May 24, 2011

Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs. Matt "The Hammer" Hamill is not a bad fight. Jackson is a former UFC light heavyweight champion, a brawny aggressor who twice has earned a Fight of the Night bonus and two other times has pocketed the many thousand extra dollars company president Dana White awards for Knockout of the Night. Hamill also is a forward-moving strongman with a UFC Fight of the Night and a Knockout of the Night on his résumé. It will not be a boring bout.

But a main event?

A main event should have something at stake. The combatants should be competing for, at the very least, a No. 1 contender's slot. Or, better yet, a championship, as would have been the case for the original UFC 130 main event, which was to pit lightweight belt holder Frankie Edgar against Gray Maynard. The anticipation for that one was palpable, especially in the wake of their stirring New Year's night battle in which the champ was battered around the cage for a dizzying first five minutes, then made a tenacious comeback over the next four rounds to earn a draw that felt like a win. We'll have to wait for Edgar and Maynard to settle matters, however, as both had to pull out with injuries.

That left Saturday night's fight card in Las Vegas (PPV at 9 p.m. ET, prelims on the UFC's Facebook fan page at 6:45 and on Spike at 8) without a main event. Or at least a real main event.

It's actually curious that Jackson vs. Hamill is the fight the UFC chose to elevate from the undercard. Why not make Frank Mir vs. Roy Nelson the new headliner? Mir is a former heavyweight champion and interim belt holder. Nelson is a winner of the UFC's prize reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, and in his last bout became the only fighter to last three rounds with No. 1 contender Junior dos Santos. Yes, it'd be a stretch to call this a main event, too. But with heavyweights, whose division has a built-in glamour that reaches across all of combat sports, it's OK to stretch a little.

But enough venting. Rampage vs. The Hammer is what we've got to work with, and with expectations so low, it'll probably end up being a fight to remember, just to prove the naysayers wrong. But if that possibility is not enough to sell you on a $54.99 pay-per-view, you do still have the other "main" event, Mir vs. Nelson, plus another appealing heavyweight fight between Stefan Struve and unbeaten Travis Browne. Welterweights Thiago Alves and Rick Story and middleweights Brian Stann and Jorge Santiago also are capable of getting the blood boiling. The PPV is pretty stacked, so much so that ex-WEC champion Miguel Torres is way down in the Spike prelims.

But let's start at the top ...

39: MMA fights for the 32-year-old, who'll be in with a guy who, despite being two years older, has 27 fewer fights under his belt.

4: Championship bouts. He's won two (capturing the UFC title by knocking out Chuck Liddell in 2007, then successfully defending it that same year against Dan Henderson) and lost two (dropping the UFC belt to Forrest Griffin in '08, four years after failing to dethrone Pride middleweight champ Wanderlei Silva).

5: Number of his last six fights that went the distance, belying a slugger reputation built on his two Knockout of the Night bonuses.

2: Mentors he's faced in the Octagon. He lost by TKO to fellow Ohioan and former training partner Rich Franklin in 2008, and earned a unanimous decision over his coach on The Ultimate Fighter, Tito Ortiz, last October in his most recent fight.

0: Finishes in his three fights since winning Knockout of the Night with a stunning head kick against Mark Munoz in 2009.

4: National or international championships in wrestling. He was NCAA Division III national champ from 1997-99 and freestyle gold medalist in the 2001 Deafolympics, where he also won a silver medal in Greco-Roman.

Since numbers don't tell the whole story ...

Hamill has worked a lot on his standup skills since bursting onto the UFC scene five years ago in The Ultimate Fighter as a pure wrestler, but no one is going to confuse him Manny Pacquiao. He's a plodding, awkward striker, one who can be picked apart by an opponent who moves, maintains distance and stays busy.

Jackson isn't that guy, though. He's not a slickly skilled striker but rather a power puncher whose best work is an inside job. And once Rampage gets within Hamill's range, it'll be up to The Hammer to use his hands not to punch -- he's at a disadvantage there -- but to wrestle.

If Hamill can move the fight to the ground, he'll take some steam out of Jackson. But he'd better do it before the heavy hands of Rampage beat him to the punch and make him the one who's lying his back.

This isn't a true No. 1 contenders fight, with two fighters on the climb competing for the top rung of the ladder. But because of timing and unforeseen circumstances in the light heavyweight division, this bout could end up being Jackson's ticket to the top.

Jon Jones was scheduled to defend his title against beloved-teammate-turned-mortal-enemy Rashad Evans at UFC 133 in August, until "Bones" pulled out to have hand surgery. Evans was shifted into a bout against Phil Davis, who appeared to be in line for the winner of Jones-Evans. Then the champ got another medical opinion and opted to not have surgery after all. (Are you still following this melodramatic saga? I'm not sure I am.)

So now Jones is up for a fight, but with Evans and Davis only having eyes for each other this summer, Rampage could find himself in the right place at the right time. He's beaten the only other logical contender for a title shot, Lyoto Machida. Unless Dana White is ready for a UFC vs. Strikeforce showdown and taps Dan Henderson. Or Mauricio Rua has stopped waking up in the middle of the night sweating and screaming, "No, Jonny, no! Jonny be good!"

• "Matt Hamill wasn't on my radar at all. I wasn't excited at all. But then again, not a whole lot gets me excited."-- Jackson on the show The MMA Hour.

• "I know I'm going to break his will. I know I'm going to beat Rampage."-- Hamill on the same show the next week.

• "I think Matt made a mistake when he said he's going to break my will and I'm going to overlook him. That lit a fire up under my ass."-- Jackson during a conference call last week with MMA media.

• "I thought Rampage wouldn't take the fight because I'm not one of the top guys in the division as far as the rankings go. I figured Rampage would be eyeing Rashad Evans and a rematch with Forrest Griffin. I thought that Rampage would believe I'm not in his league. This my chance to prove that I am in his league. He's going to be outwrestled and he's going to be taken down. There's just no way around it."-- Hamill during the same conference call.

Twenty-, twenty-, twenty-four hours to go: Jackson is referred to as "Rampage" so often that you easily could come to believe that it's his middle name. His actual middle name does begin the same: It's Ramone. Imagine what Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee would have sounded like with this guy in the band.

The agony of victory: If you study résumés but don't watch fights, you might be impressed to learn that Hamill is the only fighter with a victory over the indomitable Jones. But anyone who saw that 2009 fight knows better. Jones threw Hamill around like he was a child, but was disqualified late in the first round after Hamill was unable to continue following a pause in the action while Jones was having a point deducted for connecting with elbows from a prohibited 12-to-6 angle. The thing was, what rendered Hamill unable to keep fighting was not the barrage of elbows but a separated shoulder, an injury sustained on one of Jones' throws. Hamill did not walk out of that cage looking or feeling like a winner.

Hollywood hits: Jackson's revival of the character B.A. Baracus in last year's silver-screen version of The A Team was not his only appearance on film. He's also been in several action movies, with evocative names such as Never Surrender and Death Warrior. None put him in front of anywhere near as many multiplex patrons as his turn playing the gruff hero popularized on TV by the acclaimed thespian Mr. T. As for Hamill, he doesn't play a Hollywood role, one plays him. This fall the film Hamill, based on the life of the deaf-since-birth fighter, will be coming to a theater near you.


And on the undercard ...

When Frank Mir and Roy Nelson fight Saturday night, it will be a battle for mat supremacy. And punching bag rights. And maybe even locker room priority. The two heavyweights live in Las Vegas, sometimes working out at the same facility at the same time. Starting Sunday, one will have the cachet to tell the other to sit and wait until he's done with the equipment. The other will have to timidly ask him to not use up all the hot water in the shower.

How will the victor accomplish bragging rights? That's hard to predict. Both guys are skilled grapplers who've developed dangerous standup games. Mir has a deeper UFC résumé, but Nelson seems more likely to be the fighter on the way up. He earned much respect in his last fight, even in defeat, by taking Junior dos Santos to a decision. Mir, meanwhile, is 2-2 in his last four bouts, including being KO'd by Shane Carwin and dominated by Brock Lesnar.

Still, it won't be a long journey to the top of the heavyweight heap for whoever wins. And that, more than gym time, is worth fighting for.

If David Stern happens to be watching this heavyweight bout, he'll reflexively levy fines on both Stefan Struve and Travis Browne, something the NBA commissioner does whenever he sees tall guys getting too rough with each other. For the 6-foot-11 Struve, this height thing is getting to be a gimmick, as his last bout was against Sean McCorkle, who like Browne is 6-7. Before that, he was in with 6-6 Christian Morecraft. His opponent prior to that was Roy Nelson, who's just 6 feet tall but must cover 6-11 in circumference.

Browne is 10-0-1 but coming off his first career disappointment, a draw with Cheick Kongo. Eight of his wins have been by knockout. Struve (21-4) has 14 submissions to just four KOs, but two of them came in his last two fights. Someone tall is going to fall.

Rick Story has won 11 of his last 12 bouts, while Thiago Alves lost two straight before dominating John Howard last December. However, those losses were to Georges St-Pierre and Jon Fitch, one the UFC welterweight champ and's MMA pound-for-pound king, the other perhaps the top P4P fighter who doesn't wear a title belt. Story has no GSP or Fitch on his list of opponents. So who knows if his relentless fighting style will be enough to mow down Alves, as it has nearly everyone in his path so far? One factor: Alves had better not show up depleted or slowed by a difficult weight cut, as has been the case in some recent fights, because Story is going to be coming and coming hard.

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