inconsistency, largely because of what he says was disarray in his camp.
He didn't have world-class sparring partners, he felt his trainer, Colin Oyama, had lost interest in him and he was fighting because he needed the money. That's OK if you're fighting ballerinas, but it's not a good thing when you're facing men such as Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua.
He wasn't mentally or physically prepared to fight an elite fighter like Rua, but said he took it anyway because he was in need of a paycheck.
"I needed money because I was going through a stage in my life where I was spending my money faster than I should have been," he said. "I took a fight I shouldn't have taken. I was injured, but I thought I still had a chance to win if I fought a certain way.
"I got hurt right away (in the fight). My ribs got destroyed and my trainer didn't throw in the towel and he basically cussed me out on TV and in the locker room in front of fighters back there. It was quite embarrassing."
Jackson cleaned house after that April 23, 2005 loss to Rua. He brought in a new team, led by Juanito Ibarra and Zach Light, and surrounded himself with world-class fighters.
He's able to joke and be loose now because he knows he's doing all he can to extract the reservoirs of talent locked inside that thickly muscled torso.
When you go into a fight against a guy like Rua injured and hoping you can get lucky, chances are good you're going to be in a sour mood.
But win or lose Saturday against Henderson, Jackson will walk into the cage knowing he's done all he can to prepare.
"I have all these stars who help me train and make me step up my game," Jackson said. "That's what the problem was back in the day, because I didn't have that before. I would be fighting the No. 1 fighters in the world and I was sparring with jiu-jitsu guys or wrestlers or amateurs who didn't know anything.
"They wouldn't even stay in the ring with me. I worked hard, but I didn't have the right people around me to help me bring out my talents."
Ibarra said he was impressed by what he discovered in Jackson. This, he said, was a guy who wanted desperately to learn and become the talent he knew he could.
Jackson had already been one of the most notable fighters in the world and had strung together victories over Liddell, Murilo Bustamante, Kevin Randleman and Ricardo Arona.
But he seemed to be a second-tier guy, good enough to beat everyone but the Silvas and the Ruas of the world. Ibarra told him he could be more.
"I just told him he was a bad man and had a lot of talent and I thought I could help get him to where he wanted to be," Ibarra said. "He said he wanted to be a champion and I never doubted for a minute his ability to get there. Since we've worked together, he's really been committed to becoming that fighter and you're seeing the results of it now."
He worked at his Big Bear training camp with nearly 20 professional fighters. Among them were Michael Bisping and Cheick Kongo, each of whom is fighting on Saturday's card.
And Jackson said they're the reason he feels so confident going into the unification bout. "Juanito's worked a lot on my hand speed and my footwork and it's really worked out for me," Jackson said. "But even if I had Juanito and I was still sparring with amateurs, I wouldn't be as good as I am now. The kind of sparring you get has a lot to do with the kind of fighter you are. I know when I can hang after I'm getting my butt whipped every day by these guys, I can do a lot of good things when we get inside that cage."
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