A Review of Jackson's MMA (the gym open to the public not the fight camp)
I was incredibly disappointed while training at Jacksons MMA. I arrived with a blue belt from a strong gym in the bay area (AKA), and a muay thai record of 6-1. I was looking for a training environment where I could develop from an intermediate to advanced level in MMA. I only trained at Jacksons for three and a half weeks, which was more than enough time for me to realize that I wasn’t going to improve very much at this gym.
It was very strange working out at this school, because there is so much experience, brilliance, and potential latent there. I felt like I bought a Ferrari that was missing a transmission, power steering and brakes. I was like “Damn, this is a really nice expensive car, but I sure can’t drive it.” That’s the most appropriate metaphor I can think of in relation to Jackson’s. Here’s my review:
Comradery: Jacksons MMA does many things right. The team spirit is fantastic. People try to hook you up with work or housing if you’re new in town.
Travis, one of the managers, was kind enough to suggest his house as a place for me to stay for a few days as I got my feet. I naturally declined because he had two small sons and a third coming via a very pregnant wife, but the offer touched me deeply. The team spirit is very strong and intentionally cultivated by the instructors. There are a few handicapped people training there who are treated gently, kindly, and professionally. I would recommend anyone with any kind of inhibiting factor to train there.
Cleanliness: It’s also the absolute cleanest gym I’ve ever been to! The mirrors are spotless, the floors, toilets, and showers are scrubbed everyday, and there’s no smell anywhere. I doubt they’ve had a single case of ringworm, staph infection, or even athlete’s foot since they’ve been open.
The equipment is brand-new and the highest quality. State-of-the–art mats are in both training rooms, two walls are entirely mirrors, and the sound system is amazing. The heavy bags are great too!
Instruction: They also only let professional fighters teach all their classes. I got to spend a some surface time with Jon Dodson, the current flyweight top contender, and grill him on every single question I had regarding cutting weight and the sparring methodology of the pro’s. This was a priceless goldmine of information that is really, really hard to find. Just brushing shoulders with athletes like this teaches one so much.
Classes: Some of the classes were absolutely fantastic. Many really solid techniques well fitted together with their sister movements. Some of the best sparring classes I’ve had the privilege of attending were at Jackson's taught by Joey Villasenor. These were really well thought out affairs, where after the warm up, we learned a technical theme, drilled it, progress to offense/defense exercises still based around the same theme, moved on to more controlled sparring based around that technique and then at last a few rounds of full sparring. Unfortunately it was only a few rounds. Rarely would we do more than 15 minutes of sparring.
Schedule: There are not enough classes available each week to really dive into training and improve swiftly. Three days a week there are no martial arts classes offered at all, only cardio kickboxing where you’re more likely to be jumping over a pad than hitting it, and open mat time, which is very poorly attended. Sometimes the fight team will get together for a long rolling session during the open floor, but it’s for fighters only. The other four days, Monday through Thursday, have an hour-long MMA class at noon. Monday and Wednesday has three hours worth of classes in the evenings, and Tuesday and Thursday have two respectively.
I find that a good training session for me lasts at least three hours, so when training at Jackson’s I could only get a solid session twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday. I could feel satisfied on Tuesday and Thursday if I did the noon class as well, but it is hard to fit around the work schedule.
Training Equipment: They also have absolutely no pad work here. None. They don’t even have boxing mitts or thai pads for students to hold for each other and work with during open mat time. All of the pads are the instructor’s personal gear and are put away in closets only to be taken out when there is a private lesson. Students can’t use them. There’s also absolutely no technical bag work instruction that I saw. At most they would put you on the bags at the end of sparring and have you go apeshit for a few rounds. Equipment wise, there’s no ring/cage, speed bags, padded walls (vital for an MMA gym), or even a place to work uppercuts. All they do is drilling and sparring for the standup instruction and that rarely happens more than twice a week. I couldn’t believe this when I first saw it. How can a legit MMA gym have no pad work? It’s like having a grappling class with no drilling, just rolling. Except when you roll you get punched in the face. Absolutely crazy!
Aliveness: I’ve covered the sparring above, an excellent class where you still don’t quite get the rounds you need. On the subject of rolling there is relatively little. I mean, you roll every day if you attend classes, but very rarely longer than 15 minutes. And usually that’s a position specific roll. Say, starting in guard, or from someone’s back. They have done a very poor job of fostering open mat participation here. I remember being a bit bugged at my old BJJ instructor in the bay area when he would show up late, but I then realized he would always stay an extra hour afterwards to make sure we were getting long hard live sessions during open mat time. He would say that it takes a good half hour straight of rolling to really get something out of it, and he made sure we could get it twice a day if we wanted. I can count on one hand the times I could get 30 minutes of heavy rolling the whole while at Jacksons.
Instruction: I felt that the instruction was a bit light, technically. I could confirm this when some of the classical moves that I had seen taught other places were demonstrated. Certain key technical points of basic moves were omitted entirely. And the specifics of what kind of grip to use, or where the legs were putting pressure, were glossed over. I chalk this up to the fact that just because someone is a pro, doesn’t mean that they are a good teacher. Oftentimes things come so naturally to the best athletes that they can’t put into words how to perform the technical aspects of a movement. I find the best coaches usually were somewhat struggling practitioners and had to really put time in to learn the moves well. They can then communicate these excellently.
A lot of the coaches at Jacksons would keep teaching while they were in camp and cutting weight for a fight. I believe this makes instructing harder because your mind is in a very different place than it normally is in relation to the sport.
I had an uncomfortable experience during sparring where Isaac, an instructor, gave me a minor concussion where I saw flashes of light. I took off my glove and looked at him and he said I was sparring too hard. I stepped back up but decided to follow his instruction by taking all snap and energy out of my power shots while keeping my jabs and body shots loaded. This time he backed me up with hooks off the mats and onto the concrete where I was up to my shins in bags and gear. As I froze up my movement, thinking we would stop and step back onto the mats, he threw another overhand and I saw another flash. “TOO hard! I’ll go as hard as you want!” He snapped.
This time I made sure to throw the lightest of punches except for my straights to the body (which don’t do **** any way to even the least conditioned partner). Same thing happens again except he backs me up into the mirrors this time. When I freeze to avoid breaking the glass that probably cost $4000 to install I see another flash of light and this time black. After giving me three mild concussions in 3 minutes, all the while ignoring my progressively lighter punches, he called for us to switch partners.
I am comfortable with hard sparring and look forward to it. This experience bothered me because while he was instructing me to spar lighter, which I did as directed, he maintained his high intensity until the end. I suspect that this was more a product of him being irritable while in the middle of a hard weight cut than my sparring too hard. If he was really concerned that I was out of control during our round, he would have had me sit out rather than unleash me back into the ranks of beginning students. This was the first time I had ever sparred an instructor where I felt like my best interests weren’t in mind.
A few weeks later, after his fight had been canceled, I had a few good sparring sessions with Isaac, where he demonstrated great control and I felt like we were able to get some good work in. This story in NOT indicative of the standard sparring environment at Jackson’s.
Curriculum: They have a belt system that appears initially to be more or less BJJ based, with white, blue, purple, brown and black levels. On closer inspection, however, it’s actually MMA based, with students expected to have a grasp of clinch, standup, takedowns, etc. as they progress. There are specific classes for each level. NO MATTER YOUR PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE, you will be expected to start at the beginning level and progress at the same pace as everyone else, because time training with them is a key factor in determining promotions. At first I was happy, expecting that they had it set up this way because their classes were very much geared towards MMA. After a few weeks I realized that it was essentially BJJ 101 but not as well taught as it would be at a BJJ school. After drilling the most basic guard passes for 10 days, ones that I felt were well integrated into my game a year ago, I requested that I could try out for the intermediate classes, but was told that this was the way it is, and there’s nothing to be done about it.
Training partners: The saddest part is that because this is a relatively new school, opened 6 months ago, few of the students there are really good. There weren’t more than a handful of practitioners (some of whom were spectacular and all of whom had prior training elsewhere) that could hang with what passes for a blue belt on either coast.
PRICING: Its atrocious. The national average for decent training is about $100 a month. New Mexico is the 8th poorest state in the country, and having trained at AKA in the heart of Silicon Valley, while paying $110 for a seven-month contract I expected to the gym fees to be at least near that. It kind of is at only $130 a month. But of course that’s for a yearlong contract. And in case of injury or vacation you can’t put it on hold, even if you pay up front in cash. Month by month is $200. They have no other contract length but the one mentioned. If you want to train for 10 months its $200 a pop. And they outsource the billing to one of those private collection companies that are notorious for failing to cancel their payment extraction months after they should have.
I have some doubts about the quality of the curriculum. Jon Dodson was teaching a guard breaking class, and two of the techniques he demonstrated I had serious doubts about, but I hadn’t seen them before or tried them while rolling so I held my mouth. He then showed a guard break where you are in the closed guard, press one hand down on the chest, and reach the other behind you to manually separate the locked feet. I remembered my instructor back in Cali mentioning this move, saying that it could be found in a few pre-UFC BJJ manuals but had been entirely discounted due to its susceptibility to a triangle choke.
After drilling it for a bit I asked Jon how to defend the triangle while doing this. He mentioned some hand positioning, and weight distribution and then invited me to try it on him. He reached around for my ankle, posturing up and putting weight on my chest with his other hand. Just like I had drilled 1000 times at AKA I shot my hips up, locked my legs, and went through the basic sequence of finishing a triangle. I had it tight and couldn’t seem to get the blood choke so I pulled his head down until I heard him stop breathing where upon he tapped out. I listened politely afterwards as he explained that I didn’t really submit him, we had just stalled out so he tapped to get on with class…
This was a sad experience because I liked Albuquerque and originally came with the intention to live here while training hard and focusing on getting to a professional level. I found fun work and a good living situation, but the MMA situation as not near what I needed. I met a few guys who were successfully training the way I wanted too, but they had a contract at Jacksons MMA, a local Gracie gym (equally expensive), and another boxing gym, and managed to pay for the training via sponsors.
The part that most disturbs me is that with some small changes this gym would be amazing. If they fleshed out their thin schedule, invested in more equipment (like padded walls, boxing mitts and thai pads!) and actively supported long hard rolling/sparring sessions this would be a legitimate MMA gym. Obviously if prices were adjusted, professional instructors instead of active fighters were hired, and newcomers could place into a class based on their present skill and experience this place would excellent.
I saw a lot of people who came from out of state at great personal expense with an intention similar to mine. Some even came to train for fights back home. I felt really bad that they found themselves in a gym that more resembled a McDojo than a fight camp. I somewhat got the sense that this gym was serving as a financial base for the Jacksons professional camp across town. In essence, Jacksons MMA is for hobbyists, family members, and beginning practitioners. It’s a safe training environment where one will gradually progress to an intermediate level. One is not going to get long hours of pad work, heavy rolling, or sparring in, and the quality of training partners will not bring you mastery. I guess you could get private lessons at $50 an hour from the instructors to make up for this though…