COLUMBUS, Ohio - Former light-heavyweight champion Quinton (Rampage) Jackson pounded out a decision over Keith (The Dean of Mean) Jardine at UFC 96 Saturday night.
Jardine was game but Jackson, moving forward like a shark, scored more and with heavier blows throughout the fight. The decision was 29-28, 29-28, 30-27 for Jackson. Two of the three judges gave the first round to Jardine. They gave the rest to Jackson.
The mixed martial arts win before 17,033 at the Nationwide Arena earns Jackson a shot at 205-pound champion Rashad Evans next. Had Jardine won, unbeaten Brazilian Lyoto Machida would have met Evans.
''I want my belt back,'' Jackson (30-7) screamed after the fight.
Evans climbed into the cage and the two went at it nose-to-nose in the cage, bickering like two boys in the schoolyard before shaking hands.
With Frank Mir having to withdraw from his heavyweight title bout against Brock Lesnar, the Evans-Jackson fight will tentatively take over as the main event of UFC 98 on May 23 - providing Jackson is healthy. If not, Machida will replace Jackson.
The Nationwide Arena card featured several brutal knockouts and some questionable refereeing - there was one premature stoppage and another bout that should have been stopped sooner.
Like UFC 95 in London last month, most of the fights ended quickly and violently. Prior to the main event, six of the nine bouts ended in the first round.
One of those was the co-main event, when unbeaten heavyweight Shane Carwin stepped up in class by knocking out Gabriel Gonzaga. The Massachusetts-based Brazilian (10-4) connected with a few punches and took Carwin down early but the six-foot-two 260-pounder got back up. And when Gonzaga missed with a left, the supersized Carwin (11-0) nailed him on the chin with a right at 1:09. Fight over and job well done, even if Carwin did get his nose broken.
''It was a great win. Gonzaga's a tough guy,'' said UFC president Dana White.
For Jackson, it was a second straight victory since losing his title last July to Forrest Griffin and suffering a meltdown that resulted in him being arrested days afterwards after a bizarre police chase.
The former champion walked out showing off his trademark rumble chain and howl. He entered the cage with a scowl and bad intentions.
It was a first round of clinches and Jackson stalking Jardine (14-6-1). Jackson, who seemed to be poked in the eye at the three-minute mark, began to find his range later in the round. Jardine, known for his unorthodox herky-jerky style, threw leg kicks and tried to counter.
It was more of the same at the start of the second. And then Jackson put down Jardine with a short left. He jumped on him, doing some damage but Jardine managed to survive and get back up. Jackson took him down later in the round. The fight was stopped briefly when Jackson took a kick to the groin. Rather than recover as the rules permit, Jackson wanted to keep going and the two traded blows at the fence as Jardine pressed his advantage.
In the third, Jackson took Jardine down again but could not keep him there. Jardine went back to his kick and counter strategy, but did start coming forward more - a trickle of blood coming from his eye and nose.
There were boos as the two tired fighters clinched at the fence as the clock wound down. Jackson hammered Jardine in the final minute after the two were separated. And he knocked him down with a left as the siren sounded.
''I'm pretty pissed off right now,'' said Jardine. ''One of the judges told me I lost the fight in the last 10 seconds and that's pretty hard to take.
''It was tough fight, man. I thought I did everything right training for this fight. I thought I was on tonight.''
The main event participants each picked US$60,000 for the fight of the night bonus.
''Keith is tough, very tough,'' Jackson said. ''I didn't expect him to be that tough.''
It was a bad night for Canadian middleweight Jason (Dooms) Day, who was knocked senseless by Kendall (Da Spyder) Grove with a thundering right to the face after just 92 seconds. Day toppled backwards and ate a few elbows on the ground before referee Rick Fike stepped in.
The Albertan fighter had been pressing the action. But his night ended with one savage punch. Day had trouble getting to his feet afterwards while a jubilant Grove (12-5) celebrated the win a la Tito Ortiz, miming digging a grave.
Day (17-7) has now lost two straight after impressing in his UFC debut last April. Grove, winner of Season 3 of ''The Ultimate Fighter,'' has won two in a row after losing two straight.
Local favourite Matt (The Hammer) Hamill knocked out light-heavyweight Mark (The Filipino Wrecking Machine) Munoz with a brutal head kick at 3:53 of the first round. Munoz, a former NCAA champion wrestler making his UFC debut, crumbled at the fence - seemingly hitting his head on his knee as he collapsed - and referee Dan Miragliotta immediately motioned for medical help.
Hamill (8-2) did his post-fight interview in the cage while Munoz was worked on in the cage. A stretcher was brought in but Munoz eventually walked out himself - wearing a neck brace and shaking his head at what had just happened.
Playing LL Cool J's ''Mama Said Knock You Out'' right after the fight seemed tasteless, at best.
Hamill, an Ohio native who was born deaf, walked out to ''Hang on Sloopy'' by Ohio's own The McCoys, with the crowd soon singing the refrain.
Munoz (5-1) came in with two WEC wins under his belt but looked green. Unable to take Hamill down, he did not seem to have the proper tools in his arsenal to handle his opponent.
Hamill picked up the US$60,000 knockout of the night bonus.
Welterweight Matt (The Immortal) Brown stopped Pete (Drago) Sell at 1:32 in the first round of a fight that was so lopsided that he asked Montreal referee Yves Lavigne several times to stop the action. It was a rare off night for Lavigne, one of the best referees in the business, who seemed to call a halt early on then surprisingly allowed the bout to continue.
Sell (8-6) was out of the fight almost from the get-go, after absorbing a string of kicks and punches.
''I could see he was out on his feet. I was pushing him and he was falling,'' said Brown (12-7).
White said he hurt his arm he was pounding the Octagon so hard to get the fight stopped. ''I've never done that - in eight years.''
''I don't even know what to say,'' he said.
The card started on an unsteady note when lightweight (Sugar) Shane Nelson was the benefactor of a premature stoppage against Aaron Riley after just 44 seconds. The Hawaiian fighter caught a kick with his left hand and then floored Riley with his right. But Riley (27-11-1) seemed to be organizing himself on the ground when Fike rushed in to stop the action.