Every major fight in the UFC has a storyline. After all, you have to not only sell the fight itself, but the story behind the fight. The story is the material that creates suspense, relevance, and overall interest. So it's noteworthy that the storyline for the Liddell vs. Rampage fight has been so one-sided. If you listen to the UFC, the Liddell vs. Rampage fight is about a great fighter with a win over the champion (Rampage) taking on a champion looking to avenge all of his losses (Liddell). While this angle is technically accurate, it's also dismissive of Rampage.
The forgotten storyline of this fight is the redemption of Rampage. Let's use this quote to illustrate what I mean:
But Jackson never got to celebrate his greatest victory, a second-round stoppage of Liddell in the semifinals of PRIDE's 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix. Jackson had to fight PRIDE middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva later the same night in the tournament finals and was knocked out in the first round by a series of vicious knees.
"I fought two fights that day," said Jackson, who is 7-2 since that night, including a second loss to Silva. "It was crazy to fight two of the best fighters in the world in one day. If I would have won that tournament, I would have gone down in history as the best fighter in the world.
"It was a big disappointment. I even forget that I fought Chuck. I got my (butt) kicked later on that night. I forgot all about Chuck. People were like, 'Man, you beat Chuck Liddell.' It didn't mean nothing to me."
For so long all Rampage wanted was the PRIDE Middleweight belt. He called out Silva and while he put up a gutsy performance, he lost. Badly. Not only once, but twice. Badly. Wanderlai Silva single-handedly made the career goals of Quinton Jackson shift toward directions he never thought he'd hold. And if he can't ever be the champ, what can he be? Something much less prestigious. Something mundane. He can be a fighter that beats Yoon Dong Sik with little to no preparation. He can be a fighter who worries more about his paycheck than his career trajectory. And that's exactly what he became.
That's when people wrote off Rampage. Everyone acknowledges the skill never went away, but the dominance and frightening imposition Rampage laid at the feet of his opponents is what helped to make him so popular. That, the fans said, had been erased by Silva. With that gone, Jackson was merely a good fighter with some quality wins. I absolutely believe for a time Rampage Jackson may have believed he'd never be a champion. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
But that's no longer the case. Time has passed. Jackson and those around him have been able to reflect. And Jackson's trainer - Juanito Ibarra - has helped Quinton to bring his skills back up to par. It's very easy (and sometimes phony) to say Jackson believes in himself again. That can be such a worthless observation. Anyone can tell themselves they're great and can accomplish all of their goals. But unless real visualization is possible, a person's internal narrative doesn't mean a whole lot.
That's why this fight is different. Jackson is different. He's now actually got a tangible goal - the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship of the world. Everyone says this moment is about redemption for Chuck, but it's also a chance for Rampage's redemption. Rampage can erase the ghosts of Wanderlai Silva and become the champion he's always wanted to be. He can prove to himself that the slump is over and the fighter he's always wanted to be is very much within his grasp.
If Jackson's as ready as Ibarra says he is, Chuck is in for a long evening. Liddell claims his training regimen doesn't change because it doesn't need to. If it ain't broke, why fix it? I don't know if that's true, but we're going to find out. Rampage is going to put that theory to the test on Saturday.
In my view, the real storyline here is the return not of Quinton Jackson, but of Rampage. Jackson can beat very high-level opponents without the best training camp or motivation, but he can't be Rampage without that special spark that made him such a dominating and dynamic fighter. I believe the spark is back, I believe Rampage is back, and I believe he'll be the next 205lbs champion in the UFC. What he once thought was likely gone forever is now back within grasp.