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Montel Jackson went from pro debut to Madison Square Garden in 15 months

Montel Jackson (pictured) fights Brian Kelleher on Saturday at UFC 230 in New York City
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There’s a reason Montel Jackson is called “Quik.”

Just eight fights into his pro career, Jackson is set to compete at Madison Square Garden when he fights Brian Kelleher at UFC 230 in New York on Saturday. The bout — originally scheduled for 135 pounds but now a catchweight affair after Kelleher came in heavy — will be Jackson’s second chance to make a first impression after losing a unanimous decision to Ricky Simon in his UFC debut in August, a booking that Jackson accepted on less than two weeks’ notice.

That was his first setback since turning pro 15 months ago at a regional show in Milwaukee, but Jackson has no regrets about taking the short-notice opportunity. After all, in his mind, he’d been preparing for it all his life.

“I always knew this time was coming,” Jackson recently told MMA Fighting. “I just wanted to be prepared for it. That’s one thing I kind of prided myself in. When I would listen to other people, like the 10 rules, the 15 rules of being successful, that’s one of the things I noticed that all of them left out: They left out the rule of being prepared for the opportunity when it presents itself.

“I always wanted to be prepared for this moment because I knew it was coming. I just had to surround myself with the right people to make the right type of connections and I was going to get here.”

The son of a kickboxer, Jackson’s father died when he was very young, but even without that influence growing up, he had his sights set on a career in martial arts. Jackson weighed the pros and cons of the different disciplines and decided that MMA was simply a better business decision.

“There were outlets for kickboxing, but in kickboxing and MMA, when you look at the success factor at the end of it, which one is going to have better results for me?” said Jackson.

“MMA, of course, because it was more established and it was picking up. You can gain notoriety overnight, you’ve just got to go out there and perform. Kickboxing, not so much; it’s going to take a little bit of time, a lot of fights before you get noticed, and once you do make it to the big stage, the pay doesn’t really equal out to MMA and boxing and so forth.”

A quick decision, though not necessarily an easy one. One of many that Jackson made early on in his life to put himself on the fast track to the UFC.

He excelled as a wrestler in high school, drawing attention from Division II and Division III schools, but again diverged from the expected path. Jackson dropped out of school to look after his grandparents, who had supported him in his athletic endeavors.

“My grandpa was truly excited when I went to state and everything,” said Jackson. “He was like, ‘Aw man, I saw you on the news!’ I got on the news in high school, he was real excited. It just reminded him so much of my dad, he would get happy, he would cry and everything.

“But I didn’t go into MMA until after my grandpa died because I was still wrestling around. I wrestled invitationals like Team Japan vs. Team USA in Oshkosh, that was the last event I had before my grandpa died.”

His grandfather’s death sent Jackson into an emotional slump, one that he wouldn’t break out of until a friend asked him to come down to the gym and to help out with wrestling preparation for an upcoming MMA fight. There, Jackson met his jiu-jitsu coach Gato, and the two struck up a fast friendship.

A quick learner, Jackson impressed Gato enough that his instructor convinced him to take part in a jiu-jitsu tournament that Jackson went on to win in dominating fashion. It was Jackson’s first-ever jiu-jitsu competition, but he was so successful that opponents accused him of sandbagging, competing below his level just to show off. That’s when Jackson and Gato knew they were on to something.

Fast forward to June 12, 2018, where Jackson scored a third-round TKO over Rico DiSciullo on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. That win didn’t earn him a Contender Series contract, but it put him on the UFC matchmakers’ short list and soon he got the call-up to fight Simon.

Jackson is taking the Kelleher fight on short notice too, though with a couple more weeks to prepare this time. That’s how he has always had to operate, thinking and moving fast to stay one step ahead growing up in The Meadows of Wisconsin, which he describes as a dangerous area. He still owns the car that his cousin Manny was shot next to, a memory that brings him to tears to this very day.

Still, Jackson doesn’t linger in the past, at least not when it’s business time. He carries the memories of the people he’s lost with him on the walk to the cage, then does what he does best once the cage door closes.

He moves forward.

“I’ve accepted it, like I’ve accepted the reality of things. When I go in there, I just clear my mind, clear my head, as soon as I step foot in the cage,” said Jackson. “But my walkout music is for all my friends that I lost over the years, like my childhood friends are either dead or they’re in jail for a long, long time, and I just play that as a tribute for them. And when I step foot into that cage, I just clear my head and clear myself of that mental baggage.

“Even in the gym or wherever, I just clear myself, I don’t try to think too much on it. Because the moment I stop and I think about all the shit I done been through and everything I done saw, it can either go good or bad, so I just choose not to stop and waste that time and fully think about everything that happened. And I choose to just keep going.”

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