The Guru

Fighters call him Yoda. Opponents fear him. He’s never fought professionally and doesn’t have any official qualifications, yet he’s the most respected trainer in the UFC. MF meets Greg Jackson.

Words Ben Fowlkes

Greg Jackson yelled at one of his fighters once. It’s true, even if most people who know MMA’s most polite, soft-spoken trainer might have a hard time believing it. Normally, between rounds, he addresses his fighters like a nursery school teacher trying to calm the kids down before nap time.

But just this once, he lost it a little bit.  And because he’s Greg Jackson — the man who churns out world champions the way other fight gyms churn out cauliflower ears — it worked.

It was June 12, 2010 and the fighter was Carlos Condit, one of Jackson’s longtime students, who had lost the first two rounds of his fight against Rory MacDonald at UFC 115 in Vancouver, Canada. Before the third and final round, Jackson got in Condit’s face and raised his voice for the first time in a long time.

‘This is about war, you understand me?” he screamed at Condit, who seemed to be five minutes away from defeat. “You bounce, you move, and you punish this kid. It’s war! Now you go and you give it to me!”

Revisiting this moment now is the easiest way to embarrass Jackson, who hates being the centre of attention, especially for something like this. Yes, it was over-dramatic. Yes, it was out of character. And yes, it had the desired effect. A fired-up Condit went out in the final round and took MacDonald down before pounding him into a TKO stoppage in the final seconds of the fight. Afterwards, the judges’ scorecards were passed around and, sure enough, Condit had been losing the fight right up until the moment when he won it.

Chill factor

“There are times when I have to chew them out a little bit,’ says Jackson, a bald, mild-mannered 37-year-old who looks more like an IT manager than a fight trainer. “That was one of those times.  But most of the time you want them calm and focused. All that yelling and pumping them up — that’s only for the movies.”

In fact, this might be the first thing you learn when you join Jackson’s world-renowned stable of elite fighters: the man is not here to yell at you. Contrary to what the Rocky films have led us to believe, a penchant for verbal abuse isn’t what makes a good trainer. Neither is a welter of pro fight experience, since Jackson is one of the most successful trainers in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) and he’s never even had a single professional fight. He holds no rank in any of the base martial arts such as Brazilian jiu jitsu, which usually make up a trainer’s background, and he has extremely limited experience with any kind of formal instruction at all.

And still the likes of UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones and top contenders Carlos Condit, Melvin Guillard, Clay Guida and Brian Stann all look to Jackson when it’s time to prepare for a fight. He’s one of the most sought-after trainers in the world and a man whose fighters describe him as a life-changing guru that they could hardly live without.

It’s enough to make you wonder: where did this guy come from, and what does he know that everyone else doesn’t?

Tough lessons

Raised in South Valley — a suburb of Albuquerque, New Mexico — as a white kid in a predominately Hispanic neighbourhood, Jackson soon found out you either learn how to scrap or how to run.

“Fighting was something you needed to understand in order to get by and have any self-respect,” Jackson says. “But I was put in that environment by my parents, who were these pacifist hippies.”

Fortunately, Jackson’s parents recognised his need and passion for combat training, which is how he got his first taste of traditional, organised martial arts with aikido lessons at the age of seven. ackson remembers learning the art as fun, if not terribly helpful on the streets. “That stuff didn’t really work all that well. I was disillusioned with traditional martial arts, but there was nobody in New Mexico to teach me Brazilian jiu jitsu. The kickboxing was very limited. So I’m basically self-taught.”

By the book

Jackson says his mentor, Mike Winkeljohn, taught him just about everything he knows about kickboxing, while he picked up a little wrestling along the way. Apart from that, he did read a book on judo. Then again, he also reads books on game theory and physics and the philosophy of causality, so maybe it only makes sense that at least one traditional martial arts book would make it into his library at some point.

But Jackson, who opened his first gym in 1992, never planned to train fighters. For starters, there was no such thing as a professional mixed martial artist then. And beyond that, Jackson was exclusively focused on teaching people to defend themselves in real-life scenarios — not competitions. In his mind, it was the perfect way to combine what he’d learned on the streets with what he’d learned from his parents.

“They always drilled into my head that happiness comes from helping people. So I decided that teaching people to defend themselves, using the lessons of my young life, was something that could bring together the reality of my everyday world and the destiny that was created for me by my parents. I think the marriage of those two is what made me a martial arts teacher.”

Pressure testing

Jackson’s students eventually badgered him into taking them to grappling tournaments, and then to the informal gym fights that had started to spring up among other early MMA enthusiasts, and finally to the UFC events.

“I was interested in real fighting for defending yourself in real situations, and competition didn’t really appeal to me,” says Jackson.  “I had to get talked into coaching.”

After turning his martial arts school into a full-time training facility for MMA fighters in 2000, Jackson made a name for himself as a trainer who churned out winners, but also as one with an unconventional approach to the fight game. If his gentle way of talking to fighters between rounds didn’t set him apart, there were also the stories of him playing classical music during training sessions, using game theory to break down upcoming opponents and encouraging his fighters to incorporate the lessons of jazz in the timing of their attacks.

In other words, he sounded like a weirdo to some and an eccentric visionary to others. Jackson himself has never claimed to be either. The way he sees it, he’s just a man trying to figure out what works, and he’s open-minded enough to try just about anything. “I just used physics and geometry and we’d go to grappling tournaments and do very well, learning moves on the fly,” says Jackson. “It was a very long process, but it still helps to this day. Because I never had a formal instructor, I still come up with new moves or new ideas all the time. Some are very obvious but some are very subtle, like Clay Guida taking Anthony Pettis down with the hip inside the knee, and nobody notices.”

“Jackson has more current and former UFC champions than any other gym.”

Despite his try-anything reputation, Jackson maintains that the trick is to keep things simple. “We were always doing basically the same moves as everyone else.

A kimura armlock is a kimura armlock. There’s only so many gas stations you can get gas at. It’s how you get to those gas stations that’s really interesting. We were driving a little different route to those gas stations, and it was allowing us to win again and again.”

And win they have. Jackson proudly points out that he’s been in more corners and worked more fights than any other trainer, and he also has more current and former UFC champions than any other single gym.

Decision time

With success has come criticism. Jackson and his team have taken heat from everyone from UFC president Dana White to anonymous fans on internet forums for “fighting safe”. Jackson fighters won too many decisions, some people insisted. They didn’t look to finish their opponents.

“When I was born, I didn’t cry.  I was just lookiing around.  My whole life has been this intense curiosity.”

Yet as the argument gained traction, Jackson shot it down with cold, hard statistics, circulating a list that showed how consistently the UFC’s performance-based bonuses had been awarded to fighters from his stable for their knockout and submission victories. In 22 UFC events, a bonus award went to a Jackson fighter more than half the time.

To hear Jackson tell it, what has really made him successful as a trainer is the same thing that makes him a bit of an oddball in the pro fighting world: he takes chances.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve been forced to innovate. And I try to establish that culture and encourage the fighters to innovate. They’re also giving things to each other. That’s why I try to build this culture of safety, where it’s OK to show this guy your moves because he’s your friend, and you have that personal relationship.” It may sound touchy-feely and his fighters may get weird looks when they talk about the “personal growth plan”  their coach has mapped out for them, but they also get the victories and the pay cheques that come with them.

And sure, they also get the occasional lesson in physics or jazz or Impressionist painters. But what do they expect? They took up with a trainer who taught himself how to fight, and taught himself how to teach it to others. As for how and why his life unfolded that way, even Jackson isn’t totally sure.

Curious methods

“My mom tells the story that, when I was born, I didn’t cry. Not because I was tough, but just because — as she tells it — I was just looking around, trying to figure everything out. My whole life has just been this kind of intense curiosity. I just happen to be curious about combat because of the environment

I grew up in, I think. If I was raised somewhere else, I’d probably be just as curious about something else.”

And the reason the fighters stick around — and the reason that more and more fighters are trying to get in — is because Jackson gets results. He turns good fighters into great ones, and he’s been doing it for more than a decade. He’s done it his own way, without yelling and screaming at anybody. Except for that one time. But in the end, it worked. And really, what else really matters?


Jackson’s Words of Wisdom

Life lessons that work in and out of the cage.


In MMA Jackson tries anything and everything — he’s dabbled in every form of combat from grappling to fencing to firearms.

In life Never assume that the “normal” approach to a certain problem is the best one. “I’ve watched martial arts undergo a lot of evolutions,” Jackson says. “You don’t want to miss the next one just because you’re clinging to what you already know.”

Embrace fear

In MMA Jackson encourages fighters to embrace, not deny, their fears and insecurities.

In life Be honest with yourself. “A chance to overcome adversity isn’t something to avoid,” Jackson says. “It’s only scary if you’re not used to doing it.”

Push your limits

In MMA Jackson breaks down opponents by looking for their comfort zones — the things they do when they’re in danger. Then he figures out how to stop them doing those things.

In life Work out what your own comfort zones are and push them. That way, when you’re faced with the unfamiliar, you’re prepared.

Break rhythm

In MMA Jackson tells his fighters to establish rhythms that their opponents unconsciously grow accustomed to, then break them for a surprise attack.

In life Keep people guessing by being mostly predictable… until you can break your own patterns with maximum effect.


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