Sitting down with free-thinking MMA trainer Greg Jackson
MMA trainer Greg Jackson has worked with some of the biggest names in the sport
He says talent is more common than you'd think; work ethic makes the difference
Taking a thinking-man's tack, Jackson applies game theory to mixed martial arts
Everything having anything to do with mixed martial arts gives rise to immense contention, so it's a mark of the enormous respect in which the trainers at Albuquerque's Jackson's MMA are held that nearly no one would argue that they rate with anyone in the world. Their fighters, men such as Georges St-Pierre, Rashad Evans, Jon Jones, Nate Marquardt and Shane Carwin, tend to be not just successful but brilliant, working in a cerebral style that leaves opponents looking not just outmatched, but unrefined.
Earlier this week I spoke with Greg Jackson, the camp's front man and ground wizard, and Mike Winkeljohn, the stand-up coach and strategist who isn't quite as well known as Jackson, but whose importance to the team might be best expressed by the fact that its name is actually Team Jackson-Winklejohn. You get the sense, talking to both, that they're halves of the same mind, Jackson tilting slightly toward theory and Winkeljohn slightly toward practice, and that this is a mind operating at a level well above most of the competition. At any rate, what follows is a transcript, edited for clarity, of my conversation with Jackson; in future we'll run a transcript of my conversation with Winklejohn. There is a lot for any fight fan to learn from listening to these two, ranging from the key to effective striking to exactly what Johann Sebastian Bach, John Dewey and Charlie Parker have to offer a fighter.
SI.com: Walk me through a typical day for you.
Greg Jackson: I wake up in the morning. I usually drink about a fifth of Jack Daniels. At that point I'm pretty drunk, so I start shouting commands, just randomly to keep everybody on their toes. That's probably the first half hour of practice. No, I'm just teasing you, brother. I get up at about 6 in the morning, 6:30 in the morning, I come to the gym, I scout fights until about 8:30 or 9 when the heavyweights start coming, and then I do the 9:30 to 10:30 class, the 10:30 to 11:30 class, I take usually an hour or two for lunch and my own workout, and then I teach privates with the fighters all the way until about 7 or 8 in the evening.
SI.com: So it's the monastic lifestyle that people expect from you.
Jackson: I hope they don't expect it, but it's definitely a day in and day out affair. It's a grind, and it's a good thing I love it so much.
SI.com: What are you looking for in somebody who wants you to teach them?
Jackson: Most of it's attitude. I look for talent, of course, but talent can be more common than you think. A lot of it's attitude, work ethic, how coachable they are. What I mean by that is how well they listen, do they take what you say to heart, are they able to handle their success pretty well. There are a lot of factors I look for outside of just being able to throw a good punch. Do they have the ingredients within their personality to be successful and to be a team player?That's what I'm really looking at.
SI.com: You said that talent is more common than you'd think. Has that really picked up over the last few years?
Jackson: No. There are definitely more talented athletes coming in now, for sure, than there used to be. There's no doubt there. So in a way it's changing, in that there are more and more athletes now that you can really make a viable living at it. Serious athletes are coming over. But talent's always been there in one form or another, and it used to impress me a lot more than it does now. Like I was saying, it's more about?talent needs to be there, obviously, but it's the rest of the ingredients, like being coachable, like being humble, like being really just able to handle your success. You know, when you have a hundred people telling you every day that you're the greatest fighter that ever lived, it's hard not to start thinking that you're the greatest fighter that ever lived. Being able to deal with all that success and pressure, those are the factors I really look at these days.
SI.com: What do you think motivates a Rashad Evans or a Jon Jones above a guy who could hit that level but doesn't?
Jackson: I think they're incredibly intelligent. Those kinds of guys are workhorses. They work really, really hard and it's one of those things where they have talent, they have attitude, they have the smarts and they have the work ethic, and when you have those in combination that's what comes out. You know, you plug the formula in and out comes greatness.
SI.com: You are infamous for your game planning. That's kind of an abstract notion to me. When you're sitting down, formulating a plan, what goes into that?
Jackson: It's just trying to figure out how you can make the best effective method to make your opponent break. And what I mean by break is to give up. Everybody has a psychological safety zone. Now, you don't see that pushed in other sports like you do in combat sports. In combat sports, because it's so intense and you're taking such physical damage, you go to certain places and you do certain things when you're in trouble. Like when you were a kid, let's say you ran away to your friend's house if your dad was beating you up or whatever. You have a place where you go. In fighting it's the same way. You have a place where you go.
Our job is to get you to that place where you're going to break, and keep you out of the places that you want to stay, that are comfortable, like living in a mansion for instance. We want to take you, psychologically, out of that nice comfortable mansion and put you in a place where you just want to give up. And the process of doing that can be pretty intricate, depending on the fighter, or it can be pretty straightforward. But that's what it's really all about, is breaking the other person's will.
SI.com: How do you figure out what is going to do that to someone?
Jackson: A lot of it's habits, especially looking at early tape and seeing what they do early on, what they do when they break, what they do when they have you in trouble, and just establishing where their preferences are. In game theory, it's called utility. You establish what your utility is, what your personal preferences are and that's half of it. The other half of it is making sure that you know your own fighter, that he can do that, that he can stay out of places. You give him a plan to try to finish the fight, or, if you can't finish the guy, at least beat him up in all areas. It can be little things, like he passes the guard to the left, or it can be big things, like he always covers up when he gets hit. It really depends on the fighter. It's so intricate, and it's really like art, or it's like playing jazz. I can tell you, technically, how to play jazz but I can't really tell you how to play jazz. Does that make sense? It's one of those things where I can tell you by the numbers, but it's a feel, it's intuition, it's your experience, it's knowledge, it's?some things go beyond words, you know what I mean? I can try to explain it to you, but it's really hard unless you do it.
SI.com: It's interesting that you were going into game theory. How do you apply that?
Jackson: Which part? Game theory to combat?
Jackson: Game theory is just?it depends how you look at it, but they follow the same rules, right? There are decision trees, there are preferences, there are preferences of your opponent, so it's pretty elementary game theory. The problem with game theory is?and my little tiny small brain is working on this currently?that it's hard to take into account microchoices, meaning that the small choices that people make are hard to... You get caught up in the very small minutiae. Game theory to me gives me more of a broad framework of destinations that you want to go to, destinations that you don't want to go to, and then understanding your opponent, and your own utility, and how they relate to those things.
SI.com: So you're laying out a process, but it's not outcome based. Is that correct?
Jackson: The outcome is kind of clustered. That's a well that I haven't explored all the way yet, that I'm right in the middle of doing as we speak, but you want to make sure that you have layers of safety. I don't know how well you know fractals, but it fractals across scale, in other words, the macro, the big decisions are then gone into little decisions and littler decisions and littler decisions. Initially you're fighting for big things, but then you're fighting for the small things that affect the big things. Anyway, long story short, you want to have layers of safety for yourself and you want to get the layers of safety off your opponent and how you do that can sometimes be gross motor skills, like just big movements?you know, constantly pressuring him, something like that?or it can be really small. Like I said earlier, you pass the guard to the left, and as you pass the guard to the left, that's the one place that the guy can't stop you.
SI.com: Who's the best guy you've had as far as picking up what you're talking about right now?
Jackson: They're all pretty good. That's the deal, when you're at this level, all the fighters are so smart. They're really intelligent guys. And they love that stuff! Anybody that's an artist loves their art in some way, shape or form. They love talking about the deeper, underlying principles of their art.
SI.com: When a guy like Jones is doing things that shouldn't physically be possible, how does that interact with that kind of pressure you're talking about?
Jackson: Well, that creates its own pressure. You're getting hit with stuff you don't recognize, that isn't comfortable and familiar. That's why he gets people into bad positions so quickly, is that he's doing things you're not used to. You're not used to the spinning elbows, or these weird, these impossibly odd rhythm changes that he's doing. You're supposed to go jab, jab, cross, and he's doing weird stuff. That's one of the reasons he has success, because that creates its own pressure, if that makes sense. Because remember there are very different styles. There are pressure fighters, there are artistic fighters, there are unorthodox fighters, there are a lot of different styles from which you can figure out your style, then you have to figure out how you're going to break people from there. And Jon Jones breaks people by them not understanding what's happening, by messing with their pattern recognition.
SI.com: The question that flows out of this is about this idea that your guys fight safe.
Jackson: That horse has been pretty well rode into the ground, we brought out the numbers and anybody that's still talking about that and still hasn't taken a look at the stat sheet for even just the last year... yeah, I think that argument's pretty well null and void.
SI.com: Do you think people are mistaking fighting in a structured fashion for fighting safely?
Jackson: Some of that. Remember that fans are more educated, and you have really, really smart fans. But you still have that contingent of fans that was telling, in the old days, them to stand up and hit each other. Well, that faction hasn't gone anywhere, it's not like those people have decided to leave MMA. They're not appreciating the artistic part of the art. They're the same people that watch Nascar and hope somebody crashes. They're not understanding the subtleties of the race, they don't really give a f___ about the subtleties of the race, they're looking for somebody to smash somebody else. And, you know, that's fine, but we're artists. We always try to finish fights, because that's the safest way to win, but you get into these technical battles and most of these guys don't have the background to understand that technical battle. Now, there are a lot of fans that do, and I think the majority of the fans really do understand. I think it's a few fans that are very vocal because they don't quite understand what's happening. Empty barrels make the most noise, that's a good way to put it.
SI.com: Do you think the current bonus structure in UFC encourages that mentality?
Jackson: Of trying to finish? I think it's really nice for the fighters to have something to shoot for. I think it's great that if you get a fight of the night or a knockout of the night you get even more money. I think it's a really, really good thing. I'll never get upset by somebody wanting to pay the fighters more money.
SI.com: I question it. I wonder if it encourages fighters to go away from their strong points.
Jackson: I think fighters always want to win. If you're not a knockout artist then you should try to submit them, and if you're not there you can keep fighting, but I don't think it's going to make a huge difference. I don't think the cage is going to close and you're just going to?I mean, I hope not!?just abandon all hope and try to swing and knock a guy out, because they don't give you the knockout bonus for being knocked out. So you still always have to be safe. I don't think it affects it too, too much. I actually like the bonus structure, just because it can really give you the possibility of winning more money, and it's pride. You know what I mean? "I got fight of the night." That's great, and you see a lot of my guys are really proud of that fact.
SI.com: Not to keep coming back to him, but Jon Jones is such a fascinating guy because he has the physical capacity to do things that people can imagine, but no one has been able to do yet. I don't want to throw the catchphrase out there, but he's something like the first fourth-generation fighter. What kind of doors does he open up?
Jackson: He has a unique creativity. To me, he's more of a unique person, because he's got an incredible reach, an incredibly creative mind and he's actually a real challenge for me as a coach, because I want to make sure that he's got his basics really strong but I have to keep that creativity, his spinning elbows and all the crazy stuff that he does. So those two things, making them concurrent, and trying to get him to the ultimate goal of being able to have solid basics but also able to continue that, man, it's such a challenge. And he's so smart. So he is a very challenging student to have, because I don't want him to lose what makes him exciting, but at the same time, when you get to the higher levels if you just rely on flashy stuff there are going to be people that are going to get through that. You have to have solid basics and then move back and forth between the two. So it's a real challenge, and something that's very exciting for me. He offers, I think, a glimpse into what we all can be, but I think Georges [St-Pierre] even more so, because Georges doesn't have that reach and stuff, so that you can really see that he is well rounded in all areas. I think Georges for me is really the first prototype that has everything that you want in a fighter, and Jon Jones is kind of following in those footsteps.
SI.com: GSP is moving so fast, but you can see him slowing everything down for himself.
Jackson: Are you talking about the manipulation of his rhythm?
Jackson: Yeah, he is very conscious. Fighting is all rhythm. You know, Sugar Ray Robinson, back in the day, he would always do that little hop thing that Muhammad Ali later did. I don't know how familiar you are with the old days of boxing, but when he would go out to a ring, he would do this little thing that Ali would then do, because Ali wanted to be Sugar Ray Robinson with every bone in his body. So he would bounce around listening to the music and he would try to find his rhythm, and he used to say, "I wish the band would play my entire fight," so he could keep that rhythm going. Rhythm is such a huge part of combat, it's an integral part of combat. Georges is really conscious of that and really focuses on maintaing rhythm, control of it over his opponent, finding his own beat and playing around with it. Keith Jardine is another guy that follows that pattern, but Georges is very conscious of his rhythm. So when you watch him changing and slowing things down or speeding things up, that's very conscious on his part.
SI.com: You mentioned jazz, so I want to throw this out there: Do you know Lennie Tristano at all?
Jackson: I'm much more the classic bebeop, Charlie Parker, Charlie Mingus kind of guy. So I've probably heard the name, but I'm much more into classical, actually. Should have brought that up.
SI.com: You would probably love Tristano. He played with Parker, founded this school that was simultaneous with bop but at an angle to it. There's something just a bit skewed there. It's very similar to what you're talking about with St-Pierre, it's slowing things down, speeding them up just a little bit, it's just a little bit off-kilter.
Jackson: You got it. See, music and fighting are very similar.
SI.com: What do you get out of Parker as far as rhythm?
Jackson: What do I like about him? This is very visceral, but the way Parker goes fast, slow, fast fast slow, that's how a fight is. You go in these little bursts and it mellows out for a minute and comes back in, it's almost like a fugue in a way, and then it goes back into these bursts and that's very combatesque. So just the structure of what he does is what I really enjoy. The rhythm, the feeling of it, is very combative. If I'm looking for specifics, what can music teach you specifically, I always go to Bach, because the counterpoint style is the most structurally close to what we do style that I've ever seen. The crab canon, the mirror canon, everything that he does with his canons is exactly what we do with fighting. So where Parker has a pushing and a pulling and a changing of the rhythm that feels very combatesque, I'm actually looking at structure stuff. That's very interesting to me, and I always look at Bach.
SI.com: Do you lay that on your fighters? That you should fight like Bach?
Jackson: Some of them, yes, some of them, no. It's going to actually come out in a movie, the Warrior movie, with Beethoven being another one of my favorites. They do training to the Beethoven music a little bit in this movie coming out, so sometimes it gets picked up here or there. But definitely, there are ubiquitous principles in combat and they're in music, and they're in paintings, and they're in macro warfare?you know, actual big wars?and there are all these commonalities. The thing in my life is trying to figure them all out and reapply them to fighting.
SI.com: What painters would you lay in there as guys fighters should be looking at?
Jackson: It's playing with structure more than anything, I guess is what I admire about painting. Now, it's static. There's movement art and there's static art. The static arts are harder to learn and translate into movement arts, but just... the misperception of what is real. I'm a huge [Rene] Magritte fan. There's this misperception of what is real and what isn't and that is combat. Combat should be telling you what is not real and fooling you to what is real. So I really enjoy [M.C.] Escher, Escher's my favorite artist by far, but that element of art that is both ubiquitous in that style of art and also ubiquitous in fighting is one of the big things that I take from that style. I'm a huge Escher fan, all of the concepts that Escher does, some of them just go beyond. They're mathematical and they go beyond fighting. But there are more concepts like that, that being the biggest one to me. Like, "This is not a pipe." I love that one. Love it. This is not a jab. This looks like a jab, but it's going to be a right hand. The idea of fooling somebody with what they already know. And that goes in philosophy, too, like David Hume's causality, right? All causality is saying is that you believe what is going to happen tomorrow because of what happened yesterday. So that establishing a pattern and then breaking a pattern to fool your opponent is a direct correlation between just straight philosophy, structural philosophy, and combat.
SI.com: That is something a lot different than what most people in MMA talk to me about.
Jackson: Well, I might be full of s___. But it's seemed to work for us so far.
SI.com: It has worked for you so far. Now, let me throw something else out at you. There is this deep well of information because MMA is one of the few sports where you can break down everything that's happened. Do you make use of that information? Or is that kind of beside the point?
Jackson: Yes and no. I do, I do. What you're talking about is pure pragmatism. And so I went through a phase where I was all into, I found just that. Give me the numbers. And you need the numbers, and the numbers definitely have to be on your side. You need to understand what's happening, why it's happening, et cetera. Pragmatism is great as long as it doesn't dull optimism. That was my big thing when I was studying Dewey, especially Dewey's pragmatism. I was like, "Oh! I found it!" And my dad, who's a genius, said, "Well, you know with pragmatism, there's no room for optimism, and that's why I don't like pragmatism." And he's exactly right. If you always go by the numbers, Rashad Evans should have never beat Chuck Liddell. Should have never beat him. As long as you take the numbers with a grain of salt, they're fine. But if you let the numbers rule you, you're going to be in trouble. So the numbers are one factor, but you have to have this kind of unwavering optimism that needs to underlie everything that you do.
SI.com: Just, awareness of what the probabilities are?
Jackson: Right, and put those probabilities in your favor. But even if the numbers are against you, you can't let that dictate. You understand what I'm saying? It's one of those hard, tricky things. If you put too much into the numbers, you'll never win a fight you're not supposed to.
Bearing in mind Jackson's warnings about numbers, to go by them Saturday's lightweight title fight between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard is going to be more in the line of a chess match than anything that will excite that part of the crowd that just wants to see a lousy kickboxing match.
According to Fight Metric, UFC's statistical service, Edgar ranks first all time in strike avoidance among fighters who have had at least 500 shots thrown at them. As will surprise no one who saw him slipping B.J. Penn's jabs as if Penn had something other than astoundingly good boxing technique, Edgar's opponents have a striking accuracy of just 24.5 per cent. Maynard, meanwhile, ranks fourth, at 26.6 per cent. Since neither man is in his own right a striking dynamo, this is quite likely to be a five-round battle for positions.
That probably isn't a battle Edgar can win. At 75 per cent, Maynard's rate of successful takedowns is second highest all time, bettered only by Georges St-Pierre. Moreover, he's an exceptional control artist. The first time these two fought, Maynard maintained positional control for 6:18 of a 15 minute fight; Edgar kept it for all of 32 seconds. That's what happens when you're fighting a man who's stuffed 16 of 19 of takedown attempts against him, a rate that will place him fourth all time if he's able to stop one Edgar shot.
Whether this sounds interesting to you is down to taste, but while this is hardly likely to be the most commercially successful bout of the year, it should be one of the more intriguing. There is a lot of sloppy kickboxing to be found up and down fight cards around the world, and next to no tactical defensive fighting on the level Edgar and Maynard can offer. Fighters like these two, UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and Lyoto Machida are probably never going to star in remakes of bad 1980s television shows, but what they do is a fine demonstration of what Jackson is talking about when he says that art can happen when you lock two men in a cage.
Tim Marchman can be reached at email@example.com.