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 V.20 No.5 | February 3 - 9, 2011 

Feature

World-Class Ass-Kicking

Jackson’s gym defends the Duke City’s title as a stronghold for tough talent

Melvin "Young Assassin" Guillard (left) and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, both UFC lightweights, only fight each other behind closed doors.
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Melvin "Young Assassin" Guillard (left) and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, both UFC lightweights, only fight each other behind closed doors.
Life—be it human, plant or animal—doesn’t last long in this scrappy landscape without barbs, armor or a few aces in the hole. Maybe that’s why Albuquerque has perhaps the highest density of professional cage-fighters per capita. Officially called Mixed Martial Arts, the sport’s biggest stage is the Ultimate Fighting Championship. But its best fighters are not confined to the UFC: Smaller promotions like Strikeforce and Bellator have their share as well. Albuquerque is home to fighters in these and just about every other major promotion in the U.S.

Greg Jackson, the man with the plan
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Greg Jackson, the man with the plan
In other pro sports, contract negotiations largely determine where an athlete lives and works. But fighters go where they like, and many choose to live in Albuquerque because of Jackson’s MMA Academy.

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.

Jackson's MMA Academy, crucible of combat
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Jackson's MMA Academy, crucible of combat
In the MMA community, Greg Jackson is given near-mythical status as a Yoda-like guru. He’s a masterful strategist with a deep understanding of the physical, emotional and spiritual sides of hand-to-hand combat. He focuses on the grappling side of fighting, while the gym’s co-founder Mike Winkeljohn, or “Wink,” is the team striking guru. Wink’s work with Melvin Guillard, who came from New Orleans to train, was evident on Jan. 22 at a UFC event at Fort Hood military base in Texas, when a series of brutal punches and knees made quick work of the higher-ranked and highly favored Evan Dunham. With the knockout, Guillard put the rest of the UFC lightweight division on notice.

The Home Turf Advantage

While fighters travel to Albuquerque from around the world, a large contingent of Jackson’s talent is homegrown.

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone loves his job.
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone loves his job.
“I put Albuquerque on the map!” Diego “Nightmare” Sanchez says with his trademark lack of understatement. And he has a defensible point: Sanchez won the middleweight division in the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” a reality show created by the UFC to draw viewers to the athletic pursuit. It worked, helping establish MMA as one of the most rapidly growing sports in the world. Sanchez rode this wave to become the first bona fide MMA superstar to train at Jackson’s.

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.

Leonard "Bad Boy" Garcia (left) and Cerrone are partners in real estate and full-throttle sparring. Three years ago, Cerrone broke Garcia's jaw with a flying knee a week before his fight with Hiroyuki Takaya. "Good thing I knocked out Takaya so quick,” Garcia said after the fight.
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Leonard "Bad Boy" Garcia (left) and Cerrone are partners in real estate and full-throttle sparring. Three years ago, Cerrone broke Garcia's jaw with a flying knee a week before his fight with Hiroyuki Takaya. "Good thing I knocked out Takaya so quick,” Garcia said after the fight.
“It’s crazy,” Cerrone says (watch the interview here), “I went from living upstairs [at Jackson’s] in that little closet with Leonard Garcia to us owning a ranch out in Edgewood, N.M.”

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.

Master striker Mike Winkeljohn gives a few words to Jones, who plans to master Bader on Saturday, Feb. 5.
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Master striker Mike Winkeljohn gives a few words to Jones, who plans to master Bader on Saturday, Feb. 5.
All in the Family

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.

Keith "The Dean of Mean" Jardine; fighter, businessman, fitness nut, frequenter of area coffee shops
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Keith "The Dean of Mean" Jardine; fighter, businessman, fitness nut, frequenter of area coffee shops
Granted, the teammates are perfectly happy to kick the living snot out of each other behind closed doors in the gym, for free. But honestly evaluating their weaknesses requires mutual trust; and that means knowing they’ll never have to be opponents in a real fight. If a fighter thinks he might compete against a training partner some day, he might not say everything he’s thinking in order to keep a few tricks up his sleeve.

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.

Welterweight Holly Holm (right) is widely regarded as the best female boxer in the world. She makes her MMA debut against Wisconsin's Christina "Machine Gun" Domke on March 4.
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Welterweight Holly Holm (right) is widely regarded as the best female boxer in the world. She makes her MMA debut against Wisconsin's Christina "Machine Gun" Domke on March 4.
But from perspective of Team Jackson, fighting isn’t like other sports. It may look like only two people in the cage, but the teams behind them are completely integral to a fighter’s success, and the bonds between teammates can be strong.

Fierce Competition

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.

Julie Kedzie will fight April 9 on the Jackson's card.
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Julie Kedzie will fight April 9 on the Jackson's card.
While states such as New York are still dragging their feet at sanctioning MMA, several local promotions are putting together a nearly continuous stream of events, with a fight scheduled on almost every weekend somewhere in New Mexico. Fight cards are put together by local promotion companies such as Fresquez Productions, Que Loco Cage Fighting, Evolution Combat Sports Championship, as well as Jackson’s own series—the billboards of which have been towering over I-25 and I-40 for about a year.

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.”

Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Kottenstette isn’t just bringing in opponents that he knows Jackson’s fighters can beat—known as “tomato cans” in the business—in order to beef up records. The home fighter has only won one of the last three main events, he points out. “It’s easier to take a loss in front of 3,000 people then against 5 million live on television,” he says. While losses are hardly fun, they’re usually more valuable learning experiences than wins.

“It shows that we’re putting our fighters to the test.”

Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Jon "Bones" Jones, on his last day of fight camp ahead of Saturday's bout with Ryan Bader
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Jon "Bones" Jones, on his last day of fight camp ahead of Saturday's bout with Ryan Bader

Saturday, Feb. 5

Jones vs. Bader
Cerrone vs. Kelly

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.

Fighting on the Edge

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.

 
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