Brotherhood of the Cage

“It’s called the Mongolian Attack…”

I am watching Greg Jackson as he instructs Keith Jardine and Tait Fletcher on one of Jackson’s famously arcane mixed martial arts techniques before they begin a sparring session at Jackson’s New Mexico gym.

“What the Mongolians would do is rush in with their cavalry,” says Jackson from outside the ring, his eyes wide with the excitement of a kid revealing the plot to the next Harry Potter. “Then, when the knights would charge out to confront them, the Mongolians would turn around and appear to retreat. Then suddenly they would turn in their saddles, fire their bows over their shoulders, and decimate the knights with their arrows…” Jardine and Fletcher hang on Jackson’s every word.

“The point is, even though it looked like they were retreating,” Jackson pauses to be sure they get the point, “they were actually drawing you in.”

Keith Jardine, whose ring name is the “The Dean of Mean,” glowers across the ring, exuding menace. Tait stares right back at him and erupts with “I’M ABOUT TO GO MONGOLIAN ON YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” The two huge men, when they are not fi ghting each other, will tell you that they are like brothers.

Jackson’s martial arts school is tucked away on a side street, right before you get to the part of Albuquerque that you don’t want to be in after dark. On a sign above the entrance, a snake and tiger glare at each other across an oriental symbol. The gym is bare, ascetic, and out of the way. But like pilgrims flocking to some remote and inhospitable region of the Himalayas to sit at the feet of an eastern master, fighters from all over the world come to 5505 Acoma Street to learn from Greg Jackson. Although Jackson has shot to fame as a coach of professional fighters, and the gym boasts a large number of stars, he does not ask for payment from them for his ser vices. He earns his living from the dues his many private students pay to take his classes. Jackson is first and foremost a teacher.

Behind me, I hear Georges St Pierre enter the gym. Wearing sunglasses and talking on a cell phone, he could be a high powered Hollywood movie producer. He heads straight to the back to get dressed out. He is in town to train for his upcoming fight against Josh Koscheck.

My attention returns to the two men in the ring. Jardine is looking for the takedown, but he seems slow and plodding. His punches and kicks thud ponderously against Tait’s arms and legs as Tait blocks everything with apparent ease. Fletcher is the larger man and is countering well, frustrating Jardine with angles and generally getting the best of it. Then in a flash Jardine wakes up; he fires a quick three punch combination, pop, pop, bam, and instantly follows by shooting in and putting Tait on his back. It is like watching lightning strike. “Uh-oh …”I hear someone say, “he must have got Jardine mad.”

In addition to the many major stars that call the gym home, there is also a healthy class of fi ghters pushing up from beneath, just about break out. There is the dynamic grappler Damicio Page, local favorite Donald Cerrone and the lionhearted Leonard Garcia, who after losing the year’s most exciting fight to Roger Huerta in UFC 69, rebounded with an impressive win over Alan “Lobster” Berubie in the finale of The Ultimate Fighter. Garcia is so devoted to working with Jackson that he actually lives above the gym. With his entertaining style and his likeability, he is a big win or two away from being a star in the sport.

The gym is also home to several talented female fighters: Julie Kedzie, who is as perky and sweet outside the ring as she is ferocious inside it, a blonde Amazonian stunner named Holly Holm who may be the most devastating female striker on the planet, and a tiny woman who looks like the kind of innocent, mousy housewife you might find in any suburb across America. That is, until she starts throwing punches and becomes a little brunette buzz-saw. If Ricky Hatton and Sandra Bullock had a daughter, she would be Jody Escobel. When I ask what her ring name is, she says she doesn’t have one. After watching her practically run a sparring partner out of the ring I suggest one: “Give ‘em Hell.” Jody Give ‘em Hell Escobel.

Although this lower tier of fighters is still winning, the stars of the team have recently been beset by a string of high profile setbacks. At UFC 69, Diego Sanchez, who is no longer on the team, was upset in a snoozer of a fi ght by Josh Koscheck. Later that same night in the main event, St. Pierre was shocked by unheralded Matt Serra and knocked out. At UFC 71, Jardine got caught by a crude but heavy-handed Houston Alexander, and went to sleep just 48 seconds into the first round. Then recently, at UFC 73, Nate Marquardt was stopped in his title fight with UFC Middleweight champion Anderson Silva. While this fight was not an upset, Marquardt fought poorly and was easily dominated by the Brazilian champion. When I see him, Nate is still sporting a mouse under his left eye.

They’re all coming off losses, but you would never know it by the atmosphere in the gym. Rather than getting the impression that you are on a sinking ship, it feels like the losses have strengthened the team’s resolve to succeed.

There isn’t any professional rivalry or petty jealousy in this room. They are all training, struggling, and suffering together.

***

The gym is small enough that you can hear pretty much everything going on in it. Rashad Evans and St. Pierre, who has come out of the dressing room, are talking by the free weights.

“Man when you got daht finuhl takedown, he was feenished!” St. Pierre says in his Québecois accent. They both laugh in the knowing way fighters have when talking to each other about fights. Rashad shakes his head. “I know, he was done. DONE!” He clinches his fists and grits his teeth in mock frustration. “It’s okay, I’ll get his ass.” Rashad says suddenly turning serious.

I assume that they are talking about Evan’s last opponent, Tito Ortiz. At UFC 73 Evans fought the “Huntington Beach Badboy” to a draw. Rashad started out slow in the fight, as if he was surprised by Tito’s strength. But then he began to come on, and did in fact look to be getting the better of Tito when the final round ended. The rematch is set for October 20 at UFC 77.

***

Later in the day, St. Pierre is getting ready to spar in the gym’s Octagon and I ask Jackson if I can watch. “It’s your house, boss.” he says. One of the endearing peculiarities of Mr. Jackson is that he calls everybody “boss.”

Georges will work first against Marquardt. Jackson wants St. Pierre to practice staying on his feet and not getting taken down. Jackson knows that Koscheck, a decorated wrestler, will look to negate St. Pierre’s devastating standing strikes by bringing the fight to the ground.

As they begin, Marquardt works his way in behind jabs, throwing the punches in duplicate and triplicate while looking for the opportunity to shoot in and tackle Georges to the floor. The round is pretty uneventful, but Nate never gets St. Pierre off his feet. They spar for 5 minutes, with a 45 second rest. This is 15 seconds less rest between rounds than they will get in a real match; suffer in the gym so you don’t have to in the ring.

Next in with GSP (I always think St. Pierre’s nickname sounds like a nutritional supplement) is Rashad Evans. Rashad is more aggressive than Marquardt and looks to close the distance faster. Rashad has quick hands and his punches have snap, but they seem wide. He holds his left hand out in an exaggerated position, shaking it like he is dangling a bell in front of St. Pierre. This seems to me like it would be easy to counter, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe he is trying to draw St. Pierre in. If he is, it doesn’t work. St. Pierre is a study in composure, form, and economy of motion. A beautiful thing to watch.

Next is Keith Jardine. All of Georges’ sparring partners have been bigger than he is, but Jardine absolutely dwarfs GSP. St. Pierre seems to be tiring a bit now, and Jardine is able to utilize his size and strength to push him around, chasing him. Towards the end of the round, he gets St. Pierre down on the ground but then is reversed and ends up with the smaller man on top of him, in his guard. Keith didn’t see that one coming.

Finally Georges gets to face somebody about his own size, the valiant Leonard Garcia. Perhaps sensing that with St. Pierre tired the best defense might be a good offense, Garcia attacks St. Pierre like a pit terrier. Garcia, who is an excellent Jiu Jitsu player, is able to get Georges off his feet but then St. Pierre is able to catch Garcia being over-aggressive, and taps him out with an arm lock from the guard. Garcia, angry with himself for getting caught, cusses up a storm. Jackson stands them up and they begin again.

The whole gym has now stopped its activity and is watching the sparring. Jardine, Rashad, and Marquardt are on the outside shouting encouragement to both of their teammates as they come down the home stretch of today’s marathon session.

“Watch your head, Leonard…” Rashad shouts out.

“Sprint, George, spring… you’ve got 30 seconds left!” Jardine encourages GSP.

Everyone is amazed at how well St. Pierre has done today. The physical powers of the man; his speed, strength, balance, and endurance, bust be seen to be believed. It doesn’t really come across on TV like it does when you see it up close and in person.

“If Georges fights like this, Koscheck doesn’t have a chance.” Someone behind me says.

“Yeah, he’s going to walk through him.” I agree, perhaps a little overcome with the spectacle I have just witnessed.

“DON’T TELL ANYBODY!” Big Mike Van Arsdale shouts so that everybody in the gym can hear him. “That’s how shit gets in the wind.”

GSP, Greg Jackson, and the rest of the crew are planning a little surprise for Josh Koscheck.

 

*********

At the end of the day, I sit down with Greg Jackson in his office at the front of the gym. On the wall I notice portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Legend has it that both of the former Presidents were fine wrestlers. The tall and wiry Lincoln was said to have been strong as an ox and something of a local champion in his youth in Illinois. Washington, who was a powerful and robust man himself, once bested seven of his soldiers in a row in wrestling when he was 47 years old. These anecdotes are certainly stored away somewhere in Jackson’s encyclopedic memory.

“What I do…” Jackson stops as if forming in his mind exactly what he wants to say. “I look for underlying themes in nature. Just like physics governs everything from a show falling to the spinning of the planets, this process large works for this process small.” He is peering into my face to see if I understand. I think I do, but I want him to elaborate so I don’t say anything. “I look for that in combat,” he continues, “I look for axioms that govern, say a battle in World War II, that I can use the same principle in a one on one fight in the modern age.”

“A skeptic would say that they don’t have anything to do with each other.” I point out.

“Well, my favorite example,” he explains, “is what General Sherman said about keeping your enemy on the ‘horns of a dilemma.’” Here, Jackson brightens; his gestures become sharp and his mannerisms more animated. I am reminded of how energetic he was when he explained the Mongolian Attack earlier.

“When General Sherman was marching through the South in the Civil War, he would put his army particularly equal distances from two towns the South wanted to defend. Now whichever one the Confederacy defended, he would just march in and take the other one without much of a fight, which would then put him in position for two more towns. So this is an incredible axiom in combat because, for example, in your side mount you always want to set yourself up for two attacks, let’s say an arm bar and a choke. Whichever one your opponent defends, you should always be in position to rotate into the opposite one”
I ask him how such an obviously smart guy, the sort of fellow you might expect to be dressed in a tweed blazer pontificating about Kant’s Categorical Imperative to graduate students at Berkeley, ended up in such a rough business as mixed martial arts.

“I was blessed to be raised with a great family in a bad neighborhood. My parents were these incredibly intellectual pacifist hippies, and I was constantly being encouraged to experiment with thought and what not, but I was also basically the only white kid in an all Hispanic neighborhood growing up. They had this very machismo culture. They didn’t really care about anything except whether or not you could fight. So you’re this great little bookworm or whatever and it’s like ’I don’t care, I’m going to kick your ass.’ So I figure I’d better learn about this butt kicking stuff. That’s what got me into the martial arts.” Jackson’s crooked nose testifi es to some of his early scraps on the streets of Albuquerque.

“I had to find a balance, because I would fight in the streets and my parents would yell at me that fighting was not the answer, yada yada yada, and my life would be terrible, but if I didn’t fight my life would be a lot worse. So I discovered a middle road. That there is an appropriate time to use violence and an appropriate time to refrain.”

”I became almost entirely self-taught. I approached the martial arts with the same kind of reckless abandon that I approached any subject, whether it is philosophy or history or quantum mechanics. I have always loved to learn, I still learn. ‘How can I get the best leverage out of this position, how do I get out of this, where do I go’, you know what I mean?”

“You’re only 33 now, and very close to the top of the MMA world. Where are you at 53 or 63?” I ask. The question is a bit of a cliché, but appropriate in this instance I think.

“I think I have about 10 or 15 years of training fighters and traveling around with them left in me. I always want to teach. My favorite thing in the world is to teach, to give people what I get. When you teach a kid about an arm bar, or that they can get tackled by somebody bigger and stronger and still win, teach them that they can break a guy’s arm from that position, and they’re like ‘HOLY SHIT, HOLY SHIT. I see now’. Man, that’s addictive.”

We are interrupted by Georges St. Pierre, now showered and in street clothes. He has apparently overheard some of the conversation on his way out, passing by the open door of the office. “This man is a genius!” he exclaims for my benefit, pointing his finger at Jackson. “I’m serious, a genius!”

***

I fly out of the Albuquerque airport the next morning. My mind is mulling over this peculiar little shaman and his band of acolytes. They remind me of a platoon of soldiers, brothers in arms, who are pinned down at the moment under a withering fire, but who are kept together by esprit de corps and the almost mystical regard that they all have for their leader. Jackson’s guys might be a little shot up right now, but you can be sure he is preparing the counterattack.

My attention turns out the window, to the bareness of the New Mexico landscape. Viewed from on high, the terrain is brown and ugly. There really shouldn’t be anything out here, I think to myself. Then I see a perfectly symmetrical patch of lush vegetation, surrounded by miles of sand and rock. How did that happen, I wonder; a jewel of green amidst the violence of the high desert.

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