Being in the Quinton “Rampage” Jackson business has never been easy.
So far, Bellator MMA appears to be full-fistedly embracing Jackson as its biggest star, what with Bjorn Rebney going on MMA Junkie Radio on Monday to trumpet the former UFC champion’s return to greatness.
"'Rampage' is back," the Bellator CEO proclaimed, despite the fact Jackson failed to look the part against Muhammed Lawal on Saturday. “The knees are back. He didn’t just get off the ground (after being taken down). He got off the ground with King Mo Lawal on top of him. Questions answered.”
Rebney is right about that last part, at least. Some of our questions have indeed been answered. Perhaps most pertinent among them was how Bellator was going to paint having Jackson as its standard-bearer. Now we know: with a broad brush and a bucketful of white wash.
What we don’t yet know—and frankly, this question feels a lot more important and a lot more difficult to answer—is what the fight company plans to do next with its brightest pay-per-view star.
If Bellator aims to maintain its momentum, as the MMA media continue to puzzle over its first PPV effort, much of the task will likely fall on Jackson. How the company next positions him will no doubt send a message about where this relationship is headed.
For his part, Rebney seems committed to pretending there was no controversy in Jackson’s win over Lawal, despite the fact nearly everyone besides the hometown judges scored the fight the opposite way.
He even appears cool with Jackson’s declarations that he doesn’t want the Bellator title and that he has no interest in fighting champion Emanuel Newton, even though the whole point of the Lawal bout was to determine Newton’s next challenger.
“The reason 'Rampage' and I have had such a good relationship is we’ve approached things as guys working together, not me mandating what’s going to happen,” Rebney said. “I’m going to talk to him about [fighting Newton], but I’m not going to disrespect a guy who’s been nothing but standup with us. He’s rocked and rolled as a promoter for us, so I’m not going to say we’re making this fight and plant this flag in the sand.”
With no Newton fight in the offing, there appear to be very few compelling matchups for Jackson in Bellator. Moments after his win over Lawal was announced, Jackson called incongruously for a rematch, effectively tipping his hand as a guy who is seeking to land lucrative fights against opponents he doesn’t believe can physically harm him.
But to book that fight would be to undermine Rebney’s position that there was nothing wrong with the first one. It also bears mentioning that after all their pre-fight screaming, Jackson and Lawal didn’t necessarily turn in a grudge match that was overflowing with action.
Bellator can’t very well go on booking Rampage against low-profile opponents like Joey Beltran and Christian M’Pumbu, and that leaves perhaps only one real option: Tito Ortiz.
Signing up for a do-over on Jackson vs. Ortiz might be the best thing left on Rebney’s plate, but only if both principals can make it to the cage healthy on fight night. The last time the organization tried to make the match, it fell apart at the last possible moment, along with Ortiz’s neck and Bellator’s initial PPV dreams.
Going all-in on a redux seems like a risky proposition, though maybe one the promotion has no choice but to make.
What to do with Jackson is a quandary that Bellator will have to solve in short order or else run the risk of learning the lesson a few other MMA promoters already know all too well: Being in a “relationship” with Jackson rarely ends well.
Just ask the World Fighting Alliance, which hung hopes for its doomed 2006 “King of the Streets” pay-per-view around his modest celebrity, did less than 50,000 buys and folded six months later. Or ask Pride, after the fighter accused executives of conspiring against him at every turn.
For that matter, ask the UFC. Jackson fought 12 times for the world’s largest MMA promotion between 2007 and 2013. He became the light heavyweight champion, won five performance-based bonuses and participated in high-profile, big-money feuds against Rashad Evans and Jon Jones.
Yet when it was over, neither party came away issuing glowing reviews.
"I doubt (they’ll) miss me at all," Jackson told MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani last June. "I think I was a thorn in UFC's side for awhile. I did everything to fix the relationship ... I wasn't happy with UFC. I was trying to hustle and do movies. UFC took the love of MMA out me."
How long will Jackson and Bellator continue to feel the love? The answer to that question depends entirely on what happens next.