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Editorial: Third’s the Word

It’s not easy to find a story line that people remain enthralled with through three installments.

In Hollywood, even the most finely crafted plots go stale after two go-rounds with the same characters. The gloss wears off. The expectations wane. Box-office buzz is killed. And, unless there’s a master thespian – like Sylvester Stallone in the endless “Rocky” series – to lead the way, the quality of the films suffer as the number of sequels reaches two.

In the world of mixed martial arts, on the other hand, trilogies are even more rare, but they’re seldom wasteful or illegitimate.

That statement even rings true for next month’s third episode of the Wanderlei Silva-Quinton Jackson matchup at UFC 92.

For a top-echelon MMA three-peat, though, this one might seem the most questionable when compared with others in the sport’s recent history.

That’s because in the first two encounters under the Pride banner, “The Axe Murderer,” with knees raging, left no doubt as to his supremacy over “Rampage.”

First, in 2003 during a Pride light-heavyweight tournament, Silva’s vicious knees spelled the end for Jackson at 6:28 of the first round. Then, in 2004 at Pride 28, it was a virtual re-run as Silva knocked out Rampage again at 3:26 of the second.

Using history as a gauge, there would be little reason for another act between the two. Wandy drove home the point with his legs, after all.

In other significant MMA trilogies over the past decade – Randy Couture-Vitor Belfort; Fedor Emelianenko-Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira; and Couture-Chuck Liddell – the third duels served as rubber matches, although in two cases (Couture-Belfort and Fedor-Nogueira) fluky, match-ending cuts helped create a necessity for No. 3.

A noted absentee from this discussion is the Tito Ortiz-Ken Shamrock string, which was dominated by Ortiz, 3-0, but sort of required a third installment because of a controversial stoppage in the second meeting.

(As an aside, I’m sure better-educated readers can list additional three-part MMA battles that I have missed. If that’s the case, please inform me of such oversights. I crave the knowledge. However, cursing and name-calling – unless very creative – are uncalled for no matter how much joy they give you.)

A glance at the other three trilogies helps illustrate the point that Silva-Rampage III is a rarity among rarities.

Couture-Belfort: This triad of fights began at UFC 15 in 1997 with Couture winning by first-round TKO. The pairing got more interesting in 2004, when reigning light heavyweight champ Couture lost to Belfort in less than a minute at UFC 49. Belfort caught “The Natural” with a left hook that opened a nasty cut under his left eye within the first 30 seconds. Next thing you know, the doctor called a stop to the bout at :49 of the first because of a corneal abrasion that impaired Couture’s vision, leaving everyone unsatisfied. The win gave the belt to Belfort, and paved the way for a third altercation just seven months later to remove the cloud of disenchantment. Couture then regained the title decisively with a TKO when doctors stopped the fight after the third round due to cuts.

Emelianenko-Nogueira: This may be the most storied of these trilogies – two legends in their prime going at it three times. In his terrific book, “A Fighter’s Heart,” author Sam Sheridan went behind the scenes with Big Nog before the third meeting with Fedor in 2004. The writer also recounted their first two fights. Sheridan told of how “Minotauro” went into the initial Fedor bout with nagging back pain and two hernias that never healed even as he took on 355-pound freak show Bob Sapp. The ex-NFL lineman threw Nogueira around pretty good before the BJJ master beat him with an arm bar. Two wins later, he took on Fedor, who was tip-top and dismantled Nogueira in a unanimous decision. Big Nog was healthier for their first sequel in August of ’04, but the fight was stopped quickly and ruled a no contest after Nogueira accidentally head-butted Emelianenko, producing a bloody cut. Four months later, in the inevitable rematch, Fedor outclassed Nogueira with an impressive striking display. The Russian hurt Big Nog with quick, powerful punches and stymied the Brazilian through three rounds, winning another unanimous decision.

Couture-Liddell: When it began, this series had an up-and-comer-versus-proven-veteran flavor. Couture’s game-planning helped produce a dominating win in the first meeting as he pummeled Liddell and took a third-round TKO, giving the former heavyweight champion the interim light heavyweight belt. Liddell, however, came back to win the second and third meetings by knockout as the mo-hawked one began cementing himself as the face of the UFC.

Every series is different, though. And the Silva-Jackson pairing requires further investigation to reveal a strong root for another rematch, this time under the UFC flag.

Throw out the ruthlessness of Silva’s lopsided wins. Those were four and five years ago, respectively, and the careers of each have altered course in the meantime.

Additionally, in looking for excuses to get these two bad-asses together again, the back-story of each previous fight may help explain Rampage’s lackluster efforts.

While he was not yet on par with Silva’s talent, Rampage lost the first bout to “The Axe Murderer” during a grueling tournament in which he fought, and beat, Liddell earlier that day. Then, the second time around, a religious fast may have robbed Rampage of his sharpness.

Not to mention the fact that much has changed with these two combatants in and out of the cage since last they met.

Jackson strapped into a roller coaster that saw his star rise with a quick knockout of Liddell to win the UFC title in May 2007. A five-round decision over another ex-Pride stud, Dan Henderson, was next, followed by a stint as a coach on “The Ultimate Fighter” and a title defense against the wildly popular Forrest Griffin.

Griffin kicked and grappled and traded blows and pulled out a slim, unanimous decision over Rampage.

Maybe it was all a little too much for Jackson, who then mixed a dangerous cocktail of energy drinks and insomnia that sent him on a wild police chase and landed him in meetings with mental-health professionals.

Silva, meanwhile, re-entered the UFC with fanfare even though he had lost his previous two fights to Dan Henderson and Mirko Filipovic. His first UFC foe was ex-champ Liddell, and the two delivered a load of fireworks in an anticipated showdown won via decision by “The Iceman.”

Silva responded, though, with a vintage knockout of Keith Jardine in May, inserting himself into the hunt for the light heavyweight belt.

All of which brings us to Silva-Jackson III on Dec. 27. The winner might get a title shot against Griffin or Rashad Evans, or, perhaps, land a spot across the cage from Anderson Silva.

Slumps and breakdowns aside, Wanderlei Silva and Jackson remain top-tier mixed martial artists. The past might not indicate this is a bout that must happen. But present circumstances and the place where each fighter is in his respective career make it a fight that’s once again in demand.

Sly Stallone would probably agree.