For all the established fighters at the gym, Jackson and his partner often let dreamers in the door, figuring that Darwinism will winnow out the weak. For $500 a month prospects can bunk at the Dorm, a crash pad above the gym, and discover how long they can stick it out. This spring they include Jared Bailey, 24, an introverted oilfield worker who left his wife and three kids in northern Alberta and drove 32 hours to central New Mexico to follow his bliss. "It's an individual sport," says Jones, "but it's a team sport. You need to learn from others, spar with others, so why not be with the best?"
During a typical Tuesday-morning sparring session, a barefoot Jackson, wearing a green T-shirt and shorts, yells out general instruction but spends most of his time pulling fighters aside for brief tutorials. Even in these microsessions there are bits of wisdom ("Don't always think you need to avoid someone's strength; if you expose his strength as being not that strong, you'll break him spiritually") peppered with Latin aphorisms and Zen references.
Reconciling the team and the individual is an enduring riddle for Jackson. He says, "We have a competitive-cooperative dynamic: You cooperate. And you compete. You can't go too far in either direction, or you don't improve. If it's all cooperation and no one is pushing you, when the fight comes, you won't be comfortable, you'll break mentally. If you're hypercompetitive and worried about dominating, you won't train with courtesy, and you don't belong here."
The other great challenge is having a few organizing principles for the gym while tailoring instruction to individuals. Some fighters relate to historical figures, so Jackson will cite his heroes: Lincoln, Washington, Genghis Khan, the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. Some fighters respond to authority, in which case Jackson takes a more autocratic approach. Others, like Jones, need to feel as though they're part of the process, in which case Jackson is more inclusive and collaborative with the fighter. "It's like the best of [ancient] Athens, where you have a democracy and it's give-and-take," says Jackson, "but it's also the best of Sparta, where you have dogmatic leadership. [Winkeljohn and I] have the final say."
While Jackson's parents have grown comfortable with his line of work, he still wrestles with what it is that he does so well. This undeniably violent, undeniably popular and undeniably evolving sport, what does it stand for? "It can't just be two guys fighting in a cage—that doesn't have a lot of social value outside of entertainment," Jackson says. "This sport should be taking kids that [might] be a detriment to society and teaching them to use those skills in a better way. It should take kids who don't want to compete and teach them martial arts: respect, discipline, courage."
TO A PERSON—yes, there are a few women in the stable—the Albuquerque fighters talk about the balance in the gym, "the yin-and-yang thing," as Keith Jardine puts it. The foil for Jackson is his partner, Mike Winkeljohn. Also a native of Albuquerque, Winkeljohn spent almost two decades as a professional kickboxer and Muay Thai fighter, winning international championships in both disciplines. If you tune in to ESPN Classic on the right night, you can see him kicking ass—sometimes literally—in the '90s.
Winkeljohn, who met Jackson in 1992 through a friend, was his partner's complete opposite from the start. Politically, Jackson leaned to the left; Winkeljohn leaned to the right. Jackson's expertise was in the geometry of ground fighting; Winkeljohn excelled when both fighters were on their feet. "We are who we are," says Winkeljohn, now 49, Jackson's senior by 11 years. "We like and respect each other. We like and respect fighting. So it works. If we came from the same place, it would limit us."
In 2007 they joined forces to found Jackson/Winkeljohn MMA. Independently, the partners characterize their relationship as "little brother, big brother." (Physically they could pass for siblings.) To the fighters it's more good cop, bad cop. Jackson encourages the fighters to talk through their feelings. Winkeljohn doesn't need to hear it; he needs to see it. "Coach Wink doesn't put up with anybody's anything," says Guida. "In a good way."
Jackson recommends books to his fighters. Winkeljohn gives them a lift to the Sandia Mountains for notoriously brutal training runs. While the Albuquerque camp is known as "Jackson's gym," the resident fighters will tell you it's an equal partnership: Winkeljohn's bluntness is just as effective and motivating as Jackson's nuance. "They are different in every aspect of their approach to fighting," says Isaac Vallie-Flagg, a lightweight, "and we're all better for it."
One day in the fall of 2009, Winkeljohn was holding pads for a fighter who was snapping off kicks. On one kick the fighter's toenail raked Winkeljohn's right eye, which "shriveled like a little grape" (his phrase), and he lost his sight in it. Winkeljohn now wears protective goggles when he works with fighters, which is up to 12 hours a day. "It sucks, but people have suffered a lot worse," he says of losing the eye.