Rick Wright: MMA guru Jackson gets it about Title IX - Albuquerque Journal

Rick Wright: MMA guru Jackson gets it about Title IX

Coach Greg Jackson, right, is shown while being honored at a UNM basketball game in 2019 at the Pit with (from left) MMA fighters Chris Brown, Jon Jones and Holly Holm. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

In wrapping up my contribution to the Journal’s series of stories on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, I went right to the source.

Greg Jackson.

Wait. What?

Do I mean Greg Jackson, the Albuquerque self-defense guru and MMA coach? Greg Jackson, who’s two years younger than Title IX?

Greg Jackson, who as a man never needed federal legislation to help him compete in athletics?

Greg Jackson, who’s been coaching men and women side by side for decades?

Yes, that guy, a guy not taking that last thing for granted.

Way back in April, I interviewed Jackson for a purpose unrelated to Title IX. But, aware that the Journal was planning its series, I wondered how cognizant he was of a federal law passed two years before his birth and, 50 years after its introduction, if he believed he saw any of its effects when he walked into Jackson-Wink MMA to work with fighters Holly Holm, Michelle Waterson, et al.

“I’m fishing here,” I told him.

He took the bait, in a good way.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, women’s MMA, they’re the pioneers,” he said. “And that’s true.

“But (Holm, Waterson, et al) wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t had access to some kind of athletic background (growing up). The empowerment of Title IX, taking young women, young girls and empowering them, I think, is one of the most valuable things.”

Of course, as someone born a quarter-century before Title IX, I have my own perspective.

Jackson’s family moved from the Midwest to Albuquerque when he was a kid and settled in the South Valley. He said that, during his freshman year at Rio Grande High School, an older student named Shelia Burrell would sometimes give him a ride to school.

This was 1990, and Burrell had established herself as one of the finest high school athletes, girls or boys, Albuquerque had yet seen – All-State in basketball and volleyball and a multi-event state champion in track and field.

Burrell would go on to make two Olympic teams and win a World Championships bronze medal as a heptathlete.

“I was a huge admirer of hers,” Jackson said.

By then, girls and women competing interscholastically was accepted and commonplace.

Pre-Title IX, it was not.

Sheila Burrell , an Albuquerque native shown in the heptathlon competition at the 2004 U.S. Olympic track and field trials, was a schoolmate of MMA coach and self-defense guru Greg Jackson. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Boy, was it not. For all I know, I went to junior high or high school with a Shelia Burrell-caliber athlete who never got a chance to explore that possibility.

As I grew up in Albuquerque in the 1950s, in elementary school, the coach would come to our classroom for a designated half-hour and take us out to the playground. Boys and girls generally would participate together, whether the sport of the day was kickball, volleyball, basketball, physical fitness testing, etc.

I confess a few of the girls were faster than I was.

Intramurals, not so much, though girls and boys did compete together at my elementary school in dodgeball (we called it bombardment).

Intramural basketball and flag football were reserved for the boys.

In junior high, togetherness ended. For the boys, there was interscholastic football, basketball, baseball and track. For the girls, there was nothing.

Yes, girls had physical education classes. I once overheard an early 1960s Monroe Junior High classmate proudly say she’d cleared 2 feet, 9 inches in the high jump on a particular day.

How much higher she might have jumped had she been able to compete against girls from Wilson or Jefferson or McKinley or Madison, etc., she still does not know.

At Manzano High School (1962-65), nothing changed. The only time the boys saw the girls in P.E. class was for dancing. The boys had all the major ball-and-stick sports, plus track and field. The girls had nothing.

Even at UNM (1965-69), women’s athletics did not exist – or, if they did, little or no attention was paid.

Of course, I was outraged. Actually, no, I was not. I simply, blindly, accepted the status quo. Did girls, women, even want to compete in athletics? (It turns out they did.)

Then came three years in the U.S. Army, a year of learning how to be a civilian again, then back to UNM in 1974. Hey, look, the Lobos had a women’s basketball team.

Title IX was two years old, and things were changing – leading, eventually, gradually, to equal opportunity for the Shelia Burrells and Holly Holms (Manzano soccer) of the world.

Jackson said he has coached no tougher athlete than Holm, a Hall of Fame boxer and a UFC champion as an MMA fighter.

“They (Holm, Waterson et al) just needed to opportunity to show how great women are,” he said. “They just needed the opportunity to say, ‘We’re great, we’re tougher than the men, and we’re gonna show that we belong in athletics right next to the men.

“The empowerment of (Title IX), … it can’t be overstated. There’s nothing, then all of a sudden there’s something. (It was) a life-defining kind of policy, and I think those are rare.”

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