There's an excellent article in Time magazine today profiling former UFC and Strikeforce contender Eugene Jackson and his altruistic attempts to help at-risk youth (and gang members) turn their lives around with mentoring and more specifically, participation in mixed martial arts. The article notes Jackson's success in MMA: never a champion of a major promotion, but an accomplished fighter who competed across the world against legitimate competition. Still, they underscore Jackson's journey into MMA as a bildungsroman. Jackson, himself, grew up taking part in a gang, fighting on the streets, but was fortunate to find a way into professional prize fighting. What MMA has done for him, in short, is what he hopes to do for other young men who share similar backgrounds.
Jackson's efforts are always successes. He certainly isn't wealthy and suffered through multiple career failures even in terms of community and youth outreach. To wit:
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."
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.
Fortunately, the article notes Jackson's philanthropy is not in vain. Local police took note of Jackson's gym and even began training alongside the troubled youth, prompting one officer to say, "I used to chase these guys. Now they come up and give me hugs."
The lesson here isn't just about Jackson, although clearly he is and deserves to be the focus. It's also about the redemptive power of athletics to shape and transform a troubled existence. That's nothing new to those familiar with figures in MMA, famous and pedestrian. But to a Time magazine audience, this is probably something of a novel concept. There's no denying the valence between the appeal of MMA and individuals from tough backgrounds, but that there is a societal benefit to this activity, that it comes in the form of philanthropy aimed at removing social decay, is a premise worth spreading.