There are moments in life when you just know. When you hear what someone is saying to you, but you're too busy deconstructing their inner truths. When one's physical movements betray the struggle to mask one's emotions. I have many memories of such moments in near-perfect clarity. A girlfriend stumbling home with whiskey on the breath and a sloppy explanation on the lips. A father's quiet demeanor in a familiar McDonald's, moments away from changing the lives of his two sons. We understand before it's made explicit; it's a survival technique.
Quinton Jackson has long been a favorite fighter of mine. I remember sitting in a po-dunk sports bar just outside of my hometown for UFC 71. My friend and I were the only two people in the zipcode rooting for the chain-wearing, wolf-howling black dude from Memphis. I knew how this would end. I'd seen "Rampage" put a world-class hurting on Liddell in Pride. But the schadenfreude was just as sweet anyway.
Jackson came into that fight hungry. A reporter asked him what his number one concern was with Chuck Liddell. Rampage responded, "I don't want to kill him. It's a sport, I just hope he survives." Straightfaced. No hint of his usual jovial self. He walked into UFC 71 certain that he would leave with Chuck's belt.
Jackson's career took the rocky course of the teacher embarking on the Oregon Trail. He defended his belt in an oft-forgotten classic with Dan Henderson. A stint as a coach on the Ultimate Fighter ended with an overweight, pirate-legged Jackson losing a narrow decision to Forrest Griffin. He split with his trainer, Juanito Ibarra, and then temporarily split from reality during a bout with sleep-deprived and energy drink-fueled hallucinations about a Jewish carpenter. Dana White bailed him out of jail and thrust him into the Octagon for a third fight with Pride-nemesis Wanderlei Silva. He returned the favor to Dana by taking a fight with Keith Jardine. Jardine's hetero lifemate Rashad Evans challenged him in the Octagon, and Jackson found himself in his second stint on the Ultimate Fighter. He bailed on the epilogue fight to fulfill a dream of playing the part of B.A. Baracus on the A-Team. After fulfilling his film obligations, he returned to fight Evans looking slow, overweight, and rusty in the process.
When they meet at UFC 123, Lyoto Machida will be the 39th fight in Quinton Jackson's career. A career that spans over ten years and three continents. A career that's seen Jackson corpse lying on ivory ropes with a Brazilian mad man standing above him with a Cheshire grin. A career that had him scrapping in a dog fight hobbled on one leg. A career that left him gasping for air and clutching his ribs slumped down in the corner of the ring.
So I know what Jackson means when he says, "At the end of the day, me, I really don't care if I win or lose, my main thing is a good fight." It's MMA's version of the Watergate non-denial denial. It's a death rattle - not of one's fighting spirit, but of one's drive to inch the boulder up the hill. It's an acknowledgement that one's best days have been lost to the spectre of Time.
I'd love to be wrong. I'd love for Quinton Jackson to regain the drive and focus he had in 2007. But that's a fire that can't be rekindled with movie scripts and a world-weary soul.