The Sweet Spoils of Taking the Hard Road Back

By Jason Probst Jul 1, 2008
The bond between trainer and fighter is a mystical force, expressing itself in ways that can be easily overlooked. For UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, however, the connection with Juanito Ibarra has created a turnaround in his career that is one of the most memorable in the history of mixed martial arts.

It's easy to forget in the fast-changing climate of monthly pay-per-views and the explosive growth of the sport, but it was only a couple years ago that Jackson, once a feared commodity in Pride, seemed a spent commodity. After three brutal knockout losses in a 17-month span, the charming brawler with a penchant for one-liners was apparently on the downside of a career that once seemed so promising. Losing twice to Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) and a one-sided trouncing by Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in April 2005 seemed to reveal that Jackson's best years had been a thrilling, if altogether too-brief ride.

You aren't supposed to get beaten up when you give your life to Jesus -- especially when you're a former Memphis street tough with a wonderful sense of humor about the road you've taken to get to the big stage. But that's exactly what happened to Jackson after becoming a born-again Christian in 2004, when most of the MMA world heard the news of the "new Rampage" and wondered what happened to the guy whose ferocity and hard-charging style had seemingly evaporated.

After losing to Rua in a bout where his broken rib prefaced a frightful beating, Ibarra called Jackson up. One man, one Christian to the other. And the unique trainer-fighter relationship was born.

Since then, they've won six straight fights, beaten Chuck Liddell (Pictures) and taken the UFC belt, and once again, Rampage is at the top of the heap. He defends his title Saturday against game challenger Forrest Griffin (Pictures), whom Jackson, 28-6, spent six weeks with as a fellow coach on the set of "The Ultimate Fighter" earlier this year.

The champion's trainer feels that Jackson is dialed in like never before. The two have been largely inseparable since meeting up. Having taken his own share of lumps in the fight game, Ibarra consoled Jackson and helped him realize that he still had a lot of work in front of him.

"When I called Quinton after seeing the fight he fought with Shogun, I'd never reached out to a fighter in that capacity, but it was about God," said Ibarra, who also manages the champ. "Knowing what he felt and what he was going through, I went through it after me and Oscar De La Hoya split. I went through that. I was born-again. I know what he was facing. I just reached out to him as a Christian. At the end of a two-and-a-half-hour conversation, I said, ‘Let's go to the gym tomorrow.' [Since then] we've been inseparable."

Talk in the fight game had been rife with pronouncements of Jackson's decline. He wasn't the same guy. Didn't bring the ruckus the way he used to. Found God, and lost his fight.

Those sentiments don't hold sway anymore on the heels of Jackson's winning streak. In addition to stopping Liddell for the second time in May 2007, the champion showed an impressive resilience in gutting out a five-round decision over Dan Henderson (Pictures) in his first title defense last September. Now, facing Griffin, Ibarra believes that Jackson's biggest opponent is making a mistake, though he gave the challenger respect and expects a good fight while it lasts.

Ever the watcher, Ibarra keeps tabs on every potential foe.

"I've been breaking down Forrest Griffin since the first time Rampage rolled with him two and a half years ago. I start breaking everyone down," Ibarra said, adding that during "The Ultimate Fighter" show he noticed Griffin did some stand-up training as a southpaw, to boot. "He's doing his homework. He has such big heart, determination. I know he's ready, and he's done his homework. But so have I and I think it's too early in his career to fight Rampage Jackson. Rampage ain't ready to be beaten."

It's a delicate calculus, Ibarra admits. Much as Angelo Dundee had to encourage Muhammad Ali instead of playing lead dog (Ali's ego was too big to be subordinated, instead responding to Dundee's laid-back style) or Charley Goldman had to teach a green-as-grass Rocky Marciano the basics without spoiling his ample gifts of leverage and power, Ibarra knows that Jackson needs someone to ride him the right way.

The champion does not like to train and makes no secret of it, but almost always in the offhanded way of a man being whimsical about a bad hand only temporarily dealt him. For it's the refined training that Ibarra and Jackson have created -- virtually from scratch on the heels of that initial phone conversation -- and the stellar results that give Jackson the motivation to keep going back to the well.

Jackson even passed up a million-dollar offer to play a part in "Wolverine" due to a previous commitment to coach on "The Ultimate Fighter." The duo had about 20 fighters in camp to prepare for Griffin, ranging from familiar workout mates like heavyweight Cheick Kongo (Pictures) to hired meat strictly there to take punishment and dole out what they could, if they could.

"He's come a long ways," Ibarra said. "I think it's one thousand percent improvement. Quinton will never be -- and I've worked with many athletes -- he'll never be that guy that loves to come to training. It's not his character. It's not his psyche. It's the way his mental capacity is. He's a very relaxed guy, a funny guy, and I know how to push his buttons. But when I ask him to do work, and when I push the buttons, he does it. And that's what counts. One thing [he] is and always will be … he's an entertainer and a ‘light fighter.' When the lights are turned on, that boy's gonna perform. I don't see him gettin' beat, as long as he listens."

Which is what makes this a potentially rousing fight. Like Jackson, Griffin has had his share of ups and downs, with a dizzying ride in recent bouts. After losing in a shocking knockout loss to Keith Jardine (Pictures) in December 2006, Griffin, now 15-4, was offered up as a seeming sacrificial lamb to Rua. Signed to the UFC after a fearsome tear through the Pride organization, Rua was considered by many the uncrowned light heavyweight champion, a vicious fighter with a Tyson-esque intensity who steamrolled people.

Griffin responded by outhustling, outworking and choking out Rua in a career-changing fight. Suddenly, he was back in the mix, and if his career has shown anything, it's that he seems to fight a little better when his back is against the wall.

The two fighters' coaching stints on the reality show were largely free of the histrionics and endless posturing that they could have had -- save Griffin entangling Jackson in a gun-launched net on an early episode -- but Ibarra and Jackson seem well aware that when you're champ, the biggest fight of your life is always the next one. Griffin isn't the better wrestler, nor the best striker, in the matchup -- but he is a certified junkyard dog with admirable resilience. And no challenger worth his salt goes to bed at night without thinking of what it'd be like to become champ.

Jackson, however, is not sympathetic to the challenger's ambition.

"Just because he has a soft heart and knowing that he has to love people and help people doesn't mean you can't be ugly in the cage," Ibarra said of Jackson. "It doesn't mean you shouldn't try and kick somebody's butt if they're trying to kick your butt. It's a sport. That's why Rampage doesn't like to get mad. If he gets mad, he's going to try and really, really hurt somebody."

Ibarra added that Jackson still hasn't reached his full potential and that he expects him to hold the belt as long as he's willing to prepare properly for fights. Given Griffin's habit of being a live underdog and Jackson's newfound synergy with Ibarra, something has to give Saturday night. Stay tuned.
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