This is an excellent read. Rampage is very serious and introspective. The difference he sees between American and Japanese fans makes me a little bit ashamed of good ol murica. I saw it 1st hand when Bustamante BEAT chuck liddel and had his victory stolen to deafening chants of USA!
For over a thousand years, the Japanese have taken a special interest in the transition from spring to summer. From March until the middle of May, the islands of Japan are alive with the fresh pink glow of cherry blossoms. The flamingo-coloured leaves of the cherry tree are a centuries-old delight to the people of Japan, who trek in huge numbers to find groves of flowering cherry trees which they can picnic beneath in family groups.
The scenery is beautiful and cherry blossom is an image engraved in the hearts and minds of all Japanese. But like many aspects of Japanese culture it has a dark side, or at least a duality. The cherry blossom is beautiful but fleeting - the trees rarely flower for more than a fortnight. When the flowering is finished, the blossoms fall away. Sometimes they fall quietly, a handful at a time drifting to the earth. Other days the wind will strip the blossom from the trees in great swarms which billow into the air.
It is an occasion for sadness and the end of Hanami (‘flower viewing’). But the Japanese do not avert their gaze from the departing blossom. Instead they watch the end of the season as avidly as they welcomed its onset, with a sense of gentle mourning. Falling cherry blossom is a resonant symbol in their culture. It represents the ephemeral nature of life, the fleeting nature of joy. Echoing the Buddhist concept of life being a great circle, it underlines that fact that all things must come to an end - and to the Japanese, the end is as important as the beginning.
And so it is fitting that Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson finds himself back in Japan just weeks before Hanumi is set to begin. It was here that he made his name, here that he became a superstar in the behemoth mixed martial arts league Pride FC. Despite his persona being as brash as any American stereotype you care to mention, Jackson has a huge fondness for and affinity with the Japanese people. What better place for him to call time on his career?
His Pride career started with a loss, a rear naked choke submission to Kazushi Sakuraba. His most recent fight resulted in another rear naked choke defeat, this time to Jon Jones. They represent the two single instances that he has been submitted in mixed martial arts competition. The first marked the birth of his career as a top flight martial artist. For the next five years, Jackson was in full bloom. The latter marked the beginning of the end. As Jon Jones’ choke sank in, the cherry blossom started falling.
“One time I was the best in my weight class, but now it’s him. He’s the guy now. My time has passed,” a wistful Jackson told Fighters Only for the excusive interview which makes up the centrepiece of this month’s print edition. “He’s the best in the world at light-heavyweight and I feel nobody out there can beat Jon Jones.”
“I have to be honest man - and despite how the fans feel and some other people feel - my fighting career is coming to an end, and it’ll come to an end pretty soon. I always said I won’t fight on past 35. I’m going to miss MMA when I’m gone, that’s for sure, but I won’t be fighting for too much longer.”
For all his extroversion and swagger, Jackson is not someone prone to self-delusion. He has not been kidding himself that he is the same fighter who power-bombed Ricardo Arona, or who had total wars with Wanderlei Silva when the Brazilian was twice the size he is now and one of the most fearsome prospects in MMA. Jackson has always delivered for his fans, but that has come at a price.
“When I fight and I get beat up it takes a lot longer for me to heal these days, I’m getting old. After all, I’m just a human being,” he says. “Plus, I have lots of other things going on too. I’m still passionate about fighting, but I certainly ain’t as passionate as I used to be. … I ain’t earning the money I was earning before.
“And there are plenty of other ways I can get paid without getting beat up. I get less privacy now too.”
That last addition seems like an odd one. Surely Rampage Jackson, probably the loudest and most outgoing fighter that Pride or the UFC ever had on its roster, cannot be a shrinking violet who would prefer to go unrecognised by the masses? Apparently he is, and it transpires that is just one of the reasons he enjoyed his time in Japan so much.
Jackson found the Japanese fans to be perfectly in key with his own sense of comportment. He does not mind being approached by fans for pictures and autographs, as long as it is done in the right way. A proud and sometimes prickly figure, the innate politeness of the Japanese meant that Jackson never found himself being manhandled and accosted. And so he never lost patience or temper with the Japanese fans, and the relationship flourished.
His last fight for Pride took place in 2006. The organisation hit financial troubles, was bought out by Zuffa and then ceased to be. Jackson found himself signing a UFC contract and returning - figuratively, since he always lived there - to an America he had not fought in front of for many years. No lover of the casual fan at the best of times, Jackson found out the hard way just how different his new audience was going to be.
“In one of my first fights in the UFC, when I beat Chuck Liddell, a lot of American fans booed me. And I lost a lot of love for American fans that night. They booed me for knocking a guy out. Whether they like me or not, I did my job just like he did his job. We both stepped into the cage and put it on the line, and put on a good show,” he says, incredulous to this day.
“In Japan I’ve never been booed once, ever. Through my whole career in Japan, regardless of who I was fighting. They just appreciate who you are, where you’ve been and what you are trying to do. That’s all we can ask for.”
And so this weekend he finds himself back in Japan at last, and in the same Saitama Arena which he made his home for those five blissful years. But this time the crowd will be a fraction of what it was during the Pride FC heyday and he will be in a cage instead of a ring. His opponent will not be a living legend like Sakuraba, Vovchanchyn or Rua. Instead it will be Ryan Bader, one of the tough but uninspiring wrestling-products which the US produces in conveyor-belt numbers.
Jackson has made no secret of being uninspired by the match. He has made no secret of being underwhelmed by the US fan base and its large fickle element. He has long been truculent with UFC executives, feeling - rightly or wrongly - that he has not been paid as much as he should have been. And this week he took at aim at UFC commentator Joe Rogan, claiming he is biased in his commentary and derogatory towards him in his analysis.
This is the Jackson that steps into the cage this Saturday night, fuelled by little more than a genuine love for the fans that will be in attendance at Saitama Arena. He freely admits he “couldn’t give a rat’s ass if I beat Ryan Bader” and says he just wants to give a show for the fans. He stopped short of saying this will be his retirement match, but nowhere could be more fitting for him to declare the end of his time in the sport.
If he wins, he goes out on a victory with the cheers of the crowd ringing in his ears. If he loses, he still goes out with the cheers of the crowd ringing in his ears, because Japanese fans respect the fighter and do not judge a man on one fight, or his results. Jackson is also a man who places great store in superstition and symbolism - the thought of ending Rampage’s career in the same place it began will have weighed on his mind heavily of late.
Should he hang the gloves up? Everyone will have a different opinion. But maybe he should take a moment to stop and watch the cherry blossom. When its time is over it drifts away, peaceful and intact. Unlike other denizens of the arboretum, it does not linger to wither and die on the branch before having to be cut away and discarded so that new blooms may eventually take its place. That is the lesson that the Japanese have treasured for centuries - an end is as important as a beginning.