FROM MY SEAT: Rooting for Rampage 

The sport of boxing has long suffered an alphabet soup of terminology that speaks volumes on the structural complexity (read: chaos) of its sanctioning bodies, not to mention the inherent brutality of what we insist on calling "the sweet science." WBC, WBA, IBF, TKO, even DOA. Well, the traditional pugilistic enterprise has some new competition on the block, with its own call letters: MMA and WFA.

This Saturday in Los Angeles, the burgeoning sport known as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) will command the spotlight at the hallowed Forum (once the stomping grounds of Jerry West and Magic Johnson, sports fans).  The World Fighting Alliance (WFA) is staging its inaugural "King of the Streets" extravaganza, a seven-bout card in which competitors will punch, kick, knee, and elbow their way toward the newest version of athletic fame. And headlining the night's carnage, er, competition is a Memphian: Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.

The WFA came into being just last May, under the leadership of CEO Jeremy Lappen, a longtime agent to MMA competitors. The organization stands by a "fighter-first" creed, a new alternative to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (yep, the UFC) which, in the eyes of Lappen, has failed to maximize the marketing potential of its fighters' personalities. First in line to sign on with the WFA was Jackson. In a May press release, the product of Raleigh-Egypt high school said, "The decision was easy for me. The WFA is going to take this sport to an even higher level of competition and entertainment and I wanted to be a part of that. 

But can there be such a thing as "higher level" when measuring a new version of the fight game? MMA fighters use even lighter gloves than boxers, the idea being less glove means a more versatile arsenal for a combatant. Combining the skills of jiujitsu, wrestling, and kick boxing with the more traditional form of boxing, MMA bouts can end with what it calls a fighter's "submission" (a form of towel throwing that allows a fallen competitor to "tap out" before being taken out of the ring on a stretcher). Among fighting styles you'll find "sprawl-and-brawl" and "ground-and-pound." Can this kind of lingo and "higher level" be used in the same sentence?

"Jiujitsu is one of the safest martial arts," explains Jackson, "because a fighter can tap out before he gets really hurt. This is safer than boxing. Boxers get a lot of head trauma and you don't get that in MMA, because we're not as skilled [at punching]. If you get knocked down in MMA and the ref thinks you can't defend yourself, there's no standing eight count. Fight's over. Boxers throw an average of 100 punches a round, and even if he lands half of those, over 12 rounds that's a lot of punches to take. I haven't taken that many punches in my whole career."

A 1996 graduate of Raleigh-Egypt High School (where he was an all-state wrestler), the 28-year-old Jackson will enter the ring Saturday night with a 24-6 record, having risen to fame through Japan's PRIDE Fighting Championships. (Jackson married a Japanese woman, Yuki, and acknowledges that he has more Japanese fans these days than American.) Jackson's contract expired earlier this year, so he was scooped up by WFA to headline their stable of fighters. This weekend, he'll be facing Matt Lindland (18-3), who won a silver medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2000 Olympic  Games in Sydney. They'll go at it for three rounds, five minutes each, or until one of the fighters, well, submits.

Among the greatest challenges for a mixed martial artist is how exactly to focus his training. "I train three times a day," says Jackson. "I run in the morning, and also do my standup, which includes boxing and kickboxing. Then at night, it's wrestling and jiujitsu. When we spar, we'll spar boxing, kickboxing, or mixed-martial arts. Sometimes we've been known to just do fighting on the ground, submissions. It's kind of weird." Jackson's natural strength -- he's only recently begun weight training -- has been his biggest advantage in MMA, though he admits he needs to work on muscle endurance, as opponents have recently taken the approach of grappling on the mat in an attempt to overcome the sheer force of "Rampage."

Can MMA ever go mainstream stateside? "This sport has been so big in Japan," says Jackson. "That's where I spent most of my career, where I could make the most money. But now, with it growing in the States, with the money better, I'm coming back." The Jacksons (Quinton has three sons, one with Yuki) live in Irvine, California, and "Rampage" confesses he hasn't gotten back to Memphis as much as he'd like.

Find some chat time with "Rampage" Jackson and among the first impressions you'll have is that he realizes his good fortune, even in a sport bordering on brutal. "I didn't really have many role models," says Jackson. "I was kind of a street punk growing up; hooked up with the wrong people. Thank God I got away from all that."

[Check out more on Quinton Jackson at www.rampagemma.com.]

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