DENVER >> Before he even stepped into the ring, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson was already landing punches.
Only, these were mental jabs aimed at defending champion Jon "Bones" Jones.
In the buildup to their light heavyweight title bout at UFC 135 on Saturday, Jackson accused Jones of sending a mole into his camp to spy on the fighter who once played B.A. Baracus in the big-screen version of "The A-Team."
It was an insinuation that stunned Jones at first and had him back on his heels in defense.
This was all part of Jackson’s plan to climb inside the head of Jones, who at 24 is the youngest champion in UFC history. A cagey mixed martial arts veteran, Jackson isn’t bashful about delivering blows to the psyche of an opponent before a big bout.
"They took the bait and fell for it," Jackson said matter-of-factly.
The usually mild-mannered Jones has vowed he won’t let Jackson get to him again, even going so far as to not only set his goal of defending his crown but winning in convincing fashion by laying out Jackson.
Jones hardly looks like the same fighter who knocked out Mauricio "Shogun" Rua for the title six months ago. These days, the lanky yet chiseled Jones is leaner (guzzling more than six pounds of homemade vegetable juice a day), stronger (swimming laps with a local high school team) and meaner (agitated over Jackson’s stinging spy comments).
"I kind of feel in some ways the fight’s already won," said Jones, who will attempt to retain his crown in the city where UFC staged its first championship bout 18 years ago. "I just have to go out there and solidify it."
Jackson certainly won’t make it easy for him. Not by a long shot.
He’s taking this fight seriously as well, relocating to the Mile High City to work out at altitude. He’s even watching his diet.
"I didn’t sneak out for burgers," Jackson chuckled. "I’ve been motivated and trained really hard and did everything the right way."
Along the way, he also found time to get under Jones’ skin. Jackson played coy when asked if he really believed Jones planted someone in his camp to study his moves or if he was just acting the part of an aggrieved fighter.
"It happens more than we think about," Jackson said. "People just don’t catch them. I’m always thinking about it."
Jones called the accusations absurd. And was actually annoyed by them at first.
On message boards, he was being branded a cheater. That rankled Jones and caused him to increase his training.
"To be called a cheater when you work so hard to get where you are, it’s a major blow, especially when you know in your heart and in your soul that you’ve done it the right way," Jones said. "The only part of the spygate thing that bothers me is it convinced a few fans that I’d actually stoop that low."
Jones insisted he didn’t need to gain an edge by peeping in on Jackson’s camp because, "he’s been fighting the exact same way."
"I have 40 fights of him that I study daily," Jones said. "I realize his tendencies, his weaknesses and strengths."
The fact Jones still chats about the topic provides enough proof for Jackson that his suspicions were not unfounded.
"Sounds like guilt to me," Jackson said. "If someone accused me of spying on people and called me a cheater and I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t affect me at all."
So, how does Jackson go toe-to-toe with such a youthful fighter with the longest reach of anyone in UFC?
"I’m not going to tell you that!" Jackson barked. "That guy has satellite dishes everywhere."
Through all his growling, Jackson actually has a measure of respect for Jones. He thinks Jones could be the future of the sport.
But Jackson considers himself the present.
"You can’t get no better than what I got going," he said. "I come to fight."
The 33-year Jackson is in the twilight of his career. He knows he doesn’t have all that many bouts left and is already thinking about life outside the octagon. He wants to star in more films, create some rap songs and maybe even become a video game designer (he’s obsessed with "Gears of War 3").
For Jones, a successful title defense could bring stability to the division. The belt has switched hands a number of times since Jackson last captured the crown in 2007.
Any added weight on Jones’ shoulders being the champ?
"I put pressure on myself every fight," Jones said. "Just go out there and have fun. Do what I was put on this earth to do — to try to inspire others."
And stop a few crooks along the way.
Before his fight against Rua, Jones was heading to a park to meditate when someone broke into a nearby car and stole a GPS system. An elderly woman screamed for help and Jones, along with his trainers, took off after the thief.
They caught up to the burglar, took him down and held him there until the police arrived.
Using that adrenaline, Jones dispatched Rua in the ring to claim the title.
"I felt so spiritually high after doing that," Jones said of foiling a burglary attempt. "I had that really high chi, high energy."
In Denver before his bout, he may just fight some more crime instead of meditate.
"You never know," Jones said, laughing. "You just never know."