Rising Son

But sometimes, a fi ghter and trainer can make a connection that transcends the pettiness and the ugliness of such a seedy business. It starts when an old pro sees something in the young man standing before him, something that everyone else missed. Before long, they become like father and son, sharing absolute trust and an unwavering devotion to a common goal. And if the talent and desire are there, greatness can result. Boxing has its fair share of legendary partnerships: Mohammed Ali and Angelo Dundee, Emmanuel Steward and Tommy Hearns, Mike Tyson and Cus D’Amato, Freddy Roach and Manny Pacquiao, and the list goes on.

These days, another duo has begun making a strong case for future induction into the unoffi cial fi ghter-trainer hall of fame, but they’re doing it in a different corner of the pugilistic universe. Their names? UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and his manager/ trainer Juanito Ibarra.

Since Rampage and Juanito fi rst teamed up less than three years ago, they’ve been nothing short of unstoppable. After beating up on a row of bonafi de badasses, Rampage now sits comfortably atop the 205-pound division, arguably the toughest weight class in all of MMA. With Juanito in his corner, Rampage has proved that along with phenomenal natural strength, wrecking-ball knockout power in both fi sts, and highlight-reel body slams, he also has the conditioning and focus to gut out a fi ve-round war against an elite fi ghter. He has won standing up and on the ground. Once considered a supremely talented but inconsistent brawler, the 29-year-old slugger is now universally recognized as one of the top fi ve pound-for-pound fi ghters in the world.

Juanito’s ability to maximize Rampage’s untapped potential extends far beyond the Octagon. A born showman, Rampage has begun to leverage his outrageous, cameraready personality – part WWE, part Jackass – into a slew of endorsement deals, a promising acting career, and a starring role as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s juggernaut reality series. If there’s an opportunity out there for his man, Juanito will track it down and make sure it happens correctly.

Juanito has been around the fi ght game long enough to know that when your moment comes, you better milk it for everything it’s worth. It can all end in a heartbeat – a single mistake in training or during a fi ght, and it’s over. No more endorsements, no more TV appearances, no more massive paydays. But right now, it’s Rampage’s moment to shine. All he has to do is keep winning. The latest challenger to the throne is tough-as-nails Forrest Griffi n, a big, strong, supremely conditioned former cop and fan favorite, whose skills have begun to catch up with his legendary toughness. If Rampage takes Forrest lightly or he if doesn’t train hard enough, Forrest will make him pay, and his moment will come to an end. To stay on top, he needs to stay sharp, live right, train hard. And that’s where Juanito comes in.

Rampage Jackson is in a shitty mood today, and Juanito couldn’t care less. Why should he? First day back in the gym means it’s time to get down to business. That means ten fi ve-minute rounds of conditioning and pad work. Two months from now, when Rampage steps into the cage against Forrest, he’ll be a monster, capable of going all out for fi ve rounds if he needs to. But today, fi fty minutes of hitting mitts and doing push-ups is pure hell. Rampage bitches and moans, but he gets through it. He knows better than to question Juanito’s strategy, so he does what he’s told. In two weeks, they’ll be heading up to Big Bear for training camp, and it’s only going to get worse – no family, no junk food, no fun. Juanito calls time on the last round, and Rampage fl ops down on the fl oor of the Octagon, exhausted. He shoots Juanito a menacing look, and Juanito responds by fl ashing a shit-eating grin.

This scene, like countless others before it, is taking place at the Ultimate Training Center in Huntington Beach, California. Rampage has been here since before he turned pro. Nearly ten years later, he still despises training with a passion. “I told him last night, I don’t care if it’s your fi rst day back, you’re gonna go ten rounds,” Juanito says later. “He complained, but he did it, and he did well. It made him hungrier. I know Rampage’s body, and he pushes himself so hard he can overtrain. You’ve got to know when to go balls out and when to lay back. I work Rampage very gradually. I know him inside and out and I know how to push his buttons. When we go to Big Bear, we’re going 1,000% percent. He’ll get mad, cuss me out, but I don’t take offence. We trust each other. We have since the beginning.”

As soon as Rampage grinds his way to the end of his fi rst training session, a TV crew from the KTLA, the local NBC affi liate, arrives to fi lm him for a short segment for the channel’s popular local morning show. Within seconds, Rampage has the entire crew in stitches with a constant fl ow of goofy one-liners. He convinces the host to spar with him inside the Octagon, and within seconds, Rampage is tapping. A few feet away, Juanito looks on from behind the camera, a proud smile on his face. At this moment, life is treating both men well, and Juanito knows it. It didn’t always used to be like this, for either of them.

Rampage was born and raised in the gang- and drug-infested streets of south Memphis. At home, money was scarce, but life was relatively stable. Both parents held down steady jobs, and while the marriage didn’t last, they remained active and responsible parents to Rampage and his three siblings (one sister, two brothers). The streets were a different story, and school wasn’t much better. “In elementary and junior high, I tried to go out for football, but because I wasn’t in a gang even my own team would jump me because they were jealous of my ability.” Quentin eventually took up wrestling. As a seventeen-year-old freshman, he made it all the way to the state fi nals. His signature move was the “power bomb” body slam, which he picked up from watching pro wrestling on television.

It was during childhood that Rampage fi rst started howling. If it was a full moon, he’d howl. If he was happy, he’d howl. Years later, he’ll belt out a few before a big fi ght, and afterwards if he won. “There were some woods right behind my house, and for some reason I thought I was a wolf,” explains Rampage. “I really liked that movie Teen Wolf. And I’m guessing I started howling after I saw that. But I can’t remember that far back. But I do remember when I started getting good. One day I was riding my bike down the street, and I felt like howling, so I did. A little later, I rode my past my neighbor on the street. She stopped me and said, ‘Quentin, can you walk me home? I’m scared. There’s a pack of wolves out tonight.’ I let her wait for a minute, and then I said, ‘Mrs. Johnson, that wasn’t some wolves, that was me.’ And I rode off howling some more. I guess I was one of those weird kids. I’m still a weird kid. I like it. I like me.”

As Rampage got older, he eventually got caught up in the game. He started running with a rough crowd and getting in trouble. There were a few scrapes with the law, but nothing too serious, and he had the good sense to get out before it got too heavy. “I don’t like to talk about that. It’s in the past,” he says. “Yeah, I hung out with some bad dudes, but that was the best thing for me because I learned not to be like that in the long run.”

Good judgment may have helped Rampage avoid prison, but fi ghting is what got him out of Memphis. It happened by accident. After dropping out of junior college less than a y
ear in, he got a call from an old wrestling buddy, Dave Roberts. Dave had recently moved to Huntington Beach and turned pro. He had a fi ght coming up and needed a training partner. Would Rampage be interesting in moving out to sunny California?

By the time Rampage decided to get a professional license, Juanito had already logged a lifetime’s worth of triumph and heartbreak as a boxing trainer. As a kid growing up in San Pedro, a small beach community located on the southern tip of Los Angeles County, Juanito got hooked on boxing early, and he never looked back. He began his career as an assistant to Eddie Futch, the hall-of-famer who trained dozens of world champions and a number of all-time greats, including Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, and Alexis Arguello. Juanito eventually teamed up with Al Stankie, a former Olympian and ex-cop who was well-known on LA boxing scene. It was during that partnership that Juanito began working with his fi rst future hall-of-famer, a kid with a pretty face and a lethal hook named Oscar De La Hoya.

Juanito’s stint as De La Hoya’s co-trainer proved to be the most profound experience of his young career, and his most painful one. The duo guided their young superstar to the top of the amateur ranks. Then Stankie, a lifelong alcoholic, fell off the rails. He showed up drunk at a US Nationals event, and then got thrown in jail for repeated DUIs. Eventually, De La Hoya and his father decided they needed a new trainer. Juanito had kept his nose clean, but it didn’t matter – he was out. Juanito was shattered. “Oscar was more to me than just a fi ghter,” he says. “I used to eat with his mom, his grandma. I raised money for him to pay bills. I brought in Shelly Finkel, who fi nanced him. I was a part of their lives. To be shut out like that was devastating. My partner had an alcohol and drug problem, a lot of demons. But Oscar didn’t give me a chance. We both had to go.” Juanito dropped out of boxing completely and got a job working the waterfront.

It was around this time that Juanito found God. “One day, I got on my knees and told God I wanted Him to run my life,” he says. “He touched me, and my life turned around. I stopped being a playboy. When you’re young and you got some money, some cars, you think you’re somebody but you’re not. But when I found God, and He gave me a new life. I found my wife. We were friends for three years before we even kissed.”

Now a freshly-baptized born-again Christian, Juanito set up his shop on his own. Business picked up, then it got better. He developed his own world champions, including Mexican bad-ass Carlos “Famoso” Hernandez. Through Vitor Belfort, who he had trained during Belfort’s stint as a pro boxer, he began to branch out in mixed-martial arts, hanging out at places like the Ultimate Training Center. He and Hernandez fell out over money. This one wasn’t as painful as what happened with Oscar, but it still stung. He reminded himself not to get too involved, not to take it personally. Don King famously said that, “Fighters have all the qualities of a dog – except loyalty.” Don is no dummy, and Juanito knew that for the most part, Don was right. But that didn’t make it any easier to accept. Juanito wouldn’t – couldn’t – look at boxing as a business. How could he, when his fi ghters’ lives were on the line every time they stepped in the ring? No, not caring wasn’t an option. What Juanito really needed was the right fi ghter, a guy who had worldclass talent, the heart of a champion, and, just as importantly, the loyalty of a warrior. Juanito waited patiently for years, and then one night, he turned on the TV.

Just like Juanito, Rampage’s early career as a pro included more than its fair share of highs and lows, as well as a conversion to Christianity. He rushed out of the gate early, winning ten of his fi rst eleven fi ghts, losing only to the dangerous Marvin Eastman by decision in his fourth fi ght. Rampage’s style was raw, explosive, and unique, a blend of streetfi ghting and wrestling that wasn’t especially technical, but never failed to excite. His big personality made him even more of a draw. He’d arrive in the ring with a thick chainlink lock hung around his neck, howling at an imaginary moon. With each knockout, each crazy antic, word began to spread. And then the big show came calling. PRIDE, a Japanese outfi t that boasted the biggest, most fi ght-mad collection of fans, the best roster of fi ghting talent on the planet, and a promotional style that had more in common with Vince McMahon than HBO Championship Boxing, made Rampage an offer.

From 2001 through 2006, nearly all of Rampage’s bouts took place inside a PRIDE ring. From a promotional standpoint, it was a perfect match. The Japanese loved theatricality, and Rampage was a natural superhero. Smoke, sound effects – bring it on. The more outrageous, the better. But inside the ring, things got off to rough start. After getting a last-minute offer to face off against the legendary Kazushi Sakuraba, Rampage gassed early and was choked out in the fi rst round. He came home to California with a newfound dedication to cardio. PRIDE was infamous for giving their fi ghters little to no notice, and if he wanted to be competitive with monsters like Sakuraba he’d need to be in shape yearround. When the next call came, he was ready. He KO’d Yuki Ishikawa less than two minutes into the opening round. Rampage had just punched his ticket to stardom overseas.

Rampage ended up with a 10-5 record in PRIDE, an impressive fi gure considering that he was still very much a work in progress. His striking wasn’t always crisp, his footwork was awkward, and there were some holes in his defense, especially when it came to knees in the clinch. Wanderlei Silva proved that point emphatically with a pair of knockout wins in ’03 and ’04.

When Rampage was on his game, his combination of superhuman strength and natural fi ghting instinct could make for some astonishing fi nishes. He broke down then knocked out a prime Chuck Liddell, and stopped both Ukranian master Igor Vovchanchyn and American vet Kevin Randelemen. But nothing compared to what happened on June 20, 2004. On that night, Rampage squared off against Ricardo Arona, the crafty, powerful Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist. Seven minutes into the fi ght, Rampage took Arona down, then got locked into what appeared to be a fi ght-ending armbar. Rather than work his arm free, Rampage simply stood up, lifted Arona high off the ground, then brought him rudely down to earth with his signature “power bomb” body slam. Arona was out cold. (A few years later, Fight Science, which airs on the National Geographic Channel, determined that the Rampage “power bomb” was the hardest single blow in all of professional sports.)

After the Arona fi ght, Rampage found God. “It was just something that happened, I never went looking for it,” Rampage says of his conversion to Christianity. “I just wasn’t doing right and God decided to grab me. I’m glad he did.” While Rampage credits his newfound faith for transforming his personal life, it didn’t make him a better fi ghter, at least not right away. In fact, his fi rst three bouts as a Christian rank among the least impressive of his entire career: the second bout with Wanderlei, a split decision win over Murilo “Ninja” Rua that even Rampage admits he didn’t deserve, and a fi rst-round KO loss to Murilo’s younger brother, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, a fi ght in which Rampage broke his rib mere seconds after the opening bell. Afterwards, in a show of profound disrespect, Rampage’s cornermen rushed into the ring and began screaming at him while the cameras were rolling.

Rampage didn’t know it yet, but that embarrassing fi ght with Shogun would turn out to be the mos
t important of his career. Halfway around the world, Juanito was watching the drama unfold on his TV screen, and he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Rampage ended up getting his ass whooped because he couldn’t react, because something was obviously wrong with him,” recalls Juanito. “Now if that was my fi ghter, I would’ve thrown in the towel as soon as saw I him cringing like that. Then, after he lost, his guys came in cussing at him, right on TV. I’ve been in the game a long time, and I’ve never seen anything like that. You never embarrass your kid.”

Juanito, who had also heard about Rampage’s recent conversion, arrange a phone call through a mutual friend. “We talked for about two hours, just about life,” says Juanito. “He told me about some of things that were going on with him, how people weren’t accepting him because he had just received Christ into his life. Then he said he was looking for a coach. I told him, ‘Son, I’m not calling for business. I’m reaching out to you because of what I saw happened in that fi ght. But if you want to meet about that, let’s set it up .’”

A few days later, Juanito and Rampage had their fi rst face-to-face meeting. Less than fi fteen minutes later, a handshake sealed the deal, but not before Juanito laid down his terms. “I told him, ‘Son, what I went through with former fi ghters, if you’re gonna put me through that, then it’s over before it begins. Forget it. But if you want to listen to me, then son, I promise I’ll make you champion within two years. And I’m gonna give you my life.’”

Juanito made good on his promise. After guiding Rampage through his two fi nal fi ghts in PRIDE against Hirotaka Yokoi (KO) and Yoon Dong Sik (UD) and a hard-fought split decision victory against perennial pound-forpound player Matt Lindland, Juanito scored Rampage his fi rst fi ght in the UFC. His opponent was Marvin Eastman, the man who had handed him his fi rst loss. Rampage cruised to an easy second-round stoppage.

By the time Rampage faced off against Chuck Liddell for the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship on May 26, 2007, his game had gone to another level. After more than a year with Juanito, he was faster, more technical, he maintained distance, he timed, he countered, he glided away, and he followed the game plan to a T. That didn’t bode well for Liddell, who had already been shellacked by the lesspolished version three years earlier. Still, Rampage entered the cage as the underdog. It was understandable. Liddell was enjoying an epic winning streak, and Rampage was only loss he hadn’t yet avenged. Chuck told anyone who would listen that he was gonna bring it. But he didn’t. From the opening seconds of the fi ght, Liddell was tentative, perhaps even a little confused. He circled away for nearly two minutes, then jumped in with a right rook to the body. That punch never arrived, but Rampage’s picture-perfect counter left sure did. Chuck was out, and it didn’t even go two minutes. It didn’t take a genius to fi gure out where learned to throw it so well.

That September, Rampage became the fi rst man to unify both major belts, when he outworked his old friend and former training partner Dan Henderson in fi ve tough but lessthan- exciting rounds. But that was OK. Henderson was amazing fi ghter, and Rampage had beaten him fair and square.

Rampage’s last day of training before moving to Big Bear is an easy one. Some light striking against some of the sparring partners who’ll be coming up with him, then a couple of rounds with Tiki Ghosn, the talented journeyman who also owns the Ultimate Training Center. A founding member of Team Punishment, Tiki has known Rampage for close to a decade, since before he turned pro. “Rampage doesn’t like to train, but when you put him in a fi ght, the switch fl ips,” says Ghosn. “When we he walks in there, I always have the same reaction: ‘What the fuck, where did this guy come from?’ And with the way he’s fi ghting now, the world is his oyster. I see him doing a lot of great things, and not just in the ring.”

As far as Juanito is concerned, Rampage hasn’t even begun to tap into his true potential. “He’s the most humble champion I’ve ever been around, and I’ve had twelve champions in boxing and MMA before him. I don’t give him false security, I don’t tell him he’s the best in the world and all that. He has a long way to go, he can’t take anybody lightly. But if he trains hard, I just don’t see Forrest beating him. Now I give nothing but great praise to Forrest and his ability. But he has weaknesses. I don’t think he can take a punch like Rampage, from a guy that’s in condition like Rampage, from a guy that’s hungry and ugly like Rampage. It’s just too much for Forrest. It’s too much for anyone.”

Before Juanito takes off, he and Rampage go through the list of the meetings they have scheduled before leaving town. It’s a lot to cover: Rampage’s ventures in the outside world include an energy drink, custom-designed car rims, a shoe line, and auditions and meetings for acting roles. Currently, it’s down to him and a well-known star for a leading role in a major studio fi lm. Rampage doesn’t want to jinx it. “Put it this way: if I show up in the Octagon with a big head of hair and a beard, then you’ll know I got the part,” he says. “But if I’m bald, then you know they picked someone else. But I’m telling you, man, that role was made for me.” Stay tuned.

Now that Juanito is nowhere in sight, Rampage makes a run for some chili fries and a burger at Carl’s Jr. Juanito wouldn’t approve, but Rampage will have more than enough time to eat what he’s told to eat and burn off the extra weight he’s carrying in the mountains. He’s not looking forward to leaving. Rampage has four children, ranging in age from one to nine, and he’ll only be able to see them one day a week at the most. One day, they’ll understand that they were the reason why their daddy had to spend so much time away from home. “I don’t love fi ghting, it’s just a job to me,” he says fl atly. “When I fi ght, I think about all the mouths I gotta feed. I take care of my parents, too. No, I don’t love to fi ght. The only love I’ve really experienced is the love I have for my parents and my kids. Maybe that’s because I’m kind of complex, kind of weird. God, my parents, my kids. Other than that, I don’t know what the hell love is.”

Rampage may not have included him on the list, but after watching him and Juanito together, there may a little love to spare for the middle-aged veteran with the heart of gold who turned his life and career around. “Juanito, he’s like father fi gure, like my other dad,” Rampage admits. “He cares about me. I had other trainers who really didn’t care. I was just another paycheck for them. They’d walk around with me and tell people, ‘This is my fi ghter.’ But Juanito, he says, ‘This is my son.

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