Through a thick, deep Belarus accent, Andrei Arlovski – all 6-feet-4-inches, 245-pounds of him – extends his right hand directly toward his target, pointing his index finger forward and thumb in the air.
Staring back at the bearded, stone-faced Arlovski is a silver-coated, 7-year-old American pit bull terrier with a large chain around his neck.
Maximus, knowing what’s next, immediately sits up on his hind legs, arches his back, and sticks his paws skyward.
Maximus crumbles to the ground, rolling over to play dead, acting out with perfect dramatic timing the scene that brings light laughs and a smattering of applause from a handful of the world class athletes gathered on this August morning at Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA gym in southeast Albuquerque.
And as Maximus’ well-played skit is rewarded with a brief belly rub and praise from Arlovski, the veteran mixed martial artist and former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion, the fighters in the gym quickly go on about their training for a variety of upcoming professional mixed martial arts fights around the world.
Yes, on any given day at Jackson-Winkeljohn, the local gym that has grown into arguably the premier training ground in the world for mixed martial arts, amid the world-class athletes, Olympic wrestlers, champion kick boxers and master jiu jitsu fighters you may find a dog sitting next to a gym bag full of boxing gear, curled up next to free weights or stretched out on top of wrestling mats.
Make no mistake, dogs are very much a part of the deal at Jackson-Winkeljohn.
“The family side of it is huge and having dogs around here just adds to that family atmosphere,” said Jon Jones, the UFC light heavyweight champion who headlines the Saturday night’s UFC 165 pay-per-view fight card in Toronto.
Jones, who occasionally brings BJ, his German shepherd/Rotweiller mix, to training sessions at the gym, says having his family – dog included – around his training sessions has always been important.
“It makes the journey seem a little easier,” Jones said.
Greg Jackson, the respected fight coach who along with partner Mike Winkeljohn runs both the private, pro gym on Acoma Street near Central and San Mateo (where dogs are allowed in the gym) and the public gym on Eubank NE (where dogs are not allowed in during classes), says allowing dogs into the pro gym is a no-brainer.
“I can’t tell you how it helps morale,” said Jackson, a self-proclaimed “dog guy” who has two dogs of his own – Indiana Bones and Joan of Bark.
“Sometimes, it’s just nice to have a dog around.”
The unofficial mascot of Jackson-Winkeljohn is a golden chow/Labrador retriever/Rhodesian ridgeback named Bailey, owned by veteran female MMA fighter Julie Kedzie.
Bailey is far too impatient for tricks, often licking your hand and looking for a pat on the head long before you’d have the time to train her to act out a skit like her friend Maximus.
“All the fighters love her,” Jackson said of Bailey. “This is her family. If you had a bad day of sparring, you can go over there and she’ll lick you. She doesn’t care. She’s a really snuggly dog.”
A first time visitor to the gym, or one unfamiliar with the nuances of the professional fight game, may find it remarkable these dogs, so devoted and protective of their owners, don’t aggressively come to their defense, or, at the very least, bark when seeing fighters like Kedzie, Jones, Arlovski and others go through training drills that often include them being struck in the head and body or wrestled to the ground.
“First of all, they’re well trained and a lot of the guys here really take a lot of time to train their dogs,” Kedzie said.
“But the bigger thing, I think, is she (Bailey) knows the difference between when I’m in real distress or in some sort of real trouble and when I’m just working. This is my job, and even if the sparring may look the same as me being in trouble, she somehow knows the difference.”
Kedzie, a pet lover who describes herself as “a crazy cat lady” and isn’t shy about posting frequent pictures of Bailey to her 17,000-plus Twitter followers, says having the animals at the gym is much bigger than just having a morale boost in between workouts.
“You want to be on (top of your game) when you’re sparring and when you’re fighting,” Kedzie said. “You want to be tough and have that warrior mentality, but it’s also important for us to have a calming force to balance us out.”
Jackson agrees that a calming force in the gym is important for his fighters to keep the clear head needed to
focus on the task at hand. Just because fighting involves physical pain caused by flying fists and kicks, doesn’t mean it’s about uncontrolled aggression.
His gym’s approach has always been one more about the cerebral, tactical approach to fighting, which flies in the face of a common perception that MMA fighters are merely pumped full of adrenaline and in constant pursuit of hurting their opponent.
“It’s calming,” Jackson says, “and calm is important in here.”
It’s true not all the fighters who come to train at Jackson-Winkeljohn from around the world, some from cultures where dogs aren’t as part of the family as in the United States, are as thrilled about the pro-pet policy as others, especially when clumps of Bailey’s shedding coat start piling up around the gym – “cleaning costs are probably a bit higher because of the dogs,” gym general manager Ricky Kottenstette acknowledges.
But there is no question the pooches are there to stay.
“They’re part of the gym,” Jackson said. “They’re definitely a part of the team here.”