ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It's the day before Thanksgiving. Most people in this mile-high desert city are either heading out to their holiday destination or making last-minute preparations.
But as far as Jon Jones and Andrei Arlovski are concerned, it might as well be just another Wednesday.
Jones, the sport's top pound-for-pound fighter, and Arlovski, the former UFC heavyweight champion, see an opportunity to sneak in another workout while the world around them frets.
Arlovski has a Jan. 2 date with Stipe Miocic on his docket. Jones doesn't have a fight date lined up, but he's plotting his comeback after a 2015 gone awry.
So they take to the main, eight-sided cage at the dazzling new 36,000-square-foot JacksonWink campus downtown near the confluence of Interstates 40 and 25.
As Jones and Arlovski get started, a wrestling class is held on nearby mats. The duo spend more than an hour in the cage. There's no sparring or rolling, but there is a heavy emphasis on form, technique, and positioning in the standup. By the time they finish, the only remaining onlooker on the gym's main level is Arlovski's plaintive pit bull, Maximus.
There's a reason JacksonWink's big dogs are pushing one another when even the most disciplined mixed martial artists are thinking of turkey and trimmings: These aren't ordinary times at one of the sport's great gyms.
"Everybody wants to keep up with each other," Jones said. "It's very hard to be complacent, it's very hard to be satisfied at this gym when you've got all this around you. It's a testament to the team's hard work and passion for martial arts, we're a great group of fighters and there's a level of excellence in our expectations."
HISTORY IN THE MAKING?
It's not like this is team JacksonWink's first hectic stretch. They've long been one of the sport's top-of-the-line camps. But there's also no denying this time around, something a little bit different is going down.
There's the new gym, for one, a spacious campus six times larger than the old one, with equipment and amenities more in line with a major pro sports team's practice facility than the grimy old fight bandboxes of yore.
Then there was Holly Holm's spectacular knockout victory over Ronda Rousey to win the UFC bantamweight title at UFC 193, which electrified the entire city and had a ripple effect on the JacksonWink roster.
And there's the promise of so much more.
When Donald Cerrone meets Rafael dos Anjos for the UFC lightweight title Saturday in Orlando, he'll have a chance to join Holm and give Jackson's two concurrent, non-interim UFC titleholders for the first time in its history. That would put Jackson's on a plateau with several others with multiple champions at once, a list which includes (not including interim champions) American Kickboxing Academy (previously Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez, currently Cormier and Luke Rockhold); Kings MMA (dos Anjos and Fabricio Werdum); Miletich Fighting Systems (Matt Hughes and Tim Sylvia) and Nova Uniao (Jose Aldo and Renan Barao). (Note: While Black House, with Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida, is included by some on this list, in reality, Black House was created to give Silva and Machida a place to train in the U.S. and neither have ever conducted a full training camp there).
And there's still more. Carlos Condit meets Robbie Lawler at UFC 195 on January 2, and it is widely presumed Jones will meet Daniel Cormier for the UFC light heavyweight title in April.
Not only might Jackson's join prestigious company, but if the chips fall right, they could blow right past their contemporaries and set new standards. By spring, Jackson's could have as many as four UFC titleholders.
"Holly winning the belt definitely inspires all the young guys," Jones said. "It inspires everybody. I'm sure Carlos and Cowboy, with these big fights coming up, I'm sure that lit a fire under their ass to want to join Holly in that spotlight. I think Holly winning right now came at a great time and I think it couldn't have come at a better time, especially with these title shots coming up."
‘SOMETIMES YOU'RE THE WINDSHIELD, AND SOMETIMES YOU'RE THE BUG'
Anyone who has spent time with the man who lends his name to the first half of the JacksonWink moniker, Greg Jackson, could tell you that he'd be the first to downplay these expectations.
Perched in a top-floor corner office with a window overlooking the main gym in an almost Wizard of Oz-like manner, Jackson will tell you he's not even allowing himself to think about the gym's potential historic stretch with such flippancy that you believe him.
"I'm pretty free of any expectations like that," Jackson said. "I'm pretty much about the process. If they win, great. If they don't, that sucks, but for me it's much more about the process than anything else. The victory is for them. The world championship is not for me. The process? That's the part I enjoy. The process of guiding them along this very scary route that they're on, getting them from the plan to the destination, that's where I'm coming from."
That deflective attitude could help explain why JacksonWink -- which came together in 2007 when Jackson, who started out teaching grappling, merged operations with Mike Winkeljohn, the city's kickboxing star -- keeps on chugging at an elite level.
Several gyms have experienced alpha-dog runs in this young sport, only to have the game pass them by. The Lion's Den. Miletich Fighting Systems. Team Quest. Trainers become set in their ways. Star fighters split off and start their own gyms. Everyone looks for a cash grab while the getting is good.
One minute, you can do no wrong. The next, you're the camp everyone used to emulate.
It's not like JacksonWink has been immune to turbulence. Most notably, the team went through the loss of former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans and 2011 founding of the Blackzilian camp. But JacksonWink still came out the other side strong where other gyms have crumbled.
"It's cyclical," Jackson said. "Sometimes we have a month where it's, 'oh man, we're having a bad month.' Sometimes we're on top of the world. That's why you have to stay humble. Sometimes you're the windshield and sometimes you're the bug. That's just the way it goes."
Unlike some of his peers, Jackson has never felt like he's got the game all figured out. He's driven by intellectual curiosity. If a fighter comes to him with an idea, he's going to listen. He trusts his coaches to do their thing, and isn't afraid to let an up-and-comer like striking coach Brandon Gibson shine.
"Every coach in here is a better coach than I am," Jackson said. "I like to collaborate. I want to learn and grow. I never want to say ‘this is how it's done.' I always want to ask 'how is it done,' ask other people 'How do you do it?' Then you learn more, my coaches learn more. Because of the collaboration process, we're learning more. That's the key."
‘WE HAVE HUGE EGOS'
It's not just the superstars who buy into Jackson's philosophy. With anywhere between 60-100 active pros on the roster, depending on who is doing the calculating, the team has fighters everywhere from the UFC to Bellator to Invicta to WSOF.
If a major promotion is putting on a fight card, chances are there's a JacksonWink fighter somewhere in the lineup. For every pay-per-view headliner like Jones or Condit in house, there's a solid, rank-and-file professional fighter like Jodie Esquibel, putting in her work in the shadows of some of the game's biggest stars.
Esquibel's been one of the gym's mainstays. The longtime girlfriend of retired JacksonWink standout Keith Jardine, Esquibel shares much in common with former roommate Holm, as both fighters came over to MMA after championship boxing careers.
Now in her early 30s, Esquibel, like Holm before her, is committing to MMA. She's got a strawweight fight on tap with Angela Hill at Invicta 17 on Jan. 16 in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Like the rest of the crew, Esquibel has noticed a little extra zip in everyone's step in recent weeks, and she's not afraid to admit that successes like Holm's make her want her own time in the limelight.
"You want to keep up with everybody," Esquibel said. "Not only are we fighters, but we have huge egos. So there are people out there getting titles and I want to get mine too, you know? Everybody's winning, and everybody is on this amazing high of being awesome, and you can't help but feel it yourself as well."
But it's not entirely about ego satiation. Esquibel says she's motivated as much by a desire to justify the work others have put into her development as anything else.
"Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn and Brandon Gibson and the coaching staff we have now truly want the fighters to succeed for themselves," Esquibel said. "Not for the coaches' selves, but for the fighters' selves. It's very selfless, and that's why we're so strong. It's just one goal, to perform at our best, and we have a bunch of hungry killers in here."
THE OTHER SIDE
Gibson may be the best example of Jackson's coaching philosophies coming to fruition. Once a promising kickboxer in the old Winkeljohn gym, Gibson's combat sports career ended when he suffered a Silva-like compound leg fracture during a routine practice session.
Gibson's just 31, but he's already worked himself into a position where he's cornered the likes of Jones and Condit for some of their biggest fights.
"I've been very fortunate to work at a high level," Gibson said. "I'm younger than most coaches, but I've been serving my apprenticeship under some of the best trainers in the sport. I don't think there's this giant, spread out learning curve. I think there's this sharp apex and I see how Greg and Wink technically approach cornering, technically approach camps. You see how calm they are in the corner, how their eyes are always looking for adjustments to be made and rhythms being established they need to break. [They know] when it's time for technical advice and when it's all time for emotional advice."
The game's emotional aspect is where the real bond emerges between athlete and coach.
When a fighter wins, the promoter has machinery in place to accentuate the glory, from post-fight press conferences to behind-the-scenes documentaries. The cameras aren't usually there, though, for the dark side.
Fans caught a rare glimpse last weekend, when footage of a disconsolate, crying Jose Aldo in his locker room after his knockout loss to Conor McGregor at UFC 194 hit the Internet. It was a jarring scene for the uninitiated, but it's a valuable reminder these fighters are, in fact, human beings and not video game characters.
These moments the fans don't often see are multi-layered. On one hand, a coach feels like he's staring his own failures in the face. On the other, the fact the coach is there through a fighter's lowest points, during the moments they're in physical pain and are being taunted by Twitter trolls who don't have the guts to put their real names to their words -- much less ever step into an Octagon -- strengthens the bond between fighter and coach.
"It's easy to be there celebrating after the fights, going to the press conference and seeing all you guys, with big smiles like ‘we did it,'" Gibson said. "Its a lot harder when you jump immediately into the ambulance and see that guy who you feel like you let down. I'm thinking in my head like ‘what did I not see?' There's a lot of responsibility seeing these guys in the corner in the heat of battle."
On this morning, Gibson's just a few days removed from cornering Diego Sanchez for his loss to Ricardo Lamas in Mexico. He's yet to let go of the result.
"Diego, for example," Gibson said. "He ate that inside leg kick and it hurt him and it changed the fight, and I said, ‘you know, that's my fault. I didn't do my job.' You have to question yourself. You have to learn from your mistakes. You can't just be like ‘get ‘em next time.' A guy like Diego, who cares so passionately, they're going to have to take him from the cage kicking and screaming, so you have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to make this right."
HONING A NATURAL BORN KILLER
It's the morning after Thanksgiving. Black Friday. The mouth-breathers pushing and shoving one another for discounted Chia Pets at the local WalMart are lucky they don't have to contend with Condit.
Before Holm head-kicked Rousey and then found herself sitting courtside with Jamie Foxx at the Warriors-Clippers game in downtown Los Angeles and making the rounds on the nation's biggest talk shows, Condit was the Jackson's biggest home-grown star. The Albuquerque native began grappling under Jackson's tutelage at age 15 and stayed with the gym all the way through WEC welterweight and UFC interim welterweight title reigns.
Maybe it's due to Holm's win, maybe it's due to the fact he's about six weeks out from the Lawler fight and it's time to get serious, or maybe he's just burning off the previous day's Thanksgiving dinner. Whatever the reason, Condit is the first fighter at the gym on a windy, cloudy, freezing morning, ready to do some serious mitt work with Gibson.
Condit's not one to do anything half-assed. The welterweight contender emits soul-searing screams which seem to come all the way up from his toes as he and Gibson stick and move. Watching Condit work, it's not too hard to imagine he and Lawler getting down and dirty in exactly the type of wild exchange people envisioned when their UFC 195 fight was announced.
Condit may be just a bit too amped, in fact, as he accidentally cracks Gibson with a wicked elbow to the jaw at one point.
At a time when so much is at stake, it makes sense for the gym's most elite and longstanding fighters to set the tone for the rest of the team. Let the others take the holiday weekend off. Condit, like Jones and Arlovski before him, has business to handle.
"I feel a different vibe right now," Condit said. "We've got a shiny new facility and we've got a ton of people coming from all over the world, there's this influx of talent that's catalyzed the growth of everybody. It just so happens we have all these title fights in a row and Holly did amazing. So these things are adding up and there's a great vibe here right now."
THE ‘SPORT KILLER'
The punchline is both obvious and irresistible: For a bunch of sport-killers, they seem to be doing pretty well!
In one of his most memorable outbursts, UFC president Dana White tried to pin the blame for UFC 151's cancelation on Jackson after Jones refused to fight Chael Sonnen on just over a week's notice, which led to his infamous "killing the sport" comments. White followed with another tirade the following June after a Jackson-led Clay Guida put in a dull performance in a five-round main event against Gray Maynard.
From the get-go, Jackson took a Zen approach to the tidal wave of criticism which came his way.
"I never take that to heart," said Jackson, who says the beef with White has since been squashed. "I know that I'm trying to make my fighters the best they can be. Most of my fighters are incredibly exciting. We do it every time, like when Carlos did his elbows [in his May 31 win over Thiago Alves]. The list is endless of my guys who are exciting."
Never has that been more apparent than in 2015. Take your pick of memorable moments supplied by JacksonWink fighters. Jones kicked off the year with his UFC 182 performance against Cormier, in which he put in a champion's effort in the championship rounds to pull away from Cormier and seal the decision win. Arlovski and former Jackson fighter Travis Browne put on a breathtaking display at UFC 187 before Arlovski scored the knockout. Condit announced his return from knee surgery with a symphony of brutal efficiency against Alves. And Holm's knockout of Rousey lit up the mainstream sports world like few MMA moments ever have.
While he doesn't quite use these words, Jackson makes it clear that if you're still trying to discredit his team now, when it stands on the verge of unprecedented accomplishments, you're basically just a hater.
"If someone's still following that type of thinking, it's obvious what they're doing," Jackson said. "They're trying to be these hipsters of martial arts: ‘(imitating The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy) Let me tell you the real deal.' They bring up a fight that's boring, and then there's 60 guys who aren't boring. That's just trolling, it doesn't matter. I've got a job to do."
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