UFC 225 is now available on Amazon Prime.
For a man approaching a pivotal moment in his fight career -- his UFC 225 clash with Phil Brooks, in Brooks’ hometown of Chicago, no less -- Mike Jackson gives the appearance of feeling little pressure. Well, that isn’t entirely true. Ensconced in a large leather power recliner at a cryotherapy center in Pearland, Texas, just south of Houston proper, both of Jackson’s legs are immobilized at the moment in inflatable compression sleeves. The toes that protrude from the far end of each black nylon sleeve, allowing the attendant to verify adequate blood flow, sport iridescent green nail polish. Never having used this particular facility’s compression therapy, Jackson was informed that the device had settings of increasing pressure, numbered one through seven. The attendant asked him how much pressure he wanted.
“Let’s start on five and go up from there if we need,” Jackson said after a moment’s thought.
For a compulsive over-thinker such as myself, it is tempting to draw clues about Jackson from that apparently offhanded response. Perhaps it provides a small insight into his personality; a measured confidence in his ability to handle things, and a tendency to jump into the deeper end of any new pool.
We make small talk as the attendant finishes tightening the seemingly dozens of Velcro straps that secure the compression apparatus to Jackson’s legs. The topic of discourse is mixed martial arts’ front page news today: former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champ Fabricio Werdum, whose positive test for performance-enhancing drugs has resulted in him being pulled from his headline bout in the UFC’s first-ever event in Russia. Jackson is inclined to give “Vai Cavalo” the benefit of the doubt, at least until more information becomes available.
“I actually talked about this on my podcast yesterday,” Jackson says. “[Werdum] doesn’t really have a history of that, and we’ve had some recent cases where it was tainted supplements, but actually tainted, not quote ‘tainted supplements.’
“Plus you know USADA is constantly adding new stuff to the [banned substances] list. They even came to me saying, ‘Hey, here’s the new list.’ Now for me, as far as supplements go, I’m very limited. I just barely started taking BCAAs [branched-chain amino acids], but outside of that, it was just marijuana,” he says with a laugh. “That was the only substance I put in my body.”
And away we go.
To converse with Jackson is an intense experience. Not because Jackson himself is intense -- at least not in any dark or brooding sense; he smiles constantly and laughs easily -- but for the sheer velocity of the verbal give-and-take in which one is expected to engage. The nature of that exchange, though, is where the duality of him comes to the fore. The man who calls himself “Mike the Truth” is a born self-promoter who is more than happy to talk himself up in a rapid-fire monologue peppered with verbal hashtags for his current doings, the current one being #TruthVsPunk. However, he is also a fixture of the Texas combat sports scene who, thanks to his roles as a podcaster and as the main photographer and videographer for Legacy Fighting Alliance, has been behind the camera or holding the microphone at least as often as he has been in front of them. It shows in his demeanor. Jackson frequently answers questions with questions, not as a sparring tactic but in order to spark conversation; he is clearly interested in the other person’s response.
Jackson’s feelings on his upcoming opponent are similarly divided. While he sought out this fight partly due to the umbrage he felt when Brooks famously called him a “can,” he also appears to feel an empathy, if not kinship, thanks to the parallels in their careers. Like Brooks, Jackson is a latecomer to MMA who has taken enormous criticism for his fast track to the sport’s biggest stage. Jackson doesn’t blame “Punk,” who was in his mid-thirties when he made a transition from pro wrestling superstar to the knuckle game aspirant, for parlaying his fame into crossing something off of his bucket list.
“It’s a catch-22 [for Brooks]. I’m trying to go beat him and show him there’s levels to this game, but at the same time there was no other route he could take. [He’s] this huge personality, this huge persona… [He] couldn’t fight and develop as an amateur.”
Or on an LFA undercard, I offer. Jackson laughs.
“Right! Or on anyone’s undercard,” he says. “Like, [he] couldn’t fight anywhere but the UFC, because of who [he is]. My hypothesis is, he’s a guy who had real love for the sport and wanted to try it. I respect that. You can’t step into a cage and do this without some kind of love for this sport, for fighting. But he couldn’t start at the amateur level. It’s where he should have started, but he couldn’t because of his fame. With his name value, he couldn’t start in an LFA or a smaller local show, because they wouldn’t have been paying him anything near what he’s worth. It would be exploitative.”
The 33-year-old Jackson is candid about the extent of his competitive aspirations, and suspects “Punk,” who is nearly seven years his senior, feels similarly. Like Brooks, he sees himself as an entertainer who has an opportunity to use fighting as a platform.
“He’s in the same boat as me,” Jackson says. “He’s not trying to become [UFC] champion. I’m not trying to become UFC champion. The majority of people in the UFC, I would say 99 percent of them, think they’re there to try and win the title. Why else would they be there, or why would they take the route they did to get there? You work your way up from the amateurs or the regional promotions, to get to the UFC and try and [win the title].
“Me, I started training when I was 23. Even at that time, I felt I’d started too late, so even then, I didn’t have any aspirations to be a champion. I just wanted to fight. Even when I became a professional, I just wanted to fight -- now I just wanted to get paid to fight. I’m an entertainer. My goal is to entertain. I just happen to be an entertainer who fights, and it just so happens that I’m fighting in the UFC. It’s all about your path. Some of these guys worked their way up to become champion in the UFC, on the biggest stage. I want to entertain, and I have the chance to entertain on the grandest stage. Why wouldn’t I?”
Since he wants to fight but does not need to fight for money or validation, Jackson has been careful in picking his opportunities, especially after his desire to fight professionally once or twice in 2016 turned into an unexpected debut on the sport’s largest stage. Specifically, once he caught wind that Brooks was interested in a second go-round with the UFC, Jackson focused his training as well as his scheduling on being the opponent for that return engagement.
“Today I might shrug that off, but at the time I took offense that he would call me a ‘can’ when he hadn’t even fought anybody yet. Meanwhile, even though I'd lost to Gall and even though I was 0-1 in MMA, I had been fighting in other combat sports. And this is a fighting sport, so I was thinking ‘OK, yeah, you and I need to fight now.’”
There was also the serendipity of their shared opponent: rising prospect and grappling specialist Mickey Gall, who defeated both of them in precise fashion. Jackson fought Gall at UFC Fight Night 82 for the right to be the opponent in Brooks’ debut. On that night in February 2016, Gall won via rear-naked choke in a mere 45 seconds. Gall then went on to defeat “Punk” by the same method in 2:14 at UFC 203 in September.
“[Brooks vs. me] was the fight that made the most sense, business-wise. I’d already fought in the UFC. There was that triangle of the three of us, where we’d both lost to Gall in the same way. If not me, the UFC was going to have to bring in another Gall-like guy, who was 1-0 or from the [Dana White’s Tuesday Night] Contender Series, and even then a lot of those guys have more experience. So from a business standpoint, if you’re giving [Brooks] another shot, this was the only matchup that made sense.”
Once he had decided that, it was all a matter of timing and readiness.
“I’m somebody who doesn’t have to fight. I fight because I enjoy it, and I only want to take fights that make sense. They said, ‘Hey, do you want to fight Cris Cyborg’s brother?’” Jackson says, referring to a proposed match with Rafael Venancio Justino, brother of the UFC featherweight queen, at an LFA event last year. “Hey, that’s Cris Cyborg’s brother. That’s going to bring publicity. That’s going to be on TV. But I didn’t want to jeopardize the ‘Punk’ fight.”
Jackson scoffs at those who claim Brooks -- or Jackson himself -- is occupying the roster spot of a “more deserving” fighter, or that their fight, which is scheduled to open the main card at UFC 225, is pushing a more deserving bout to the preliminaries.
“I know there are people who say ‘Well, the UFC is [supposed to be] the pinnacle of the sport,’ and I agree,” he admits. “But at the end of the day, the UFC is a business, and you ask any business owner what their goal is, I guarantee you 100 percent will say, ‘to make money.’ And this fight makes money.
“There is literally no person in this world outside of those writing the checks for the UFC who can dispute this fight being where it is -- in the UFC, on the pay-per-view, or whatever. Unless you’re writing the check, you’re not invested. You’re a fan. If you don’t want to watch it, literally don’t watch it. You don’t lose anything either way. People are like, ‘Oh, you’re taking a space from other fighters.’ No, we’re not. There are almost 600 fighters on the UFC roster. Can you name half of them? Then how are you going to tell me I‘m stealing somebody’s spot if you can’t do that, much less name me the people in these regional promotions who are so deserving.”
As someone who works for what is probably the premier regional promotion in North America and one of the UFC’s most prolific feeder organizations, Jackson settles back into his chair and lets that sink in. He knows perfectly well how the business works at the local as well as the global level.
“All the way down at the local shows, they make the fighters sell tickets. They give those guys a bunch of tickets and they have to sell them to their friends, family, whoever. And if they don’t sell enough, they get penalized, or maybe they don’t get booked again. Why would it be any different at the highest levels? It’s a business.”
While he sees a certain congruency in their career paths, Jackson’s willingness to draw comparisons between himself and Brooks stops at their relative skill levels. He is quick to remind me that across MMA, boxing, kickboxing and muay Thai, his record is 5-2 with five knockout wins, whereas Brooks has no competitive combat sports background other than his 0-1 MMA ledger. Jackson plans to put a definitive end to the mixed martial arts aspirations of “CM Punk.”
“I mean this with all respect: I don’t want to hurt him. I’m not going in there like, ‘I don’t want him ever to walk again,’” Jackson says in his best wrassler-cutting-a-promo voice. “I want to beat him up just badly enough that he goes, ‘Oh, this sh*t ain’t for me.’ That’s all I want to do. Like I know people are thinking he’s 0-1, I’m 0-1, but I’ve been fighting [for a long time]. I have that boxing and kickboxing experience. It’s not an even fight. I just want to touch him up a little bit so that he can understand this is not for him.”
On the topic of their mutual 0-1 MMA records, Jackson reflects on how those events played out, and he returns to the subject of the divergent paths of the pure competitor and the entertainer.
“[Brooks’] best bet was to get the Gall fight [rather than me]. He squirmed around a little bit, got smacked around a little for his troubles, but that was the best case scenario. Gall was going to take him down and submit him. And the reason he did that is because Gall, of the three of us, had the most to lose and the most to gain. He is someone whose goal is to be champion. That was his path.
“You think you want to go in, as Mickey Gall, and get caught with a silly jab, or caught with a punch, by Mike Jackson or Phil Brooks? No, because now your life is ruined. He was driving bread trucks [before those fights], wasn’t he? Was it a bread truck?”
Seeing me nod, he rolls on. “And if he loses to CM Punk, he’s back driving a bread truck. Who the fu*k wants to drive a bread truck? I don’t! Not knocking bread truck drivers, but if I had a choice… it wouldn’t be to drive bread trucks.
“I took a loss to Mickey Gall, and look where I am. Not only am I still in the fight world, but look what I’m doing outside the fight world. Punk loses to Mickey Gall and look what he’s doing; he’s hosting ‘America’s Ninja Warrior’ or whatever it’s called. He’s still living his best life. But if Mickey Gall lost to either of us, he’s back to driving bread trucks. So he did what he was supposed to do.
“I get why CM Punk wanted a mulligan. I wanted a mulligan too, simply because I didn’t get to throw down. Not to make excuses; it was what it was. I took the ‘L.’ I want a mulligan just to go back and show what I can do. Phil, he wants it back because he didn’t get to show anything. He put in all that hard work and training for that fight, and he didn’t get to show sh*t.
“But I’m not going in there to take him down. He wants to fight? I want the best Phil Brooks. I want ‘CM Punk.’ I want that character and that gimmick to manifest itself into Phil Brooks like Bruce Banner turning into The Hulk. I want the best Phil Brooks, so that when I go out there and display my talents and my skills and my art, it will all be worth it.”
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