The feud between Donald Cerrone and Jackson-Wink MMA is more than just a clash of egos. It’s a powerful illustration of the fraught conditions fighters and coaches operate within at the highest level of MMA competition.
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Last week, former Ultimate Fighting Championship title contender and long-time fan favorite Donald Cerrone went on the Joe Rogan Experience to air long-stewing grievances he had with Jackson-Wink MMA academy, the acclaimed New Mexico-based fight camp he has called home since 2007.
The catalyst for the feud, according to “Cowboy,” was the decision by head coach Mike Winklejohn to allow Mike Perry to train at the gym for his bout opposite Cerrone in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 139 in November, effectively leaving Cerrone out in the cold.
In Cerrone’s version of events, Winklejohn called him and told him “[I]f we don’t have Perry, then I don’t get paid, and I need to get paid for this.” He also went on record to claim the gym had turned into a “puppy mill” under Winklejohn’s leadership, accusing the much-celebrated trainer of prioritising money over loyalty and driving the gym “into the ground,” amid other fiery allegations about Winklejohn and wrestling coach Chad Smith’s competence and character.
Winklejohn responded (via MMAJunkie) to Cerrone’s accusations with indictments of his own, calling the welterweight “as narcissistic as they come” and singling out Cerrone’s decision to build his own gym -- the BMF ranch -- as the catalyst for the discord. Long-time Jackson-Wink staple Diego Sanchez also weighed in on the quarrel, releasing a lengthy post on Instagram criticizing Cerrone of not being a team player and offering to take Perry’s spot in the event of an injury.
It’s been an unavoidably ugly spectacle, reminiscent of an acrimonious divorce, complete with side-taking, the airing of long-held resentments and a cluster of loved ones caught in the crossfire. Sadly however, it’s not an especially uncommon episode for MMA gyms.
A review of MMA’s history, from inception to the present, reveals a smorgasbord of similar storylines involving the sport’s biggest stars taking up arms against the places and people they owed much of their success to.
Ken and Frank Shamrock, who built the Lions Den -- one of MMA’s first hotbeds for young talent based in Lodi, California, -- famously fell out over the academy’s training philosophy in the late 1990s, jumpstarting a cold war that saw the two foster brothers estranged for over a decade and linked to fight one another on multiple occasions.
More recently, the grudge-match between former Team Alpha Male teammates T.J. Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt was the centrepiece of Season 25 of “The Ultimate Fighter” and two pay-per-view championship contests, with the promotion for the fights orbiting the rift between Urijah Faber and his TAM loyalists and Dillashaw and former TAM-head coach Duane Ludwig.
The feud between former teammates Jon Jones and Rashad Evans, which culminated in fight for Jones’ light heavyweight title at UFC 145 in 2012, also possessed many of the same ingredients as the Cerrone-Winklejohn conflict. In particular, a veteran member of Jackson Wink (Evans) feeling betrayed by the gym’s embrace of new blood (Jones), and breaking from “the family” to strike out on his own.
It Comes With the Territory
In many ways, these conflicts are an inevitable staple of MMA, in many ways more explicable than their feel-good counterparts, where coach and student seem to be perfectly in sync no matter what the weather.
In a Darwinian sport where a surplus of confidence is a prerequisite, there’s no shortage of big personalities rubbing up against each other in the gym on a regular basis. Even the most prudent and experienced coaches will attest to the difficulties of keeping multiple egos in check, a situation made worse by the unstructured nature of MMA competition and the ambiguous nature of teammate obligations.
Unlike in football or basketball, where a team of athletes will all be operating on the same schedule -- peaking together physically and mentally when game time rolls around -- fighters are just as likely to be operating on different timelines. An up-and-coming contender might be preparing for the biggest test of his or her career, whereas more accomplished peers might be absent or only putting in work sporadically -- juggling the conflicting duties of family life, injury rehabilitation and full or part-time employment.
That can put a lot of pressure on coaches to pick up the slack -- or more hazardously, try to corral a group of fiercely individualistic, and often financially insecure, fighters around a set of mutual goals and values -- a reality that is bound to leave some feeling unhappy or neglected.
In other combat sports like boxing, athletes have responded to these pressures by building camps around their individual needs. At the highest level, combatants often retain a head coach and a small roster of sparring partners dedicated to their success. But the pay structure in MMA -- with fighters earning an estimated 15 percent of revenues in the UFC, which works out to a median bout purse of $22,000 -- renders this avenue financially impossible for all but a tiny cadre of fighters at the sport’s apex.
Just as fighters generally can’t monopolise the time and attention of one coach for an extended period of time, a coach generally can’t depend on the income they derive from training them (typically between 10 percent and 20 percent of a fighters’ bout purse) to cover the costs of maintaining a training facility. In the absence of a wealthy benefactor then, this makes classes open to the general public all the more central to a gym’s viability -- though not necessarily in alignment with fighters’ immediate career imperatives.
More Than Just a Clash of Egos
From the information that has been made publicly available, all of these variables played a factor in the dust up between Cerrone and his former sanctuary.
“Cowboy”, the maverick who didn’t necessarily play nice with others; building what is essentially a competing enterprise in the BMF ranch to address perceived limitations of the Jackson Wink Academy and make the most of his career, yet expecting a degree of loyalty from his coaches when it came to training future opponents.
Winklejohn, the diligent pedagogue who grew tired of what he perceived as selfishness in Cerrone; looking to keep the lights on while maintaining a roster of world-class fighters that doubled as hospitable training partners.
Neither of these stances strikes me as particularly unreasonable in the circumstances, and yet a compromise seems unlikely -- a reality that only serves the UFC’s interest in selling the ‘bad blood’ angle as the Cerrone-Perry fight comes closer.
In other words, like in so many other facets of the fight game, it’s only the UFC that emerges the winner.