Just as some began to sense Quinton "Rampage" Jackson was on the downside of his career, Juanito Ibarra saw a man with untapped potential. When other mixed martial artists considered Jackson nothing more than a brawler, Ibarra was convinced he could supply him with an arsenal of self-defense tactics.
That was three years ago, after Jackson's third knockout loss in a six-fight span.
Today, he's the light-heavyweight champion in the Ultimate Fighting Championships, a title he secured in May 2007 with a surprising first-round technical knockout of Chuck Liddell.
Jackson (28-6) will try to defend his title for a second time tonight at UFC 86, when he takes on Forrest Griffin (15-4) in the five-round main event at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
"What I seen in Quinton was just a lot of raw ability and a bad attitude," Ibarra remembers.
"I always said, if this kid can really learn how to be a professional, act like a professional, build a brand and have somebody teach him how to fight . . . he'd be a champion."
Shortly after Jackson was knocked out by Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in April 2005, Ibarra introduced himself to Jackson. Ibarra combed through Jackson's past, his emotions, his spirituality and his goals.
They met at a gymnasium the next morning. Fifteen minutes into the workout, Ibarra made him a promise.
"I told him he'd win the championship the first time we fought for it," said Ibarra, who at one time co-trained boxer Oscar De La Hoya.
Since that meeting, Jackson and Ibarra have been nearly inseparable. Ibarra has rebuilt Jackson from the ground up, blending his natural power and athleticism with Ibarra's knowledge and work ethic. The combination has transformed the 30-year-old Irvine resident into one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the UFC. He hasn't lost in the six fights since Ibarra became his manager and trainer.
"Before, I was pretending," Jackson said of his early MMA career. "Now, I'm getting serious about fighting, so everything is coming together."
At one time, Jackson fought 11 times in 15 months. Against Griffin, he'll be coming off a nine-month layoff, the longest of his nine-year professional career. The down time, however, has enabled Jackson to recover from wrist and hamstring injuries.
With a victory, he can match the longest win streak of his career. He also won seven straight from April 2002 to November 2003, a period capped by his first meeting against Liddell in a PRIDE Fighting Championships tournament, which Jackson also won by technical knockout. In the championship match later, Jackson couldn't make it through the first round against Wanderlei Silva.
A year later, Jackson and Silva met in another PRIDE event. This time, Silva knocked out Jackson in the second round. Later, he was knocked out by Rua.
During this stretch, Jackson made dramatic changes in his personal life, becoming a born-again Christian and giving up the night life that absorbed much of his free time. It was this makeover that particularly impressed Ibarra, also a born-again Christian.
Ibarra had previously been turned off by Jackson's off-color antics and foul language. Ibarra believed the discipline Jackson showed by cleaning up his life would also carry over to competition.
"He went from a guy who was just kind of brawling to, all of a sudden, he could defend submissions and he could take people down," Griffin said.
Jackson's stamina had also been a question mark, since he had never gone past three rounds in his first 33 professional bouts. He answered those critics in his last fight, winning a five-round unanimous decision over Dan Henderson, despite fighting with a fractured wrist.
Since then, Jackson allowed his injuries to heal and spent a few months filming the reality series, "The Ultimate Fighter," in which he coached against Griffin. Jackson and Ibarra then headed to Big Bear for a seven-week training camp.
Ibarra doesn't believe Griffin is ready to fight someone of Jackson's caliber, but he refuses to look ahead to potential matchups in the deep light-heavyweight division.
"He hasn't peaked yet," Ibarra said. "As long as he keeps listening and keeps growing, he's going to stay champion."
UFC LIGHT-HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP
Who: Quinton "Rampage" Jackson (28-6) vs. Forrest Griffin (15-4)
When: Today, event begins 7 p.m. PDT.
Where: Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.