He looks like he’s still at home asleep, like his body got up and came to the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym on Acoma Street without the express written consent of his mind or spirit. It’s not his fault. It’s the energy drinks, a habit he’s been trying, however casually, to quit.
Julie Kedzie sees it. Jackson’s longtime student and now his full-time personal assistant, she does everything from fetching gear out of his car to serving as a sort of walking external hard drive, the living memory bank that reminds him where he’s supposed to be and what he’s supposed to be doing. She sees her boss in pain, and she wants to help. Does he need coffee? One of the Vivarin pills he’s been popping lately? A quick jolt of caffeine?
“It’s not the caffeine,” Jackson says, rubbing eyes that look as if they’re searching for a hiding place somewhere deep in his skull. “It’s all the other crap in them. The guarana and stuff.”
Mornings are tough for Jackson. They’re tough for any aging martial artist, really. Just ask Jackson’s business partner and co-coach, Mike Winkeljohn, whose years as a kickboxer and fight trainer left him with the 25-step rule. You get out of bed in the morning and feel awful as soon as your feet hit the floor? Give it 25 steps from the bed. They might not be happy steps, but once you get them out of the way, the day really opens up before you.
Jackson has bad feet. He has irritable bowels. His back troubles him. So does his neck. The man is broken, in a lot of important ways, but you’d never know it because once wrestling practice gets underway, he’s right there in the mix, pushing UFC middleweight Tim Kennedy up against the wall and using him to demonstrate the keys to getting a takedown off the fence.
“Two things I never want to see you guys do,” he tells the crowd of mostly professional fighters gathered around him on the mat. “One is shake a baby. The other is get your head below his belly button here.”
Wrestling practice is a welcome change of pace at Jackson’s gym. The gloves and headgear stay at home. The wrestling shoes and singlets come out, and with them comes some individual flair and nationalist pride. The Green Beret Kennedy is hard to miss in his USA singlet, but he’s countered by at least one representing Russia and another from Mexico on this particular day. Donald Cerrone, MMA’s “Cowboy,” settles for camouflage shoes.
At first it’s light and fun. Jackson shows a few techniques, the fighters spread out along the walls or up against the fence in the gym’s lone cage, and everyone gets a chance to go through the motions. It has all the intensity of spring-training calisthenics. Then that time comes to an abrupt end. The time to get serious has begun.
The fighters separate into four groups along some rough approximation of size and weight similarities, even if this puts the 5-10 middleweight Kennedy in a group with the 6-4 UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, and female bantamweight Holly Holm in the same shark tank with Legacy FC featherweight champ Leonard Garcia.
It’s a drill familiar to anyone who’s ever set foot in a wrestling room. Two people in the middle, vying for takedowns, and everyone else gathered around “schoolyard fight-style,” as Jackson puts it.
The purpose of this is twofold: 1) With a protective ring of humanity separating combatants from the adjacent groups on the mats, it limits the potential for what Jackson says is “the most common injury we have in here,” which occurs when two tumbling fighters roll up on the knee or ankle of some unsuspecting bystander who is otherwise engaged, and 2) With your teammates watching, it just became a competition.
Take the other person down? You stay in the middle. Get taken down? Go to the back of the line. The emotional toll of victory and defeat, on a small scale and in a grinding rinse cycle, again and again and again.
“I don’t want to see you wrestling,” Jackson shouts. “I want to see people falling.”
It’s strange how quickly and yet subtly it happens. A few minutes ago the mood in the room was casual and friendly. Professional athletes stretching out their tired, battered bodies with weary smiles. The next thing you know, they’re fighting. Maybe nobody’s getting punched in the head today (that’s tomorrow), but each group coalesces around its own mini struggle for survival, where absolutely nothing is being held back or kept in reserve.
A smack, and Carlos Condit hits the floor.
Thump, there goes Cerrone.
Jackson’s fighters are working now. They are fully locked in, on the job, doing the damn thing until the digital clock on the wall winds down to zero and the boss says they’re done. Jackson folds his arms and looks out over them, these fighters from Texas and New York, Mexico and Australia, Dagestan and Puerto Rico, Norway and Japan, all of whom have come here, to Albuquerque, N.M., of all places.
Greg Jackson watches them slam one another to the mat, and he is pleased. For a moment, at least, he doesn’t even miss the energy drinks.
You don’t get to call the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym a dump. That goes without saying. It’s a mecca for mixed martial artists, consistently one of the winningest teams in the entire sport, and home to UFC champions, top contenders, future stars and plenty of people you’ll never hear or care about.
Point is, they’re doing something right at Jackson’s gym, so even after you’ve taken the tour and seen the fetid bathrooms, the ancient free weights, the sign on the back door instructing you to pick it up “if your dog takes a s–t,” the old map in the hallway that helpfully shows you where the Soviet Union is located, the cage with sponsor decals peeling off the mats and leaving colored flakes on everyone’s sweaty skin, the office in the back that smells so rancid even its nominal resident – Jackson himself – would prefer not to hang out there, you still don’t get to call it a dump. Only they can do that.
Jackson prefers to think of it as “spartan,” which is a nice way of saying that it’s the kind of place where you feel like no one will get mad at you for bleeding on stuff. That feel is by design, according to Jackson. It is a fight gym, after all. It should be a little rough around the edges.
“He says that, but I’m old,” Winkeljohn says. “I look around, and all I see is the potential for injuries.”
For instance, there’s that brick wall that Condit just shoved a training partner up against. That ought to be padded, Winkeljohn says. Then there’s the sharp metal corner on the steps leading into the cage where UFC heavyweight Travis Browne is getting some work done while his little dog Nacho snorts and tumbles around the perimeter. There’s this sled that guys are known to push on occasion for conditioning drills, and with it’s two metal rods sticking straight up in the air like that it’s only a matter of time before someone gets impaled.
So fine, maybe they could stand to pick up a little around here, but still, Jackson says, “This is not the place with color-coordinated mats and plasma TVs. That’s the other place.”
The other place is nice – Jackson’s Martial Arts and Fitness, over on Eubank Boulevard – but it’s no fight gym. It’s for regular people who want to get in shape, maybe learn some self-defense skills, tell their buddies they train at Greg Jackson’s. But it’s not where the work is done because, as Jackson has learned, “soccer moms and fighters don’t mix.”
Soccer moms do pay their gym fees, however, or at least that’s the idea.
“The gym is not a business,” says Jackson’s wife, Stephane, an epidemiologist at the University of New Mexico. She doesn’t mean it as a complaint, but rather an observation of fact. “Nothing about it works the way a business works,” she says.
The theory is that fighters train, fight, get paid and then give a portion of that payment to their coaches. It doesn’t always work that way because, for one, plenty of the fighters aren’t fighting often enough or winning purses large enough to make the coaches’ portion equal to or greater than what they’d normally have to pay in gym fees. But also, Jackson just isn’t the type to chase people around for money. He doesn’t do sales. He doesn’t do marketing or branding or merchandising or licensing – any of the stuff that might allow him to cash in on his fame (“If you only knew how many times people were going to make us rich,” Stephanie Jackson says with an eye roll).
All of that is left to the gym’s general manager, Ricky Kottenstette. Jackson has neither the stomach nor the time for it.
“I just want to practice my art,” Jackson sighs.
With him you actually believe it, too. If left to his own devices, he might never get paid. He might still be in the 1,100 square-foot gym he taught out of in 1997, back when he thought that was as good as it could possibly get. What stopped him, in a way, was the success of the team, which in turn attracted a better team, which in turn led to more success.
How any of it happened here, in Albuquerque, is the part that seemingly makes no sense.
You hear about the big fight gyms in New York City during boxing’s heyday. You hear about places in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and you can see some logic in it. Even isolated mountain training camps, like the one near Big Bear, Calif., that Tito Ortiz bought from Oscar de la Hoya, have some recognized appeal in the fight world. But Albuquerque?
There’s the elevation – a little higher than 5,000 feet – which forces you to get your cardio together in order to do anything even moderately strenuous. Other than that?
“Well,” says striking coach Brandon Gibson, “it’s not like there are a bunch of beautiful women in nightclubs here to distract you.”
So there’s that.
At any given time, more than 20 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line.
Its most recent claim to fame is a TV show about methamphetamine production and distribution, which explains why the most popular items for tourists are still, as Kedzie puts it, “Indian jewelry and ‘Breaking Bad’ stuff.”
Jones, trying to be somewhat diplomatic about the place where he and his family spend several months out of the year, praises it for being a place where “the people are very humble.”
Kennedy isn’t so careful. “Let’s just say it’s not a city I’d spend a lot of time in if it wasn’t for Greg’s,” he says.
And yet, this is a guy who rents a house in Albuquerque for months at a time. He brings his wife, his dogs, uproots his life just to live here. He even recently tried to buy a house here since he’s just that certain that all his future training camps will take place at Jackson’s. At the same time, if Jackson announced tomorrow that he’d be moving his gym to Wisconsin, Kennedy admits, “then I’d be going to Wisconsin.” He’d likely also never set foot in Albuquerque again.
But regardless of how his fighters feel about the place, without Albuquerque there might not be a Greg Jackson. At least not this one, who does this for a living. The place is in many ways essential to the man, and the man is essential to the team. And without the team, then where would these fighters be?
There’s an illustration on the wall in Jackson’s office – the same office that, at least for the moment, reeks so badly of that special kind of dudefunk found only in martial arts gyms that he’d rather just stay out. The picture shows a group of Roman legionaries gathered in their armor under the standard, looking off into the distance together. They are looking, Jackson says, “at some new territory they’re about to conquer.”
So he imagines. So he tells himself.
It’s a metaphor and also an idealized scene. The soldiers in the picture all look fiercely heroic and carved out of stone, ready to kill some barbarians for the glory of Rome. They are comic-book characters more than people, and Jackson knows this.
Jackson comes from an Italian family that loves to trace its noble roots and make up stories about where it came from and why it had to leave (his great aunt, after the family fled from Rome to Trenton, N.J., over gambling debts, insisted she wouldn’t eat another meal until they were back in Italy, and she didn’t – she hanged herself instead, according to Jackson), and he sees no problem with useful fictions, especially for fighters. Whether you’re into Jesus or Mohammed or your belief that you descended from an ancient superior warrior race, to Jackson it’s all arbitrary anyway. Might as well go with a story you like.
“Everybody has mythology,” he says. “Everybody. You can pretend to be above it, but how many people watch Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and are inspired by that? Mythology is always coming at you. It’s just a matter of what mythology you value.”
In the Greg Jackson myth, the creation story goes a little something like this: Child is born to “hyper-intellectual” pacifist hippie parents, who then raise that child in the most violent part of a violent city, a place that forces him to learn to fight or learn to run. Jackson went with fight, which is how he got here, to his revered place among MMA trainers, where he’s praised and vilified for everything he is and isn’t, the genius and the “sport-killer,” Yoda in a Tapout T-shirt.
That doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about who he really is or why he is that way, but myths work in big, broad strokes. They don’t do shades of gray.
“I’d have been an artist or a scientist or something,” he says. “If I was smart enough.”
Instead they raised him in the South Valley of Albuquerque, where being the white kid with the hippie parents (his father is a disability rights advocate and his mother was a “guru of cardiac nursing”) meant that there was no chance of him blending in. He was going to get picked on, which meant he was probably going to fight. All that remained to be determined was whether he’d be any good at it.
“I was raised in a place where, I needed this,” Jackson says. “It was essential to me. It wasn’t like I saw a Bruce Lee movie and thought, hmmm. No, I needed to learn to fight in order to keep my dignity and be happy.”
But so what? Lots of people learn to fight when they grow up in rough neighborhoods. Lots of people do not become famous fight trainers. What makes him so good at this? Why are all these people who don’t particularly like this city continually coming here, renting places to live, and reorganizing their lives just to train in his gym?
Jackson has a couple theories. For one, he’s been doing this a while. He’s been teaching martial arts since he was 18, first out of someone else’s school, and then, at 19, out of his own. He took students to grappling tournaments and, as their interest moved to no-holds-barred contests, into the primordial ooze of mixed martial arts.
That’s why, as fight trainers spring up all over the place, Jackson isn’t surprised that his team remains so successful. A lot of these coaches, he points out, “are people who, I’ve got double their time in.” Experience counts.
That leads to the second ingredient in Jackson’s recipe for MMA success: Gym culture. A lot gets made of what he says in some fighter’s corner on fight night, but by that point the matter is mostly decided. It doesn’t tell you anything about what the fighter did to get there, and a lot of times those comments in the corner won’t even make sense to someone who wasn’t there for the preparation phase.
One thing you notice hanging out in this gym all day is how much fun people seem to be having.
They are tough guys and girls involved in a hurting sport, which they do for money, many of them on the biggest stage available, and yet you don’t see many people who seem displeased to be at work. Even when the practices are physically grueling, as most of them are, there’s no sense of drudgery. That doesn’t happen on accident, and a lot of it, Jackson says, is the culture, the internal mythology of the team itself.
Winkeljohn has a different way of putting it: “There are no egos here. If there are, we won’t kick you out or anything. We’ll just ignore you, beat you up, and you’ll leave before we can ask you to leave.”
At the same time, it’s impossible not to notice some stratification among the fighters at Jackson-Winkeljohn. You glance in the parking lot, and you can tell who’s living large and who’s just living, but there are upsides to that as well.
For instance, when Kedzie’s dog Bailey, a sort of unofficial gym mascot, needed surgery on her leg, it was Jones who footed a significant portion of the bill. And when Jake Matthews, a young contestant on the Australia vs. Canada season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” wanted to experience pro-level training in the U.S., his countryman and coach Kyle Noke gave him a place to stay (in exchange for some cooking and cleaning duties) and an introduction at Jackson’s. It might not be a true trickle-down economy, but nobody goes hungry in a gym with its share of highly paid stars.
Jackson’s experience also comes in handy when dealing with those stars, and he’s known a few in his time.
“We’ve had certain champions who got championships and lost their damn minds,” Jackson says. “But now, because of that experience, I’m able to tell the people who I know will be champions, ‘Look, here’s what’s going to happen when you’re champion. You’re going to do X, Y and Z, it’s all going to seem very logical, but here’s why it’s wrong.’ Then, when I see it happening, I can go back to them and say, ‘Remember that conversation? Now it’s happening. Now it’s your choice. You can either choose to be successful or, remember how those people fell? You can follow them.’ That experience makes it easier for me.”
Lastly, there’s his philosophy of training, and his means for shaping it. Being raised by pacifist scientists in the South Valley may have taught him to fight, but it also taught him the importance of things like evidence and empirical feedback.
How do you figure out if you’re doing the right things in a sport where, you can be right and still lose just as easily as you can be wrong and still win? Winning and losing both count as empirical feedback, Jackson says, but they don’t tell you everything you need to know. More important than wins, he tells his fighters, is growth.
“And in order to grow, you have to suffer,” Jackson says. “Suffering is necessary for growth. Every major religion worth a s–t has some sort of suffering component to it. Even birth itself is very painful. Growth is painful, so you need to be in pain to grow. Figuring things out, that’s not painful, but that’s also not growth. You can get wisdom from it, but you’re not growing. If I throw you in the fire after that, you probably won’t fare much better. But if I throw you in the fire all the time, then you harden, you get tough as a motherf–ker. One is intellectual, and one is at the core of your subconscious. I see it all the time. When the fire’s really on you, you can’t reason your way out of it.”
This, too, is antithetical to some people’s understanding of the Greg Jackson myth. He’s supposedly the thinking man’s coach, the intellectual fight trainer, the man who weathers the slings and arrows of fight fans and even UFC President Dana White (“sport-killer,” remember?) with a Zen-like calm. Yeah, well. About that.
For one thing, Jackson isn’t always as calm as you think. In fact, his temper is the stuff of legends, which is to say you hear about it from people who know but rarely glimpse it for yourself. Take, for example, what happened one morning earlier this week.
Jackson hopped in his Toyota SUV and backed out of his personal parking space in front of the gym, straight into his gym manager’s car, which had been parked there by Kedzie. Here followed much swearing, some ranting and raving, the implied threat of violence toward inanimate objects. (“We really thought he was going to punch Ricky’s car there for a minute,” Kedzie would say later).
The incident left a long scrape along the rear passenger side of Jackson’s car, but his total freakout carried over into the rest of his day.
“I knew it was bad when he called me from the car and he was yelling at people in traffic,” Stephanie says. “At one point he just shouted, ‘Buses! Why?!’”
Jackson, by now perfectly calm again, only nods along serenely. “I stand by that one,” he says.
His temper, Jackson says, “is the congenital part” of him. It’s not necessarily what drove him to fight or learn martial arts, but it’s not totally divorced from those impulses, either.
It happens more often than you’d think, like when he was in Toronto for Jones’ most recent light-heavyweight title defense.
“I had two fans go, ‘You suck, Greg!’ So I walked up and said, ‘Oh yeah? Why do I suck?’ They said, ‘Well, you ruined Clay Guida.’ Really? Did I ruin him when he tapped out [Rafael] dos Anjos? Did I ruin him when he tapped out [Takanori] Gomi? I just went through the whole list, and of course they had no argument. They’re children. But I’m not going to just let someone say that to me.”
That brings us to White, who’s singled Jackson out for more criticism than any other trainer. The UFC president has lambasted the sport’s most prominent trainer as a “f–king weirdo” and a cold-hearted businessman masquerading as a team-first mentor to the fighters he leeches onto.
White has probably done more to harm Jackson’s reputation among fight fans than anyone else, and yet it’s hard to get Jackson to say anything overly negative about White. The fact that he has this sizable gym, Jackson says, as well as that nice (if slightly damaged) SUV out in the parking lot? That’s in part because of White and the Fertitta brothers, who helped build this from a sideshow to a sport, and one where fighters eventually started to make real money.
“Dana has his faults,” Jackson says. “But he has left the sport a better place than he found it. I give him his due. I defend him when a lot of people come down hard on him. Certainly, he could do some things differently. He’s very emotional in how he runs it, but you have to give him credit.”
If only White could bring himself to be as gracious toward Jackson. But then, some people insist on living their own myths a little more than others.
Sparring day at Jackson’s has a certain feel, that strange mix of nervous energy and steady routine. Fighters might roll in late to wrestling practice and take their time getting taped up and ready (usually only to be chided by Kennedy, whose years in military have instilled in him a passionate disdain for tardiness, and so will gently ask, “Tell me, what time does practice start, again?”), but for sparring day, you want to get here early and get yourself together.
At first it’s light, almost theoretical. Clad in boxing gloves, kneepads and shinguards, the fighters move in easy gestures that aren’t designed to hurt anyone but rather show them where they could be hurt. If you were to move like that, I’d hit you here. It’s a tightrope walk 6 inches off the ground. A leg kick, a right-hand counter that slaps gently against the forehead, a smile to say, “OK, you had me there.” It’s fencing with rubber swords. By the time they’re done today, guys will be limping off the mats with fresh blood staining their teeth.
Jackson doesn’t like his fighters sparring more than once a week, two at the most. Getting hit in the head that many times every week for months at time doesn’t do your brain or your skills any favors, he says, but at the same time he’s not overly concerned about the potential for brain damage in combat sports. That’s not to say he doesn’t think this can take a toll on your health, even shorten your lifespan.
“But I don’t think we should Nerf the world,” he says. “If you live your life a certain way, yes, maybe you’ll live longer. Maybe in your last 20 years you’ll be more cognitive. But would you trade the last 20 years for a lifetime of doing what you love? Everybody has to answer that for themselves, but I certainly wouldn’t.”
You see Jackson hobbling around the gym in the morning and you realize that, for him, it isn’t just a vague philosophy. He is living the effects of a lifetime spent in martial arts.
“I can barely walk right now, and I’m not even 40 yet,” he says. “By the time I’m 60, I’ll be in a damn wheelchair, but that’s O.K. Fighting is not a gentle thing. I didn’t pick a gentle art. That’s fine with me.”
On the mat the dial starts to get turned up, little by little. It’s the kicks you hear first, that solid thump when shin finds thigh. One hard kick merits a response, and before you know it, a wordless agreement is in effect.
Kedzie watches from just off the mats and, at least for now, feels grateful to be retired. She didn’t at first.
“Maybe like the first week or so after I retired I remember watching sparring and then seeing all the girls standing around in a little circle on the mat afterward, talking and laughing and stuff,” she says. “I broke down in tears because it was like, I’m not one of them anymore. But I got over that. It’s kind of nice not getting punched in the face every week.”
These days she still gets involved on her own terms, but only really feels obligated to suit up when there aren’t enough female sparring partners available. That’s usually not a problem here, because when it comes to female fighters, Jackson says, “we’ve got a s–t ton.”
Kedzie takes credit for that. She came out to Albuquerque from Indiana in 2007, and played an integral role in getting Jackson to start training more women.
“I was raised a feminist,” he says, “but Julie was the one who really put me onto it.”
Now Jackson’s has fighters like Holly Holm and Michelle Waterson, plus veterans like Tara LaRosa dropping in every so often. It’s as much the place to be for female fighters as for the men, but it’s not without its challenges.
“They’ll cry at the drop of a hat,” Jackson says of his female fighters, over Kedzie’s objection. “The drop of a hat. They’re the toughest women you’ll ever meet in your life, but they don’t have the same cultural conditioning that we do about crying. But they’re so tough. They have to be. They have to put up with so much more s–t. They’re more stoic. They get less stuff, especially up until [UFC women’s bantamweight champion] Ronda [Rousey]. They have it tougher, and therefore they are tougher.”
“We cry,” Julie admits, “but we keep sparring.”
“That’s true,” Jackson says.
The mat space grows as one fighter after another decides he’s done for the day and floats off, but Jones is still at it, punishing teammates with body shots that have them sneaking glances at the clock, praying for the end of the round.
For some of the young fighters here, there might have been a novelty value at first – “I’m sparring with Jon Jones!” – but that starts to dissipate the first time he hooks you in the liver. It’s also kind of the point of being here, at least for the young Aussie fighter Matthews, who got his first taste of real MMA training on the UFC’s reality show.
“Back home, you’d get some tough rounds, but you’d also get a white belt who you could take a break against,” Matthews says. “Here, if you do that you just get beat up.”
Matthews gets his turn through the Jones meatgrinder. Almost everyone within the champ’s field of vision will. Today he’s one of the last ones left on the mat, scanning the crowd for fresh partners after each round, and, when necessary, calling them by name to come get their whipping. No one turns him down, but no one’s begging to be next, either.
It’s rough way to make a living, and right now no one’s even getting paid. That’s the strange part, when you stop and think about it. Every single day they come streaming through those doors, past the sign that essentially tells you to stay away if you aren’t already a member, past the exercise bikes and the odd shelf that houses second place trophies from old grappling tournaments, and it’s all for the hope of some reward further down the line. A few key injuries here or there, and everybody – fighters, coaches, assistants – is working for free. As with so much in the world of professional cage fighting, there are so many more ways for this to go wrong than right.
That’s why, Jackson says, what fighters need isn’t just skill and toughness (which he insists is a skill in and of itself, and one he actively cultivates). Instead, what they absolutely must have is “optimism in the face of logic.” It’s a phrase that could just as well sum up Jackson’s entire career in a sport that didn’t even exist when he started out. It could sum up this whole place, this wildly successful gym that makes Albuquerque a place fighters actually want to go.
Optimism in the face of logic.
Because this? Fighting other people on TV for money? It’s not exactly a logical thing. It’s not something you’re going to think your way through, so it better be something you can’t not do. It had better be fun.
Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. You can find him on twitter at @BenFowlkesMMA.view original article >>