Greg Jackson. Never heard of him? Yeah, maybe if you’ve lived under a rock for the last decade, or the thought of combat sports frays your man bun. For those who need a refresher course, Mr. Jackson is, in our opinion, the No.1 MMA trainer in the world. His camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico holds dozens of UFC contenders and notable champions like Jon Jones, Holly Holm, Alistair Overeem, Carlos Condit and Andrei Arlovski. His list of Tier 1 fighters is larger than Martin Sheen’s rap sheet (which is sitting at 66 arrests if you are keeping score).
There have been hundreds of interviews with Greg, so anything you want to know about his MMA career is already out there. But you probably picked up this magazine because he’s on the cover and you want to know the latest technique to choke out your roommates. So we will cover this interview in three sections: MMA, business outside the cage, and life around Mr. Jackson. That way everybody is happy.
THE GLADIATOR INSTITUTION
I’m invited to check out Greg’s camp by a good friend, Walt Bracken from BMC Tactical. As soon as I hear these two run in the same circle, I know Greg is a gun guy. Gun guy = new friend of mine. So I drive into Duke City and prepare to meet up with this trainer of the elite.
I remember the smell as I open the door to the Jackson Wink Academy. It’s the musty scent of sweat and blood, bringing me back to my high school wrestling days. Granted, I sucked. I spent most of my 12 years of grappling staring at the lights.
Nevertheless, I know a working gym when I smell one.
I arrive right in the middle of a pros-only Jiu Jitsu session. As I enter the training area, I see 40-plus fighters I recognize. I’m not going to lie, I’m a little star-struck, but I immediately suppress my inner 13-year-old fan girl. Greg walks over and we introduce ourselves. He drops everything he’s doing to walk me around and show me what Jackson Wink is all about.
The academy is filled with forests of punching bags and a few MMA cages. Pictures of past and present champions line the walls. Upstairs is split between a handful of physicians’offices and full-fledged dorm rooms that house international fighters.
This 30,000-square-foot facility is a champion-making factory.
After the tour and a great Brazilian dinner, we end up on the roof of the academy. Taking in the evening Albuquerque skyline, Greg opens up and answers a few of my questions regarding the life path he has chosen.
Your father, brother and uncle are all champion wrestlers. Sounds like a little more pressure than most households to make the team. Why learn martial arts?
I had to learn martial arts as a tool to survive, with self-respect and pride. I was raised in the South Valley of Albuquerque. There is a definite machismo culture there, and it is a very economically depressed place. I was one of the only white kids, so I had to learn to fight.
You founded your own martial art, Gaidojutsu.
Gaidojutsu is the name I gave to my early style of martial arts. It was kind of a genesis for MMA. I wasn’t near the level the Gracie family was on, but it was a start. Traditional techniques kind of let me down. Years later, I now incorporate them, but at the time they weren’t working, so I had to figure it out for myself.
In 2007, you teamed up with striking coach Mike Winkeljohn. How does a guy who disliked competitive fighting become friends with a kickboxer/fifth-degree black belt?
I disliked it because I felt it wasn’t realistic; it was always one-on-one, there was no environmental usage, etcetera. That thinking was limiting, so Mr. Winkeljohn took me under his wing and taught me a lot about stringing. He always looks out for me, so I call him my big bro, even today.
Your camp is a cultural mosaic. In your experience, what countries produce the toughest fighters? What countries should stay away from the cage?
There isn’t one country that’s invincible or one that’s terrible. You have good and bad everywhere. There are countries that have a warrior ethic that’s very apparent. It’s a lot of fun for me to learn about all the different cultures that walk through our doors.
Why do people love watching MMA versus conventional boxing?
MMA is closer to the bottom line of one-on-one combat. The knowledge that no matter how good the boxer is they can always be taken down and beat up or finished, it puts a perspective there if you’re looking for the best fighter who has an impact because of the limitations of the boxing art. People want to see who is the best, and MMA gives you the most dynamic sporting version of that. That being said, the two arts/sports can coexist. I love boxing.
What is the craziest non-conventional training you’ve witnessed?
We could write a whole book on that one. Martial arts in the ’80s had some pretty interesting ideas… all that ninja training comes to mind.
We see a lot of pro athletes get caught using enhancement drugs. How much pressure is there on these guys? How cutthroat is the industry?
Like any pro athlete in any sport where there are thousands or sometimes millions of dollars on the line, the pressure is intense. Some give into that pressure and cheat, which is always sad. It is compounded because it is a combat sport. That means someone is trying to physically force you to quit, to knock you unconscious. To stay clean and face that like a warrior is hard in a business where, if you lose a few times, they cut you and you go back to the B leagues. The drug testing is a very good thing and I greatly support it.
What is the weirdest pre-fight ritual you’ve seen out of your fighters?
There have been a lot of weird ones over the years, from requiring absolute silence to screaming every few minutes. Others too, but I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus [laughs].
We all need to make a living. How does Jackson Wink make money? Do you take a percentage of the fighters’purse, or is there a flat fee? Let us peek into your business model.
We take a percentage of the fighters’ purse and disperse that among the coaches. If you aren’t making very much, we charge a monthly fee. Gotta keep food on the table.
THE SHOOT HOUSE
Day 2 of my excursion starts with a drive into the heart of Albuquerque’s “War Zone.” This part of town lives up to its name.
It has the rundown look of a hardened ghetto and a perfect spot for another Greg Jackson training facility.
“We’re here,”Jackson says as we pull up to a faceless two-story building. “We are where?”I ask as I stuff my valuables in my shoes. “This is where I train the real gladiators, the ones who put their lives on the line on a daily basis.”Greg explains. I think to myself, Wait, this dude trains law enforcement and military too? Does he ever sleep?Apparently, I already know the answer.
This is the other side of Greg Jackson, his way to give back to America. He owns a 10,000-square-foot training facility that caters to military and the boys in blue. Greg teaches the unarmed combatives side, and his partner, Nic (former CIA), teaches armed close-quarter battle. The training center has classrooms, weight rooms, grappling mats and a huge modular shoot house ready for any Simunition training.
After the whirlwind tour, I have the pleasure of watching him conduct a training session with an unnamed elite unit. His passion never skips a beat. He gives these warriors the same attention he would any UFC champion, earning mad respect from this former combat veteran.
You’ve trained numerous three-letter agencies, as well as dozens of police forces. These jobs don’t pay the best, so why do you do it?
I was raised by pacifist Quakers who taught me that happiness comes from helping people. I took that to heart. But because of the choices I made, I really only have one way to give back. Helping the people who protect all of us makes me feel like what I do has some social value. The other part of my life consists of me holding a bucket and yelling at people who are punching other people. This part feels like I’m really helping in a meaningful way. I like that.
You and your partner offer a one-two punch. What can you tell me about Nic?
Nic is a really great guy—just a good human being. He has a non-profit organization called DeliverFund that combats human trafficking.
Our business helps support DeliverFund financially.
Nic was with the CIA for years, and while there, he helped develop a one- and two-person close-quarter-battle (CQB) methodology that is very applicable to us ordinary citizens. Making you and your spouse a two-person fire team, securing your kids, clearing your home—whatever the situation calls for—is great to learn. The team stuff is awesome but very different, and most of us don’t live with eight guys who can stack up and clear our house with us if we hear an intruder. Nic has been great, and our program for civilians is unique.
Have you ever had anyone you’ve trained return and tell you what you taught them has saved their ass?
Yes, and it’s always the best possible thing to hear. These guys are putting themselves on the line between life and death for us, and to know that you helped them be better at that is very satisfying.
Do you train any Allied countries, or is it all American-based units?
We only do American stuff at this point. Our police program is unique and focuses on subject control, using the concept of control zones. Getting into these control positions helps keep the officer and subject safe, especially when dealing with multi-officer control. They are all integrated so that if one control zone fails, another is immediately available. This gives our officers confidence, because if what they’re doing isn’t working, they can transition to something else. There are only seven control zones, so it’s easy to remember.
We still do the police defensive tactics side as well, but our methodology of subject control is very effective. Combat is a dynamic system and you need a flexible approach to deal with that. We will continue to help out all the units we can, but our focus over the next five years will be civilians and police. Teaching people to be safe and effective in today’s world is our mission.
Where do you see this side of your business going in the next five years? Are you looking for it to grow, or do you like to keep your client base down at a select few?
I would like the business to grow, but not beyond the ability of our team to give quality instruction. High-quality instruction is extremely important and one of our main focuses.
Do you ever bring in any of your pro fighters as “opposing forces”? If so, how do they fair?
We do. Our shoot house is a Simunition-style force-on-force training facility, which means we provide role players for our clients to engage. We train our role players to engage at whatever level is required. Professional fighters know how to not hurt people, because they are good enough to control themselves and let our clients learn and grow. This minimizes accidents and increases safety. They get pretty shot-up with paint all the time, but they have a lot of fun with it.
DAMN, YOU CLEAN UP NICE!
I felt the need to get Greg out of his comfort zone. He trains the 1% in the MMA community and has roughed up some of America’s most elite military fighters. So how do I make this happen? Too easy—I make him go formal.
“Hey Greg, ever worn a suit?”
I ask without looking him in the eyes. “Yeah, I’ve worn a suit before [laughs], but I freaking hate it,”he explains while driving me back from the shoot house. “Oh, good, because I need you in a tuxedo for the cover,”I reply nonchalantly. I suddenly feel the side of my face get warm as my peripheral picks up on Greg’s eyes burning a hole in my skull.
“Whatever you need, brother. We’re family now,”Greg mumbles. I think to myself, He said we’re family now. I should be excited to hear that, but some of my worst ass beatings have come from my brothers. Hopefully he meant we’re family like that uncle who visits at Christmas.
I hardly ever get punched in the face during the holidays.
Silence fills the vehicle for the next five minutes. I think this is going to work out. A few weeks later, I get Mr. Jackson into our studio. As he steps out of the dressing room, he has the same look on his face as Ralphie from A Christmas Story, except his pink bunny suit is a gray tux. I know he’s uncomfortable, so I do what I was taught back in the day and jump in a suit myself. Now he isn’t the only penguin in the room.
The photoshoot is fun, and as things loosen up, I ask him some personal questions…things you don’t see in MMA magazines…things that dive a little into his personal life.
You’re a family man, so being on the road most of the year working has to be tough. How do you balance the two lives?
I’m blessed because my family is very supportive. It’s hard to be away from them so much of the time, so I cherish each second I get to be home. It reminds me to never take them for granted and to appreciate the time I get to spend with them.
Stress relievers—we all have them. What do you do outside the training world?
I love to camp and go to old ghost towns. There are a bunch of abandoned towns around New Mexico, and finding and exploring them is really fun. It gets me off the grid and engaged with the land.
If you had to make a non-combative career change, what would it be?
I would love to be an archaeologist. Solving the mysteries of what used to be is very fascinating to me. Learning and understanding things is so fun. Couple that with romping around everywhere and I’m in.
Name a food you’d eat every damn day if you could never get fat or die of heart disease.
Pizza. Spaghetti, too. I never get tired of eating that stuff. Why can’t it be, like, broccoli or kale? Nope, it’s pizza. My Italian blood won’t be denied.
You’re pretty much the Mickey Goldmill (Rocky Balboa’s trainer) of the MMA world. Granted, you’re not 85 years old and don’t wear a hearing aid (yet), but you’re considered an OG. What advice would you give a young amateur fighter who’s reading this?
My advice would be to understand the sport—not the fighting part, the rest of it. Opponents drop out at the last minute. The loneliness of training while your friends are having fun. The lack of money. The heartbreak of loss. Not being able to find a fight and spending time on the shelf. Injury. Disappointment. If you can put up with all of that, then by all means, go all in. What’s the point of living if you ain’t living, right?
Where is Greg Jackson 20 years from now?
I would like to still be helping people. And I think I’ll take up gardening, something quiet that focuses on things growing. Spending time with my friends and family across the world, traveling for fun and laughing as much as I can.
As I leave the Jackson Wink Academy, I see a sign that reads:“Through These Doors Walk the Greatest Fighters in the World.”I think to myself, you don’t get to make that claim unless you’ve proved it. You don’t get to make that claim without decades of relentless grinding. You don’t get to make that claim without being humbled at least once in your life.
Greg’s chosen profession is thankless. It’s filled with blood, sweat, tears and heartbreak.
The only payoff is seeing a young fighter put that strap around his waist or a public servant survive another day on the streets. Many people take family members for granted, until one doesn’t come home. Thank you, Greg Jackson, for what you do. Thank you for training the men and women who entertain us, and the ones who protect us. We are more than honored to call you family.