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How a powerhouse MMA gym rose out of necessity and is helping others

Jon Jones
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UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones poses with trainers Greg Jackson, left, and Mike Winkeljohn after a 2011 win. (Getty Images)

It was a necessity, Greg Jackson says solemnly, that he needed to learn how to fight.

Not a desire. Not a wish. A necessity.

One of the elite coaches in mixed martial arts, Jackson grew up on the dangerous south end of Albuquerque, New Mexico. One needed to be able to fight to survive, Jackson said.

"New Mexico is the poorest state and I was raised in the poorest part of the poorest state, in the south valley of Albuquerque," Jackson said. "There weren't a lot of other white kids around. I was one of the very few white kids, and in that Hispanic, Mexican culture that dominated there, there is a very machismo element.

"The people where I grew up, they don't care if you can read or write or how well you play sports. It's, 'Can you fight? Can I kick your ass?' The whole culture was about fighting, and I knew I was going to have to figure this thing out."

That eventually led to the birth of the now-famous Jackson/Winkeljohn MMA Academy, where elite fighters, such as UFC light heavyweight champion Jon "Bones" Jones, train.

With the UFC hosting an event in Albuquerque on Saturday for the first time in its history, the Jackson/Winkeljohn MMA Academy has been the sport's unofficial host for the week. Four of their fighters – Rustam Khabilov, Diego Sanchez, Erik Perez and John Dodson – are fighting on the show.

Many of the greatest champions in its history have trained at the gym, and its reputation spans the world.

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Greg Jackson, right, with his father, Jim. (Courtesy of Greg Jackson)

Greg Jackson, right, with his father, Jim. (Courtesy of Greg Jackson)

Much of it is lost on the local community, which co-owner Mike Winkeljohn said is largely oblivious to the gym's existence.

"It's an amazing thing as a whole, but not a lot of people here know too much about us," Winkeljohn said. "Albuquerque as a whole, they have their college basketball team and the college sports, but a big part of the community doesn't know about all the great athletes here and what is going on."

The gym has become a haven for professionals, and Jackson and Winkeljohn have each opened smaller gyms that serve the public. They both take in at-risk people in those gyms, often allowing them to work out and stay in the gym for free while they get back on their feet.

While they're known for their success in the pro ranks, they say they are greatly fulfilled by being able to help locals who are down on their luck.

"Greg has a heart of gold and he'd give you his last two quarters and the shirt off of his back if you needed it," Winkeljohn said. "There are a lot of people who have had a hard life, and we kind of scholarship them. It gets to be tough sometimes because there are so many who need help and we are running a business. But it's very rewarding to be able to do something to help them get turned around."

Jackson was born into helping others. He describes his parents, Jim and Kris, as "sort of pacifist hippies who felt they had a calling to do something good in the world."

Both were born in the Midwest. Jim Jackson was his high school's valedictorian and attended Cornell and Georgetown. Kris Jackson was also college educated and had a strong sense of social responsibility.

They wanted to use their talents to help the world, Greg Jackson said, and not necessarily parlay their brilliance into acquiring a fortune.

"They wanted to dedicate their lives," Greg Jackson said. "It wasn't like it was a hippie movement to them. They really believed in the social contract and giving back to society. My dad dedicated his life to helping handicapped people with their rights. He works for disability rights in New Mexico and he has for, oh, 30, 40 years now.

"His job is, he's the guy if you're a handicapped person and you're discriminated against, he's going to be there fighting for you. If you are in a state asylum and there's someone pouring Drano down your throat, he's the guy who will come in and stop it. He'll make sure everyone is treated as they should be. My mom spent her life as a cardiac nurse. She did a lot of social work. So I grew up with those values. They were from the Midwest, but they moved here because there was a lot of poverty and people needed help. They really pounded that into my head."

Jackson opened his academy in 1992, not so much to teach professional fighters, but to learn street self-defense. Many of his earliest students were friends, and they worked together to learn how to fight.

Many of the elite fighters he trained got into the sport because they were inspired by a Bruce Lee movie or by watching an early UFC card. But Jackson said his job grew out of necessity.

"It was just a necessity to have the knowledge of how to fight given where I was from," Jackson said. "It's not like I was all into the martial arts and I'd watched a Bruce Lee movie and had gotten all fired up and into it. I was in a place where you knew you would get jumped and would need to be able to fight. It was a vital need. I was only 17 years old when I opened my school in '92, and it was mostly my friends at first.

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John Dodson takes a break at the Jackson/Winkeljohn MMA Academy while training in April. (Getty Images)

John Dodson takes a break at the Jackson/Winkeljohn MMA Academy while training in April. (Getty Images)

" … There were no videos for us to watch and learn from. I'm self-taught. Very rarely can you learn something from instructional videos anyway, in my opinion, but I learned about fighting through trial and error. It's physics and geometry and we just got together and studied and figured it out."

That free exchange of ideas led to the gym's philosophy that exists today. It's not uncommon to see a striker helping a wrestler with his hands or for a jiu-jitsu expert to be teaching a partner how to defend submissions.

Jackson said he was fortunate to run into Winkeljohn, who was a professional kick boxer. He added an element that Jackson didn't have.

The combination of Jackson and Winkeljohn has produced numerous stars and made the gym one of the most renowned in the sport.

Winkeljohn said the gym's success is because of its all-for-one-and-one-for-all philosophy, and he said Jones is becoming a vital team leader.

"You see Jon getting guys together after practice and he's organizing group workouts where they work on different things," Winkeljohn said. "He's really become a leader here. He's very grown up now. We might have a guy who hasn't been making any money and is struggling and has a couple of bills outstanding and all of a sudden, it's paid. That's Jon. He's doing that kind of stuff for his team and he's also pushing them to get better and better."

The lives of many of the team members are immeasurably better for having been part of it all. "Do you have a couple of hours?" Sanchez said, when asked how he benefited from working at Jackson's.

Some of the toughest people in the world eat, sleep and work under that roof, and much of it is because of the neighborhood Jackson grew up in.

"I didn't open this gym or try to learn all of this because I ever thought of being a coach," Jackson said. "It was purely a decision based on geography. If I'd grown up somewhere else, I might have become a scientist, or a musician or something. I'm not really sure where my other talents lie.

"I'm not a naturally violent guy. I don't like to hurt people. I fought because I had to and I figured, 'Well, if you're going to have to fight, learn how to do it right because winning feels a lot better than losing.' I'm as shocked as anyone that we are where we are this many years later."

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