The Ultimate Fighter
On Saturday, November 20th, two of the most intriguing light heavyweight fighters in history, precision striker Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida and perennial powerhouse Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, meet in the main event of UFC 123 at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan. For one of these former light heavyweight champions, a win will pave the way to another meeting with the man at the top of the class – current title holder Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. But until then, let’s take a look back at the moments that have made these fighters who they are today.
QUINTON “RAMPAGE” JACKSON
Kazushi Sakuraba – July 29, 2001 – PRIDE 15
Result – Sakuraba Wsub1
With just 11 fights under his belt, Quinton Jackson was a raw but untested prospect when he was brought to Japan to face PRIDE superstar Kazushi Sakuraba in 2001. In the year leading up to the bout, Sakuraba had faced names like Wanderlei Silva, and Renzo and Ryan Gracie; Jackson was competing against guys like Kenneth Williams, Bryson Howvreck, and Rocko Henderson. It was a huge step up for ‘Rampage’ and he felt the pressure.
“I remember my stomach feeling like I swallowed a brick,” Jackson recalled in 2007. “I still, to this day, think that somebody poisoned my room service or something like that. I was happy that it was my biggest paycheck to date, but I know they brought me there to lose. They made me lose all this weight when Pride didn’t even have weight classes. I knew there was no way I could win. But I knew I couldn’t turn back and not fight. I said, ‘I’ve got to go out there and put on the best show possible and do my best so I could at least make a name for myself and Pride would have me back.’
Jackson would lose via submission to Sakuraba as expected, but what was surprising was the reaction of the crowd to the California resident, who began a love affair with the Japanese fans that would continue through his 17th and last PRIDE fight five years later.
Chuck Liddell I – November 9, 2003 – PRIDE Final Conflict 2003
Result – Jackson TKO2
By 2003, Jackson was firmly entrenched as one of PRIDE’s top fighters, a fact reinforced by a four bout string that saw him beat Igor Vovchanchyn, Kevin Randleman, Mikhail Illoukhine, and Murilo Bustamante in successive bouts. But the fight most MMA fans wanted to see at that point was one between PRIDE’s Wanderlei Silva and the UFC’s Chuck Liddell. Normally, there would be no chance of that happening, but UFC President Dana White agree to send his fighter to Japan to compete in the organization’s 205-pound tournament, with the ideal outcome being a final fight between Liddell and Silva. Silva did his part, beating Hidehiko Yoshida. Liddell ran into a buzzsaw named Jackson, who took ‘The Iceman’s power shots, brushed them off and kept coming en route to a second round TKO. It was a win that not only solidified Jackson’s place among the worldwide elite, but it also got UFC fans curious about the man who just took out one of the Octagon’s finest.
Wanderlei Silva II – October 31, 2004 – PRIDE 28
Result – Silva KO2
Fighting Wanderlei Silva on eight weeks notice is no picnic – doing it on the same night that you’ve just fought Chuck Liddell is insanity, making Jackson’s 2003 loss to Silva easily explainable. But to get back to ‘The Axe Murderer’, Jackson had to beat highly-regarded Ricardo Arona, and he did, scoring one of the great knockouts in MMA history via slam. Four months removed from the win over Arona, and with a full training camp under his belt, Jackson was confident going into the rematch with Silva, and he showed the improvement in his game during an impressive first round. But in the second, Jackson – who had fasted for three days prior to the fight after converting to Christianity – started to run low on gas, and Silva made him pay, dazing him with a punch and then finishing him off with a vicious series of knees.
Chuck Liddell II – May 26, 2007 – UFC 71
Result – Jackson TKO1
A lot had changed in the almost four years since Jackson and Liddell first threw hands with each other. Liddell was the biggest name in mixed martial arts, PRIDE was no more, and Jackson was one win over Marvin Eastman into his UFC career. But despite the unprecedented media coverage for the bout and Liddell’s long reign as light heavyweight champion, Jackson still had his number, and after a right to the jaw dropped Liddell, ‘Rampage’ finished him off with ground strikes, and in less than two minutes, Quinton Jackson was a UFC champion.
Dan Henderson – September 8, 2007 – UFC 75
Result – Jackson W5
Sure, Jackson was funny, a charismatic representative of the sport, and he had the explosive style to give anyone fits. But if he got put on his back by a world-class wrestler like Dan Henderson, had to eat ‘Hendo’s concussive right hand, or was forced into a five round dogfight, how would the new 205-pound boss fare? Answer – he would pass every test with flying colors, as he showed new wrinkles to his ground game in a 25 minute battle with Henderson (the last PRIDE 205-pound champ) that saw him become the first fighter in history to unify the two belts via a hard-fought unanimous decision.
Forrest Griffin – July 5, 2008 – UFC 86
Result – Griffin W5
Take away the end result, which was a close, but unanimous, decision win for Griffin, and instead look at this fight not only as the best of 2008, but one that showed Jackson’s championship heart as he survived some hellacious leg kicks and a one-sided second round beating to come back and close the gap over the final three rounds. When it was over, many felt that the champion had done enough to retain his title, but it was not to be, as Griffin was crowned the new king of the light heavies.
Wanderlei Silva III – December 27, 2008 – UFC 92
Result – Jackson KO1
After the loss to Griffin and out of the Octagon issues to deal with that included a break from longtime trainer Juanito Ibarra, Jackson could have fallen prey to the pressure against the only man to beat him twice. But instead, Jackson saw the Octagon as a sanctuary and delivered a stunning first round knockout over his old rival to get a sense of payback that he chased for years. If he beats Machida later this month, he could move closer to a chance to even the score with another man who defeated him in PRIDE – UFC light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
LYOTO “THE DRAGON” MACHIDA
Rich Franklin - December 31, 2003 - Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2003
Result – Machida TKO2
Future UFC middleweight champ Rich Franklin, fresh off two UFC wins, took a gamble by going to Japan to face the relatively unknown Machida, just 2-0 as a pro – he lost that gamble, getting stopped in the second round. And from the opening bell, you got the impression that Franklin was in for a long night, especially when he fired off his first leg kick and got a straight left flush in the face for his trouble. Later in the opening round, he was knocked down by Machida, with perhaps only the ropes keeping him from being stopped, and he was just one step slower than the Brazilian, who finished in the second what he started in the first with a left punch followed by a right knee that spelled the end for Franklin. At the time, it was a stunning result to many, but talking about that fight earlier this year, Franklin isn’t surprised by the success Machida has gone on to enjoy. “I’m not really surprised by Machida,” said Franklin. “I fought Machida back at the end of ’03, and to be honest, at the time, he was the sleeper. We didn’t know who he was. He was a lot better than I thought then, and to see what’s going on with him doesn’t really surprise me.”
BJ Penn – March 26, 2005 – K-1 Hero’s 1
Result – Machida W3
Always fearless, BJ Penn had shocked the world once by jumping from the lightweight to welterweight division to dethrone Matt Hughes in 2004. In 2005, following his departure from the UFC and wins over Duane Ludwig and Rodrigo Gracie, ‘The Prodigy’ decided to test himself against the even bigger and stronger Machida. For Penn, it was just another way of testing the philosophies of his first love, jiu-jitsu. “Jiu-jitsu was created where the small man can beat the big man, and I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu since I was 17 years old, and that has always stuck in my head throughout all the time and all the way until now,” said Penn. “It’s ingrained in me that I believe I have a chance. I know that something’s gonna happen, the guy’s gonna make a mistake and I’m gonna get that armlock or get that choke.” It didn’t happen though, as Machida, then 5-0, added another high-profile notch to his belt by pounding out a three round decision win. Now the world really wanted to see what this mysterious Brazilian was all about.
David Heath – April 21, 2007 – UFC 70
Result – Machida W3
Following Machida’s wins over big names like Franklin, Penn, Stephan Bonnar, and Michael McDonald, he entered the WFA organization and defeated Vernon White in July of 2006. Soon after, the UFC purchased select assets of the organization, including the contract of one Lyoto Machida. At UFC 67, Machida was introduced to UFC fans with a three round win over Sam Hoger that let observers know that this was no ordinary light heavyweight. Next up was David Heath, and while it was not a particularly memorable fight, Machida’s three round decision win sticks out in my mind nonetheless because it pointed out the difficulties opponents had to face when taking on ‘The Dragon.’ As Heath told me before the fight, “Machida has a really complex style and that’s gonna take a lot of work to get past some of the stuff that he does and make it the type of fight that I want it to be.” Heath wasn’t able to solve the riddle of Machida though, and even though fans booed that night, Machida stuck to his gameplan, frustrating Heath into mistakes that could have cost him the bout. “I’ve caught a lot of flack from some of the fans who say that there are two fighters in there, and if it’s a boring fight it’s the fault of both of them,” said Heath. “But I don’t think that’s a guy saying that who has gone, ‘well, if I want to do better here I’ve got to get completely out of my style and gameplan and just go rushing facefirst into a guy who wants me to do that.’ I think some people really respect that style and fault me for making it boring, but like I said, I don’t think that’s someone who’s faced the working end of a really dangerous fighter’s tools.”
Tito Ortiz – May 24, 2008 – UFC 84
Result – Machida W3
Though you couldn’t tell from looking at his usual poker face, Machida felt the heat leading up to his UFC 84 showdown with Tito Ortiz, who was in the last fight of his contract and in the midst of a heated feud with UFC President Dana White. Machida was ‘The Huntington Beach Bad Boy’s going away present, and the whole world knew it. “There was a lot more pressure,” said Machida. “That was the hardest part. There was a fight going on between Dana and Tito, and I didn’t want to get involved, but at the same time, I was in the middle of it. Either way I was able to stay relaxed.” And for 14 minutes and 25 seconds, Machida dominated every aspect of the fight, but then Ortiz pulled a triangle choke out of his bag of tricks and the entire fight world held its breath. “I did get concerned because the triangle was locked on,” said Machida. “I didn’t expect him to do that. I had trained a lot of ground work so I was prepared, but it surprised me.” After a few dicey moments, Machida pulled loose and went on to score a lopsided three round decision. It was the win that propelled ‘The Dragon’ into the world title picture and made mainstream fans start to take notice.
Thiago Silva – January 31, 2009 – UFC 94
Result – Machida KO1
Despite five straight UFC wins without a loss, Machida still took heat from fans for only finishing off Rameau Sokoudjou and not being Wanderlei Silva in the Octagon. Machida stuck to his guns though, having the uncanny ability to make opponents fight his fight. And if they engaged or got overaggressive, he would make them pay. Fellow unbeaten countryman Thiago Silva did both, and Machida sent him packing with a crushing first round knockout. It was Machida’s biggest UFC win to date, and one that got him a shot at the light heavyweight title owned by Rashad Evans. More importantly, the fans started coming around for Machida. “I have been working hard to satisfy my fans and I feel that my hard work paid off in that fight,” said Machida.
Rashad Evans – May 23, 2009 – UFC 98
Result – Machida KO2
“Karate’s back,” said Machida seconds after winning the UFC light heavyweight title from Rashad Evans, and no one was arguing with him after another technically flawless performance that was capped off by a final sequence that was certainly – to use the Joe Rogan phrase – a ballet of violence. In 19 previous pro bouts, no one had ever seen Evans hurt and taken out like this, but Machida, MMA’s most complex puzzle, did it with his usual cool and precision. It was a master class from the new champion.
Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua – October 24, 2009 – UFC 104
Result – Machida W5
Before Machida’s first title defense against countryman Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, most believed that Rua’s ultra-aggressive Muay Thai attack would be tailor-made for Machida’s precision counterstriking. But that wasn’t the case in the UFC 104 main event, as Rua tempered his usual strategy just enough to give Machida fits throughout the five rounder, and for the first time, ‘The Dragon’ was pushed to the limits. Yet just like a champion should, Machida responded to the challenge and got in more than his share of licks over the course of 25 closely-contested minutes. When it was over, Machida retained his title, though there were more than a few observers who believed that Rua should have gotten the nod. On May 8th of this year, Rua took the judges out of the equation by stopping Machida in the first round to take the belt. On November 20th, the road to redemption begins, and you get the feeling that Machida is ready for Rampage and beyond.