–Kenny Rice

Pictured: Greg Jackson and Jon Jones. Photo by Greg Nelson via SI

The building at 5505 Acoma Road in Albuquerque, New Mexico is unassuming.

Much like the man who runs the establishment inside.

The sandstone and reddish-brown adobe motif so identified with the American Southwest doesn’t stand out from like structures on the block, three of them churches.

Much like the man who blends in more than demands attention with his inner-peace strength.

The neighborhood itself doesn’t invite a stroll for tourists day or night. It is a rawfeeling street sparsely populated by lonely figures ambling around, surveying garbage cans and strangers. It’s a tough location.

Much like a street-smart teenager who began teaching a hybrid of wrestling, kickboxing and judo for self-defense twenty years ago so others could handle themselves if necessary.

Welcome to Jackson’s MMA, a hallowed ground for fighters, world renowned for producing champions. Run by a self-effacing guru of the sport, Greg Jackson. He has made his hometown a must-visit destination by turning out current UFC champions Georges St. Pierre, Jon Jones and Carlos Condit and former champs Andrei Arlovski, Shane Carwin and Rashad Evans.

On any given day a star walks into the small reception area that has a desk and walls lined with autographed pictures from a “who’s who” of MMA thanking Jackson for his help. There is absolutely nothing fancy about this place that moves quickly from the foyer right to work: bicycles, cardio machines in a wider hallway with locker rooms on the left and a fast turn to the right leading into the main gym.

“It’s a fighter’s gym, no doubt about it,” Jackson says of the Spartan look and feel of the area inside.

Appropriate, since Jackson is a fighter’s trainer. With awards for “Coach of the Year” and “Gym of the Year”, it has never been about the individual, always the team.

“Egos are checked immediately at the door. The serious fighter has never complained,” explains the right hand of this operation, Mike Winkeljohn, himself the epitome of checking one’s ego. It is officially Jackson/Winkeljohn MMA as the hand-painted sign over the main entrance notes. Yet in general the focus, while not sought, has been on Jackson.

Winkeljohn, a three time kickboxing champ, two time Muay Thai champ and former boxer, is a New Mexico native as well. He met Jackson about a year after the first gym opened. Working together several times after, they became partners, developing a perfect match of Jackson’s ground and Winkeljohn’s striking.

If it seems like they are the Yin-Yang of MMA, they aren’t. There is nothing polar opposite about them that made for this exceptional connection. Rather their similar philosophy that it is all about the fighter as an individual and their mutual admiration and respect. Neither is about what they did or have done. In a sport where boasting gets rewarded by many, this is the antithesis pair. Selfless and endearing.

“Greg’s been inventing moves on me for years. He always keeps it interesting. We knew this sport was going to grow. We were ready to see where it would take all of us.”

Jackson concurs it has been their passion for the evolution of MMA, the possibilities of finding an improved way for a win. “It’s an ongoing process that keeps that competitiveness.”

It didn’t begin as an MMA gym, because 17-year old Jackson in 1992 with a judo and wrestling background was, like most at the time, focused on basic training and teaching the ability to take care of yourself if threatened. But when MMA emerged he already had a reputation of being an amazing coach of self-defense techniques that easily transitioned to MMA fighting.

Then as now it was to emphasize the potential within the student or the fighter.

“I’ve never been in any gym like this,” explains Tim Kennedy, who is training for his Strikeforce title fight against Middleweight champ Luke Rockhold July 14. “It’s community driven for perfection. Each of us are uniquely different fighters (in the gym). Greg sees that and projects what he believes is the best for us individuals not what he thinks a fighter should be. I know trainers who want to start trying to change something here or there and you have a frustrated fighter. He doesn’t see a blank canvas when you come in here, he sees a picture already painted and fills in the brush strokes to make it complete.”

Fellow middleweight Brian Stann is preparing for his anticipated UFC showdown with Hector Lombard August 4. Stann, who like Kennedy has a strong military background, immediately appreciated the approach in Jackson’s gym.

“Leadership creates the environment. Any unit takes on the personality of the leader. You know you are expected to share your knowledge with your fellow fighters here. It’s that environment that everyone realizes. I came in here a raw fighter and made it to the top 10 because each day I was going against (Keith) Jardine or (Joey) Villasenor, veterans who would stop to show me what I needed to do as we sparred. You don’t get here to beat each other up. We tell each other why this or that happened and how to avoid it when you fight for real.”

It makes for a “family environment” as Jackson’s Series Women’s Bantamweight Champion Julie Kedzie sees it. Kedzie is part of MMA history having fought Gina Carano, who has trained here as well, in the first women’s fight on cable TV. She is also an assistant in the gym. “People are happy here, they root for each other. No egos allowed. That’s what has been created and if you don’t want to be here, you won’t, it’s that simple.”

Diego Sanchez was the breakout fighter for Jackson’s MMA winning the middleweight title in Season 1 of The Ultimate Fighter. “In the no holds barred days, the days of grapplers, we had success from the gym,” Jackson says, “But real attention came when Diego won the reality show.”

Sanchez, an Albuquerque native, is a true protege’ of Jackson’s. He was delivering packages at the time he met Greg and started training in Gaidojutsu, the fusion of wrestling-kickboxing-judo that Jackson taught in his first self-defense classes. The top 10 ranked welterweight instantly embraced not just the Jackson fighting way but the community spirit within the gym.

“It’s always been family here with Greg and Wink. Before all those championships started rolling in it was always about making you the best fighter you could be. Using your ability, not trying to change you but make you the best with the skills you have. It’s never changed, that’s why it is so special.”

At every turn inside, from Kennedy to Stann to Clay Guida, someone is always here it seems training for either a title shot of a key fight. Guida’s UFC lightweight bout with Gray Maynard on June 22 is the latter. The Chicago native and former Strikeforce lightweight champ under Jackson’s tutelage feels the power of place.

“It’s the best. All these great fighters, all the experience they bring in here and to a man, everyone wanting to help the other. There isn’t a gym that compares to this sense of family pride and support.”

It is exactly the way Jackson began as a teenager, wise beyond his years, in being able to assess what is important to each person; their strengths and weaknesses and what they had for goals.

“Imagine saying you can’t do this or that. It deflates anyone’s confidence no matter if they are a professional fighter or in some other walk of life. The game theory we have is to find that utility, that personal preference. Adding to the utility for a base. Every fighter has a safety zone and you can’t take that away from them. You help them stay in that because they will seek it when the fight gets underway. You just give them a little more and a little more from that base to build on.”

Part of the building is the Jackson’s MMA Series, a chance to showcase young talent and give veterans coming off injury or changing direction in weight class the opportunity to reassess, readjust their skills. Hunter Tucker, a featherweight, and bantamweight Matt Leyva are two of the rising stars in a gym that is in its own galaxy.

It is a fighter’s gym and fighter’s world after all at Jackson/Winkeljohn MMA. There is as much a spiritual, communal atmosphere as there is the obvious intense training sessions. If it seems close to the perfect inclusion of mind, body and soul, it is not coincidental.

This is the way Greg Jackson lives and teaches. This is what he has built upon– title after title after title.

Can’t get enough of Jackson’s fighters? Think Jackson’s fighters are only point fighters? Tell us what you think on facebook or twitter, or tell the man himself on Kenny’s twitter or facebook page

Watch Kenny Rice along with Bas Rutten LIVE every Monday night on Inside MMA, and check out Kenny’s new book “Not Hit Yet” an insider look at the MMA world in 2012, available at Amazon now

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