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Interview Exclusive: Everything you always wanted to know about Greg Jackson

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An in depth interview exclusive with coach extraordinaire, Greg Jackson with questions ranging from fight philosophy to the elements of good cornering and everything in between.

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When you think of the best coaches in mixed martial arts, Greg Jackson is a name that is consistently mentioned as one of the top guys, if not the top guy. He's been working with fighters for more than 15 years and with an extremely high success rate. Just last weekend saw two of his athletes, light heavyweight champion, Jon Jones, and Number 3 ranked lightweight contender Donald Cerrone, take victories at UFC 182. In a recent interview with Bloody Elbow, Jackson answered a variety of questions ranging from fight philosophy to the specific elements of effective cornering, and everything in between.

During the interview, I was informed of the breaking news that Jon Jones had tested positive for cocaine and was entering a drug treatment facility. I broke the news to Greg, who was taken off guard and audibly dismayed by the news. I asked for a comment from him for the record, but he declined, as he wanted to find out what was going on. I offered to let him go to do whatever he needed and would wait to finish the interview, but he declined, and being the consummate professional that he is, he finished the rest of the interview, which ran another 17 minutes. Since there was a dedicated portion of this interview that focused on him personally, I felt obliged to mention this to our readers, because I felt it served as a testament to his character and professionalism.

Bloody Elbow: How do you feel about Cowboy taking the Henderson fight so close to the one he just had with Miles Jury?

Greg Jackson: Typically, I wouldn't recommend having fights so close together, and if it had been a much more grueling fight with Jury, I would advise against it, but that fight was a very technical fight, and not very grueling. I think that he still peaked pretty well, and in a week or so, if we're smart about how we do it, we should be able to turn around and fight again without a problem.

Bloody Elbow: Does Donald still spend a lot of time at Jackson's since he has the barn out in Edgewood?

Greg Jackson: Well, he's had that thing forever, and it's always been a part of everything for the last six years or so. He trains out there with all his guys, then he comes in, usually once or twice a day to the normal gym here to work out with the team. He's still very much a part of the team, but in typical Cowboy fashion, he has his own setup out there, and he sure loves it.

Bloody Elbow: What do you think about him driving his RV across country for this particular fight, since it's so close to the other and would seem that every hour counts?

Greg Jackson: That's who he is. Cowboy has to go skydiving or some other adventurous thing. He hates airports and having to sit around and wait. This way, it keeps him busy, he can take his friends along, and they can stop along the way. It keeps him relaxed.

Bloody Elbow: He made a statement at the press conference, "I've got no time to prepare, I just have time to get there and make weight." When you're on a tight schedule like this, what are some things that you do to maximize the small amount of training time?

Greg Jackson: Making sure that he has a couple of days rest, reviewing things we need to review, but he's been so on top of his game lately, in all areas. He's got a lot of experience and a lot of drive right now, so it's mainly about making little adjustments and tweaks here and there. We know Benson. We've fought him before, so it's not going to be a surprise, what Benson brings to the table.

Bloody Elbow: In the corner during Jones/Cormier, you were instructing Jonny with, "Tom & Jerry." What does that mean?

Greg Jackson: It's just a little cue to keep your feet moving. It's just an anchor word to remind him to move his feet.

Bloody Elbow: Rumors are swirling that the next season of The Ultimate Fighter will feature fight camp against fight camp (Blackzilians vs. ATT is rumored for TUF 21). Would you be interested in participating in that format, knowing your guys might have to face each other at some point?

Greg Jackson: They haven't approached us about it, and I actually think we'd be pretty boring. We don't usually have a lot of drama going on with us. I guess I would have to see the particulars on that. My official answer; I'm not sure.

Bloody Elbow: During the last two rounds of Jonny's fight, Cormier's corner seemed to lose focus a bit on the actual cornering, opting to just repeatedly shout, "Don't you want this?" How do you manage to not fall into that trap of impractical instruction, even when the chips are down?

Greg Jackson: A lot of it is understanding your fighter. Bob Cook and Javier Mendez are just amazing cornermen, so they probably knew that they needed to motivate their fighter to get out there and work. The first battle is the morale battle; keeping the guy believing that he can do it. I'm sure Bob probably felt that he needed to wake Cormier up for a final push. Everybody at AKA are just amazing coaches and great friends of mine.

My style is much more analytical. Very rarely do I need to get underneath people. I did once with Tim Kennedy, I've done it once with Carlos (Condit), but even then, if you're screaming at them, in my experience, they're hearing the screaming and the emotion instead of the urgency, so I try to keep my voice under control. If I have to raise my voice so they can physically hear me, I try to use the inflection of my voice to translate urgency, rather than the volume.

In my opinion, the biggest hurdle that I have to overcome is just dealing with guys that either their heads blow up too big or the internet will kind of pound them down too much. The outside-the-cage shenanigans are the Number One problem. -Greg Jackson

Bloody Elbow: What does it take for a young fighter to get your attention?

Greg Jackson: It's a combination of good personality and talent. You have to have both. If you're talented, but a jerk, then I don't have time for you, and neither does the team. If you're a sweetheart of a guy, but can't fight your way out of a wet paper sack, then that's not going to work out either. You have to have that special combination, and then you have to be able to gel with the team.

Alistair Overeem is a great example of that. He's talented, but he's also a really nice guy. He gelled extremely well with the team, so we're very happy to have him on board.

Bloody Elbow: When Alistair first came to the Blackzilians camp, there was some talk coming from members of the camp that said he basically just went there to use the gym and only occasionally participated in drills or sparring sessions, opting instead to bring his own training entourage. Is that or was that the case when he came to your team?

Greg Jackson: Just the opposite, actually. He comes to every team practice, he works out with everybody, they go play ultimate Frisbee together when they're done [laughs]. He loves to play the soccer video games, so they all play video games together. He's quite social with the team and is really very impressive, as far as being a team player. I don't if he was always this way, if the other environments weren't suited to him, or maybe he's changed a little...I don't know that, but I do know that here, he's an amazing teammate and is always looking out for the guys. I was really impressed with him, and I continue to be impressed with him.

Bloody Elbow: You are known for only giving your team 3 things to work on in a day. What brought you to that number? Trial and error or a formula you observed or read about or something else?

Greg Jackson: It's just experience. Sometimes I do switch it up a little. Yesterday, for MMA class, we ended up working 4, but I try to stick to 3. Usually what will happen with instructors is, they get excited to teach, myself included, and then we want to show like 18 different things, this option and that option, but it's really about retention. What is my goal? My goal isn't to show off my knowledge. My goal is to convey the knowledge I have into an applicable modality so that people will remember and use it.

Martial arts are so incredibly intricate, the more you break it down, the more detailed it can become, so in order to convey that, you have to not overload. If you do more than 3 or 4 things, it's just going to get lost in white noise. Three things that are relative to each other are grouped together in a block that is much easier to remember and apply. Remember, our goal is the improvement of the fighter, not to show off how much we know from this position and that position. It's about making sure that the focus stays on the student and conveying knowledge to them in an easily digestible fashion so they can improve.

Bloody Elbow: Jon Jones is an example of a fighter that adapts well during a fight and uses every tool in his arsenal. He throws elbows and shoulder bumps like jabs in close quarters, he uses the oblique kicks more proficiently than any other fighter in the UFC currently and he is really good at stealing rounds with flashy moves and flurries. Is it hard to instill that concept of using everything but the kitchen sink into your fighters?

Greg Jackson: Not at all. That's our philosophy. We are going to use everything at our disposal that is legal. If you're just grinding all the time, with no adjustments, people are able to figure you out. That's how you get left behind, because everybody is pushing the cutting edge in this sport.

It's a very conscious effort to keep a culture of creativity in the gym, from both the coaches and the fighters. I think our coaching staff is absolutely amazing at helping our guys to be and stay creative and adaptable. Because we do that, we've been very successful.

Bloody Elbow: When you're dealing with fighters between rounds, you have a variety of functions; focusing their breathing, pointing out observations on critical areas of both your guy and his opponent, giving instructions, motivating them, etc. Is there any one thing that takes precedence over the others?

Greg Jackson: Well, the first thing is to calm them down and just slow down their breathing. Most importantly, to take direction, they have to get that heart rate well under 140 beats a minute, so you really need to focus on cooling everything off.

Depending on the fighter, I will then try to relax them by using anchor words or visualization that will anchor them down, and at that point, they're ready to receive information. Giving them 1 or 2 things to work on is ideal, because again, giving them 6 things will make it hard to retain and it will sound like white noise.

I just give them 1 or 2 important things to focus on. It could be what their opponent might be doing or whatever the situation warrants, but only after we get that heart rate down, the breathing is under control, the eyes are clear and they're focused on receiving instruction.

To me, that trade-off was worth it to make sure the fighters in need of that money, the ones who have difficulty finding a sponsorship, get it, because now they don't even have the option to get those outside sponsorships. I can look elsewhere for sponsorship, but these guys can't. That money is for them.-Greg Jackson on losing money with the Reebok deal

Bloody Elbow: You talk a lot about meditation. Is there a specific form that you yourself practice?

Greg Jackson: Yeah, I do enjoy meditation. I was very lucky to grow up with my best friend since I was about 7 years old, Dave Rutschman-Byler. He and his brother, Mark are both Zen monks in San Francisco out at Green Gulch. Over the years, I've been very fortunate in that they've shared information with me. Just the basic stuff; I'm nowhere near their level. I understand the basics and how they apply to combat.

What I'm really into is focused object meditation or awareness meditation, which are the two main styles, and how they apply to the ability to refocus if you're losing it and controlling your consciousness and sub-consciousness so they work in tandem together, that way when your sub-conscious mind sees patterns, your conscious mind can solve them.

Bloody Elbow: You did an interview a while back where you mentioned that you found you had to be careful with some fighters because they were very sensitive. What did you mean by that? Were they sensitive to direct instruction, or they felt picked on?

Greg Jackson: No, nothing like that [laughs]. It was more about, ‘Why did Coach spend more time with him than with me?' or, ‘What do you mean that I can't do many pull-ups as him?' There's a lot of pride among fighters. Being in a room with sixty-some-odd alpha males, all of them are going to be sensitive in some way or other. It's paramount to treat them with the utmost respect and try to focus on all of their needs, which I'm not always good at, but when I slip up and make mistakes, I strive to learn from it be better.

Bloody Elbow: When the Reebok deal was first announced, you had mentioned that it was going to affect you financially. Has there been any new developments or talks with Reebok about possibly sponsoring you in a separate deal?

Greg Jackson: No, no, nothing like that. That money needs to stay with the fighters. To me, that trade-off was worth it to make sure the fighters in need of that money, the ones who have difficulty finding a sponsorship, get it, because now they don't even have the option to get those outside sponsorships. I can look elsewhere for sponsorship, but these guys can't. That money is for them.

Bloody Elbow: How proud are you of Andrei Arlovski's successful comeback over the last few years and can you give an update on what's going on with him right now (any fight announcements, etc)?

Greg Jackson: He's doing well, relaxing in Florida with his family after his big win. I'm sure he'll be getting back to camp here shortly.

He's one of my favorite people in the entire world. I just love him to death. We're very close and have quite a few years together now on his comeback trail. It was such a big moment for me when he won his last fight, and the way he won it, showing how he'd evolved since the last time they had fought.

It's a super great story. He was on a four fight losing streak, about to retire, and then he bounced back, winning all these fights, and now he's back in the Top 10 heavyweights in the world. It's amazing and I'm really proud to be associated with him. I think the world of that guy.

Bloody Elbow: What do you find that athletes have the most difficulty with when they reach the elite levels in the sport?

Greg Jackson: It's not a technique or anything with training. It's usually the stuff outside the cage they have the hardest time with. By the time they get to the elite level, they've got the physical aspects down. It's the partying lifestyles and things outside that bring the pressure.

It's a very intense culture. The internet really breaks down everything you do, all the time. In my opinion, the biggest hurdle that I have to overcome is just dealing with guys that either their heads blow up too big or the internet will kind of pound them down too much. The outside-the-cage shenanigans are the Number One problem, as evidenced by what you just told me.

Bloody Elbow: Do you find that some guys have an unreasonable amount of fear to overcome before getting into the cage and fighting for the first time as a pro?

Greg Jackson: Fighters at any level experience fear before a fight. It's a very scary situation. You're putting yourself on the line, in front of millions of people, to either win a fight or get your butt kicked. Unless you're a complete sociopath, there's always going to be an element of fear with it. Some guys deal with it better than others, but everybody feels it.

You have to learn to keep it in control and be able to compete despite the fear. The hardest part of the fight is getting to the cage. Once the fight is on, you focus on that, because there's not a lot of time to think about anything else at that point.

Before the fight, all you think about is everything that could go wrong. There are sleepless nights involved, there's ‘How did I get myself into this' kind of thinking...some of those guys never get rid of that. They have it all the time. It's another thing to respect these guys that do this. They have something in them that allows courage to overcome fear, because it takes a courageous person to do this.

Bloody Elbow: When a new guys comes to Jackson's, how soon do you know if they have "it?"

Greg Jackson: I can tell pretty early on, but I have been surprised before, where I thought somebody was going to have this great career, but they couldn't handle the pressure or some other factor prevented them from becoming what I thought they could be, so I usually reserve judgment. I say, ‘This guy has potential.' Do they have the ability to get "it" is much more what I'm looking for.

Bloody Elbow: How does one go about becoming a Jackson's team member? Do you have to be a pro, or can you come in as an amateur?

Greg Jackson: Just go to the website and hit us up with an email. We take a look at everybody and then we'll invite you down, so either have your manager contact me or just jump on the email to get in touch.

We take most people; it's not like we turn away a ton of people. If you can get down here, we'd love to see if you have what it takes. If you're an amateur, you do need to have a reasonable amount of experience. If you haven't had any fight experience, I wouldn't recommend it, because the water over here is pretty deep. If you've got some experience and can handle yourself, then yeah, we'll take you.

Bloody Elbow: You mentioned the game theory, which revolves around mathematic concepts. Were you exceptional in math during school or is this an exception as an application for fighting?

Greg Jackson: [Laughs] Well, I slept through most of my math classes when I was a kid, but the math involved in game theory and the fractal nature of the decision trees. The infusing of chaos and predictability in complicated systems comes from a man named Jim Dudley, who happens to be my mentor and a math professor at the University of New Mexico.

He's like a second dad to me. He would take me out in the desert for days at a time and talk philosophy and math and music. He's a huge Bach aficionado, so he would teach me about music. He taught me about statistics...the whole nine yards.

He was such a big influence on me, and my use of these principles comes from those blocks of time I spent out in the desert. We still do it today. I just went hiking with him up in the Sandia Mountains three weeks ago.

It's such a deep onion with so many layers. [Laughs] A deep onion? I don't even know if that makes any sense. It's a multi-layered onion. If you just want to understand combat, then study that book. It will be the one that you come back to over and over as you get more experienced in strategy. -Greg Jackson on Musashi's Book of Five Rings

Bloody Elbow: What books contributed most to your philosophy on fighting and life in general?

Greg Jackson: The best hand to hand combat book ever written is The Book of Five Rings, but you have to get the right translation. There are a lot of versions where karate guys put their own thoughts into the translation, even though they didn't really know about combat. I forget the name of the publisher, but it's the brown book where Musashi has the two sticks on the cover. That is a direct translation, and is the best one to get.

If you read the correct translation, you'll never read anything better about fighting. It has the mental game in there, it has the physical stuff, what you think about when you're fighting, which is a very big deal. Sun Tzu is basically all about laying out maxims, not all of which are applicable in today's time and place. Musashi's teachings are almost an emotional experience. Here's how you should feel during this part of a fight. Here's why you shouldn't feel anything; you should be focusing on winning and not falling in love with your tools.

It's such a deep onion with so many layers. [Laughs] A deep onion? I don't even know if that makes any sense. It's a multi-layered onion. If you just want to understand combat, then study that book. It will be the one that you come back to over and over as you get more experienced in strategy.

It's going to sound funny, but for life experience, just a manual that I claimed for myself since I was a kid, is The Lord of the Rings. It is an amazing book on staying motivated, keeping out of the darkness, friendship, addiction to power, personality types and how to deal with them, being true to yourself and to others...there's so many things in there. That book I read every year in the winter, and I've done that since I was in the sixth grade.

Different mythology appeals to different people and represents different things. The Lord of the Rings is the one that speaks to me. Every time I read it, I learn something new. I don't know Elvish and I don't speak the languages in there, but I think Tolkien was such a genius for giving you a blueprint on how to deal with the situations that life can throw at you.

You can keep up with Greg via the team's website, which has information available for fans and prospective team members.