Jon “Bones” Jones is one such transplant. A year and a half ago, the UFC light heavyweight contender relocated here from upstate New York with his young family to train full-time at Jackson’s.
“Albuquerque’s really cool. The people here are cool. It’s a fighter town,” he says (watch the interview here). “There’s no other place I’d rather be. I love the high altitude, the green chile, all that good stuff.”
Jones is riding quite a hype-train these days. He’s an exciting young star known for creative striking and tenacious takedowns, including an arsenal of trips and throws. And he makes it look easy. At only 23, Jones has years ahead of him, provided he remains injury-free. Like so many others, Jones came to Albuquerque because of Jackson’s—and not just for the coaching. The gym has become a crossroads for a who’s who of MMA. The gym’s reputation brings in a steady stream of world-class training partners.
While fighters travel to Albuquerque from around the world, a large contingent of Jackson’s talent is homegrown.
Another local, Carlos “Natural Born Killer” Condit, grew up in a political family in Albuquerque—his dad, Brian Condit, was the chief of staff for former Gov. Richardson. Mild-mannered and soft spoken, he only plays the part of “Natural Born Killer” in the cage, where he’s known as a calm fighter who can turn your first mistake into your last.
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone has been here long enough to be considered a common-law local, and the former rodeo rider from Colorado is putting down roots in New Mexico. He recently went in on some rural property with fellow Jackson’s featherweight star and longtime buddy Leonard Garcia.
In addition to raising cows, goats, chickens, pigs, horses and sheep, he says, they’ve also bought the house next door. “We own about 40 acres now, we got a 4,000 square-foot gym we’re building out there, got a cage, ring, everything. All the lightweight guys come down and train every night. We train here in the morning and there at night. So it works out good, man.” he says, “You know, doing what I love and living a life worth living.”
Cerrone makes his UFC debut against British striker Paul Kelly at on Feb. 5 in Las Vegas, Nev., on the same night Jon “Bones” Jones faces the biggest test of his young career in the Scottsdale-trained Ryan Bader.
Another fighter getting settled in Burque is Keith “The Dean of Mean” Jardine, a former UFC title contender who’s now trying to fight his way back into the promotion after a losing streak.
The Mean One has opened two gyms—one in Albuquerque and one in Rio Rancho—called the Mean1 MMA & Fitness. Jardine still trains as a fighter at Jackson’s, though the two gyms are competitors. There’s one line, however, that Jackson’s fighters agree not to cross: They won’t compete against one another in the cage.
This policy presents matchmaking problems in the title picture of nearly every UFC weight class: Sanchez and Condit share the welterweight division with their teammate, the champion Georges St. Pierre; Jon Jones shares the light heavyweight division with teammate Rashad Evans, a champion and title challenger; the lightweight division includes Guillard and Cerrone, as well as their teammates Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida.
Not surprisingly, UFC president Dana White has never been one to hide his distaste with the idea that training partners can’t compete against each other. It’s a sport, he contends, arguing that in no other sport will certain athletes claim a lifelong ban on competing with other athletes.
These bonds have yet to be tested with the temptation of a title belt dangling on the line. And in the even more crowded ranks of the lower-level pros and upper-level amateurs, things get a little more tricky, as fighters trying to make it big vie for a limited number of fighting opportunities in which to make an impression.
There’s also competition from athletes at other area gyms, as would be expected in a fighter town. In addition to Jackson’s and Mean1, several other MMA training grounds make their homes here, including Albuquerque Kickboxing, Fit NHB and Lion Academy of Martial Arts, as well as numerous karate, tae kwon do, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and other combat arts in a strip mall near you. The demand is so great that even Jackson’s offers classes for regular people in search of fitness and self-defense techniques.
The idea behind the Jackson’s MMA Series is to provide experience for the team’s fighters, explains Ricky Kottenstette, general manager of the gym and of the series. “So we basically put out a challenge to fighters from other camps.”
“It shows that we’re putting our fighters to the test.”
Visit alibi.com on UFC 126 fight day for behind-the-scenes coverage. I’ll be following the Albuquerque fighters with video interviews and live updates from from Las Vegas, Nev. And if you're looking for a place to watch the fights, check out my local sports bar reviews at bit.ly/abqsportsbars.
The next event in the Jackson’s MMA Series happens in the spring, and it comes with a twist. Organized by Jackson’s and The Edge 104.1, aspiring fighters were recruited by the radio station’s morning hosts. Applicants submitted statements about their aspirations and an abs-baring photo. Tryouts happened on Jan. 29, with candidates sparring and grappling, while observers trimmed the group down to 60 hopefuls. Further cuts will reduce the pack to 12 men and six women, who will be divided into two teams that will train separately. Each week there will be an elimination fight between the two teams, with the final two pairs of men and women standing facing off at the Jackson’s MMA Series April 9 event at the Hard Rock Casino. Look for updates at 1041theedge.com.