Itâ€™s 9 oâ€™clock on a Wednesday morning, and Greg Jackson looks like hell.
He looks like heâ€™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. Itâ€™s not his fault. Itâ€™s the energy drinks, a habit heâ€™s been trying, however casually, to quit.
Julie Kedzie sees it. Jacksonâ€™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 heâ€™s supposed to be and what heâ€™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 heâ€™s been popping lately? A quick jolt of caffeine?
â€œItâ€™s not the caffeine,â€ Jackson says, rubbing eyes that look as if theyâ€™re searching for a hiding place somewhere deep in his skull. â€œItâ€™s all the other crap in them. The guarana and stuff.â€
Mornings are tough for Jackson. Theyâ€™re tough for any aging martial artist, really. Just ask Jacksonâ€™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 youâ€™d never know it because once wrestling practice gets underway, heâ€™s right there in the mix, pushing UFC middleweight Tim KennedyÂ up against the wall and using him to demonstrate the keys to getting a takedown off the fence.
â€œTwo things I never want to see you guys do,â€ he tells the crowd of mostly professional fighters gathered around him on the mat. â€œOne is shake a baby. The other is get your head below his belly button here.â€ Wrestling practice is a welcome change of pace at Jacksonâ€™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 heâ€™s countered by at least one representing Russia and another from Mexico on this particular day. Donald Cerrone, MMA’s “Cowboy,”Â settles for camouflage shoes.
At first itâ€™s light and fun. Jackson shows a few techniques, the fighters spread out along the walls or up against the fence in the gymâ€™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 HolmÂ in the same shark tank with Legacy FC featherweight champ Leonard Garcia.
Itâ€™s a drill familiar to anyone whoâ€™s ever set foot in a wrestling room. Two people in the middle, vying for takedowns, and everyone else gathered around â€œschoolyard fight-style,â€ 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 â€œthe most common injury we have in here,â€ 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.
â€œI donâ€™t want to see you wrestling,â€ Jackson shouts. â€œI want to see people falling.â€
Itâ€™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, theyâ€™re fighting. Maybe nobodyâ€™s getting punched in the head today (thatâ€™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.
Jacksonâ€™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 theyâ€™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 doesnâ€™t even miss the energy drinks.
You donâ€™t get to call the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym a dump. That goes without saying. Itâ€™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 youâ€™ll never hear or care about.
Point is, theyâ€™re doing something right at Jacksonâ€™s gym, so even after youâ€™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 â€œif your dog takes a s–t,â€ 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 everyoneâ€™s sweaty skin, the office in the back that smells so rancid even its nominal resident â€“Â Jackson himself â€“Â would prefer not to hang out there, you still donâ€™t get to call it a dump. Only they can do that.
â€œKind of a s–thole, right?â€ says Kedzie, in what is either perfect deadpan or a serious question.
Jackson prefers to think of it as â€œspartan,â€ which is a nice way of saying that itâ€™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.
â€œHe says that, but Iâ€™m old,â€ Winkeljohn says. â€œI look around, and all I see is the potential for injuries.â€
For instance, thereâ€™s that brick wall that Condit just shoved a training partner up against. That ought to be padded, Winkeljohn says. Then thereâ€™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. Thereâ€™s this sled that guys are known to push on occasion for conditioning drills, and with itâ€™s two metal rods sticking straight up in the air like that itâ€™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, â€œThis is not the place with color-coordinated mats and plasma TVs. Thatâ€™s the other place.â€
The other place is nice â€“Â Jacksonâ€™s Martial Arts and Fitness, over on Eubank BoulevardÂ â€“Â but itâ€™s no fight gym. Itâ€™s for regular people who want to get in shape, maybe learn some self-defense skills, tell their buddies they train at Greg Jacksonâ€™s. But itâ€™s not where the work is done because, as Jackson has learned, â€œsoccer moms and fighters donâ€™t mix.â€
Soccer moms do pay their gym fees, however, or at least thatâ€™s the idea.
The â€œother placeâ€ is the one that exists to make money. The fight gym is the place that mostly just loses it.
â€œThe gym is not a business,â€ says Jacksonâ€™s wife, Stephane, an epidemiologist at the University of New Mexico. She doesnâ€™t mean it as a complaint, but rather an observation of fact. â€œNothing about it works the way a business works,â€ she says.
The theory is that fighters train, fight, get paid and then give a portion of that payment to their coaches. It doesnâ€™t always work that way because, for one, plenty of the fighters arenâ€™t fighting often enough or winning purses large enough to make the coachesâ€™ portion equal to or greater than what theyâ€™d normally have to pay in gym fees. But also, Jackson just isnâ€™t the type to chase people around for money. He doesnâ€™t do sales. He doesnâ€™t do marketing or branding or merchandising or licensing â€“Â any of the stuff that might allow him to cash in on his fame (â€œIf you only knew how many times people were going to make us rich,â€ Stephanie Jackson says with an eye roll).
All of that is left to the gymâ€™s general manager, Ricky Kottenstette. Jackson has neither the stomach nor the time for it.
â€œI just want to practice my art,â€ 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 boxingâ€™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?
Thereâ€™s the elevation â€“Â a little higher than 5,000 feet â€“Â which forces you to get your cardio together in order to do anything even moderately strenuous. Other than that?
â€œWell,â€ says striking coach Brandon Gibson, â€œitâ€™s not like there are a bunch of beautiful women in nightclubs here to distract you.â€
So thereâ€™s that.
Albuquerque is, according to Winkeljohn, â€œa dumb place.â€ The violent crime rate usually hovers somewhere near twice the national average.
At any given time, more than 20 percent of the cityâ€™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, â€œIndian jewelry and â€˜Breaking Badâ€™ stuff.â€
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 â€œthe people are very humble.â€
Kennedy isnâ€™t so careful. â€œLetâ€™s just say itâ€™s not a city Iâ€™d spend a lot of time in if it wasnâ€™t for Gregâ€™s,â€ 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 heâ€™s just that certain that all his future training camps will take place at Jacksonâ€™s. At the same time, if Jackson announced tomorrow that heâ€™d be moving his gym to Wisconsin, Kennedy admits, â€œthen Iâ€™d be going to Wisconsin.â€ Heâ€™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?
Thereâ€™s an illustration on the wall in Jacksonâ€™s office â€“Â 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 heâ€™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, â€œat some new territory theyâ€™re about to conquer.â€
So he imagines. So he tells himself.
Itâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t eat another meal until they were back in Italy, and she didnâ€™t â€“Â she hanged herself instead, according to Jackson), and he sees no problem with useful fictions, especially for fighters. Whether youâ€™re into Jesus or Mohammed or your belief that you descended from an ancient superior warrior race, to Jackson itâ€™s all arbitrary anyway. Might as well go with a story you like.
â€œEverybody has mythology,â€ he says. â€œEverybody. 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. Itâ€™s just a matter of what mythology you value.â€
In the Greg Jackson myth, the creation story goes a little something like this: Child is born to â€œhyper-intellectualâ€ 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 heâ€™s praised and vilified for everything he is and isnâ€™t, the genius and the â€œsport-killer,â€ Yoda in a Tapout T-shirt.
That doesnâ€™t necessarily tell you anything about who he really is or why he is that way, but myths work in big, broad strokes. They donâ€™t do shades of gray.
To hear Jackson tell it, he is mostly a product of his environment. If his parents had raised him somewhere else, maybe a nice beach community in northern California or a sleepy New England town, no way he becomes Greg Jackson.
â€œIâ€™d have been an artist or a scientist or something,â€ he says. â€œIf I was smart enough.â€
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 â€œguru of cardiac nursingâ€) 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 heâ€™d be any good at it.
â€œI was raised in a place where, I needed this,â€ Jackson says. â€œIt was essential to me. It wasnâ€™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.â€
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 donâ€™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, heâ€™s been doing this a while. Heâ€™s been teaching martial arts since he was 18, first out of someone elseâ€™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.
Thatâ€™s why, as fight trainers spring up all over the place, Jackson isnâ€™t surprised that his team remains so successful. A lot of these coaches, he points out, â€œare people who, Iâ€™ve got double their time in.â€ Experience counts.
That leads to the second ingredient in Jacksonâ€™s recipe for MMA success: Gym culture. A lot gets made of what he says in some fighterâ€™s corner on fight night, but by that point the matter is mostly decided. It doesnâ€™t tell you anything about what the fighter did to get there, and a lot of times those comments in the corner wonâ€™t even make sense to someone who wasnâ€™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 donâ€™t see many people who seem displeased to be at work. Even when the practices are physically grueling, as most of them are, thereâ€™s no sense of drudgery. That doesnâ€™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: â€œThere are no egos here. If there are, we wonâ€™t kick you out or anything. Weâ€™ll just ignore you, beat you up, and youâ€™ll leave before we can ask you to leave.â€
At the same time, itâ€™s impossible not to notice some stratification among the fighters at Jackson-Winkeljohn. You glance in the parking lot, and you can tell whoâ€™s living large and whoâ€™s just living, but there are upsides to that as well.
For instance, when Kedzieâ€™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 â€œThe Ultimate Fighter,â€ wanted to experience pro-level training in the U.S., his countryman and coach Kyle NokeÂ gave him a place to stay (in exchange for some cooking and cleaning duties) and an introduction at Jacksonâ€™s. It might not be a true trickle-down economy, but nobody goes hungry in a gym with its share of highly paid stars.
Jacksonâ€™s experience also comes in handy when dealing with those stars, and heâ€™s known a few in his time.
â€œWeâ€™ve had certain champions who got championships and lost their damn minds,â€ Jackson says. â€œBut now, because of that experience, Iâ€™m able to tell the people who I know will be champions, â€˜Look, hereâ€™s whatâ€™s going to happen when youâ€™re champion. Youâ€™re going to do X, Y and Z, itâ€™s all going to seem very logical, but hereâ€™s why itâ€™s wrong.â€™ Then, when I see it happening, I can go back to them and say, â€˜Remember that conversation? Now itâ€™s happening. Now itâ€™s your choice. You can either choose to be successful or, remember how those people fell? You can follow them.â€™ That experience makes it easier for me.â€
Lastly, thereâ€™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 youâ€™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 donâ€™t tell you everything you need to know. More important than wins, he tells his fighters, is growth.
â€œAnd in order to grow, you have to suffer,â€ Jackson says. â€œSuffering 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, thatâ€™s not painful, but thatâ€™s also not growth. You can get wisdom from it, but youâ€™re not growing. If I throw you in the fire after that, you probably wonâ€™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 fireâ€™s really on you, you canâ€™t reason your way out of it.â€
This, too, is antithetical to some peopleâ€™s understanding of the Greg Jackson myth. Heâ€™s supposedly the thinking manâ€™s coach, the intellectual fight trainer, the man who weathers the slings and arrows of fight fans and even UFC President Dana White (â€œsport-killer,â€ remember?) with a Zen-like calm. Yeah, well. About that.
For one thing, Jackson isnâ€™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 managerâ€™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. (â€œWe really thought he was going to punch Rickyâ€™s car there for a minute,â€ Kedzie would say later).
The incident left a long scrape along the rear passenger side of Jacksonâ€™s car, but his total freakout carried over into the rest of his day.
â€œI knew it was bad when he called me from the car and he was yelling at people in traffic,â€ Stephanie says. â€œAt one point he just shouted, â€˜Buses! Why?!â€™â€
Jackson, by now perfectly calm again, only nods along serenely. â€œI stand by that one,â€ he says.
His temper, Jackson says, â€œis the congenital partâ€ of him. Itâ€™s not necessarily what drove him to fight or learn martial arts, but itâ€™s not totally divorced from those impulses, either.
That temper might even be what motivates him to confront fans at UFC events who think itâ€™ll be funny to shout at him about how much he sucks.
It happens more often than youâ€™d think, like when he was in Toronto for Jonesâ€™ most recent light-heavyweight title defense.
â€œI had two fans go, â€˜You suck, Greg!â€™ So I walked up and said, â€˜Oh yeah? Why do I suck?â€™ They said, â€˜Well, you ruined Clay Guida.â€™ 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. Theyâ€™re children. But Iâ€™m not going to just let someone say that to me.â€
That brings us to White, whoâ€™s singled Jackson out for more criticism than any other trainer. The UFC president has lambasted the sportâ€™s most prominent trainer as a â€œf–king weirdoâ€ and a cold-hearted businessman masquerading as a team-first mentor to the fighters he leeches onto.
White has probably done more to harm Jacksonâ€™s reputation among fight fans than anyone else, and yet itâ€™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? Thatâ€™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.
â€œDana has his faults,â€ Jackson says. â€œBut 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. Heâ€™s very emotional in how he runs it, but you have to give him credit.â€
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 Jacksonâ€™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, â€œTell me, what time does practice start, again?â€), but for sparring day, you want to get here early and get yourself together.
â€œLetâ€™s go,â€ says Winkeljohn, absently swinging his arms at the edge of the mat. â€œGet your s–t on and find a partner. Weâ€™re going to start when the buzzer goes.â€
At first itâ€™s light, almost theoretical. Clad in boxing gloves, kneepads and shinguards, the fighters move in easy gestures that arenâ€™t designed to hurt anyone but rather show them where they could be hurt. If you were to move like that, Iâ€™d hit you here. Itâ€™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.” Itâ€™s fencing with rubber swords. By the time theyâ€™re done today, guys will be limping off the mats with fresh blood staining their teeth.
Jackson doesnâ€™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 doesnâ€™t do your brain or your skills any favors, he says, but at the same time heâ€™s not overly concerned about the potential for brain damage in combat sports. Thatâ€™s not to say he doesnâ€™t think this can take a toll on your health, even shorten your lifespan.
â€œBut I donâ€™t think we should Nerf the world,â€ he says. â€œIf you live your life a certain way, yes, maybe youâ€™ll live longer. Maybe in your last 20 years youâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t.â€
You see Jackson hobbling around the gym in the morning and you realize that, for him, it isnâ€™t just a vague philosophy. He is living the effects of a lifetime spent in martial arts.
â€œI can barely walk right now, and Iâ€™m not even 40 yet,â€ he says. â€œBy the time Iâ€™m 60, Iâ€™ll be in a damn wheelchair, but thatâ€™s O.K. Fighting is not a gentle thing. I didnâ€™t pick a gentle art. Thatâ€™s fine with me.â€
On the mat the dial starts to get turned up, little by little. Itâ€™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 didnâ€™t at first.
â€œMaybe 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,â€ she says. â€œI broke down in tears because it was like, Iâ€™m not one of them anymore. But I got over that. Itâ€™s kind of nice not getting punched in the face every week.â€
These days she still gets involved on her own terms, but only really feels obligated to suit up when there arenâ€™t enough female sparring partners available. Thatâ€™s usually not a problem here, because when it comes to female fighters, Jackson says, â€œweâ€™ve got a s–t ton.â€
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.
â€œI was raised a feminist,â€ he says, â€œbut Julie was the one who really put me onto it.â€ Now Jacksonâ€™s has fighters like Holly HolmÂ and Michelle Waterson, plus veterans like Tara LaRosaÂ dropping in every so often. Itâ€™s as much the place to be for female fighters as for the men, but itâ€™s not without its challenges.
â€œTheyâ€™ll cry at the drop of a hat,â€ Jackson says of his female fighters, over Kedzieâ€™s objection. â€œThe drop of a hat. Theyâ€™re the toughest women youâ€™ll ever meet in your life, but they donâ€™t have the same cultural conditioning that we do about crying. But theyâ€™re so tough. They have to be. They have to put up with so much more s–t. Theyâ€™re more stoic. They get less stuff, especially up until [UFC womenâ€™s bantamweight champion] Ronda [Rousey]. They have it tougher, and therefore they are tougher.â€
â€œWe cry,â€ Julie admits, â€œbut we keep sparring.â€
â€œThatâ€™s true,â€ Jackson says.
Thereâ€™s no crying today as the sparring starts to get serious and the punches get real, but neither are there many volunteers once Â Jones starts running through partners.
The mat space grows as one fighter after another decides heâ€™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 â€“Â ”Iâ€™m sparring with Jon Jones!” â€“Â but that starts to dissipate the first time he hooks you in the liver. Itâ€™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 UFCâ€™s reality show.
â€œBack home, youâ€™d get some tough rounds, but youâ€™d also get a white belt who you could take a break against,â€ Matthews says. â€œHere, if you do that you just get beat up.â€
Matthews gets his turn through the Jones meatgrinder. Almost everyone within the champâ€™s field of vision will. Today heâ€™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 oneâ€™s begging to be next, either.
Itâ€™s rough way to make a living, and right now no oneâ€™s even getting paid. Thatâ€™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 arenâ€™t already a member, past the exercise bikes and the odd shelf that houses second place trophies from old grappling tournaments, and itâ€™s all for the hope of some reward further down the line. A few key injuries here or there, and everybody â€“Â fighters, coaches, assistants â€“Â 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.
Thatâ€™s why, Jackson says, what fighters need isnâ€™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 â€œoptimism in the face of logic.â€ Itâ€™s a phrase that could just as well sum up Jacksonâ€™s entire career in a sport that didnâ€™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? Itâ€™s not exactly a logical thing. Itâ€™s not something youâ€™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.