In the world of wrestling, Kevin Jackson is royalty, one of the best to ever represent the United States on the mats. But the 1992 Olympic Gold medalist and two-time world champion admits that over the years, the wrestlers he coaches often don’t know about the other sport he excelled in as a member of the UFC roster.
“I think that's been a constant throughout my coaching career,” said Jackson, who is currently an Assistant Coach at the University of Michigan. “Eventually one of the guys on the team will google me and that might pop up, and then they'll start investigating that and asking questions. But, for sure, they really don't know, and when you tell them UFC 14, they think you're really old.”
Jackson laughs, nearly 24 years after his last mixed martial arts bout. It wasn’t a long career for the Lansing native, only six fights, but it was a memorable one that included four UFC fights, a tournament win and a shot at the inaugural UFC 205-pound title.
“I knew, even back in the day, that it was gonna be the sport of the millennium,” he said. “I thought it was gonna be a prime time sport, but I never really locked into the growth and the financial gain of that opportunity until it really showed itself with Randy Couture staying in that game and doing his thing.”
Over the years, it became clear that Jackson was before his time, and when he did join wrestlers like Couture, Mark Coleman, Mark Kerr, Dan Severn, Mark Schultz, Royce Alger, Kenny Monday and Don Frye in mixed martial arts, it was a big deal because he was just a few years removed from winning gold in Barcelona. That didn’t mean everybody was happy about Jackson making the move to a still misunderstood sport.
“Back when we joined it, and even before I fought, it really was no holds barred,” said Jackson. “And so when I finally got in it, they had eliminated the headbutt and you couldn't kick the guy when he's on the ground, so more and better rules came into place, and that made it a little better for me, and for my wife (Laughs), to deal with the situation.
"Some wrestlers and coaches and parents were excited about it because they could see the art of the sport. But especially back then, it was still banned in the majority of states here in America, so with my family, there was a little fear that my parents had to deal with.
“At the same time people on the in realized that we worked so hard to accomplish our goals as Olympic and World medalists, and the reward is not great or anything that you can really springboard from to set your family in a better situation,” he continues.
“And so a lot of people recognized it was an opportunity. I think Kurt Angle had already gone to the WWE, so there were a few opportunities, but it was a mixed bag. Some of them were like, ‘What are you doing, you're an Olympic gold medalist and that's a backroom, bar, alley type of show that you're gonna be involved in, and your standards should be higher than that’ So there was some of that, but a couple old coaches were like, ‘Yeah, man, I did a little bit of that back in the day.’ (Laughs)
"But in the end, it all panned out to be really positive, not only for the sport of wrestling. I think when me and Kenny Monday got in it, it legitimized the sport (MMA) as a real sport as opposed to being full of barroom brawlers and people off the street with a funny background. Now you had two Olympic gold medalists actually participating, and you had Couture, Schultz and Coleman that were in it. But when me and Kenny got into it, I think it shed a different light on the sport. So it was a mix of good and bad from the wrestling community.”
Jackson and Monday would debut on the same Extreme Fighting 4 card (one that also featured future UFC Hall of Famers Maurice Smith and Pat Miletich) on March 28, 1997, and after Jackson submitted John Lober, he was in the Octagon four months later.
Held in Birmingham, Alabama, UFC 14 saw Jackson need just 2:11 to stop Todd Butler and Tony Fryklund to win the night’s one-night middleweight tournament. He was hooked, and a star was born.
“My saving grace is that it wasn't no holds barred, there were actual rules,” Jackson said. “You couldn't do some things that were pretty violent actions and could damage you and your opponent. So when they took away some of those things, it really made it into a sport as opposed to the no holds barred that it had shown itself to be. But also, when we watched it, I could see the technical skill of a (Royce) Gracie and that his wrestling ability, along with his jiu-jitsu, allowed him to be such a legendary star in that sport. I don't think he was standing up and slugging it out with too many guys, if any. At the same time, he became the superstar of the league because of his wrestling and jiu-jitsu skills.”
Jackson’s success in his first night in the UFC put him the first 205-pound title fight in the promotion’s history, but his December 1997 bout with Frank Shamrock ended in a submission loss and another defeat followed against Jerry Bohlander before he ended his MMA career with a submission win over Sam Adkins on an Extreme Challenge card in Iowa. It wasn’t the way he expected to walk away from the sport, but Jackson had a family to take care of and a tough decision to make.
On this date in 1992, @USAWrestling's John Smith & Kevin Jackson win gold and Chris Campbell wins bronze at Olympics.— NWHOF (@NWHOF) August 7, 2020
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Chris: https://t.co/8fzvIf0Yzo @CowboyWrestling @Hawks_Wrestling @CycloneWR pic.twitter.com/8VjYkuxFZ6
“When I didn't make the Olympic team in '96, I was like, I gotta make this money up somehow,” he explains. “And MMA came into play with that opportunity. Normally, I'd go to the World championships and the Olympic Games, get a medal there and receive a bigger bonus than I was getting through my stipends each month. So I missed out on that by not making the Olympic team. So I was thinking with the fight game, I could make up some of that money. So as my career ended and I was in the fight game, a job opening became available at USA Wrestling at the Olympic Training Center, training senior level athletes full-time for Olympic and World experience.
"So when I was being hired, my executive director, my immediate boss, asked me to not do it. It (MMA) still was frowned upon. I personally thought I could take this job, continue to coach and train, and then get one or two fights over in Japan and make an extra $50,000 a year for the most part. So I was really planning on doing that. But when I was asked not to do it, I just really didn't put enough thought into it and stepped away from the MMA world and went full-time coaching. And that's why I didn't continue to do it.
"I regret that, looking back at it, and seeing the success of Randy Couture and being able to fight until your upper age. I feel like if I really would have focused and put the right amount of training with the right coaches, I really feel like I could have dominated the sport at that time.”
As in almost any endeavor, sporting or otherwise, timing is everything. So what if everything could have been fast-forwarded five years? Does Kevin Jackson enter the UFC in 2002 with the sport more established under the early years of the Zuffa era and become one of the sport’s biggest stars and most dominant fighters? It’s possible, perhaps even probable.
“I really never got with experts from a submission standpoint,” he said. “You saw when I lost my fights in UFC, it was by an armbar, which is an easily defendable position if you know what you're doing and you train with guys that could hit it on you when that opportunity presented itself. So I would have figured that piece out and obviously I felt during that time - and even today - that with my wrestling skills that no one could have stopped me from taking them down.
"But I do think my trajectory would be a little bit different, and I would hope I'd be sitting in Daniel Cormier's chair right now instead of him if that was the case, because I really do think I could have had a really, really successful career and probably ended up with a few more dollars than I put away at that time.”
What ifs aside, Jackson’s career is certainly one to be proud of, both as a competitor and a coach. And while the accolades, wins and medals are nice, Coach Jackson is most proud of the impact he’s had on the young people he’s worked with for decades.
“I never thought about a legacy, but I do know that when you can leave your imprint on someone for the better, it's a good way to live,” he said. “It's more Christ-like than anything else, and I've been fortunate to be put in situations to help a lot of kids, a lot of adults, a lot of Olympians and NCAA champions. And being in the MMA world and being in the UFC has actually helped that because you get a little bit more respect when people know you beat some people up. (Laughs) So they listen a little bit more, but just having the opportunities that wrestling and MMA have presented for me to influence our youth has been a blessing.
"That's been my most satisfying thing in sports, even beyond the medals; just having the ability to touch some people and give back because so many great coaches and people poured that into me for me to accomplish the athletic goals that I've accomplished and to be where I'm at right now. So I feel great about being able to give that back and have that loop closed.”