The Fighting Meme: Albuquerque New Mexico

“What the Mongolians would do is rush in with their cavalry…” Greg Jackson was weaving his spell from outside the ring, his eyes wide with excitement, “…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…” The two fighters in the ring, Keith Jardine and Tait Fletcher, hung on Jackson’s every word.

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

Jardine, whose ring name was the “The Dean of Mean,” glowered across the ring. Tait glared back at him and bellowed, “I’M ABOUT TO GO MONGOLIAN ON YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” The two fierce-looking men, when they were not fighting each other, would tell you that they are like brothers.

Rashad Evans and Georges St. Pierre, who had just come out of the dressing room, were talking by the free weights.

“Man when you got daht finuhl takedown, he was feenished!” St. Pierre said in his Quebecois accent. They both laughed in the knowing way fighters have when talking to each other about fights. Rashad shook his head.

“I know, he was done. DONE!” He clinched his fists and snarled mock frustration. “It’s okay, I’ll get his ass,” Rashad said suddenly turning serious. They were talking about Rashad’s recent fight with Tito Ortiz, which had gone to a draw.

The atmosphere in Jackson’s gym was easy going and good-natured even though many on the team had suffered a string of high profile setbacks. His first star fighter, Diego Sanchez, who was no longer on the team, had been upset in a snoozer of a fight by Josh Koscheck. Later that same night in the main event, underdog Matt Serra knocked out St. Pierre in the first round. Jardine got caught in his last fight by a crude but heavy-handed Houston Alexander and went to sleep just 48 seconds into the first round. And most recently, Nate Marquardt was TKO’ed by UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva. They were all coming off disappointments but you’d never have known it. The losses had strengthened the team’s resolve to succeed. There wasn’t any professional rivalry or petty jealousy in the room. They were all training, struggling, and getting better together.

In boxing, a good sparring partner is rugged, tough, has good cardio to keep the pace up, and is just dangerous enough to keep his partner on his toes but not so dangerous that he represents a threat. In MMA, on the other hand, you have to train with people who really push you, so everybody is always testing the limits and getting beaten up in training. Fighters who don’t have talented training partners suffer because of it as the sport passes them by.

When a coach wants to really push his fighter, he’ll throw him in the “Shark Tank”—or “Crucible”, different gyms have different names—but the point is that they keep throwing fresh bodies at you with no respite.

While I was at Jackson’s I saw GSP in the Shark Tank. First he went against Marquardt. Jackson wanted GSP to practice staying on his feet. His upcoming opponent was a decorated wrestler. Everyone knew he would look to negate GSP’s superior standing strikes by bringing the fight to the ground.

As they began Marquardt, a chiseled light heavyweight, worked his way in between jabs, throwing punches in duplicate and triplicate while looking for the opportunity to shoot in and tackle GSP to the floor.  His only job was to tire GSP out and get him off his feet but he never did. Between each round Jackson gave his fighters t a 45 second rest, 15 seconds less than they would get in a real match. Suffer in the gym so you don’t have to in the ring.

Next in with GSP was Rashad Evans. Rashad was more aggressive than Marquardt and looked to close the distance faster. Rashad had quick hands and his punches had snap, but they’d come in wide. He held his left hand out in an exaggerated position, shaking it like he was dangling a bell in front of St. Pierre. It seemed like it would be easy to counter but maybe that was the point. Maybe he was trying to draw St. Pierre in. If he was, it didn’t work.

Keith Jardine was next. All of GSP’s sparring partners had been bigger he was, but Jardine absolutely dwarfed him. St. Pierre seemed to be tiring a bit and Jardine utilized his size and strength to push him around and accelerate the pace, catching the smaller man in clinches against the cage. Towards the end of the round, he got St. Pierre on the ground but GSP quickly flipped him and ended up on top, in Jardine’s Guard.

Finally GSP got to face a smaller fighter, the valiant Leonard Garcia. Sensing that with a fatigued St. Pierre the best defense might be a good offense, Garcia attacked St. Pierre like a pit terrier. Garcia, an excellent Jiu-Jitsu fighter, was able to get GSP off his feet but GSP quickly caught him being over-aggressive and tapped him out with an arm lock from the guard. Garcia, angry with himself for getting caught, cursed up a storm, as Jackson stood them up to begin again.

The whole gym had now stopped and was watching the sparring. Jardine, Rashad, and Marquardt were on the outside shouting encouragement to both of their teammates as they came down the home stretch of the marathon session.

“Watch your head, Leonard…” Rashad shouted.

“Sprint, Georges, sprint… you’ve got 30 seconds left!” Jardine encouraged.

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

“Yeah, he’s going to walk through him,” I agreed.

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

Later that day, I spoke to Greg in his cramped, cluttered office in the back of the gym. He had portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the wall. 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 during 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 stopped as if forming in his mind exactly what he wanted to say. “I look for underlying themes in nature. Just like physics governs everything from snow falling to the spinning of the planets, this process large works for this process small. I look for that in combat,” he continued, “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 pointed out.

“Well, my favorite example,” he explained, “is what General Sherman said about keeping your enemy on the ‘horns of a dilemma.’”

“When General Sherman was marching through the South in the Civil War, he would put his army 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.”

We were interrupted by Georges St. Pierre, now showered and in street clothes. He had overheard some of the conversation on his way out, passing by the open door of the office. “Dis man is a jeenyus!” he exclaimed pointing his finger emphatically at Jackson “I’m serious, a jeenyus!”