Long before he became a mixed martial arts prizefighter, Eugene Jackson fought because he had to. As the son of an African-American father and white mother, growing up in the East Palo Alto gangland came with added challenges, best answered with his heavy hands. But "the game," as he puts it, has completely changed. Fistfights have been replaced by deadly shootouts with assault rifles and members of a new, hyper-violent offshoot of the gang Jackson used to run with are the trigger-pullers. Stakes have never been higher on the street. "Back then you sock someone in the mouth, it's over; you jump someone, it's over," he says. "Now everybody's into killing each other, so that makes it a lot worse."
Jackson, 44, was fortunate to have quit gangbanging many years ago, thanks in no small part to the fighting skills he honed on the sidewalk as a youngster. In the late 1990s, he began to take part in bare-knuckle brawls on Indian reservations and other underground venues before moving on to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the pay-per-view MMA event producer that has since exploded into a global brand. As the bloody sport adopted stricter rules and entered the mainstream, Jackson's reputation as a big-hearted bruiser quickly made him a fan favorite. Nicknamed "The Wolf", he went on to fight overseas in Japan and Brazil, with pit stops in Hawaii and the Playboy Mansion.
Yet Jackson has never forgotten his roots. With gang violence a grim fixture in East Palo Alto and the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, he's worked for several years to help another generation of at-risk youth navigate the pitfalls that almost claimed him. He still lives in the same ramshackle home he grew up in, on the wrong side of California's Highway 101, a five minute drive from Stanford University. Jackson is joined by his two sons Casey, 19, and Nikko, 20, both accomplished amateur-level fighters, and a motley crew of young men that he has more or less adopted, training and housing them for free.
Today the Bay Area boasts one of the country's best crops of professional MMA fighters, with locally-based talent including Cain Velasquez, the current UFC heavyweight champion; Jake Shields, a top welterweight contender; Josh Koscheck, whose antics made him a star on the first season of the Ultimate Fighter reality show; and Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, to name a few. While some of Jackson's prospects show promise in the cage, most will not have wildly successful careers in the UFC or its rival league, Strikeforce, where only top-tier fighters make a good living. For them, MMA is an attractive way to develop self-confidence and discipline, before it's too late.
Take "Lil Marco." When the 16-year-old met one of Jackson's sons at school and was invited to train with the team, he was already dabbling with the gang life that ensnared his father, a veteran member of a Latino street gang who has lived in and out of prison. Lil Marco was on the same path of knife fights, public drunkeness and getting kicked out of schools until he met Eugene. "Without [Eugene] I would have been another statistic," he concedes. Jackson credits the family dynamic provided by his fight team. "Ultimately, [Marco] had so many positive influences around he didn't want to lose the relationships that he had. The team was able to give him something that he would miss."
This feeling is obvious at the home base, where Team Gladiator's seven members live along with Jackson, his ex-wife's father and his cousin. In their spare time the fighters prepare their own meals, play video games or take care of homework. But on rare occasions tempers do boil over: A recent bout of trash talking erupted into a fight that left one team member with a severe eye injury. "A few of these kids are gonna be knuckleheads, no matter how much you try and do for them," he says. "There's just so much negative history they bring into the equation."
Most of the time aggression spent is at area gyms, where the team grinds through twice-a-day workouts that can last up to six hours. Seasoned coaches volunteer their time to train the team in boxing, jiu-jitsu, and muay thai kickboxing, the skill trifecta of a well-rounded MMA fighter though support has not always come easy. In 2009, Jackson opened a non-profit facility with his own money in an area warehouse that became a hugely popular community center, until city authorities demanded improvements he could not afford, forcing him to shut it down. "Another wasted opportunity," he laments.
His sense of frustration is shared by John Norden, a veteran police detective who used to hound Jackson and his gang years before they both had children of their own and an unlikely friendship was forged at high school football games. Back when his gym was thriving, Jackson asked him to come by on a regular basis as a kind of icebreaker between cynical youth and authorities. Sure enough, what began as an awkward gesture started to have some positive effects in a deeply divided city. "I used to chase these guys. Now they come up and give me hugs," says Norden. "If more people did what he [does], I'd be out of a job."
With few compelling alternatives to running and gunning on offer, Jackson insists he's not about to stop. He continues to welcome newcomers to take part in his nomadic training sessions, with no expectation of getting paid. Big or small, white or black, the former troublemaker asks just one thing of any would-be student: commitment. "You smile at me, I'll smile at you in return. You frown at me, I'll frown at you in return," he says. "So whatever you wanna give, I'm gonna give you back."