THE ANGRY POP-POP-POP-WHAP-WHAP WHAP OF A FIGHTER PUNCHING PADDED MITTS ECHOES OFF THE WALLS LIKE GUNFIRE, competing with the screech of AC/DC on the stereo. Nearby another fighter is on his personal Highway to Hell, grinding out miles on a treadmill, trying to melt 11 pounds off his 166-pound frame before a weigh-in days away. An older gym denizen known affectionately as Crazy Steve poses in front of a mirror and spins butterfly knives as if they were nunchucks. The resident pit bull, Maximus, gnaws on balls of athletic tape.
The fight gym is an iconic and beloved institution in the Republic of Sport, and on this warm Monday in May the Jackson/Winkeljohn Gym in Albuquerque has all the essential qualities. Air thick with the musky perfume of sweat, testosterone and industrial cleaner? Check. A rich and diverse cast of characters? Grit and romance? Tragedy? Check, check and check.
But the centerpiece at Jackson/Winkeljohn is not a ring with turnbuckles, as it was at the Kronk Gym in Detroit or Gleason's in Brooklyn. Rather, it's a chain-link octagon, one more indication that mixed martial arts (MMA) is surmounting boxing as the nation's combat sport of choice. Beyond that, the gym has an air of ... what, mysticism? It's less a battlefield than an ashram. Coleader Greg Jackson is a gentle goateed man who speaks in aphorisms, often in a voice so soft that you have to lean in to hear him. He's as likely to refer to a military tactician, a Renaissance painter or a jazz musician as he is to a sports figure.
On a wall at the gym's entrance, the obligatory autographed glossies of the many resident MMA stars bear inscriptions such as these:
I owe everything to you.—Nate Marquardt
You Are Creating a Whole New Me.—Cub Swanson
I am honored to be part of your team —Georges St-Pierre
Steel is only as strong as those who forge it.—Rocky Ramirez
Cage fighters express themselves like this?
The messages lay bare one of the great ironies of an ascending sport. The Ultimate Fighting Challenge (UFC), the leading MMA organization, is a Vegas-based juggernaut, wildly successful in part because of its relentless hype. Cards are slickly packaged events, all neon and bright lights, the front rows filled with celebrities—Shaq! The Biebs! Fitty! Bryce Harper! There's a UFC reality show. You can watch undercard bouts live via Facebook. Fighters are given cash bonuses for building their Twitter followings.