For those that don't know, Head Kick Legend was the brainchild of Dave Walsh (now of Liver Kick) and our own Fraser Coffeen to cover kickboxing. It also morphed into covering Japanese MMA. Eventually the site was taken over by Matt Roth, who brought on a host of writers with names you might recognize - yours truly, Derek Suboticki, Jack Slack, John Nash, etc. In its finals months, the site was run by Cory Braiterman and had a whole new host of writers.
So a lot of people helped make HKL a great site and when it was inexplicably taken down by SBN, some of our favorite work went with it. Luckily, I recently realized that I still have access to all these articles. So I feel, much like I do with the WEC, that people's work can live on if it's still brought up and talked about. Today is the start of that odyssey.
Since there was some demand for it, I've decided to run a series of old Head Kick Legend articles every Thursday. I figured we might as well start off with someone who got some press yesterday - Derek Suboticki. Derek wrote the Greg Jackson piece below on May 5th, 2011. This was right after UFC 129, and a little over a month after Jon Jones claimed the UFC light heavyweight title from Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. Jones was expected to make his first defense against former teammate Rashad Evans at UFC 133, but that didn't end up happening until much later. Derek didn't know that at the time though, so this was his take on the situation. Enjoy.
Greg Jackson's Lonely Stand: Loyalty vs Legacy
For all intents and purposes, Greg Jackson should be on Cloud Nine right now. Head trainer at perhaps the most prestigious gym in all of mixed martial arts, Jackson and his fighters have enjoyed a ridiculously successful streak since the beginning of 2010. Georges St. Pierre has defended his welterweight title, most recently against former Strikeforce MW champion Jake Shields last Saturday at UFC 129. His premiere heavyweight, Shane Carwin, successfully bested Frank Mir for an interim championship before falling just short against Brock Lesnar in July; at the same time, TUF runner-up Brendan Schaub has gone undefeated since losing to Roy Nelson. In the lightweight division, Jackson has rising/resurrected contenders in Melvin Guillard (currently holding the deed to Evan Dunham's soul while preparing for Shane Roller) and Clay Guida, not to mention is up-until-now successful mentoring of Donald Cerrone and his transition from the WEC to the UFC. And I haven't even gotten to Nate Marquardt's transition from successful middleweight to 170er, Brian Stann's ascension to contender status, Rashad Evan's successful return to the cage against Rampage Jackson... and his newly crowned champion at 205.
However, the Jackson narrative begins to unravel when we come to those final examples (and, as we'll see later, potentially in some of the earlier ones). Rashad had earned a title shot by defeating Rampage at UFC 114 and elected to wait for the injured champ, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, to come back healthy. When the fight was finally approaching, the injury bug (which, frankly, should have had its fill of Rua by now) latched onto Evans instead, creating a void in the main event for UFC 128. Enter Jon Jones.
Jones, an undefeated prospect that had joined Jackson's in 2009, was slated to face off against fellow unblemished young gun Ryan Bader (fresh off of a victory over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira) a mere six weeks prior to Evan's scheduled title shot. Jones choked Bader out in the second round of their bout at UFC 126 and pretty much avoided being scathed during the process. Immediately after the bout, Joe Rogan informed Bones that the spot opposite Shogun in a month and a half was his for the taking. Jones immediately accepted.
After capturing the belt in dominating fashion, Jones was repeatedly badgered about the possibility of honoring Rashad's promised title shot. Not one to deny a friend what is his (and being of the mindset that champions don't get to veto challengers), Jones announced that he would be willing to take the fight. While Evans accepted, he then went on a tirade against Jackson (with whom Rashad holds a close bond), claiming that Jones was brought onto the team against his wishes and that he was being betrayed in favor of the flavor of the month. This lead Jackson, in an effort to protect his gym's unique brand, to fire back to MMAFighting:
"I love Rashad to death," he told MMA Fighting this week. "I'm not sure why he's angry at me. I guess I can see from a perspective, that isn't really the way it is, why he's angry, but I don't have any animosity towards him. I've always tried to help him out. I was with him right after he won that reality show all the way to his world title. I'm not sure what it is." ...
"The thing with Rashad is, he said he was okay with Jon coming on the team. I felt that Jon did the wrong thing by saying he would fight Rashad. But once they signed to fight, I'm staying out of it. I'm not choosing Rashad over Jon Jones or Jon Jones over Rashad; I'm staying out of the entire thing. Everybody signed on to [Jon] being on the team. It wasn't like I brought him on with these evil intentions. I bring a lot of training partners on to the team who are in the same weight class. For instance, Donald Cerrone, Melvin Guillard, Clay Guida – all these guys are in the same division."
As of now, the situation between Evans and Jackson remains, at least in public, at a standstill. It's still unknown how many members of Jackson's camp will be assisting Evans in his preparation, but it does not appear (as Jackson would clearly prefer) that the number will be or is zero. Keith Jardine, a pioneering member of the Jackson camp, had this to say when the split originally occurred in March:
You know, I haven't thought about it too much, but no question I would be supporting Rashad," Jardine said. "He's one of my closest friends in the world. I have a lot of loyalty and friendship with him." ...
"It'll never be the same, you know? This gym, when the UFC broke out in 2005, was built on me, Rashad, Nate Marquardt, Joey Villasenor and Diego Sanchez...It all started from that interview that Jon did talking about the possibility of fighting with Rashad [with Ariel Helwani on Versus:]," Jardine said. "That's just something that doesn't need to be said. Of course they could have been made to fight, and they both knew it. But for Jon to go out and say that made Rashad look like a punk, and that's kind of what happened to start it all. It was already sensitive, so it blew up after that."
In fact, even some of Jackson's affiliates (and, frequently, a fellow corner man) have publicly distanced themselves from his stance against teammates ever fighting.
About a week before UFC 128, I trekked up to Wheat Ridge, Colorado to interview Trevor Wittman in his office at Grudge Training Center. Grudge, a Jackson's affiliate, is the primary home for several fighters considered to be part of Jackson's camp, including Nate Marquardt, Shane Carwin and Brendan Schaub. My first question for Wittman was related to Jackson's comments from the previous December, reproduced here from MMAWeekly:
"It’s up to the fighters at the end of the day. I will not be a part of it myself," Jackson told MMAWeekly.com. "Like I’m not going to train one of my team to fight the other of my team. I wouldn’t even know how to do that, that’s so foreign to me that I couldn’t even do it." ...
"I am not a manager. I’m not in charge of fighters’ careers. They have to make their own decisions. If they decide to do it, I’m not going to train them for it is basically the bottom line there," Jackson stated.
While slightly nicer than threatening to cut any fighter that agrees to such a bout, Jackson essentially uses the maximum of his leverage to discourage the situation: sure, take the fight, but don't expect me to help you prepare for it. When I asked Wittman about the possibility of Joe Silva requesting a Carwin v Schaub bout, he seemed more than prepared with an answer:
My reaction to Joe Silva is - we actually work for those guys. I work for the fighter - but the fighter works for the UFC, or whoever the promotion is that hired them. They, ultimately, make the decisions. What I've been telling the fighters is "'be prepared for it." You cannot mentally tell yourself that you're not going to do it because you don't want to do it. Your job is on the line.
And with Rashad - I told Rashad, I'm like, I kind of built it up because - I seen Rashad get injured, and I knew what they were going to offer him, they offered it [the title shot] to Rampage - to me, a power move was made by Dana. He played chess. He goes "Oh, you guys say you won't fight each other, [like] AKA, where it hasn't happened where I can really make it happen? It's a perfect opportunity, let me see if I can stir some stuff up." It's a power move by Dana. He's a smart promoter, a smart dude. He puts Jon Jones in the light and says "Hey, you win this fight, you come out unscathed. Let's make it happen."
And to me... I seen him [Jones] go "Hey, I got the opportunity, let's do it." And to me, if he's the younger guy, this-this bomb, this decision that we're not going to fight each other, he could've said "Hey, let's step back from the title, I'm young, I can go another two fights and be ready for my opponent, that's Rashad's - that's Rashad's fight.
Jones, of course, did not do that - and who can blame him? I have a hard enough time convincing people that wealthy, successful fighters will be willing to take smaller paychecks in exchange for unionization with their lesser brethren - even I'm not delusional enough to believe that they're willing to sacrifice title shots in order to avoid hurting anyone's feelings. Of course, if my gym's cache was built upon that fantasy (and, let's not forget, unrivaled success within the Octagon), I'd probably cling a little tighter to it - but it isn't, so I don't.
Greg Jackson seemed to believe that his gym would be able to control the UFC's matchmaking apparatus by providing a unified front. However, he didn't realize that every fighter that he added to his roster made his plan more vulnerable. Trevor Wittman is right - the coaches work for the fighters, and the fighters work for the UFC. No coach or camp can compete with what the UFC offers fighters - unprecedented pay and exposure, a pipeline into the mainstream, competent oversight and frequent opportunities to fight. The sooner Greg Jackson realizes that - and restricts his focus to preparing each of his fighters as best he can - the better off he and his charges will be.