The second time Carlos Condit spars, he hits twice as hard. It isn't out of malice or frustration; it's still morning, and the day is just beginning. Condit is merely picking up the pace.
It's early November, and the 28-year-old welterweight fighter—compact, intense and pouring with sweat—is preparing for the fight of his life. In two weeks, he'll face Georges St-Pierre, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, in the welterweight world championship.
Condit is a muscular 170 pounds, with dark hair, smoldering eyes and a closely trimmed beard. Today, he wears gray gym shorts, black gloves and blue headgear—no shoes, no shirt. Two tattoos—a phoenix on his left shoulder blade and a lion just above the right side of his waist—ripple and leap as he blocks kicks and dodges punches; the pop and slap of gloves on skin rings out whenever a well-placed hit lands.
As the sparring intensifies, Condit avoids a takedown, landing a left jab to his partner's head. He then attempts a left kick to the head, but his sparring partner blocks it and grabs Condit's leg, taking him down to the mat. Condit jumps back up, eager for more. His partner tries another takedown, but this time Condit avoids it and pins him to the ground.
Condit is a rising star in mixed martial arts, the combat sport that merges a plethora of fighting styles—kickboxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu—into a single fight held in an octagon-shaped cage. And the gym where he trains, Jackson's Martial Arts and Fitness Academy—a modest storefront tucked in a strip mall near a busy intersection in Albuquerque—is a celebrity in its own right.
Jackson's has trained several world champions over the years, in addition to big-name fighters like Jon Jones, the light heavyweight UFC champion; Brian Stann, the Iraq War veteran and middleweight fighter currently ranked 10th in the world by MMA website Sherdog.com; and St-Pierre, the Montreal-born and bulldog-built UFC welterweight champion.
But at Jackson's, local stars like Condit hold a special status—perhaps because they underscore New Mexico's growing fascination with combat sports.
"We get a lot of guys from all over the world that come and train here," Brandon Gibson, Condit's boxing coach, tells SFR. "But Carlos is homegrown, homebred. I think it means a little more."
Condit won the UFC interim welterweight title in February, months after St-Pierre—the reigning champion—tore his anterior cruciate ligament. His upcoming fight offers a chance to steal the spotlight from the heavily favored St-Pierre on a pay-per-view event in front of millions of viewers.
But Condit says he approaches each fight the same way.
"I'm going to stand across from a guy who's going to try to kick my ass," he says, "and I got to kick his ass before he gets me."
At home, Condit is a gentle family man with a bookshelf that includes works by science journalist Charles C Mann and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. But on fight night, he's a menace.
"In the ring, I'm the Natural Born Killer," he says. "I'm trying to frickin' put a knee on your chin or split you open so bad the doctor has to stop the fight."
That kind of duality is common in MMA, which requires both honorable sportsmanship and murderous bloodthirst. New Mexico's rich martial arts culture and history of combat sports has made the state a focal point for the booming MMA industry—with Condit as its hometown hero.
"It's the hub for the sport," his trainer, Mike Winkeljohn, says of Albuquerque. "We have more top fighters in the world than anybody else."
Condit's high profile has brought both his gym and the state a new wave of attention. But he has yet to beat St-Pierre, and New Mexico has yet to become MMA's true center: No major UFC title fight has ever been held here. In short, Condit's matchup with St-Pierre wasn't just about the two men in the cage. It had the potential to propel his home state forward as a center for MMA. For Condit and everyone around him, it would be a crucial moment.
Winkeljohn has been involved in professional fighting for more than 20 years, and
. But he can’t recall how he won his first kickboxing fight, which he fought decades ago in Santa Fe.
"I won the fight," he says. "I knocked the guy out, and I don't remember anything about the fight—I got hit so hard, I guess."
Winkeljohn's career began in the streets, something he says he's not proud of. One day, after someone smaller but better versed in fighting techniques beat him in a fight, Winkeljohn joined a gym run by legendary kickboxing trainer Bill Packer.
Packer led his students to world titles in kickboxing. For the next 17 years, Winkeljohn kickboxed professionally and saw the sport's popularity peak and then fade in the 1990s.
"Kickboxing was big back then," he says. "We were expecting it to be the biggest sport out there. It didn't quite make it."
Along the way, he hooked back up with an old high school buddy, Greg Jackson. In 1992, Jackson—just 17 at the time—founded a gym. Well-versed in martial arts, Jackson combined several techniques to create his own style. Relying heavily on a ground game of grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he named it gaidojutsu.
At first, Jackson taught gaidojutsu for self-defense purposes and mental, physical and spiritual growth. But soon Chris Luttrell, one of his black-belt students and a former NCAA All-American wrestler, wanted to fight competitively using the style. "Greg never wanted to go to tournaments," Ricky Kottenstette, a student of Jackson's in the '90s and now general manager of the gym, tells SFR. "Chris started going and kicking ass."
Jackson never competed, but many of his students began to follow in Luttrell's footsteps. In 1993, UFC, today the world's largest MMA league, debuted. At the time, the sport was called NHB—"No Holds Barred"—which was exactly how it worked.
"When Chris went in, there were no rules," Kottenstette says. "They fought bare-knuckled brawling. They could take a bite. They could hit each other in the groin. Whatever you had to do to win, NHB allowed it."
In the early 2000s, UFC changed ownership and established rules. By the middle of the decade, MMA had entered the mainstream. Winkeljohn officially joined the gym, adding vertical kickboxing depth to Jackson's ground-game style.
Today, MMA is an industry unto itself. In 2006, UFC generated more than $200 million from pay-per-view, topping both boxing and professional wrestling—and any other paid TV that year—for the first time in its history. Around the same time, a middleweight from Jackson's MMA named Diego Sanchez starred in The Ultimate Fighter, a reality show on Spike TV.
At the end of the show's first season, Sanchez beat finalist Kenny Florian. In return, UFC rewarded him with a contract. The exposure catapulted Jackson's MMA to the forefront of national combat sports. Jackson, in effect, had made New Mexico a UFC destination.
"I travel around towns, and every place has their own shop," Kottenstette says. "The difference is, they don't have Greg."
Nor do they have Condit—a born-and-raised New Mexican whose intensity and skill have brought the gym new attention.
MMA is known as a "combat sport"—a phrase that highlights its inherent dichotomy. Neither a friendly tennis match nor a fight to the death, it requires athletes to walk a fine line between sportsmanship and violence.
After his sparring session, Condit takes a breather, sitting on the steps of the gym's cage and drinking Gatorade. The air smells of sweat. The whack of rubber hitting rubber echoes around him as Winkeljohn leads a dozen other fighters in sparring sessions.
Over the course of the day, Condit will complete at least four workouts, including strength conditioning, wrestling and jiu-jitsu. Some days, his training stretches into the evening.
"Alright, let's do this," he finally says to a waiting reporter. As Condit's profile has risen, the interviews have become routine; like a sparring session, it's just one more chore to tick off the list.
Onstage, Condit keeps it local; his mouthguard is yellow with a red Zia symbol at the center. Outside the ring, he maintains a staid public persona, the polar opposite of showboats like Nick Diaz, whom he beat for the interim title in February.
"It's easy for me, helping Carlos with his identity," Will Fox, Condit's unofficial publicist, tells SFR. "There's no crap-talking. I don't need to start any Twitter battles. It's 100 percent respect. It's the beauty of martial arts."
Throughout his decade-long MMA career, Condit's been something of a dark horse, despite a stellar record of 28 wins and six losses. He spent two years in World Extreme Cagefighting, where he rose quickly, winning the welterweight title by his second fight.
In 2009, Condit made it to UFC (WEC merged with UFC two years later), earning a reputation for his dynamic striking game, variety of kicking styles and grappling techniques. Rarely did his fights last the maximum five rounds. "He's a finisher," Winkeljohn says. "Carlos finishes his fights."
Outside the cage, he lives a varied life, preparing meals he learns from cooking shows and staying up-to-date on politics (his father, Brian Condit, was one of Gov. Bill Richardson's chiefs of staff). Although he didn't start training until he was 15, Condit developed an early interest in martial arts. Growing up on Albuquerque's west side, he watched UFC matches during the league's early years. He and his friends would often box in their backyards, mimicking the moves they picked up from early '90s martial arts movies.
"I got all my spin kicks from Jean-Claude Van Damme," he says, smiling.
In the interview, he's polite and reserved, and he seems unfazed when asked about his win against Diaz. He's heard it all before.
"I fought a smart fight," he says. "It wasn't the fight, maybe, that a lot of people wanted to see. Some people just wanted to see a face-punching competition, and I wasn't going to get into that kind of a fight with Diaz. I wasn't going to play to his strengths."
Not all MMA fights are exercises in bloodletting, and the Condit/Diaz matchup in February is a case in point.
In the first two rounds, Diaz, who's known for cornering opponents near the fence before unleashing an aggressive boxing attack, often appeared to have the advantage.
Diaz' stage persona stands in contrast to Condit's: He's a hothead and notorious trash-talker. During the fight, he'd inch forward with his arms down in a cocky "bring it" gesture. Slurs poured from his mouth.
It was a trap—and Condit didn't fall for it.
Instead, he spent the fight craftily shifting around on his feet, denying Diaz the chance to pin him. When he saw an opening, Condit would make opportune strikes and then "make angles and get out of the way." He calls it a "stick and move" strategy.
"I didn't want to get in prolonged exchanges with him, because Nick is one of the best boxers in the business," Condit says. "I was trying to hit him with big shots and make angles and get out of the way and keep the fight in the center of the cage. He loves to push guys up against the cage and beat them down."
By the third round, Diaz looked frustrated—as did the fans who had come to see a bloodbath. (One Huffington Post blogger accused Condit of "literally running away.")
After five rounds, both fighters stood in the center of the octagon, anxiously awaiting the judges' results. Condit had thrown more kicks and punches than Diaz, but he was also more efficient, striking 53 percent of the time compared to Diaz' 49 percent. All three judges narrowly favored Condit, awarding him the interim welterweight championship. Condit, posing for photographs and wearing the title belt, struck up his fists and yelled in approval.
Diaz wasn't happy.
"I'm not going to accept that this was a loss," he told announcer Joe Rogan right after the fight. "I don't need this shit, you know what I mean? I pushed this guy backwards the whole time. He ran from me the whole fight. He didn't throw—I landed the harder shots. He ran the whole time."
Other UFC fighters joined in on the trash talk, including an important predecessor from Jackson's MMA.
"I thought Nick Diaz won the fight with Carlos," Diego Sanchez told MMA Hour in August. "When you're not engaging and not fighting, that takes away what the sport is."
Sanchez' comments hint at the debate over what constitutes "real" fighting—and according to University of New Mexico sports sociologist Andrew Yiannakis, a chasm separates traditional martial arts from "martial sports" like MMA.
The teachings of martial arts have parallel paths: the art of fighting and the development of psychological growth and insight. In MMA, Yiannakis says, these elements are often lost.
"Martial sports, as they are today, have become different animals and are done for different reasons," Yiannakis, who holds black belts in judo and jujutsu, tells SFR. "Originally, martial arts were for combat, self-defense and personal growth. Martial sports are for competition, winning medals and trophies, and entertainment."
But amateur fighter Andrew Tenneson sees it differently. The skills and spirit of martial arts exist in MMA, he says—the only difference is a "scientific method."
"We train and then we test everything we've worked on in our laboratory, which is the cage," Tenneson, a Rio Rancho native, tells SFR.
At 5'7" and 145 pounds, Tenneson is stocky. His glasses, round forehead and angular jawline seem better suited to an academic. When he grins, he looks like a muscular version of the Buddha.
Tenneson has been training at Jackson's for more than two years, and he's more than happy to point out each of his fellow fighters' strengths. To him, they're all on the same team.
"For me it's really clear; it's really black and white," he says. "You're here because you like the artistry and the camaraderie and growing as a human being. That's why I'm here: I want to get better."
Tenneson began learning MMA when he was in the middle of his military service, a six-year stint that stationed him in New Mexico and included an 18-month deployment in Iraq. He never had an interest in the sport until learning a few grappling moves in the army. At UNM, which he attended while in the army, Tenneson grappled with others around campus.
One day, he had an experience like Winkeljohn's.
"I knew some grappling stuff from the army, and I was trying to show off to my girlfriend," he says, "and then this little guy came by at the park, at lower Johnson field at UNM, and he wanted to grapple. So we grappled. And even though he was like half my size, he kicked my butt."
Tenneson ended up learning techniques and taking lessons from the same guy, which eventually led him to Jackson's.
Ever the scholar, Tenneson views MMA as a "weird microcosm of war."
"A military conflict can be two generals on the field really arranging their troops, set pieces—really intellectual, really smart," he says. "Or it could be two tribes just throwing men at each other, [and] whoever's the strongest or just has the most guts ends up winning."
Tenneson has a tendency to talk like this at length, doing his best to pull fundamental meanings from abstract metaphors. Recently, he’s been reading books by
In May, he graduated from UNM with a degree in political science. At 26, he isn't sure if he wants to pursue a career in the State Department or go to law school. But first, he wants a professional career in MMA.
In his two years as an amateur, he's fought five MMA fights and two kickboxing matches—and won all of them. He hopes to go professional by the middle of next year, potentially in Jackson's MMA Series.
The series, held four times a year in Albuquerque, routinely draws around 2,000 spectators. Recently, it moved to a bigger location, the Downs at Albuquerque's Tingley Coliseum.
Tenneson says part of the sport's appeal lies in its naked violence. In mixed martial arts, where an elbow to the head is as common as a layup in basketball, brutality is a way of life.
"The same kind of people that advertise for extreme sports, like skateboarding or BMX, advertise here," he says. "So it's that young male demographic that they want to get."
His demeanor speaks to the wall that separates athletes who play to win and spectators thirsty for blood.
"This sport has the potential to be many things," Tenneson says. "It can be something very great for humanity and bring [out] the best in us. Or it can bring out the worst. We can just want to see people get hurt, or we can want to see people express themselves as artists."
For years, several states banned professional MMA because of its violence. Today, New York still won't allow it, which has led to lawsuits from UFC. But over the course of MMA's history, its fighters have sustained some of the most gruesome injuries in professional sports—broken legs, black eyes and lots of blood.
"Hell, curiosity alone is going to draw you to this, to see how far it can go," Yiannakis says.
Yiannakis also sees parallels between the real world and the cage.
"We live in violent societies, there's no question about it," he says. "We grow up with wars, urban violence, and it's reinforced in movies. The hero who beats everybody up in the movies, he's glorified."
An MMA fight without perceived violence can frustrate its fan base; Condit learned as much in his fight against Diaz. But sometimes fan cravings for extreme violence can undermine the sport itself.
One notorious example is Kimbo Slice, a streetfighter who in the mid-2000s posted YouTube videos of himself viciously knocking out opponents in the streets of the ghetto.
In 2008, Elite Xtreme Combat, a budding MMA league, tapped into Slice's Internet popularity. But during the main event, his stand-in opponent, Seth Petruzelli, knocked him out in 14 seconds. The flamboyant Petruzelli, a professional novice, had black belts in both karate and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Slice, a towering, bearded brute who looked like a demonic Ving Rhames, wasn't versed in organized martial arts.
Embarrassed, EliteXC folded just two weeks later.
Fans, Tenneson says, can afford to have the "kick-ass" attitude Slice embodied because "they're just watching from the couch."
"Maybe we're a nation of watchers and not doers," he says. "We like watching war movies and we like going to war, but lots of people don't join the military. It's kind of the same thing."
Steve Schrankel, who's been training students alongside Greg Jackson for more than 20 years, says an affinity for combat sports goes even deeper.
"It's ingrained in the DNA," Schrankel tells SFR. "The history of humanity is a history of conflict and war."
But he echoes Tenneson's point, too.
"Everybody wants to live vicariously," Schrankel says. "They want to be the person in [the] cage delivering the punishment."
This, of course, comes at the athletes' expense.
Schrankel, fondly recalling his martial arts days, never fought in the cage, but he has the scars to show for a life in fighting. Most are left over from street fights and bar fights when he was much younger.
"The techniques I've learned have been effective," Schrankel, referring to the many martial arts styles he studied, says with a smirk on his face.
But the toll fighting took on his body is visible. He stopped competing in martial arts after suffering "too many horrible injuries," including broken toes, a broken fibula, broken ribs, a broken arm, dislocated shoulders, concussions and cracked teeth. Although only in his 50s, Schrankel has sustained enough physical damage to need a cane for support.
If Condit's match against Diaz disappointed fans seeking violence, his fight against St-Pierre delivered.
On Nov. 17, Condit stepped into an arena in Montreal—St-Pierre's home turf—to a loudly booing crowd. St-Pierre, dressed like a sushi chef, did cartwheels in the cage. The crowd screamed in approval while Condit stood in the corner, sneering. This would be the biggest fight of his career. Condit went into it as a 3-1 underdog.
As the fight got underway, St-Pierre quickly inched in on Condit, pushing him out of the center of the cage. Almost immediately, he scored a takedown. As they wrestled on the ground, St-Pierre elbowed Condit in the face, cutting him above his right eye. Blood streamed out.
In round two, St-Pierre scored another takedown. He continued striking at the cut above Condit's eye as they wrestled. By the end of the round, the entire right side of Condit's upper body was drenched in blood. It didn't seem to bother him. He howled like a hyena, ready for more.
The real surprise came in the third round. Throughout the fight, Condit performed best when he fought St-Pierre standing up; this time, his left hook hit St-Pierre in the head. He followed it with a right hook, which St-Pierre successfully blocked.
Condit then ducked and shifted his upper body to the right. Catching St-Pierre off guard, he lifted his left foot and kicked him hard in his right temple. St-Pierre immediately fell to the ground. Later, he claimed that he never saw the kick coming.
Condit lunged forward and punched him repeatedly. With a lesser opponent, the fight would have ended then and there. It didn't.
The match went on for two more rounds. Condit never regained the flashes of that moment, and St-Pierre reasserted his dominance, leaving the fight with a total of seven takedowns on Condit.
As both waited for the judges to make St-Pierre's title official, a giddy and emotional St-Pierre jumped up and down in anticipation. Condit, on the other side, didn't look exhausted. He looked frustrated.
"Fuck," he mouthed.
Condit's disappointment was unmistakable. The emotional rollercoaster that came with weeks of training and plenty of buildup had culminated in a blown opportunity. The kick that knocked St-Pierre down was likely replaying in Condit's head. In the weeks since the fight, he's avoided the media.
"He might put a little more pressure on himself than he should," Condit's wrestling coach, Israel "Izzy" Martinez, told SFR weeks before the fight. "Carlos is a great guy, but he wants to win. He's had a long time to think about Georges St-Pierre."
But Condit's fans take pride in his performance. That night, Condit became only the second fighter to knock down St-Pierre in his decade-long career.
"He hurt Georges worse than anybody ever hurt him," Kottenstette says. "If it was unlimited rounds, Carlos would fight to the death."
After the fight, St-Pierre looked more banged-up, holding a bag of ice on the golf-ball-sized welt Condit left on his right temple, dried blood (much of it Condit's) caking his face and dark bruises under his eyes. When asked before a cheering stadium how he felt after his triumphant return, St-Pierre mentioned Condit first.
"Carlos gave me my toughest fight," he said. "He lost, but this match will make him a better martial artist, and he's going to come back stronger," he said.
Sherdog currently ranks Condit the second-best welterweight fighter in the world, after St-Pierre. A match between him and another top fighter in his weight class is likely next spring, Kottenstette says.
But for now, Condit's recuperating, keeping a low profile and spending time with his family. His two-year-old son is still too young to completely understand what his dad does for a living.
"At his age, it's really hard to give him context," Condit says. "Sometimes he comes down and watches us wrestle and hit pads. And he's a very gentle kid, and he's also physical—just like I was as a kid. So it's a hard balance. As he gets older, I just need to teach him the context: 'This is what we do in the gym, and outside the gym we don't hit people.' That's hard at this age."