“The boxer meets an opponent who is a dream-distortion of himself in the sense that his weaknesses, his capacity to fail and to be seriously hurt, his intellectual miscalculations — all can be interpreted as strengths belonging to the Other…This is the dream, or nightmare: my strengths are not fully my own, but my opponent’s weaknesses; my failure is not fully my own, but my opponent’s triumph.” - Joyce Carol Oates, “On Boxing”
In a small arena in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the replacement enters the cage a stranger, faceless to most in attendance. He’s been thrust under the spotlight not by proper matchmaking or grand design, but by the chance appearance of an opportunity. Across from the #3 lightweight in the world, UFC newcomer Lando Vannata stands, unranked and unassuming. As he hears his name announced, his calm demeanor and confident nod to the canvas are the first inconsistencies to the preordained narrative of this fight. He appears unaware that this is supposed to be Tony Ferguson’s fight rather than his, that his role here is to be one fighter fed to another.
For the following five minutes Vannata wordlessly introduces himself to the world, no underdog in his own mind. The glimmers of potential come early — this guy moves well, he looks smooth — before exploding in a burst of glorious and violent collisions. Many an elite fighter has drowned beneath Ferguson’s boogeyman pressure, but Vannata feeds off it as if it is an extension of his own movement. He bobs beneath jabs, flicks a low kick and then spins into a punch that momentarily rattles Ferguson’s legs like windblown trees. By the time a Vannata high kick sends the most dangerous lightweight to the canvas in a confused heap, he has arrived: a striker as loose and free as his ‘Groovy’ nickname suggests, a creative martial artist with a capital A.
With a sea of shocked spectators at his back, Brandon “Six Gun” Gibson sits in Vannata’s corner, unsurprised.
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Vannata is a product of Gibson’s striking philosophies, having studied under the Albuquerque native since his teenage years. And Gibson is a product of Albuquerque: in the 1990s, local boxing heroes like Johnny Tapia and Danny Romero ignited Gibson’s curiosity for combat, so embedded in the fabric of the town that his hunger to learn came as naturally as a breath of desert air. Gibson serves as the striking coach to some of the world’s best fighters at JacksonWink Academy, though he sees himself more as collaborator than commander.
“I’ve been training Landon since he was a teenager, and I train him very differently than I train Jon Jones or Carlos Condit or ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone,” Gibson said. “Each one of these fighters is an individual: they have their own timing, their own strengths and skill set…With Landon, creativity and collaboration are the big things. His skill set has gotten so solid, now it’s a matter of — Where can we continue to innovate? Where can we find new set-ups, where can we continue to exploit his opponents?”
Gibson invariably considers the importance of innovation in mixed martial arts, a sport quickly growing out of its infantile stages. It evolves exponentially, a speeding locomotive that sends those unable to adapt flailing wayward in the wind — and those are the lucky ones; the fighters of yesterday that watch the train pass them by rather than run them over. See B.J. Penn, a legend of not long ago, stunned and surgically dispatched by the 24-year-old Yair Rodriguez, and you’ll see through wincing eyes a game where the young and dynamic devour the old and traditional.
Gibson aims to stay in the driver’s seat of this striking evolution. Despite his increasing stable of pupils he remains a student of the game himself, observing even the smallest new wrinkle in a striking exchange that may represent a trend.
Not long ago, durability and solid timing on an angry right hand could yield success in standup fights. Then the era of the polished striker ushered in the likes of Anderson Silva and Jose Aldo, well-rounded tacticians schooled in the art of Thai boxing.
In the past few years alone, a new breed of striker has emerged, one that rejects any one reductive label. Fighters like Demetrious Johnson and T.J. Dillashaw understand that hard strikes themselves are not the key to victory but rather the reward — the fight is truly won in the moments between the moments: feints, disguised entries, angles and misdirections separate them from even the sharpest traditional strikers. Even Dominick Cruz, once considered an unsolvable oddball for all his stance-switching and false starts, was outmaneuvered by young gun Cody Garbrandt in December.
“In the past we never really saw guys like Rampage [Jackson] or Wanderlei Silva or Chuck Liddell setting their up their combinations with feints, they just swung and committed to everything,” Gibson said. “Now we’re seeing guys like Cody Garbrandt display an understanding of feinting and then capitalizing off of their opponents’ defensive mistakes.”
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A lifelong boxing enthusiast, Gibson is constantly aware of the overlap between the sweet science and MMA — he even finds himself drawing comparison between his fighters and boxers of old: flashes of Tyson in John Dodson’s bobbing head movement to set up power shots, shades of Ali in Jon Jones’s rangy footwork. He watches as new trends emerge even in the ring, like Ukrainian phenom Vasyl Lomachenko’s artistic, shapeshifting movement, and re-purposes them to mold effective styles in the cage.
“I think we’re starting to see footwork become more prominent,” he said when asked to describe the MMA striker of the future. “The days of these guys being set in an orthodox or southpaw stance are starting to disappear. Guys are getting really good at transitioning through both stances and exiting through both stances, like a [Vasyl] Lomachenko.”
All of these intricate advancements in movement and technique create shiny new tools in a fighter’s offensive arsenal, but to Gibson they serve a purpose more deeply rooted in his tight bonds with his fighters.
“I want to make sure these guys have long, healthy lives after this sport. The knockouts, stuff like that will come. It’s really easy to fall in love with the offensive aspects of this game. But defense is my main focus as a coach. I focus a lot on footwork, on range awareness, on exits, on angles coming in.
“It’s my duty to make sure my fighters aren’t getting hit.”
So in Sioux Falls, when Vannata’s gas tank depleted and he began wading headfirst into the hurricane of Tony Ferguson rather than ducking beneath it, Gibson felt his stomach drop. A lifetime entrenched in the world of fighting does little to ease the sting of seeing a friend hurt.
“When his cardio gave out he became a bit of a punching bag,” Gibson said. “And that broke my heart.”
Vannata would go on to lose his UFC debut, ducking lazily into Ferguson’s trademark D’Arce choke, labored breaths heaving inside a chest flecked with blood. In hurting Ferguson, Vannata had arrived as a true talent to watch, and Gibson saw a lot to be proud of in his closest protégé. But Lando’s swollen eyes and split nose were proof that they’d fallen short of Six Gun’s foremost objective, that simple adage still used in an increasingly complex game: hit and don’t get hit.
“Boxing is about being hit rather than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain, if not devastating psychological paralysis, more than it is about winning. One sees clearly the ‘tragic’ careers of any number of boxers that the boxer prefers physical pain in the ring to the absence of pain that is ideally the condition of ordinary life. If one cannot hit, one can yet be hit, and know that one is still alive.” - Joyce Carol Oates, “On Boxing”
In October, Gibson found himself cornering another pupil against the walking antithesis of his defense-first philosophy. To the Brazilian powderkeg John Lineker, getting hit is quite the exciting prospect. It increases the likelihood that he will get to do some hitting.
Under Gibson’s guidance, the speedster John Dodson remained disciplined through five rounds, circling away from Lineker’s reckless blitzes and carefully picking his shots. At times Dodson found himself caught in the storm of hellacious hooks, but he repeatedly exited the pocket before becoming another of Lineker’s victims left twitching on the canvas floor.
Though Dodson out-landed Lineker, the Brazilian’s aggression awarded him the split decision victory. Gibson hung his head in disagreement, but the Portland crowd wasn’t complaining: Throughout the fight, they roared in bloodthirsty approval as Lineker threw his hands in the air, calling for Dodson to toss technique aside and embrace the war. As MMA striking has much room to grow, so does the audience.
“They’re cheering the brawler who’s super-aggressive, and there was no cheer when Dodson was able to evade big strikes and reestablish center of the Octagon. I think that’s what, as a lifelong striker, is more important. The fans and the crowd do influence some of these fights, because they want to see blood. But I’ll never let that dictate my style of coaching.”
Dodson left Portland with a loss, his first at bantamweight, but his face was unmarked while Lineker wore the purple mask of swelling that tends to accompany his favorite style of victory.
A fighter’s career plays out inside the frame of an unforgiving hourglass, each night of concussive damage speeding up the sand as it drops to the bottom. The tragic boxer that Oates describes, embracing the rush of taking damage as a means to feel alive, has no place in Gibson’s stable. He left Portland a proud coach, the result an afterthought compared to Dodson’s well-being.
“The beauty of true martial arts, and the reason I love JacksonWink, is above all else the freedom of exploration, adaption and expression of the self. I have many things in my style that I do ‘wrong’ but I pay attention, I seek criticism, I explore many avenues and I find a way to adapt the negatives in my game into completely unique positives.” - Landon Vannata
With a commitment to growth and defensive awareness, Gibson said, the knockouts will come.
In December, Lando Vannata was no stranger to the MMA masses when he stepped into the cage in Toronto. Rather, he found himself in a precarious spot for a fresh face with an 0-1 UFC record: high expectations for the spectacular followed him into the fight.
Minutes into the feeling-out process with a veteran opponent, Vannata was measured and methodical until suddenly he wasn’t. His body turned into a twirl befitting a dancer, but for its violent intention. The spinning kick landed on John Makdessi’s jaw with a definitive crack. By the time Lando’s foot returned to the canvas the fight was over, Makdessi crumbling in a petrified heap and Vannata admiring his work as he calmly walked off.
Again the crowd roared in stunned disbelief, and again Gibson sat unsurprised in the corner. In training, they had noticed a lapse in Makdessi’s defense, the tendency to exit to his right and drop his hands when faced with pressure. The spin was Lando’s idea, and the two drilled the technique thousands of times. A triumph born from exploitation of an opponent’s failure, as so many fights end.
Gibson felt a rush of satisfaction as his protégé paced around the cage, basking in the glory of his first UFC victory. He’d watched Lando push through thankless years committed to an art that leaves many to toil in the shadows of obscurity, now a budding star on the biggest stage.
“I was happy to see him get his win,” Gibson said. Above all else, he took pride in seeing Landon leave the cage no worse off than he’d entered it. “I was happy to see him have a great performance where he took little damage.”
The game continues to change, the train keeps burning down the tracks on the backs of former greats. Vannata’s wheel kick knockout will live on, immortalized in highlight reels. But, to a fighter with his creative drive and a coach with Gibson’s commitment to evolution, it’s already fading in the rear-view mirror.