No sport does contrast quite like mixed martial arts does. The fighters are almost cartoonlike physical specimens, all Michelangelo muscles and cables of veins. Yet, on the interior, they are some of the most delicate -- sometimes even damaged -- and gentle souls you could hope to meet.
The UFC, the sport's undisputedly dominant organization, is a case study in slick marketing and new school media, going so far as to broadcast undercard fights on Facebook and give fighters financial rewards for upping their Twitter following. Yet the sport itself is powerfully raw, old school and stripped of gloss. Two fighters -- wearing only shorts, gloves and abundant tattoos -- enter a chain-link octagon. They fight. One wins. One loses.
Maybe most significantly, there's this: MMA is the ultimate individual sport, gladiatorial combat stripped to its essence. Yet it's also a team sport. You can't train alone. You can't spar by yourself. You also can't deal with the rhythms -- the surges, the setbacks, the uncertainty, the intensity two or three fights a year, buffeted by months of training and contemplation -- in solitude. So it is that fighters align themselves with camps. They don't just train together; they exist together, sometimes even living at the facility. For all the mythology of conventional teams bonding during road trips, long bus rides and flights, they seldom sleep together at the stadium. Like families, each MMA camp is different in its own way, almost like its own nation-state, flush with its own customs, ethical code, hierarchy, economy, even dialect.
Located on a charmless Albuquerque sidestreet, the Jackson/Winkeljohn gym is arguably the most successful, and inarguably the most unusual camp in MMA today. The roster of past and current fighters speaks for itself. Georges St-Pierre and Rashad Evans are among its alums. Jon Jones, the UFC current light heavyweight champ and brightest star in the MMA cosmos, is the camp's current alpha dog. But the gym is built in the image of two contrasting coaches, Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. And that's makes the place what it is. -- Jon Wertheim