They have faced a near constant stream of scrutiny. No less an august personage than UFC President Dana White has questioned their decision making. But teammates like Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch have stayed strong in their resolve. They will not fight. Not ever. In their primes, teammates Keith Jardine and Rashad Evans had the same vow.
Looking into the latest debacle in Quinton Jackson's camp, it's easy to understand why those relationships might seem so sacred. Teammates at the American Kickboxing Academy and (until recently) Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA formed a real bond and a trust. They could share their best techniques, their insecurities, their lives, with the other members of the gym, without fear that one day down the road the man they are showing their best stuff would end up staring at them from across the Octagon.
Rampage Jackson doesn't have that trust in his professional life. He believes, rightly or wrongly, that there is a mole in his camp. He first saw signs during his UFC 114 fight against Evans. It was punches to the knee that triggered his gut reaction that something wasn't right. Who punches the knee? Almost no one is the correct answer, but Evans was doing it in their fight. Jackson believes because he had been tipped off to a training camp injury.
Preparing for his UFC 135 light heavyweight title shot against Jon Jones, Jackson decided to put his team's integrity to the test. He floated the claim during training one day that he had injured his hand. Four hours later, Joe Silva, one of the most powerful figures in the UFC was calling Jackson's manager about the hand injury. Silva's source? Jones's manager Malki Kawa, who adamantly denied to Yahoo Sports that he has a man inside Team Rampage:
"I promise to God, I have no spy in that camp," Kawa said. "It's completely and totally untrue. There is nothing to it at all. It's funny he said that, though, because we've heard he has had old training partners of Jon coming in to work with him. We don't care and it's kind of hilarious he's doing this. But I can guarantee you there is nothing at all that is true about this other than that I called Joe Silva after someone put out a thing on Twitter that Rampage was injured and pulling out. I wanted to know what was up, but it was no more than that. That is it."
It's a puzzling situation. It's common for fighters to bring in guys who have trained with their opponent, guys who have fought their opponent, and guys who can mimic their opponent. But I don't recall a fighter ever accusing an opposing management team of planting a source in their camp.
The worst part for Rampage? Whether it's true or not, it's in his head. When he's working on his gameplan, the doubt will be there lingering. If he suffers a minor injury, something that happens to almost every fighter in the lead up to a big bout, there will be fears of opposition foreknowledge. Will Rampage eschew his carefully crafted plans the first time he believes Jones may have been tipped off?
Suddenly, the level playing field looks a little slanted in Jones' favor. And the guys at AKA are smiling a little wider. There are reasons to build trust, camaraderie, and a safe environment for a fighter. Rampage's situation makes that reality starker than ever.