By the early ’90s Jackson had incorporated his results into his own homegrown martial art, which he dubbed Gaidojutsu—“way of the street,” roughly, in Japanese. Gaidojutsu combined rudimentary striking with grappling and wrestling. At the time, it was rare to blend fighting styles—most fighters trained in a single discipline. But Jackson’s students relished the chance to play mix-and-match, and his stable of trainees grew. A few of them persuaded him to let them compete in bare-knuckle tournaments, where they dominated their undisciplined opponents. By the time the UFC came around, Jackson says, he was completely addicted to winning competitions.
But he knew the UFC would be a far cry from the bare-knuckle bouts. He’d need to further refine his methods. One person he relied on for help was Jim Dudley, a close friend and mentor who also happened to be a mathematics lecturer at the University of New Mexico. Dudley gave him private math lessons in the desert, giving him assignments from books on subjects such as discrete mathematics and discussing how he might apply math in an MMA match.
“My first memory is Greg asking me about fractals,” Dudley says. “Then it was game theory. I had no idea at first that all of this pertained to fighting. When he finally told me, I thought, ‘OK, that’s odd.’ But then again, I knew [math] could be applied to very surprising topics. It made sense that Greg would be finding these interesting patterns in fighting.”
The patterns that Jackson found were sequences of moves and positions that most consistently led to success in the Octagon. “I saw these certain positions over and over again: the side-mount, for instance, or the full-mount,” he says. “And I started thinking of them in terms of edges. Judging from the data, which positions offered the most opportunities? Which left the fighter in trouble? And which allowed him the quickest path to victory?”
What Jackson was developing was a new way of thinking about fighting, one informed by mathematical and logical frameworks rather than gut instinct. Crucial to that was constant data collection. Where other coaches might drift in and out of the gym, catching snippets of training rounds here or there, Jackson almost never leaves the apron of the Octagon. He is responsible for approximately 60 professional fighters, some champions and some up-and-comers, and every day he watches almost all of them spar for hours on end. When he is not watching training bouts or traveling with his team, he is clicking through clips of older matches on his iPhone, on the TV, on one of the scarred laptops that sit in his cluttered office alongside a photograph of Albert Einstein and one of his personal heroes, the famous logician Kurt Gödel. His desk spills over with handwritten logs of successful fights, hastily scrawled game trees of sparring sessions, points about form and function and technique.
All of these notes contain usable data. Analyzing his game trees shows him the best moves to make at different points in a match, while logs of his fighters’ and their opponents’ past matches help him predict how long an upcoming fight is likely to last, when in each round the opponent will strike and what moves he’ll make. It’s an advantage no other trainer yet has.
In early April Jon Jones defended the light heavyweight belt against Rashad Evans. The fighters were once friends who trained together under Jackson, but they’d had a falling out. In the weeks before the bout, they spent plenty of time trash-talking each other in the media. The fight was a true grudge match, as the UFC billed it, and by the time Jones and Evans climbed into the Octagon at Philips Arena in Atlanta, anticipation (and the noise level) was at a peak.
The fight opened slow. The fighters danced around each other warily. Evans, shorter and stockier than Jones, snapped away with his jab. Jones slipped around him, throwing a mix of “superman” punches (a punch executed while leaping forward) and flying knees.
Near the end of the first round, Evans caught Jones with his foot, sending him off balance. The bell rang. Jackson was waiting for Jones in the corner, a red cap pulled over his shaved head. His gaze was intent. He knew Evans had a superb defense and fast hands, limiting Jones’s options. He began constructing a game tree in his mind. In the first node, the two men were squared off against each other. Jones could punch away, but Evans would block most of the blows. He needed to move to another node, one with more edges.
One node appeared optimal: If Jones could manage to get in position to effectively neutralize both of Evans’s hands, he might be able to land at least one big shot. Jackson shouted in Jones’s ear. His student nodded.
Toward the end of the next round, Jones, heeding Jackson’s advice, squared up against Evans and extended both hands, open-gloved. Evans matched him, and for a moment it looked as if the two men were about to play patty-cake. This was the node that Jackson was looking for. Evans was momentarily exposed. In dazzlingly quick succession, Jones threw a right elbow, then a left, then another right. Evans wobbled, and Jones surged forward with a knee and a left hook.
By the third round, Jones had his opponent on the defensive. Evans turned one way, and Jones was there. Turned another, and there he was again. In the fourth, Jones buried his knee in Evans’s stomach, and the crowd, more than 15,000 strong, roared its approval.
At the end of the night, Jones was awarded a unanimous decision. He would keep his belt. But it was the work of the FightMetric data collectors, not the judges’ decision, that revealed how truly dominant Jones had been. Their report showed that he’d landed 116 strikes, 105 of which were deemed significant. Evans, by comparison, landed only 49 strikes, 45 of them significant. Jones not only ran Evans ragged around the ring, but he also doubled his output, continually finding the node where he could throw the most blows.
A few days after the fight, I spoke to Jackson by phone. Already he was dissecting what had happened, picking out the things that Jones had done right to further hone his fight strategies. But he realizes that a time will come when other trainers, eager to gain any advantage they can, will begin to emulate his methods. Eventually more and more mixed martial artists will base their training and match plans on statistical probabilities instead of instinct and tradition, raising the quality of competition.
That means Jackson will have to work harder than ever to stay on top of the sport. But when I asked him how important winning is to him, he got quiet. “Never put a node for victory,” he said finally. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want to win. I want my guys to be thinking about trying to get to the strongest position they can, with the most edges, over and over. Like any science, it’s more about the process than it is the outcome.”
Matthew Shaer is the author of the book Among Righteous Men.single page
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