Mixed Martial Albuquerque
Jackson’s MMA gym makes Albuquerque an unlikely stronghold for elite cage fighting
Two men in a cage are trying to break each other’s bones. These friends express their love differently than most of us.
The floor vibrates as their tangled bodies crash and roll. Several others watch from the cage’s inside perimeter. Outside the cage, “Coach” Greg Jackson watches intently and yells, “Don’t give him that wizzar!”
The chain-link walls of the eight-sided cage, known as the Octagon, rattle slightly as these straining bodies crash into it. From inside the cage: “Put your back against the fence, Rashad.”
Rashad Evans wears the belt in the light-heavyweight division of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, the world’s most competitive league of cage fighters.
“Keep your hands in and your ass out,” hollers Jackson.
Watching from inside the cage are some of the best fighters in the world—Nate Marquardt, David Loiseau, Donald Cerrone, Keith Jardine, Georges St-Pierre. Each takes a turn grappling with Evans and then has time to catch his breath. But for Evans there is no rest. He’s training for a title defense, weeks away, against Lyoto Machida.
“Good, Rashad,” says Jackson, “now work for that pummel. Yes, now the crossface. Yes, now you’re putting it together, dammit.”
Jackson, a grappling specialist, turns to his partner-coach Mike Winkeljohn, a kickboxing expert. “We have to systematically take away all of Machida’s mental and physical safety zones,” Jackson says.
Turning back to the seething tangle of limbs, Jackson barks, “Nice, get that hip. Good job, Rashad Evans. Get your ass out.”
“Ass, Rashad, ass.”
“Ass, ass, ASS!”
Cage fighting, also known as mixed martial arts (MMA), has found a secure home in Albuquerque in recent years. Many of the sport’s top athletes have relocated here. Many more travel here for weeks at a time to train.
Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts gym is a big reason Albuquerque’s becoming such an MMA hub. It’s the training ground for some 60 professional MMA fighters, male and female.
In addition to the professional fighters at Jackson’s, hundreds of amateur fighters and self-defense aficionados train here, including children; their parents line up mat-side to watch, like soccer practice. They’re not the only ones taking an interest in MMA from the Duke City.
“I’m really proud to have so many world champions coming out of Albuquerque,” Mayor Martin Chavez says. He seems genuine. When he calls my cell phone, it’s around 6:30 p.m., after his normal workday. “The next step is to have some pay-per-view fights take place here.”
Chavez says there are conversations about the need for an event center in Albuquerque, and perhaps next year the idea will get some wings. Such an arena would be the ideal place for a world-class event, he says. But he adds that in the meantime, the Santa Ana Star Center or The Pit, when it’s renovated, could be excellent venues.
“Clearly it’s a sport that’s exploding, and Albuquerque is positioned at the beginning of what will someday be a world sport.”
Mayor Martin Chavez
“Clearly it’s a sport that’s exploding,” he says. “And Albuquerque is positioned at the beginning of what will someday be a world sport.”
To gain perspective on the city’s MMA scene, I decide to spend a month at Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts taking classes three times a week in kickboxing, grappling and conditioning.
There’s more testosterone and aggression in that gym than a rumble between the Hells Angels and the Bandidos. But when you talk to the fighters they’re calm, soft-spoken and gentle. Some of the limpest handshakes I’ve ever felt have been at Jackson’s. The fighters speak matter-of-factly about broken bones. They use a punching bag filled with concrete to kill the nerves in their shins, which are used as weapons. They call each other teammates. They help each other be their best by kicking the shit out of each other daily. And while I don’t achieve teammate status during my short time at the gym, I do get the shit kicked out of me.
Competitive mixed martial arts began in 1993 as a sort of science experiment aimed at answering a simple, long-debated question: Which martial art is the best?
The Nov. 12, 1993 Ultimate Fighting Championship was designed to settle this question by pitting experts in various hand-to-hand combat disciplines against each other. Wrestlers, kickboxers, boxers, and experts in karate, sumo and jujitsu all competed in the experiment, now known as “UFC 1,” in which there were few rules. Fights were decided by knockout, decision, fight-stoppage by the referee (in the event one fighter was getting pummeled and not defending himself) or submission, in which one fighter submits—that is, surrenders in pain.
In the years that followed, a hybrid fighting form evolved that incorporated wrestling, kickboxing, jujitsu and occasionally elements of other martial arts. The nascent sport came to be known as mixed martial arts, and it faced strong opposition due to its violent nature. Promotions like the UFC sought to improve the sport’s image by increasing the level of medical supervision at fights and expanding the list of forbidden acts.
You could learn a lot about self-defense by practicing the moves banned from the cage. Biting, eye-gouging, groin and throat strikes, hair-pulling, striking the back of the head, striking the head of a downed opponent with kicks or knees, and downward strikes with the point of your elbow are forbidden, to name a few.
MMA has been called "human cockfighting" by John McCain and Roswell Sen. Tim Jennings, who is seeking to ban MMA in New Mexico. The common perception is that MMA is gratuitously violent, but it’s statistically safer than boxing, football and, according to Jackson, even competitive cheerleading.
Today, MMA is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. A long list of MMA organizations—such as Strikeforce and Affliction—were created to challenge UFC and its sister organization, World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC), which promotes fights in lighter weight classes. Pro fighters in virtually all of these organizations can be found training at Jackson’s.
Greg Jackson hardly looks the part of a fight guru; but then, neither does Yoda. Constantly smiling and joking, he has Barack Obama’s nerdy ears and talks about fighting with a meticulous, scientific approach. He watches training sessions intently, focused on the subtleties of anatomy and geometry, and devises game plans tailored to the match his fighters are training for. Each opponent is a puzzle to solve, and he watches hours of their fight videos, evaluating styles and strengths and scouting for weaknesses.
You could learn a lot about self-defense by practicing the moves banned from the cage.
A former star wrestler, Jackson has created a martial art style he calls Gaidojutsu. It combines judo locks with wrestling, jujitsu and striking. The many ways of maneuvering your opponent into a submission hold are at the heart of Gaidojutsu.
“Submission holds are like gas stations,” Jackson explains. “They’re everywhere, and there are a million ways to get to one.”
I take some grappling classes during my time at Jackson’s and have the opportunity to experience submission holds firsthand. They have names like “guillotine,” “Peruvian necktie” and “rear naked choke.” Some feel like a chain saw on your shin. Some are chokes that can make you pass out in seconds. Some make your spine hurt from neck to tailbone.
I pop a few Advil to avoid the distraction of minor injuries during my first kickboxing class. Entering the gym, I walk past the boxing ring where UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre spars with a Muay Thai kickboxing expert named Phil Nurse who’s flown in from New York for the week.
Jackson is constantly arranging for various fighters and coaches to fly to Albuquerque to help his team train. On another day, St-Pierre is in the ring sparring with karate expert Stephen Thompson, the sweat flying as they trade rapid-fire strikes. When the bell rings they lean on the ropes, shoulder to shoulder, panting and smiling like two dogs at the park waiting for you to throw the ball.
My kickboxing class consists of punching and kicking drills, then it’s time to spar. I end up with Derek Begley, a 210-pound Canadian wrestler who’s been kickboxing for three years. Soon my left eye is black, and I have a large, red welt on my forehead that will last for days. The punches don’t hurt, exactly, but I am conscious of tremendous force impacting my head.
“You passed your first test,” Begley tells me after we spar. “You got your bell rung and got back up.”
“Thanks,” I say. “What exactly happened?”
“You kind of bopped me on the nose, so I gave you one to straighten you out.”
“Was that what knocked me down?”
“No,” he says. “That was the next one.”
He suggests I put some ice on the back of my neck because it might get stiff.
I drop by Jackson’s office, where he’s meeting with two Hollywood actors: Frank Grillo and Joel Edgerton. They’re filming a movie about MMA; Grillo will play Coach Jackson and Edgerton a fighter. I tell them about my sparring adventure, and Edgerton is full of questions about what it’s like to get clocked. Jackson, meanwhile, apologizes as if he feels personally responsible. “What’d you do, pop him in the nose?” Jackson asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Oooh,” he says. “They hate that.”
The full-speed sparring sessions between Donald Cerrone and Leonard Garcia are legendary at Jackson's. Days before Garcia’s fight against Hiroyuki Takaya, Cerrone broke Garcia’s jaw with a flying knee that blew through Garcia’s mouthpiece.
“Submission holds are like gas stations. They’re everywhere, and there are a million ways to get to one.”
“They gave me a root canal because of a broken tooth,” Garcia says. “That’s when they realized I had a broken jaw. Good thing I knocked out Takaya so quick.”
Members of Jackson’s team make a promise to never, ever, compete against each other—even if, down the road, one or both fighters are training elsewhere.
“It’s so we can give each other everything we have and not hold out on pointing out some weakness we might want to exploit in a fight,” explains Rashad Evans.
This close-knit environment is part of the reason Jackson’s has one of the highest winning percentages of any MMA training camp, having produced 11 world champions at last count. But there’s an obvious downside to the camaraderie.
At 205 pounds, Evans and Keith Jardine both fight in the deepest and most competitive weight division in the UFC. This would put the two friends on a collision course, especially when one is champion. It’s a potential conflict that was almost realized last March, when Jardine fought Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. The winner of this bout would have a title shot against Evans, and Jardine had already announced he wouldn’t fight Evans for the title. UFC President Dana White had promised to “make them fight,” but the tricky situation was averted in the final seconds of the Jardine-Rampage fight, when Rampage connected for a knockdown to eke out a victory by decision.
When I ask Evans what he thinks would have happened if Jardine had beaten Rampage, Rashad looks appalled at the implication.
“I would never fight Keith. He’s one of the biggest reasons I’m the champion. He’s helped me in all kinds of ways. He gives really good ideas. He’s a great training partner.”
Jardine is soft-spoken and sincere. When you talk with him he listens intently, head bent forward and focused on your words. “People say, ‘Don’t you want the belt?’ But the belt’s only going to last a short while. Integrity is for a lifetime.”
“Our goal,” Jardine says, “is to be the two best fighters in the light-heavyweight class. Any problem that creates ... if that’s our biggest problem, we’re doing pretty good.”
At 10 a.m. the pro fighters train together, the men alongside the women, big names side by side with no-names just getting started.
Jackson calls for a punching drill, and every fighter looks for something to hit. Some pummel a big mattress, some pound dummies, most settle for the mat. The sound of 120 professional fists punching with intent is like listening to a hailstorm of grapefruits. As the deluge pounds on, Jackson walks among his fighters.
“Elbows up, shoulders up. Hit ’em hard. Hurt ’em,” he shouts. “We win right here. We lose right here. The difference between a fighter and a non-fighter is a fighter never makes excuses.”
In the locker room after practice, Rashad Evans sings in Japanese to Yoshiyuki Yoshida, a Japanese fighter who’s come to Jackson’s to prepare for his next fight. Evans only seems to know one word.
When the bell rings they lean on the ropes, shoulder to shoulder, panting and smiling like two dogs at the park waiting for you to throw the ball.
“Arigaaaaaato. Arigatoooooo,” Evans croons in a good singing voice. It’s the first expression I’ve seen or heard from him after weeks in the gym. His personality, evidently, is like his fighting: quiet and explosive.
It’s easy to see why the champion is consistently underestimated. (Despite being undefeated, he’s usually the underdog according to Vegas odds makers.) Evans can come across as distant, distracted, which makes him difficult to read. He’s like the kid in class who you don’t think is paying attention and then trips up the teacher with a question that’s direct and insoluble.
“Holy shit, Rashad,” calls coach Mike Winkeljohn. “You’re 100 percent when he steps left.”
A former kickboxing champion, Winkeljohn joined with Jackson in 2007 as the gym’s stand-up and striking coach.
Winkeljohn is the teacher of my kickboxing class. During the sparring portion of class he watches the action from the center of the mat. Every few minutes he yells, “OK, everyone find a new partner.”
It’s my second sparring session. I nod to a guy whose name, I later learn, is Nestor. He nods back. We square off.
Through my mouthpiece I try to say, “I’m not very experienced,” hoping this information might spare me from another knockout.
Nestor looks at me quizzically, with a smile straining through his lips. He removes his mouthpiece. “What was that?” he asks.
I take out my mouthpiece and repeat, “I’m not very experienced.”
Nestor cracks up. “I thought you said ‘I’m very experienced.’ And I’m looking at those lobster gloves you’re wearing and thinking, I don’t think so.”
If my big red gloves from the pile of sweaty loaner gear in the corner don’t signal my inexperience, my moves do.
“People say, ‘Don’t you want the belt?’ But the belt’s only going to last a short while. Integrity is for a lifetime.”
Nestor isn’t the biggest sparring opponent of my short kickboxing career, but he is the fastest. His reflexes are razor-sharp, and he is quick to make me pay for mistakes. It’s like he anticipates each kick or punch I consider before I even throw it. If I throw a strike, he counterstrikes first. If I hold my fire, he punches me, or kicks me in the head.
Trading punches can take all your concentration. It’s physically and mentally exhausting. Add kicks to the mix and the strikes can come from anywhere, making defense much more complex—if you duck a punch, you can take a knee to the face. The elements of grappling mean the possibilities for inflicting or receiving damage again multiply exponentially—if you kick, your opponent can lunge in and take you to the mat. When you combine these layers of complexity into mixed martial arts, it’s like a full-contact game of chess. And you’re all the pieces at once.
One morning I go to Jackson’s at 7 a.m. for a conditioning class lead by Chris Luttrell, a cop with the Albuquerque Police Department. Luttrell was the first of Jackson’s students to receive a black belt in Gaidojutsu, which he has used to develop training programs for officers and SWAT teams.
“Cage fighting is the closest thing to a SWAT team raid,” he says sentimentally. “Getting ready to go into a house, you prepare for every possibility. When you go in, anything can happen. It’s totally unscripted.”
After a half-hour of intense jump rope, weight-assisted calisthenics and other drills, we do some sparring. I partner with another police officer in the class, and we trade kicks and knees. A few minutes later I grab hold of officer Luttrell with both hands, pulling his head down toward my upward-thrusting knee and nailing him in the face.
“Nice one, Ari,” he says. “Try another.”
May 23, Las Vegas. The arena is like a thunderhead, part rock concert and part Roman Coliseum, filled with blasting music, swirling lights and the roar of bloodthirsty spectators. No cell phone, be it on buzz or ring, could possibly be heard or felt in this sea of vibrations.
Each fighter enters the arena to loud music, escorted by guards and cornermen. Upon reaching the Octagon he strips down to his fight clothes and receives a final inspection by the referee, who checks hand wraps and fingernails, looks inside the mouth, and pats the body for foreign objects. Another official smudges Vaseline on the fighter’s face to reduce the possibility of bloody cuts due to strikes. The fighter enters the Octagon and paces like a caged animal while his opponent makes his way through the final gauntlet to join him.
It’s like a full-contact game of chess. And you’re all the pieces at once.
Yoshiyuki Yoshida, of Jackson’s, quickly defeats his opponent by submission in the first round. In another fight, Tim Hague defeats Pat Barry by a guillotine choke, announcing afterward: “He got me with a straight right. Busted my nose, I think. But it’s all good. I’m ready to drink some beers.”
The drama of bearing witness to such intense conflict makes my knees weak, and I feel like a coward. I’ve seen how hard these guys work, how much it can hurt. It feels wrong to just sit there, insulated. So I go upstairs to the casino and place a bet: $100 on Rashad Evans. This way, at least a small part of me will be inside that ring, exposed. Less ventured and less to be gained or lost, to be sure, but it makes me a participant.
Evans is up for his first title defense. His opponent, Lyoto Machida, is his biggest test yet. Also undefeated, Machida practices a customized form of karate that his father, who is only 5 feet tall, created for small fighters. But at 6 foot 1 inch, Machida isn’t small—he’s a full-size expert in small-man karate, competing in a league where karate was once considered a joke. Machida is the only top-level MMA fighter who doesn’t associate with an MMA camp, instead training at his father’s dojo in Belém, Brazil. Machida eats odd jungle fruits and drinks his own urine every morning—another trick his father taught him. Maybe there’s something to the pee-drinking, because Machida hasn’t lost a fight—or even a single round on the judges’ scorecard—in his entire UFC career. It’s been calculated by Fightmetric that he gets hit only once every two-and-a-half rounds. It’s an astounding figure.
Evans and I get knocked out in the second round. Machida’s unpredictable movements and strikes from crazy angles have Evans flummoxed, and a final flurry sends the former champion to the mat, where he lies unconscious for a few minutes. Machida bows to Rashad when he finally stands up. Addressing the crowd, Machida announces, “Karate is back!”
Evans—who’s never been defeated, much less knocked out—keeps one hand against the cage to steady himself. He’s asked how he feels.
"A little dizzy,” Rashad says. “Lyoto was difficult to solve, very explosive. Take my hat off to him; he did a good job today. I was just trying to make him strike first, but he's clever and has excellent timing. This is my first time on the other side, and you gotta take it how you give it."
Walking out through the casino I hear a whistle and turn toward the sound. It’s Roberto Piccinini, one of Evans’ cornermen.
“How’s Rashad?” I ask.
“At the hospital,” Piccinini says. UFC protocol requires every fighter be medically examined immediately following a fight; if a fighter gets knocked unconscious, a trip to the hospital for CT scans is required.
“He’ll be OK,” Piccinini adds, “but it’s tough. When your fighter wins, you feel his victory. And when he loses, you feel his loss.”
Chris Luttrell, the cop, joins us. He’d been in Rashad’s corner, too.
“Coaching is a lot like raising children. You do the best you can and then send them out into the world and hope for the best,” he says. “When you lose, you learn hundredfold more than when you win—it’s just so much more painful. But looking back, this is going to be a wonderful learning experience. Rashad’s going to get that belt back.”
Just then, Machida and his entourage walk by, making slow progress because of the gawkers and fans wanting their pictures taken. Machida has Evans’ belt draped over his shoulder.
Jackson, staying true to the code he instills in his fighters, makes no excuses after the fight. “I learned a lot tonight about Machida,” he says. “We’d like another crack at him. We’ll just keep plugging away ’til we win. That’s what we do.”
In the weeks that followed, the members of Jackson’s team stayed true to their coach’s word. Holly Holm defended her welterweight boxing title with a four-round thrashing of Duda Yankovich on June 5 at Isleta Casino. Two days later, Donald Cerrone earned a WEC title shot with a first-round submission of James Krause at ARCO Arena in Sacramento.
Mixed martial arts taps into a deep instinctual pool. While today's MMA combatants are tussling for sport and not survival, its appeal—or repulsiveness, to many—lies in its raw Darwinian nature. Fighting is in our makeup. And at Jackson's, that primal instinct is honed into an art that's becoming a big part of Albuquerque’s future. In fact, it's already here.