Photo by Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
In the world of early 1980s subway graffiti few names matched Iz the Wiz, the nom de plume for the late Michael Martin. Once upon a time, his tag adorned rumbling train cars on every line in New York City—eagle-eyed viewers can see it in The Warriors—and when the South Bronx exported hip-hop culture to the rest of the world, Martin enjoyed the entire modicum of fame available to a prolific graffiti writer. But by the mid-1990s, he was on dialysis: his kidneys had failed, a byproduct of years of exposure to aerosol paint fumes and industrial toxins. A few years before his death in 2009—at age 50, due to a heart attack—he told an interviewer about his medical problems. "And yet it was still worth it," the off-camera questioner said, practically begging Martin to say that graffiti trumped life itself.
"I would trade it all back for perfect health," Martin replied. "Every drop of fame, every drop of glory, every magazine I was every in, every movie I was ever in—I would give it all back in a heartbeat to have good health."I thought of this when I heard Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, another big player in an occasionally subterranean art form, speaking with ESPN's SportsCenter ahead of his rematch with Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal at Bellator 175 this Friday. Faced with a question about his greatest regret—the perfect cue for boilerplate about how he's motivated to finish Lawal this time around, then beat the brakes off of light heavyweight champion Phil Davis and take the belt—Jackson instead spoke from the heart."I would have to honestly say that my biggest regret is even starting this sport," he said. "…I think I would have lived a different life if I'd have stayed home in Memphis and worked at the family business and I would be closer to my family, growing old with them instead of living out in California, while my family's back at home. My sister is all grown and stuff now—I left home when she was like eight. My biggest regret is—my dream was to go and be a fighter, but now I look back on it and I wish I had just stayed with my family…I gained a lot of fans and made a lot of money, but I feel like I lost my family, you know?"
This grass-is-always-greener gripe sounds like the latest installment in Jackson's long history of complaints, made doubly annoying by the talent he displayed first in Pride and then the UFC. He could knock out Kevin Randleman and he could hoist Ricardo Arona into the air and slam him practically through the canvas, yet he hated training camps with a passion measured in the dozens of pounds he added in between them. (A longtime 205er, his rematch with Lawal is at heavyweight.) After his quick reign as UFC light heavyweight champion, he grew surly, bashing the commentators who called his fights and blaming plodding matches against the likes of Matt Hamill, Keith Jardine, and Ryan Bader on his lay-and-pray opponents instead of his own disinterest. He blew off a fight with Rashad Evans in his hometown to film The A-Team, then said afterwards that "acting is kind of gay." The best fight promotion in the world was whichever one just signed him. The worst was the one he just left, and man, they fucked things up bad…until he re-signed with them.But those laments are different from Jackson's SportsCenter riff: now, he's taking account of the choices he's made and the lives he's left un-lived. Chronologically speaking, he should. Jackson is creeping up on his 39th birthday. His fight with Lawal is the 49th on his official record. And like kidney failure after spending so many hours breathing in fumes from a Rustoleum nozzle, there are costs to fighting for a living that are only obvious in hindsight. They're only borne by one person, too.This dispirited version of Rampage has been building since he lost his UFC belt to Forrest Griffin, when the affable character with thick hardware-store chains around his neck became something darker. Since then, there was the high-speed chase through Orange County and the falling out with his lawsuit-happy boxing trainer. There were the creepy episodes of inappropriate contact with female reporters caught on camera. There was the contractual tug of war between the UFC and Bellator to secure his ongoing services, and more recently, a legal battle with another crappy manager over his home. Working for your family's construction company in southwest Tennessee sounds simple, if not idyllic, by comparison.Whether we imagine the world of a high-profile fighter to be Eden or an inferno—full of normal problems magnified or ones entirely different—influences whether we think Jackson is a serial whiner or whether he deserves empathy. But remember: the universal want of something else, whatever it is, doesn't distinguish for fame. "Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live," wrote the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. "But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are." The we is all of us—Rampage, Iz the Wiz, you, and me.