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Yet the soul of the sport? It resides largely at a low-slung 7,000-square-foot building—defiantly unslick, classically old school—sandwiched between a storefront church and an auto-body shop on a featureless Albuquerque side street. It is here that most of the best fighters on the planet converge to train, seeking instruction from the sport's ultimate (and unlikely) one-two combination: a onetime pacifist (Jackson) and a one-eyed hardass (Mike Winkeljohn). "Honestly," says Jon Jones, currently the brightest star in the UFC cosmos and a Jackson/Winkeljohn disciple since 2008, "I don't even think of it as a gym."
No? What is it then?
Jones pauses, strokes his chin. Finally he says, "It's a place where you learn wisdom."
THERE'S A GOOD REASON why the debauched AMC show Breaking Bad is based and shot in Albuquerque. A poor city in a poor state, ABQ is a colorful town but a tough town. Tempers tend to run short; lines at bars tend to run long. Greg Jackson grasped the local vibe at a young age, having grown up in the city's south valley—where, as he puts it, "some of the greatest people in the world are living with some of the worst people."
Jackson's parents were transplanted Quakers from the Midwest. "They were hippyesque," he says, "and they had this idea that happiness came from helping people." His mom, Kris, was a nurse, and his father, Jim, still advocates for the state's disabled population when he isn't singing tenor with the New Mexico Philharmonic. The Jacksons were ardent believers in nonviolence. Which was virtuous and noble, but left Greg conflicted. Much of his childhood was spent balancing pacifism and reality. "There were times when I should've fought but didn't, because I didn't want to get into trouble and go against what my parents taught me," he says. "There were other times I got in fights I had no business getting into and got suspended."
After he graduated (barely) from Rio Grande High School, Jackson opened a small self-defense school based on Gaidojutsu, a martial art of his own creation that combines wrestling and judo locks with kickboxing. When Jackson wasn't teaching, he was devouring books on philosophy, religion, history, science, math. He incorporated much of this into his instruction. "What I've always tried to do is study everyone smarter than me, which, lucky for me, is most people," he says. "Any good trainer is using music to train fighters. He's using chaos theory, game theory, fractals. It's a lot of science and a lot of art."
A decade ago, as Jackson's gym was gaining traction, so was MMA, a sport that married the ground fighting of jujitsu and wrestling with the striking of boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai. One second you could be upright, eating punches; the next you could be on the ground, on top of your opponent, squeezing him like an anaconda. Fine by Jackson. He'd always been interested in blending combat styles. "All fighting is contextual to a time and place," he says. "Karate was [a response to] fighting a samurai. If he pulls out a sword, you have one chance to get him or he'll chop your head off. That's great. But it's basically irrelevant if you're fighting a boxer."
Jackson first took local athletes and trained them to become UFC stars. One was Diego Sanchez, a New Mexico state-champion wrestler, who won the middleweight division on the first season of the popular reality show Ultimate Fighter and has been in the UFC ever since. Another was Keith Jardine, a local tough guy who'd done some boxing and martial arts; he began training with Jackson in 2001 and, within a few years, was in the UFC beating fighters on the order of light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell.
Word of the mystical, cerebral trainer rocketed around the UFC subculture. Soon, like filings drawn to a magnet, fighters from all over converged on the stucco gym in Albuquerque. The full list of Jackson-trained UFC fighters is so long that it would need to be serialized. But it would include St-Pierre, a French-Canadian who became one of the most decorated welterweights in UFC history; Rashad Evans, an African-American and a former light heavyweight champion; Diego Brandão, a compactly built Brazilian featherweight and one of the UFC's brightest prospects; and Clay Guida, a Rafael Nadal lookalike and top lightweight from outside Chicago who headlines this weekend's UFC card in Atlantic City.
The current alpha dog in the kennel, though, is Jones. "It's so much more of a mental experience than a physical experience," the 24-year-old light heavyweight champion says of his training. "People see you punch or kick. They don't see the visualization, the meditation, the breathing—the things that really give you the warrior spirit."