Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 | 4:45 p.m.
Some of the thousands of fans who packed Japanese arenas to watch Quinton “Rampage” Jackson fight earlier this decade have stayed loyal to the UFC light heavyweight.
Jackson, who faces Ryan Bader in the co-main event of UFC 144 Saturday in Saitama, Japan, felt welcome as soon as he landed after a 10-hour flight earlier this week. One longtime fan presented Jackson with a headband that had his favorite Japanese phrase sewn in the front.
“It was a thoughtful gift,” Jackson said Thursday at a press conference in Tokyo. “I’m going to keep that for the rest of my life. It’s just different. The fans here, I really have a lot of love from them.”
Jackson, the 33-year-old who recently lost to Jon Jones in a title fight, is so excited about going back to Japan that he hasn’t sounded like himself when hyping his fight against Bader.
He’s replaced his usual trash talking and wisecracking with nostalgic anecdotes and reflective thoughts. Jackson is originally from Memphis, Tenn., and now lives in Los Angeles, but Tokyo will always feel like a second home.
“I’m not going to lie: I really miss fighting there,” Jackson said. “It’s something personal to me.”
Jackson rose to stardom while competing in Pride Fighting Championships from 2001-2006. He had 17 bouts in what was then the most popular mixed martial arts organization in the world, going 12-5 and fighting for a championship once.
Even more important than fighting, two of Jackson’s children were born in Japan and are half Japanese. His children’s grandparents still live in Japan.
“My two youngest kids can come watch me fight,” Jackson said. “They never watched me fight back in the day.”
Jackson had no idea how much Japan would change his life when he received his first fight there. He recalled arriving “broke as hell” and “winging it” for a paycheck.
It quickly turned into more. Jackson had an entertaining style, complete with body slams and one-punch knockout power, which enlivened the crowd.
The 22,000 fans expected to fill Saitama Super Arena on Saturday haven’t forgotten the thrills Jackson provided.
“He’ll have the hometown advantage, the whole country behind him,” Bader said. “That doesn’t matter to me.”
Bader, who grew up in Reno and wrestled at Arizona State University, remembers watching some of Jackson’s finest moments in Japan. It all crossed Bader’s mind when he first signed the contract to fight Jackson in Japan, but he has tried to forget about it.
“It’s kind of surreal being here and all that,” Bader said. “But you get a name and it doesn’t matter if you’ve watched him in the past before you started fighting.”
Bader has been careful with his words in an attempt to keep it civil with one of MMA’s best talkers. Jackson has obliged.
“I’ve got nothing against Ryan Bader,” Jackson said. “He’s a cool guy. He hasn’t talked trash against me. When I fight guys like this, it’s nothing personal. I’m just going out there to put on a great show.”
Besides, Jackson has plenty of other things to discuss. He can’t stop talking about his connection to the Japanese people.
“One fan saw me and I could tell they were about to ask me for a picture, but then I started talking to another person because I was finishing my conversation,” Jackson said. “I saw him stop and wait. In America, you aren’t used to that. They just cut you off in the middle of your conversation, step on your feet and push the guy away that you’re talking to and say, ‘Give me a picture.’ Japanese fans know how to respect a fighter. That’s why I love them.”