For the past year, former mixed martial arts prizefighter Eugene "The Wolf" Jackson, an East Palo Alto native, has used MMA as a means of teaching kids the skills and mentality to win in the ring and escape the streets of East Palo Alto.
"To be in this, it's a lot of effort. There's no pay in it in the beginning. There's a lot of 'I'm getting beat up,'" Jackson said. "Then you have to slowly see your way through. In the inner-city, they want fast, they need it fast. 'I got a problem with you, I'm going to go get a gun and shoot you.' . . . So if you want that fast, 'I'm not going to go to college for four to eight years and make a lot of money. I'm going to go sell dope on the corner and make my money right now.'"
By instilling the perseverance it takes to become a winning fighter, Jackson hopes to inspire that same philosophy for all aspects of life.
"I'm trying to teach them, 'Anything you put your time and work into, you'll get paid for it down the road,'" he said. "Even if they don't become big-time pro fighters, they at least know, 'Now I can go get a job, and I can work my way up from pushing carts to management.'"
Training five days a week on top of classes at Foothill College, the seven fighter of Jackson's Undisputed Team Gladiator learn the multifaceted skills necessary to compete in MMA ranging from boxing to jiu-jitsu to muay thai kickboxing.
Beyond training sessions that can occupy much of the day, all seven of the fighters — six men and one woman — live together with Jackson.
"We're all like family," said Marco Orozco, one of the fighters. "We're all brothers and then we have that sister. She's our sister in the house."
Though placing seven young fighters under one roof can sometimes lead to provocation, the kinship dynamic remains.
"It's like a fighter frat house," said Casey Jackson, 19, the younger of Jackson's two sons, both of whom train with Team Gladiator. "You bump heads with people, but that's just part of a family."
Nikko Jackson, 20, along with Casey, qualified for the CAMO state finals recently.
Though certainly unique, Jackson's program has produced results. Team Gladiator recently was name the "Team of the Year" by the California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization. The team also was featured in a Time Magazine article.
"That's saying a whole lot when you have teams that have been around for four, five, 10 years, and in one year, we're considered the No. 1 when we have fighters that have been fighting less than six months," Jackson said. "It shows the heart, the testament, the work that's put in and the hunger."
Perhaps those results have something to do with the ability of the fighters to relate to Jackson who came from the same background he hopes his fighters will avoid.
"When I was young, I was gang-related . . . Because I could fight a little bit, more guys wanted to have me. I'm the cool dude. 'Gene can knock them out? We want Gene,'" he said. "It took a couple friends to say, 'Eugene, you're wasting your time out there. Where's it going? Your homeboys are going to jail. These guys are getting killed. It's a dead-end.'"
Jackson took his street fighting skills to MMAs, eventually becoming the Strikeforce Middleweight United States Champion. After he retired in 2007, a tragedy spurred Jackson to become re-involved with the East Palo Alto community.
"One of my friends' sons, who had grown up with my son Nikko, had ended up getting killed, so that kind of bothered me," Jackson said. "It made me get back in this community and start getting more involved."
A year into Team Gladiator, Jackson has seen the influence the program has had to help avoid similar tragedies.
"Watching a few of (the fighters) when they were at a dead-end with their life and they just didn't know where they were going to go, now they see a dream," he said. "They don't see a dead-end. Now they see 'If I didn't get where I wanted to be, I built enough things to make sure that my dream's always going to run on."
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