TAMPA — When bitter rivals Rashad Evans and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson square off Saturday in one of the most anticipated mixed martial arts fights in recent memory, Storm linebacker Cliff Dukes will watch with a little more vigor than the average fan.
"(Rashad) is my dog," Dukes said of Evans, who wrestled at Michigan State while Dukes played football there.
A day earlier, Dukes and the Storm face their bitter rival, Orlando.
"There has been a buzz around here all week," Dukes, who will play in his first "War on I-4," said. "It's been electric."
Like Evans, Dukes has gone a few rounds in the cage.
"It's such a good workout," Dukes said. "I love the physical nature of the sport."
After going undrafted, Dukes spent most of 2005 on the St. Louis Rams' practice squad before being let go. That's when Dukes became interested in MMA.
"I hung out with Rashad and a lot of the wrestlers in college, and I picked up a bunch of things," Dukes, 28, said. "I still talk to him on the phone a lot — up until he's in fight mode before a big one."
Dukes continued to train while making brief stops in Detroit, New Orleans and Toronto (CFL) but never seriously considered fighting. Then while attending a bout in 2007, a fighter backed out and Dukes was asked to fill in. All he did was make his opponent submit in less than a minute.
"Then I took another fight in 2008 on a week's notice and got a TKO in the first," Dukes said. "They were just semiprofessional fights, but I did pretty good."
Dukes said although both sports are physical in nature, that's where the comparisons end.
"I try to take on the persona of a beast for football," Dukes said. "In MMA, you can't go all out like that. One small, wrong move, and everything could get flipped upsidedown on you."
Dukes, who moved from lineman this season, is a big part of the Storm's defensive resurgence. After averaging 60.8 points allowed it its first four games, the unit has allowed fewer than 50 in its past two.
Storm coach Tim Marcum said Dukes has improved each game, culminating with six pressures against Bossier-Shreveport on May 15. Dukes didn't get a sack — he has one this season — but he sealed the 48-44 win by forcing quarterback Raymond Philyaw to fumble on the last play.
"I questioned myself a little as to whether it was a good move when we signed him because he was very average at the start," Marcum said. "But he's adapting well to the linebacker position and has gotten better and better."