Greg Jackson, the single most successful trainer in the multi-billion-dollar sport of professional mixed martial arts fighting, works out of a musty old gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, not far from the base of the Sandia Mountains. On a recent morning, the 38-year-old Jackson, who has the cauliflowered ears and bulbous nose of a career fighter, watched two of his students square off inside the chain-link walls of a blood-splattered ring called the Octagon.
One of them was Jon Jones, the light heavyweight champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the premier MMA league. In four weeks, Jones would be defending his title against Rashad Evans, an expert fighter and his former training partner. To prepare him, Jackson had set up a sparring session with Shawn “The Savage” Jordan, a heavyset fighter from Baton Rouge.
Jones and Jordan met in the middle of the ring. Jordan threw first. Jones backpedaled and protected his face with his forearms.
“Look for that space, Jones!” Jackson hollered. “You. Do. Not let him close those angles on you.” Jordan threw a flurry of blows. To me, the exchange appeared disorganized, nonsensical—a blur of flesh, sinew and the red flash of Jordan’s mouth guard.
To Jackson, it was a logical sequence, one with only one possible effective response. “Jones,” he said, “move inside.” The fighter seemed to hesitate. If he moved within range of Jordan’s fists, he risked catching a glove square in the face.
“Go on,” Jackson said.
Jones ducked under one fist and whipped his right leg out in a short arc. The kick missed. Jordan threw again. This time Jones dropped down, flicked his head to the side, and, leaping off one foot, launched a flying jab followed by a knee to Jordan’s midsection, which landed with a wet whoompf. Jordan groaned and crumpled onto the mat.
“Goddamn, Jones!” Jackson yelled. “Exactly correct.”
Producing a notepad from his back pocket, Jackson sketched a spiderweb of circles and lines. It was a game tree, he explained—a graph game theorists use to analyze a sequence of decisions. In a traditional game tree, each circle, or node, represents the point at which a decision can be made. Each line, or edge, represents the decision itself. Game trees eventually end in a terminal node—either a tie or a win for one of the players. This game tree, Jackson told me, showed the exchange between Jones and Jordan from Jones’s perspective.
At the start, the two men stood a few feet apart. Jackson drew a circle. The node had three edges, or moves that Jackson was training Jones to use. He could execute a leg kick, or a punch, or he could shoot for a takedown (attempt to grab Jordan by the backs of his legs and drive him into the ground). But the initial node was not “optimal,” he said, because it allowed Jordan to swing freely with both fists. Although it seemed counterintuitive, the fast track to what Jackson calls the “damage” node (in this case, Jones’s advantageous position following his hard knee) was to move in close, where Jordan would not be able to fully wind up. Another circle, representing Jones’s inside position, and a series of edges, representing his potential decisions from there, appeared on the notepad.
“From inside,” Jackson said, “he can do a knee, he can do an uppercut, he can do elbows. He could have done anything there, and done it effectively.”
Since 1992, when he opened his first gym, Jackson has been using math to inform his training techniques. Unlike other MMA coaches, he continually collects data while watching live bouts, logs old fight videos to determine which moves work and when, and fills notebooks with game trees to determine the optimal nodes for various situations in a match. “I’ve always seen the ring like a lab,” he says. “I’ve tried to think rigorously, logically."
Jackson’s attempts to impose some measure of order on the primal, violent world of MMA mirror a larger movement within the sport. Science may not be civilizing cage fighting, but it is refining it. Specialty firms compile detailed statistics on matches. MMA pros appear on ESPN rigged head to toe with sensors and monitors that measure their striking power and speed. Academics are writing peer-reviewed articles on subjects such as the physiology of top fighters and the role that fear plays in the Octagon. And now fighters, most of them trained by Jackson, are beginning to use this data and analysis to become ever more brutally effective in the ring.
How science is transforming the sport of MMA fighting