The biggest challenge facing the UFC Saturday night in Las Vegas is whether Quinton “Rampage” Jackson versus “Suga” Rashad Evans will live up to the hype. Everything else is set for a memorable and lucrative four days in Sin City: The Fan Expo, UFC 114 and endless parties around the Strip.
Responsible for it all is a rancor that is 100 percent real. Grudge matches have existed in MMA, boxing and all of combat sports since the original Olympics. Threats of various bodily harm and trauma – Matt Serra told me on the record he would “decapitate” Matt Hughes at UFC 98 – are aplenty, yet when it’s over the fighters share a handshake and embrace, declaring “All’s fair in love and war.”
Could Jackson and Evans actually bury the hatchet at the conclusion of their main event? They could, but highly unlikely. And if you ask Dana White, the build-up that’s been more than a year because Jackson (30-7 MMA, 5-1 UFC) pulled out of his December bout with Evans (14-1-1 MMA, 9-1-1 UFC), in his hometown of Memphis, to film “The A-Team,” and announced a temporary retirement in what was a heated parting of ways, will be worth it.
"You know the reality is that these two really don't like each other," White said on a conference call. "There's a lot of bad blood between these two, and they really want to fight each other. These two have eclipsed any grudge match we’ve ever had. When you have two of the best fighters in the world it’s fun. But when they don’t like each other, it’s even better.
“Don’t fool yourself. This is a sport but it is the fight game. These guys don’t like each other. It doesn’t get any more real than this.”
Want proof? These are highlights from what’s normally a mundane, drawn-out arrangement between headline fighters and the print media before the combatants enter lockdown mode. There’s actually something significant at stake that goes beyond the hate: the winner will receive a shot at Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and the light-heavyweight championship, and the opportunity to become a two-time title holder.
Does Jackson care? Uh, no. He considers a win a moral victory and wonders why he’s been forced to come down to Evans’ level.
“He has done nothin’ compared to what I’ve done (as the first unified UFC and Pride FC light-heavyweight champ),” Jackson said. “It’s a step backwards.”
Evans shrugged off the initial insult, a deep breath helping for about 15 seconds before the screaming began.
“Mother---- you’re not stupid,” Evans shouted. “Stop acting like you’re stupid. Stop acting just like you’re black, you’re stupid. I can’t stand the attitude. It’s just the way he is. Who am I to fight him? Who is he to fight me?”
Jackson: “The best thing about this is we get to see in two weeks.”
Evans: “Let me know what I can do to help you be your best.”
Jackson: “Just show up.”
Evans: “Hey did you get that package I got for you.” (A Snuggie that Evans says Jackson will need after he knocks him out.)
Jackson: “Keep playing these little boy games. I’m a grown ass man.”
Jackson comes into the fight simply not giving a you-know-what. It’ll be up to Evans and his corner to help keep his composure and to take advantage of Rampage’s 14-month inactivity period. He spent the time away from the Octagon on a movie set and enjoying the perks of a budding movie star. (“The A-Team” premieres June 11). That’s something Evans’ camp has sensed, the vibe of an animal hibernating on the job.
“I never sleep on an opponent and never think he’s coming in lazy, but I honestly feel this is bad timing for Rampage,” Evans’ trainer, Trevor Wittman, told me for the latest edition of MMA Worldwide. “I don’t feel Rampage is in the game anymore. I think he’s more focused on money, stardom and his future. It doesn’t seem like he really wants to fight Rashad, so I don’t know how much he’s been training; I really don’t think he has been. I don’t know if it’s because Rashad got in his head on [The Ultimate Fighter]. Rashad has a different mentality on fighting. He doesn’t fight for the money. He fights to become a world champion. I really think Rashad will dominate Rampage.”
Jackson believes the time off allowed his body to heal – he cited an injured jaw a week before he knocked out Wanderlei Silva that carried over into his decision win over Keith Jardine – from the grind of 37 MMA bouts covering an 11-year career in the United States in Japan (he was also inactive for 10 months before losing the light-heavyweight title to Forrest Griffin July 5, 2008). Another intangible working in Rampage’s favor is emotion. It’s never advised to make Quinton Jackson mad, or madder than usual. He entered the Silva bout pissed off and carrying a large chip – and blasted “The Axe Murderer” out cold.
"If you know the guy way we know him, he lives on emotion," Anthony McGann, Jackson's trainer, <a href="http://www.tapoutlive.com/media/8083/052410_TapouT_RadioAnthony_McGann/" target="_blank"><strong>told TapouT Radio</strong></a>. "He's emotionally charged for this fight. The problem for Rashad is an upset Quinton is a huge problem. Is it a good thing then? I'd have to say absolutely yes."
This is a great thing for MMA fans. All Jackson and Evans need to do is live up to all the hype, and then some.
News flash: There are other fights on the UFC 114 bill: Michael Bisping-Dan Miller will precede Jackson-Evans. Miller is an example of the quality of courage, <a href="http://sports.espn.go.com/extra/mma/news/story?id=5214571" target="_blank"><strong>writes Franklin McNeil</strong></a> ... Hoping to fly <a href="http://www.heavy.com/mma/mma-interviews/2010/05/melvin-guillard-wants-top-five-guys-title-shot/" target="_blank"><strong>under the radar </strong></a>in the lightweight division is Melvin Guillard, who first had to make a sudden adjustment and now must defeat newcomer Waylon Lowe ... Todd Duffee, owner of the UFC’s record for fastest knockout (seven seconds), returns from a back injury against Mike Russow ... two good prelim bouts air on Spike: Amir Sadollah vs. Dong Hyun Kim and Efrain Escudero vs. Dan Lauzon ... It’s amazing that nobody is talking about Diego Sanchez. The Nightmare makes his return to welterweight against the undefeated John Hathaway. This is Sanchez’s first bout since he was decimated by B.J. Penn that abruptly snapped a four-fight win streak (two at 155). Hathaway is 12-0, 3-0 in the UFC, his debut a ruthless first-round TKO win over Thomas Egan in only four minutes, 36 seconds.