From Pupil to Protege: Brandon Gibson Adding to the Arsenal in Albuquerque

Duane FinleyContributor IApril 22, 2014

Photo courtesy of Will Fox @thefoxidentity

When set against the back drop of the rough and tumble outpost of Albuquerque, N.M., and the hard-nosed champion factory of the Jackson/Winkeljohn fight gym; Brandon Gibson is a contrast to his surroundings.

While he is Texas born and New Mexico bred, the 30-year-old's presentation and laid back demeanor would lead one to believe he's of the Southern California variety. Everything inside the doors of the world renown facility on Acoma Street is all business, but it is rare to see Gibson break from his steady composure even when some of the most talented strikers in the fight game are throwing punches and kicks in his direction with thunderous intentions.

The punches crack off his mitts and shin bones slam into his chest guard just as Gibson shuffles his feet and returns the exchange with a wry smile of encouragement. And when it comes to that smile that hangs ever present on his face these days, it is a sentiment he's certainly earned the right to display.

Gibson's initial path through martial arts began on the other side of the ropes as trained in traditional disciplines and had his sights set in the avenues of boxing and kickboxing. Unfortunately, an injury brought that chapter of his life to a close.

Yet, with his ability to absorb the technical aspects of the craft and his appreciation for ways proven and tested moves that could be expanded with a fighters' personal creativity, Gibson saw a potential path in the coaching realm begin to materialize.

He had already been training under striking guru Mike Winkeljohn for years and decided to change his role from pupil to apprentice, as he set out to start a new chapter for himself in combat sports.

"I met Coach Winkeljohn when I was 21 years old, and I had already been boxing and kickboxing for some time," Gibson told Bleacher Report. "My coach at the time had encouraged me to go to Winkeljohn's pro sparring class to test out my skills and see what I really had, and I love everything about him from the start. I loved his teaching style. I loved his discipline. To have him as a coach and teacher, then to add someone like Greg Jackson into the mix, I couldn't have asked for two better mentors or role models." 

Photo courtesy of Will Fox @thefoxidentity

After a few years working under the tutelage of the storied team of Jackson and Winkeljohn, "Six Gun" has become one of the most promising young coaches to hit the scene in recent memory.

While the team in Albuquerque work in a realm of open communication, Gibson has played a crucial role in the development and rise of some of the most prominent names currently residing on the UFC roster.

Of that collective, there is none bigger than light heavyweight phenom Jon Jones. The 26-year-old champion has experienced a meteoric rise since making his Octagon debut back in 2008, as he's decimated a list of former champions and future Hall of Fame fighters en route to not only becoming the youngest champion in UFC history but the most dominant one as well.

"Bones" will be looking add another notch on his record-setting run of title defenses when he faces Glover Teixeira this weekend at UFC 172.

His fight with the Brazilian powerhouse will ultimately be one more high-profile showcase in what has already been a young career spent under the brightest lights the UFC has to offer, and he appreciates having Gibson by his side throughout his journey.

"I consider him my Bundini Brown," Jones said. "Bundini was Muhammad Ali's cornerman and right-hand man. He knew Ali best. That is what Brandon is for me in my career. He's a phenomenal coach....a phenomenal friend. He has a great spirit towards martial arts and life in general. He's a great example for me for his work ethic and the way he is as a father and husband. Brandon is an all-around great example, and I'm really glad to have him in my life and with me in my career."


Photo courtesy of Will Fox @sixgungibson instagram

Where the New York native used a blend of his wrestling pedigree, athleticism and creative tendencies to launch his trajectory under the UFC banner, it has been the unorthodox attacks in his striking game that has made him one of the most difficult puzzles in MMA.

The pound-for-pound great has shown improvement at such a rate that the ceiling for his skill set is yet to reach a projected plateau. Gibson has had a front seat to Jones' rise and is constantly inspired by the way the champion sharpens his weapons and adds to his arsenal.

"The creative element is such an amazing part of the process for me," Gibson said. "During some of our sessions where we are working on basic technical moves over and over again, something will happen where Jon will have a spark, or I'll have a spark and something unique will come out of it. A big part of that is knowing all the fighter's personal styles, where a move one guy comes up with may also fit another fighter's style. For instance, Jon may come up with this amazing follow up elbow that ends up being a perfect fit for John Dodson and Carlos Condit's striking games as well. I will walk out of those sessions inspired then try to keep that rolling and inspire the rest of the team."

When it comes to fighters who push the boundaries of conventional striking in the current era of MMA, Cub Swanson is certainly a card carrying member of the club.

The SoCal representative has consistently displayed a willingness to execute high risk/high reward techniques in the heat of battle, as "Killer Cub" has risen to become one of the most dominant finishers in the highly competitive ranks of the featherweight division.

The 30-year-old contender has been honing his craft in Albuquerque for years and is one of the fighters who is quick to tout the benefits Gibson brings to the table. Swanson has been around the fight game for nearly a decade, and he's certainly no stranger to the tensions that can arise when egos clash inside the gym.

With that being said, the humility in Gibson's open-minded approach is one Swanson certainly appreciates and believes it is perhaps the striking coach's greatest asset.


Photo courtesy of Will Fox @sixgungibson Instagram

"Brandon is the guy who will show up to work and push all ego aside," Swanson said. "He's so eager to learn, and he's working under these great coaches that he will be open to whatever you want to do and he'll jump right into it. Coach Wink will have me working on certain things one day, then when it's time to switch it up or there is something I really want to work on, I'll grab him and we'll work that to death. 

"We'll vibe on things for sure when we are working together. He'll throw in his two cents, then we'll examine the situation and see if it is working or if there is something we need to be doing better. We just feed off communication from there, and it's a pretty cool thing. Having the guys you are working with being open to listen to you is very important. 

"At the end of the day, we look at the entire process to see what worked, what didn't and why those things were or weren't effective. There isn't a whole lot of ego involved, and that is the biggest thing. We are a team, and that's huge."

The word "team" can be a subjective term in MMA, but the traditional meaning holds firm inside the gym at Jackson/Winkeljohn. Although every fighter ultimately competes on his own, it takes a solid effort by a group of motivated individuals to properly prepare them for the challenges ahead.

While the lion's share of the recognition for consistently producing the stream of elite-level talent that comes out of Albuquerque rightfully falls on the shoulders of the two veteran coaches, an upstart group—of which Gibson is a member—is currently aiming to groom the next generation of fighters to emerge from the storied locale.

Mike Valle brought his signature combination-based attack to the table, while Israel "Izzy" Martinez has instituted his wrestling program that has the fighters at Jackson/Winkeljohn grappling at an entirely new level.

Photo courtesy of Will Fox @thefoxidentity

When all of the talent in the coaching staff is combined, it creates one of the most unique "think tanks" to be found anywhere in the sport.

With that being said, all the knowledge in the world wouldn't matter if communication wasn't front and center, and that aspect is something Gibson and the rest of the fighters training in the gym have grown a deep appreciation for. 

"We are always sharing ideas on our team," Gibson said. "Whether it be between the coaches or the fighters; we are always communicating with one another. We also pay attention to what other fighters are doing across the sport. Jose Aldo may use a certain kick in one of his fights that was incredibly effective and efficient, and we will work to incorporate that where it would fit with our fighters. It is almost as if there is a live science project going on every weekend in the UFC. We get to see what is working and what isn't, even if it isn't necessarily our guys out there fighting inside the Octagon."

Much the same as the fighters he works side by side with into the late night hours, Gibson's primary goal is to progress his skills and talents in the fight game.

Where the athletes inside the cage are on a constant push to progress their skills and evolve into a slicker, stronger version of the fighter they were in their previous showing, many of the same things apply for Gibson on the coaching side.

With just a handful of years under his belt in a coaching role, Gibson is certainly aware of how much room there is for personal growth. In fact, the quest for progression and development is something he downright cherishes, and it is a pursuit where a lack of motivation is never a challenge.

Nevertheless, every man or woman who has ever dedicated their lives to combat sports is eager to leave their mark. Where Gibson once believed that would come from his ability to string together combinations, cut angles and use his footwork to set up the highlight reel shot, he now understands his greatest talent is showing another passionate combatant how to work in rhythms most never come to understand.


Photo courtesy of Will Fox @sixgungibson Instagram

When everything comes together in a perfect moment and a fighter like Tim Kennedy turns out a scrappy Brazilian's lights with an impeccably timed left hook they had been drilling for weeks on end, the possibilities Gibson has only recently come to imagine all appear there for the taking.

Yet, where the glory of victory elevate those involved to great heights, the shocking moments filled with setback and despair are also a painfully realistic part of the hurt business.

In Gibson's mind, he'll take every part of the process to heart because he legitimately cares for his teammates chasing down their dreams inside of the cage. He wants them to reach their full potential and knows the collective push will force him to reach his own.

Gibson wouldn't have it any other way and has confidence the process of reaching his goals will put him in a place to usher the next wave of Albuquerque-based talent to greatness.

"I just want to keep developing my craft and helping the fighters on our team," Gibson said. "Every week and each month we have a new goal, and I want to keep helping in any way I can. In the long term, I really want to fully develop a style of my own. I believe I'm really hitting my stride where MMA striking, ranges and transitions are concerned. Working under Coach Wink and Greg, I think I can help make sure Albuquerque continues to breed champions for another two decades." 


Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.