Commentary

Veteran Jackson still finding ways to improve his game

UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson is convinced he was born to be a cage fighter.

Originally Published: July 4, 2008
By Ben Cohen | Special to ESPN.com

Quinton JacksonChris Cozzone/Fightwire.com"I feel like God made me to fight," Jackson said. "This is my destiny. This is what I was made for."
Quinton Jackson is something of a walking contradiction. The powerfully built UFC light heavyweight champion looks like a cross between Mr. T and Mike Tyson but acts like a cross between Will Ferrell and Will Smith.

In the ring, Jackson, who has a fearsome fighting instinct, is a potent blend of strength and technical skill. Outside of it, Jackson is funny, relaxed and surprisingly self-deprecating. His demeanor throughout news conferences, interviews and promotional tours makes him the life of the party, bringing vital charisma to the relatively young sport of MMA.

Having gone head to head with Forrest Griffin as a coach in the reality series "The Ultimate Fighter," the fighters will face off on Saturday in a title bout that promises to provide fireworks and serious entertainment.

"I feel like God made me to fight," Jackson told ESPN.com. "This is my destiny. This is what I was made for. I'm probably one of the few people that is doing what God intended for them to do."

Given his recent performances, it would be difficult to disagree. Still making the transition to the UFC from the PRIDE organization, Jackson has been extremely dominant, knocking out Marvin Eastman, winning the title from Chuck Liddell, then decisively beating Dan Henderson in his first defense.

Jackson is by all means the man to beat in the 205-pound ranks.

Forrest Griffin has earned a reputation as a scrappy, tough brawler with solid striking skills and an iron will. Still, he is a class below Jackson in terms of talent and will do well only if Jackson has not prepared properly.

Forest Griffin
AP Photo/Peter MorrisonDoes Griffin, left, has the firepower to keep Jackson modest and at bay?
"He's a good competitor," Jackson said of Griffin, in contrast to earlier comments about Griffin having a "glass jaw."

"I don't rank fighters," Jackson said. "That's not my job. My job is to fight fighters, not rank them. … I got nothing against Forrest, I don't say nuthin' bad about him. He's a cool guy."

Griffin is aware of what he's up against. When asked on a conference call whether Jackson was the best fighter he has ever faced, the former policeman from Georgia was quick to respond.

"Yeah, without a doubt," he said.

Jackson has been beaten before. He lost notably to Mauricio Rua, who Griffin beat via submission last year. It is a comparison many in the media have used to speculate about the outcome of this weekend's fight.

"There's no comparison," Jackson's coach, John "Juanito" Ibarra, told ESPN.com. "Quinton fought him on foreign grounds, and Forrest fought him recently. … It really doesn't matter. Quinton has learned a lot since then, and he's still learning, so I think he'll be champion for a long time."

There is no doubt that Ibarra is correct about Jackson's progress. He has shown no serious flaws in his game, particularly after dominating Henderson in a five-round title fight in September.

"I thought it was pretty good. I was pretty impressed," Griffin said of the fight with Henderson. "One thing I thought that maybe I could exploit in Jackson is his conditioning, but it went five rounds with a guy that can wear you out because he clinches so much. But he made it 25 minutes with him, so I was pretty impressed."

Griffin's biggest concern seems to be Jackson's heavy hands -- and his own weak whiskers.

"You know he hits hard," Griffin said. "I don't have the best chin in the world."

Jackson, who admits he hasn't always trained his hardest, is not taking Griffin lightly, either. Jackson has been training with kickboxer Cheick Kongo, who holds a 35-pound weight advantage over the light heavyweight champion.

"Kongo has been helping me out a lot," Jackson said. "He's a big guy. Sparring with [him] is like running through a burning building. You know it's going to get hot."

Jackson has not fought in eight months, a factor that could well affect his performance. Long layoffs can deaden reflexes, giving fighters ring rust and a lack of conditioning. But even that doesn't seem to unsettle Jackson.

"A fight is a fight," he said. "I just go out and train real hard, and whatever happens, happens."

Ibarra thinks the layoff has actually helped Jackson.

"He had a long training camp," the veteran trainer said. "He needed the rest, he needed to heal his mind and his spirit and his injuries and to get the hunger back, knowing that now he is in great shape."

The fight should not be close, given Jackson's skill. Although he comes from a wrestling background, his standup is now world-class and improving with every fight.

"I think he is a very tough fighter," former Jackson opponent Matt Lindland said. "He's superathletic, superexplosive guy; he fights with a lot of heart. I think he is always improving. … Every time he fights, he seems to get better."

Griffin has also tightened his kickboxing, but he doesn't wield the natural athleticism or speed of Jackson, who delivers knockout power with each hand with deceptive speed and fluidity.

"If I were Forrest, I wouldn't know what the game plan would be," Lindland said. "I think that Jackson is better everywhere, to tell you the truth."

Griffin may be able to make things interesting given his toughness and willingness to trade, but ultimately, Jackson should be able to pick him apart clinically. If it goes past the third, Griffin will have done well. But chances are it won't.

Ben Cohen covers boxing for Boxing Monthly.