The Fighting Spirit of Albuquerque Can Be Found at Jackson/Winkeljohn's MMA

Duane Finley@duanefinleymmaContributor IFebruary 10, 2014

Photo courtesy of Will Fox

"There Will Be No Shelter Here"

                                Rage Against the Machine

The vast openness of the Southwest has always made it a place where what you can make of something becomes the reality.

Among the dust-covered, sunburned mesas, opportunities have to be forged where they would be readily available in other parts of the country.

In that environment, fighting becomes a way of life in both the metaphorical and physical senses. A constant scrape against the grain just to get by is the modus operandi of the vast majority. Fighting and the will to do so is a necessity in New Mexico’s largest city. Whether it is fighting for a better way of life, or fighting to get by, it is fighting all the same.

Albuquerque is a place where the golden sheen of the “American Dream” is a chapter apparently left out of most guide books. While some press forward by any means necessary, others take a literal approach to the fight.

To put it in clear terms, theirs isn’t a place of comfort because such things are not to be found in such a barren existence. Theirs is a place where if you have the moxie to rise above, there is a chance to forge that mettle into greatness.

“It is a place that marches to the beat of its own drum,” former interim welterweight champion and lifelong resident Carlos Condit told Bleacher Report. “There are a lot of negative and positive things that go into that, but it can be a rough place. The kids I grew up were all tough-ass, hard-nose kids and you can find that anywhere you look in Albuquerque. Whether you are in the poorer areas or even in the nicer parts of town; there are tough kids everywhere. You can see that in every single fighter that is from Albuquerque. You take the guys that are considered to have the most heart in the UFC, and I guarantee at the top of the list are going to be guys who are born and bred in Albuquerque.  

“It’s a place where you have to make your own opportunity and people have been doing that for hundreds of years here. People initially came here to cut out a living for themselves and it’s a theme that has carried on. That environment breeds people who are resilient and driven because they have to be. On the other side of things, it would be nice if things came a little bit easier, but these conditions force you to demand more from yourself. The guys who come out of Albuquerque, we started out with this career choice, and we had to build this thing from scratch out here.”

Photo courtesy of Will Fox

On the Southeast side of the city, there is a place where this struggle enters another plane of existence.

At Jackson/Winkeljohn MMA, a collection of the willing gather to ply their trade in the business of pain, in hope of discovering something greater. Where some are mining for championship gold, others are in search of a sense of calm or reprieve from the storm of everyday life that rages beyond the gym walls of the warehouse-sized structure that rests on the west side of Acoma Street.

Each individual who walks through their doors is on a unique path. With that in mind, Coach Greg Jackson is of firm belief the effectiveness of his guidance relies largely on his ability to recognize and adjust to this circumstance.

"It's all personality oriented," Jackson told Bleacher Report. "We have 50-60 fighters in here right now and you have to be able to juggle a ton of alpha male personalities. I'm thankful I have Mr. Winkeljohn. We spend so much of our time managing a situation that can become pretty intense at times. The reason I think some coaches aren't able to stay successful for a long period of time is because they have one way of doing things. That's the way they've done them forever and they won't change.

"I think the high level thing to do there is to understand the different individuals you are working with. You have to be able to teach people how to fight to their specific body style and personality, and because of that, you have to know a bunch of different ways to do it. You can't teach a guy with short arms to fight like Muhammad Ali. It's not going to work because that body type does not have the necessary reflexes. You have to find what style works with this person. What style is going to make them more effective and how can you cater to them. And that is just teaching on a stylistic level.

"Then you have the psychological level," he added. "You have to look at how you will make them stronger. You have to figure out your method of how you will motivate them, break them down and build them back up. Some people you can yell at and that works well. Others you yell at and they just shut down and hit a wall. In that case you have to intellectualize it more. You are trying to show them that they don't understand because their logic says this, but in reality, it's actually this way I'm telling you. Everybody has different approaches so understanding your fighter is crucial. That goes way back. Sun Tzu said, 'Know yourself and know your enemy.' If you know who you are fighting and who your fighter is; you get the best results."

While finding and keeping the rhythm of the fighters under their roof was the first and foremost necessity, the ever-changing state of MMA became the never-ending challenge.

With the fight game in constant evolution, the only way for the team leaders to keep stride was to make sure their methods and skills remained ahead of the pack.

Aug 28, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Carlos Condit (red gloves) fights Martin Kampmann (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night 27 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports
Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

The sport of mixed martial arts and the fighters involved once fit the rough and tumble outlaw description in the often labeled “dark ages,” but the push toward mainstream athletic conscious has the “athlete” label being thrown out more now than ever before.

Blitzing gave way to precision. Brute force was replaced by tactical strategy. Haymaker heavy brawling was replaced by ice-cold surgery performed live on pay-per-view.

This also ensured Jackson and Winkeljohn would never succumb to the temptation to run on auto-pilot because running the ship hands on at all times doesn’t allow for coasting.

Where many other gyms struggled and still struggle to adapt to new techniques and spreading that knowledge throughout the team, collaborative education has always been a way of life at Jackson’s.

“Initially Greg started out with a couple of guys from different martial arts backgrounds,” Condit described. “They were rolling and sparring together out of his garage and basement. This is back in the early 90s right around the time the UFC was first getting started. They saw what was going on, had a lot of interest in it and developed what we see now as the modern mixed martial artist as far as the well-rounded fighter who has a lot of different ways to win. They were doing that in the earliest days of the sport rather than having guys who were all wrestling, grappling or stand-up.

“We were taking people from different backgrounds and bringing them together to really see what worked. Initially these guys were testing these skills on the streets because we are talking about bouncers and police officers who were taking what they were developing, using it in live situations, then coming back to discuss what worked and what didn’t. Eventually when there became more options, guys were going out to Vale Tudo and 'no holds barred' events and doing the same thing.

“That said, things haven’t always gone the smoothest over the years,” he added. “There have been splits on a few occasions where people have gone off on their own roads, but that’s just life I guess. That’s how things go sometimes."

When the place you call home is regarded as one of the absolute best in the world and is sought out by talent in every phase of their fighting career, keeping things balanced is undoubtedly a difficult dance.

As Jackson’s team has developed over the years, the squad has dealt with challenges of every variety imaginable. What started out as a homegrown collective of Albuquerque area fighters, began to grow into an entirely different type of monster.

Aug 31, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA;   Clay Guida gets ready for his fight during the UFC-164 bout at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

While “ABQ” natives remained, other highly talented fighters came to the gym in hopes of tapping into the unique treasures of the environment…namely working with Jackson and Winkeljohn and doing said work at 4,500 feet elevation.

New faces the likes of then rising star Georges St-Pierre and future light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans marked one particular era, while the emergence of pound-for-pound phenom Jon Jones became the face of another.

Once a remarkably high level of talent became a fixture at the gym, fighters from all corners of the team’s roster began to elevate their game to new heights.

Fighters like Clay Guida and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone have used the ultra-competitive environment to discover the pop necessary to become contenders, while a prodigy such as Cub Swanson has been able to feel the elation that comes with finally living up to the potential of what was initially recognized.

Forging champions and contenders has happened with such frequency over the past two decades that every young fighter wants to be the next great thing to come out of the Albuquerque-based gym.

While the scenario is beyond appealing for any rising talent that would get the chance to train there, the reality of the demand is a bank note the majority can’t handle.

In the case of flyweight Nick Urso, it was the only option.

When the Florida native showed up for his trial period/audition, he was partnered up with certified 125-pound powerhouse John Dodson. Urso was about to find a few stark truths in a short amount of time, one of which is if he was truly as good as he believed himself to be.

Where all fighters are wired with something different that changes the shade of the conflict alert, the profession as a whole isn’t one where the drive to show and prove is automatically there. In fact, there are plenty of cases where it is entirely non-existent.

In Urso’s case, it was there in spades, and he found the place he knew he belonged.

Photo courtesy of Will Fox

 “I had been training in Tampa, going to different spots, and had been outgrowing them all,” Urso said. “I really needed to see some tough training to find out where I was at skill wise. I needed something to push me to the next level, and with the history and reputation of Jackson’s, I would have been dumb not to check this place out first. I hit up the website and sent an email saying I was interested in coming out.

“My little brother and I came out for a week and John Dodson was the first person I met when I walked into the building. We hit it off immediately and had a great grappling session. We really got after it and really clicked on all levels. The rest is history for me because I knew that day this is where I needed to be. The coaches and fighters were exactly what I was seeking in order to push my skills to the next level. I immediately knew this gym was where I needed to be and haven’t looked back since.

“You have to be tough to survive out here. That’s the environment in Albuquerque. The altitude and the overall rough edges of the terrain makes me believe it is a place that was meant to breed fighters. I think the area speaks for itself in that aspect. Some of the best fighters in the world train in Albuquerque. If you can survive and flourish here, you can make it anywhere.”

A prospect with the potential Urso possesses is a piece to the puzzle that ultimately shapes the bigger picture for Jackson’s MMA.

In order to keep the gym in a constant state of progression, the next wave of talent has to emerge so that somewhere down the line, a decade or so from now, the fighters who were once scrapping for a bigger piece of respect are suddenly fending off a pack of hungry newcomers.

While the athletes who step inside the cage are typically the ones touted for the potential they possess, one of MMA’s best kept secrets is on the verge of gaining some recognition.

While “Coach Wink” is the striking guru on the team and oversees the development in the stand-up game of his fighters, the crafty veteran has been grooming Brandon Gibson as his protégé.

“Six Gun”—as he’s known around the fight community—has gone from working mitt sessions for a collection of the gym’s top talent, to developing and implementing his own striking system. Where the majority of head coaches would keep the outside information his fighter receives to a minimum, Winkeljohn shares the same mindset as his counterpart Jackson in this regard.

The system is run by a collaborative brain trust…one Gibson has certainly benefited from being a part of.

Photo courtesy of Will Fox

“In my early 20s I started working with a Dutch kickboxer and learning from him for about a year,” Gibson explained. “He was one of Coach Winkeljohn’s students, and once I was good enough or my confidence was there, he invited me to come to Coach Winkeljohn’s school and I took to his style right away. He’s no nonsense, strict and almost militant about things, but he’s also a world champion and everyone just has so much respect for him. I just stuck to Coach Wink.

“A broken bone in my leg ended my fighting career, but with having spent my entire life in the gym, I couldn’t and didn’t want to break that habit. I realized there was a future for me as a coach and I sat down and talked to Greg and Wink. They started me out teaching classes then I started working with amateur fighters. While I believe I have somewhat of a natural knack for it, once I became confident in the things I was doing, everything accelerated. A large part of that is also due to Greg and Coach Wink mentoring me and bringing me along because I believe that allowed me to learn at a much faster rate.”

Gibson works hand-in-hand with his mentors to craft the striking games of fighters like Carlos Condit and UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, just as he does a cast of emerging fighters who have yet to establish a name in the sport.

When a third striking coach, Mike Valle, is entered into the equation, a truly unique scenario unfolds. Having that level of knowledge and experience readily available under one roof gives a small glimpse of just how much they are ahead of the game in Albuquerque.

“A lot of these guys I’m almost peers with because of our ages and to earn their respect has been huge—especially the veteran fighters or someone like Carlos who has been in the game for a long time,” Gibson said. “ Not only did I have to be creative and innovative, but my fundamentals had to be on point. On top of that, there is a psychological element involved. You have to figure out how to motivate these super alpha male, top-dog UFC champions. Being a motivator is always something that has come naturally to me but figuring out how to navigate new challenges excited me. I think they liked having me around and helping them to get focused and find that Bushido spirit.

“On top of that, Coach Greg and Wink have always taken a cerebral approach to fighting. They are the best guys in the world at developing a game plan and breaking down opponent strengths. They are great at coming up with a style that will offset what the guy challenging our fighter is going to try to do. Take Carlos’ second fight with Martin Kampmann for example. Kampmann is such a technical striker, but Carlos was able to pick him apart in that fight. Kampmann is trained by Ray Sefo who is one of the greatest ever, and Condit was able to be super effective using angles and level changes. He was able to get his hand raised in that one and I think that fight is a great example of the style Coach Greg, Wink, Mike Valle and I are developing.”

As new chapters unfold and mix with the storied history of a different era, the individuals who make up the team lead by Jackson and Winkeljohn will continue to work toward their goals.

Whether those ambitions are aimed at becoming a champion or simply discovering what they are made of, the guidance is there for everyone to find their way.

In a place where the only opportunities that exist have to be created, there is a tremendous amount of support and drive shared by the men and women who make up the team at Jackson/Winkeljohn MMA. In that sense, the gym off Acoma St. isn’t a place where comfort or shelter are sought, but provided in the way families can be forged through combat.

Brothers and sisters in arms…fighting together to prepare one another for the individual challenges ahead.

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