Success is not common.
While there are numerous instances of it, success is far from the given result. Especially considering how many attempt the journey to obtain it. And even that is anachronistic because success is more than a moment - it’s an ever-evolving adventure trying to stay ahead of the curve on a long, windy, and dimly-lit road toward an ultimate goal.
In the fight business, wins and losses come and go by the smallest of margins. A mistimed this or a slip of control there on either side of a matchup, and someone can have their hand raised or their head held in shame for that brief instance on that single night. For many, that may be the beginning or end of their story, yet the truly successful ones built winning mindsets for the work they put in before the fight and how they handle the outcome after it.
It’s about having a healthy respect for the challenge in front of you, but never forgetting there will always be more challenges lying ahead, and using one’s knowledge of the past to game plan for the future while training for the present.
Success can be cyclical and it can be linear, but most of all success is a tradition. It’s a learned responsibility for oneself and for those that one surrounds themselves with. And the keepers of that tradition in the sport of mixed martial arts are the coaches at Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“One thing I have so much respect for Coach Mike Winkeljohn and Coach Greg Jackson on, no matter what fight they corner Saturday night, whether it is an amateur smoker or it’s for a UFC world title, they’re always at that gym Monday morning,” states Brandon Gibson. “They are right back in that gym helping the next guy accomplish his goals and dreams no matter how big they may be or small they may be in comparison to any other fighter in the gym. Each fighter’s own fight is that important. I just really love the commitment those guys bring and the consistency.”
While the premier fight team nestled in the rose-colored deserts of America’s Southwest has been a hotbed over the years for The Ultimate Fighter winners like John Dodson and Diego Sanchez to UFC champions like Rashad Evans and Jon Jones, a different success story is stemming from the gym’s famed backbone of head coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn: protégés. The team has raised many superstar fighters and, now, they’re raising superstar coaches as well.
Specifically, striking coach “Six Gun” Gibson.
“Not only do we have a stable of amazing fighters, but we have a stable of amazing world-class coaches,” affirms Gibson. “We all support each other. Obviously, Greg and Wink cannot give personal attention to every fighter every day. We have big group classes, but one-on-ones come through rotation. And, all the coaches are on the same page. We all understand the same strategy. We have fight strategy sessions where we breakdown the opponent, develop the game plan, and we develop the tools as the camp goes on. So, it’s very structured like that, but it’s a loose family atmosphere. It’s not a fancy gym with crazy equipment. We just have people who show up and work hard, and they’re very passionate about what they do.”
Not too long ago, Gibson wasn’t the one holding the mitts at Jackson’s, but “Six Gun” was the one hitting them. His story is about heading down the path to becoming a martial artist, facing adversity, adapting to the new situation, and returning to the path wiser and more focused at a new position. Amazingly enough, he never even needed to leave his hometown to do any of it.
“I grew up in the southeast of Albuquerque, which is where the gym is located now,” says Gibson. “It’s kind of a rougher part of Albuquerque. I would always have to walk home to my grandmother’s house after school and I was just a young kid in elementary school. I wouldn’t say I was getting bullied, but it was not necessarily a safe situation. There was a karate dojo that was much closer. I think I always had an interest in martial arts because you’re just always surrounded by martial arts influences in pop culture. I definitely had an interest in it and I think my dad saw that.”
Starting at around six years old, Gibson took his gi to school and walked it to the dojo every day afterward for years to come. Fast forward to his teens, and Gibson became a “little disillusioned” about the katas/forms and repetitiveness of traditional martial arts and began boxing at a local community center, which became his new combat home through college.
“They didn’t have a coach, but there would be guys sparring and guys hitting the bag,” remembers Gibson. “You just tried to pick up different things from whoever was there that night. That boxing gym was actually pretty cool. That was where Johnny Tapia, one of Albuquerque’s great boxers, boxed out of. And, Bob Foster - one of the greatest light heavyweight boxers of all time - he fought Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.”
By chance, a friend suggested Gibson try out a new place where Dutch kickboxer Hein Smit, who had trained out of the legendary Vos Gym in Amsterdam with former K-1 World Grand Prix champion Ernesto “Mr. Perfect” Hoost, began coaching out of this little gym in ABQ.
“I went over there and I fell in love with the Dutch kickboxing style and I started training with [Hein Smit],” tells Gibson, who spent the next year or so learning from Smit. Eventually, Smit recommended that Gibson should begin training with another Albuquerque based coach who just so happened to be a former three-time Muay Thai and kickboxing world champion: Mike Winkeljohn.
“I was fighting on the amateur scene, but Coach Winkeljohn was a world champ and his gym had this reputation of that’s where the REAL guys were,” asserts Gibson. “I think I was nervous. I didn’t know how Coach Wink would respond to me or if he would see potential or talent in me, but he liked me right away. I remember the first night going in there and just getting rocked by these guys - just rocked. The first night I sparred with Joey Villasenor, Keith Jardine, and Mike Van Arsdale. The guys were much bigger than me. I’m kind of a natural 145er. Joey Villasenor took me aside and went a little lighter and he was like, ‘Ok, Brandon. You’re going to have focus on your speed and your head movement, and don’t be so tense.’ I’m sure he could’ve seen a little fear in me, but Joey definitely helped ease me into the gym. I think that really paid dividends early on because I did have to focus on my speed, I did have to focus on not sitting in the pocket, and I did have to focus on my feints. I think those are all good elements that made me a good fighter, but an even better coach.”
It’s a unique set of experiences that Gibson has, having been on the receiving side of Coach Winkeljohn’s tutelage. He learned the system and strategies and applied them to himself as a fighter first. Gibson knows what it’s like being in the position the fighters he now helps to coach are in because he was there alongside them receiving the same instruction. The idea of “spilling the same blood in the same mud” empathy for a fighter in their situation and their struggles is something he has first-hand knowledge of.
“We always say [Coach Winkeljohn] is no nonsense,” explains Gibson. “He carries a sense of structure of discipline of respect. I don’t think he necessarily demands it from all the guys; he just has the presence where everybody treats him with that. As a fighter, Coach Wink taught me how to fight intelligently. I think I had more of a brawler mentality. I was always fast and I had power on both sides, but what Coach Wink instilled in me was defense, a sense of awareness, a strategic approach to this sport. He used to say, ‘Don’t go out there and roll the dice.’ He would tell me, don’t get into positions where it’s 50/50 where you may get the knockout, but you may get knocked out. Break these guys down. Use your feints, use your angles, and don’t be there to get hit afterward.”
Not long after Gibson began training under “Wink”, Coach Winkeljohn and Coach Jackson, who operated separate gyms in Albuquerque, joined forces to form what has become the world-renowned Jackson’s MMA that has helped the careers of top talent like Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, Clay “The Carpenter” Guida, former WEC welterweight champion Carlos Condit, and former UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, to name a few.
But, in 2009, tragedy struck Gibson in the form of a distal tibia fracture - like the one suffered by former UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva - that he received in training. It took three surgeries to fix, but none of them kept “Six Gun” from the gym.
“Between those surgeries, I was in the gym with my boot on and hitting the speed bag,” states Gibson, who did get back to sparring over time, but knew competition was over for him.
Without a fighting career, Gibson still wanted to be a useful member of the gym, which is when he began coaching.
“Like I said, I was a little boy with my gi walking to the dojo all the way until I was in my late twenties,” explains Gibson. “I had been doing this my whole life and I didn’t really know anything else. It was just as much physical as it was an emotional bond. It’s something I need to stay balanced. The opportunity came to work at Jackson’s in the kids program. They had a grappling coach that was amazing, but they didn’t have anyone for striking. I thought I would just offer. I have three little boys - Brendan, Tristan, Logan - myself and I have always been good with kids, and I thought I would just share my passion.”
From working with kids to working with amateur fighters was a quick step. Generally, Jackson’s MMA is seen as a who’s who list of elite professional fighters, but they have 1-0 pros and amateurs within their ranks as well.
“I kind of started working my own style from what I learned from Wink and Greg and from my own past,” affirms Gibson, who began holding mitts for then amateurs like Nick Urso (7-1 pro), Hunter Tucker (6-2 pro), and Landon Vannata (4-0 pro).
Another freak injury at the gym occurred as Coach Winkeljohn’s eyeball was lacerated by accidental head kick in a mitt-holding drill and he lost sight in that eye. Someone needed to step up to help the fighters who were already neck-deep in camp for forthcoming fights as Coach Winkeljohn healed, and who better than Gibson - a product of the gym.
“Under Wink and Greg’s guidance, I was able to learn at a more accelerated rate,” states Gibson, who began cornering UFC fighters with them not long after that.
Throwing “Six Gun” right into the fire, Gibson’s first night of Octagon cornerning was at UFC 143 for Carlos Condit as he took on Nick Diaz for the interim UFC welterweight title. And since then, Gibson has cornered UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and others, and will be in Condit’s corner for the fifth consecutive time as “The Natural Born Killer” tangles with Tyron Woodley at UFC 171.
“One great thing about Greg and Wink is they’ve worked maybe more corners than anyone else in this sport,” asserts Gibson. “It really starts in those film study sessions and then all the work in the gym. Our team comes into the fight knowing what to look out for and knowing what to be aware of. Going into that fight, I definitely felt butterflies. Carlos is a good friend of mine and I knew that was a huge opportunity, and we all had put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into that camp. It was like, here I am at the Mandalay Bay with a world title on the line, this is kind of a dream moment, but now, it’s time to perform and now you have to be more focused and more aware than you’ve ever been.”
As for the former interim UFC welterweight champion, Condit has only competed in memorable performances inside the Octagon. From two split decision wars with Martin Kampmann and Jake Ellenberger in his freshman year to a seven fight stretch of either Fight Night bonuses or title clashes or both. Most recently, he avenged his UFC debut loss to Kampmann with a Fight of the Night winning fourth round TKO in August.
“Carlos is passionate about fighting,” states Gibson. “He’s definitely a fighter’s fighter. He will go out there and out work people. He will out suffer people. Blood doesn’t bother him. Nothing deters him from his goals when he gets out there, and he will fight until the last second. I have so much respect for him as a fighter. I see how hard he works in his training camps. Carlos’ fire and desire for it is something you can’t teach. You never have to get Carlos fired up to go out there and perform - he has that. It’s more about keeping him channeled and focused and keeping him aware.”
Owning a stellar 29-7 pro career with 27 finishes, Condit’s record speaks for itself in bold and exciting terms that any fight fan can understand: 14 KO/TKOs and 13 submissions. It’s versatility. As for striking, where Gibson works with him, Condit can punch like in his Knockout of the Night over Dan Hardy, kick like when he dropped Georges St-Pierre for only the second time in his career, ground-and-pound like how Condit finished Rory MacDonald, or throwing flying knees like his Knockout of the Night of Dong Hyun Kim. Or Condit can simply up the pace and break his opponent down like he did with Kampmann.
“He’s so versatile on the ground and in his stand-up,” explains Gibson. “When we coach Carlos, it’s not about teaching him punch 1, 2, 3, 4. It’s about putting him in positions so he can throw what he wants to throw when he sees what he sees. We’ll do basic set-ups to get an angle, so that Carlos can explode with a low, mid, or high attack. We can set up a lot of footwork to force the opponent to move in a certain direction and Carlos has five attacks to throw from there. He changes his range. He can fight close, he can fight long. He definitely has the eye for it. He’s a strategic fighter and he uses his wide variety of tools so well. He’s called ‘The Natural Born Killer’ for a reason.”
Up next for Condit is a co-main event showdown with title implications written all over it as he takes on Tyron Woodley. The American Top Team product owns a 12-2 pro record with eight wins in Strikeforce and two first round knockouts inside the Octagon. In his last outing, the former 2x NCAA Division I All-American wrestler scored a Knockout of the Night over perennial top contender Josh Koscheck at UFC 167.
“We have a lot of respect for Tyron and have been working really hard for him,” says Gibson. “He’s a world-class wrestler with devastating one-punch knockout power. Very explosive, looks very strong. I feel like we know what he wants to do. I feel like some people think there is a blueprint on how to beat Carlos Condit, and I think they will be in for a surprise if they follow what they think that blueprint is.”
The “blueprint” is taking Condit down. While that is a very general and vague idea in itself, how effective have fighters been in taking Condit down and beating him there? Kampmann won a round on Condit with takedowns, but was unsuccessful in the following rounds. Former two-time NCAA D1 National Champion wrestler Hendricks scored takedowns on Condit, but did not control him on the ground nor keep him there. And former UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, who is widely seen as having the best MMA wrestling, took Carlos down, but also had trouble keeping him there or controlling him there.
“Carlos has gotten so much better since the Kampmann fight, the Hendricks fight, and the St-Pierre fight,” explains Gibson. “He’s evolving. He’s getting very explosive and very dangerous in certain situations. I think he’s going to match up very well against Tyron. I think Tyron’s really going to have to worry about Carlos’ versatility, his non-stop pace, his non-stop aggression. Carlos off his back is just as dangerous as Carlos throwing kicks at your head. Carlos is going to be looking for his own takedowns and his own clinch work. Carlos’ work with [BJJ black belt and grappling coach] Ricky Lundell is really showing in this camp. Getting Carlos down is the dangerous point. Guys who are looking to shoot on Carlos can have their night ended quick. “Stun Gun” tried a counter shot on Carlos. He backed up and tried to level change on a counter takedown and got an epic finish on Carlos’ part.”
With Condit’s co-main event melee right around the corner, Gibson’s physical job holding mitts is more or less over for this camp, but the true work in mental preparation is always going. Especially at this level, teaching the fighters new tricks or moves becomes few and far between, with the real coaching embedded in stoking the flames of fighter’s passion, keeping a smile on their face when in the thick of training, and providing an example, which is all where Gibson truly shines as a young celebrated coach.
“I think for certain guys I’m becoming more of a leader and I’m a motivator,” reveals Gibson. “Jon Jones always jokes that I’m his ‘Bundini’ Brown. Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown was one of Muhammad Ali’s coaches and was an inspirational figure in Ali’s life. It flatters me when Jones says that about me. So much of my job is not in the gym, isn’t about watching tape, or holding pads. A lot of my job is about inspiring these guys and keeping them focused on bigger goals. The long-term end of it all, I want to help keep building this team up. I would say one of my biggest goals as a coach in the current Jackson’s structure, Greg and Wink have built so many champions and I want to help build more champions. Jackson’s can do that for a long time to come.”
Tucked away amongst the untouched brutal, but beautiful, landscape of New Mexico, a championship tradition is being cultivated and spread through its athletes and, now, its coaches at Jackson’s MMA. From the gym generals Jackson and Winkeljohn to budding lieutenants like Mike Valle and Gibson, the high watermark of fighting excellence that represents the Albuquerque gym should not lower with this next generation of coaches readying to carry the torch for years to come.
In short, the secret of success is safe with “Six Gun.”
All photos courtesy of Wilson Fox. For more info, visit TheFoxIdentity.com
Gibson Prepping Condit for Battle
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