He was running his own company at the age of 17, but Greg Jackson laughs and concedes he didn't have much business sense. He didn't understand politics or how important relationships are at the grass roots level when trying to establish and grow a business.
He didn't know much, he admits, about anything other than trying to discover innovative ways of beating someone up.
Jackson grew up in one of the roughest sections of Albuquerque, N.M., where, he says proudly, "throwing down and fighting is a part of the culture."
He bears the telltale signatures of a life lived fighting in the streets. There is the lower jaw that's about two inches offset from the upper. And there's the rib on the right side of his body that protrudes like a fork from a Thanksgiving turkey. And then there's the nose which changes directions more than an Olympic giant slalom course.
Not too many people who do your taxes look like that. But, he points out, a lot of them want to. Or, at the least, they want to learn how to make someone else's body look as battered and beaten as Jackson's.
And that's where Jackson's business sense turns out to have been not so bad. He opened a martial arts academy in Albuquerque as a teenager, where he taught others to fight just so he could support his own interest in learning.
Today, 15 years later, he's the most sought-after coach in mixed martial arts, the most curious of men who created his own style. His Jackson Martial Arts Academy is not only home to some of the biggest names in MMA, but it's also an in-demand stop for those who just want to learn to defend themselves.
"In this sport," Jackson says proudly, "you never feel like you've made it to the top. It's a constant evolution. There's always a better way to do something."
Jackson, who will be 33 on June 16, has learned most of them, as evidenced by his large and deep stable of world-class mixed martial artists.
Jackson is the primary trainer of UFC stars Georges St. Pierre, Diego Sanchez, Keith Jardine, Nate Marquardt and Rashad Evans.
He could have a larger group, but says he limits the number he'll work with because he wants to be able to give them his best.
"I don't think I'd be in the position I'm in now were it not for him," said Evans, who fights ex-UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz on July 7 at Arco Arena in Sacramento, Calif. "He's terrific."
When he started, though, Jackson said the word that comes to mind is "crazed." He had a thirst for knowledge and experimented to find out what would work and what did not.
He used to strike students in the shins with a stick in order to toughen their legs, an awkward and ill-conceived attempt to help them prepare to be kicked during a bout.
It wasn't long before he dispensed with that tactic, though he was, he concedes, "brutal" in his early days as a trainer.
But as his fighting style slowly evolved into what he refers to today as the "Gaidojutsu" form of mixed martial arts, he became a more patient and understanding teacher.
He hails from a family of wrestlers. His grandfather started the tradition and was quickly joined by his father, his uncles and his brothers. Greg, though, had thoughts beyond wrestling and began to contemplate how other forms of martial arts could be combined with wrestling.
When he read a book on judo, he had a defining moment in his life. He knew he had discovered the future of fighting.
Around that time, the UFC was born. The Gracies, a legendary family in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, started the UFC in 1993, though the sport of mixed martial arts was still several years away.
"When the UFC was begun, it was supposed to be the answer to the question, 'What would happen if you took all these different fighting styles and threw them in with each other?’ " UFC president Dana White said. "It wasn't mixed martial arts, then. It was to prove which style was the best."
And though there were a lot of tough guys in the world, none of them understood the nuances of the other disciplines.
Most foreign was the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Slender Royce Gracie, all 175 pounds of him, won the first event despite being the smallest man in the competition.
"The Gracies were light years ahead of where I was, but I could see where this was headed," Jackson said.
When he opened his first martial arts academy, which was a 1,000-square-foot building in a strip mall in a rundown section of Albuquerque, Jackson didn't worry about retaining his students or building his business.
He just wanted to learn, to find ways to create the ultimate fighting system.
"I never wanted to get in the cage and be a (professional) fighter myself," said Jackson, who nonetheless engaged in more than his share of brawls on the city streets. "I had this fascination with the combat sports and wanted to learn as much as I could so I could share what I learned with others."
Now that he has reached the point in MMA that, say, Emanuel Steward has reached in boxing, Jackson has a reputation to uphold.
And he's not sitting behind a desk shouting orders while chomping on a doughnut.
"I spar with my guys, I run with them, I do it all, because I can't really learn about them and what they can do until I've had a chance to feel their strength, to take one of their punches, to see how they move first-hand," Jackson said. "I try to lead from the front. I'm definitely hands on."
And while there is no question who is in charge, Jackson insists he's not a drill sergeant looking to embarrass anyone.
But he never hesitates to push and to try to coax just a little bit more out of every session. It is, Evans said, the reason so many flock to him.
"He's a unique person because he doesn't want anything from you," Evans said.
And, indeed, Jackson refuses to accept money from any professional fighter. He makes his living from those who enroll in classes or for private instruction at his academy.
"He has the ability to get your trust right away," Evans said. "He does it on a personal level and a professional level. His reputation is very big in this sport. He could charge a lot of money and guys would still want to work with him, because of who he is, but he's very sincere and he doesn't want anything from you.
"When you work with him, you see how well he knows his stuff. And he gets his point across to you so easily and it’s easy to learn from him. He's my idea of what a coach should be."