Saturday, Aug. 18, 2007 | Larry Jackson stood in front of 1,800 screaming fans in the Jai Alai Palace in Tijuana peering a deadly gaze into the eyes of his opponent, Jose Casillas. Beads of sweat dripped from his face under the hot lights, landing on the mat below, where Jackson would soon lay on his back, curled in a defensive position as Casillas pummeled his face into the pad.

His heart racing and adrenaline pumping, the 155-pound fighter spent Saturday night punching, kicking, wrestling and defending against Casillas’ ferocious attacks. But, one minute and 36 seconds into the second round, the referee called the fight in favor of Casillas after he trapped Jackson on the ground and delivered blow after blow to his soon-to-be swollen face.

Jackson was down, but not out. As both a trainer and a fighter, the 28 year old is part of a growing consortium of young people engaged in mixed martial arts — a combat sport that is sweeping through much of Southern California and the country.

We caught up with Jackson, bruises and all, at City Boxing in downtown San Diego, to talk about giving and taking beat downs, the proliferation of mixed martial arts and the Karate Kid-esque politics of local gyms.

Tell us a little bit about how you got started in mixed martial arts and how long you’ve been involved.

I’ve been involved in just boxing since I was very young. My adopted parents own a boxing gym. So they adopted me when I was about 14 years old and I knew them all through my growing up phases. And then when my parents died, they adopted me. … I’ve just been around it since then. I played two years of college football and when I got done, I really needed something to get focused into. I met a guy who did MMA and I started doing Jujitsu and Muay Thai and kickboxing and just got training like a madman.

Now some people might say this is a crazy thing to do. You guys go into the ring and just wail on each other.

Like we did the other night.

Exactly. So, what goes through your head that makes you want to fight?

If you notice when I fought, there was no time in that fight where I’m like an angry, agitated person; it’s just like chess. When he moved this way, I kicked him in his leg. When he’s backed up against the ropes and got squared, that’s when I threw a flying knee. It was all the chess match between us.

So I tell people, look, it’s just like anything else. It’s not like I’m barbaric or this angry person. I’m the nicest, most sensitive guy on the planet — my favorite movie’s “The Notebook.” I’m not an angry guy, you know. It’s just what I like to do. Some people are into math, some people are into science. I suck at both, so I’d rather just get punched in the face.

How did you feel when you stepped into the ring Saturday night?

That was the first time I’d competed in a year. I was really, really calm until I got in there and then I was just like: “Oh, shit.”

And, at no time was I ever worried about him or his power or him at all. I was worried about me, and I was worried about putting on a good show. And I was worried about making sure that I finished the fight early, and that is what ended up costing me the fight.

The sport has blown up in the last few years, with all the Ultimate Fighting on TV and a lot of popular support. What do you think attracts people to these types of fights?

Well, some people maybe have been into Kung Fu and been into martial arts for a long time. And some people are just fad-tasters, which is the most annoying thing in the world — especially living in Southern California, everyone’s a cage fighter. I think it’s just a fun thing to watch, it’s exciting. It can go just how my fight did. I was winning the fight, but the tables can turn on you just like that. There’s a lot of energy and it’s a new thing. It took a while, but people are really catching onto it.

Then you got people that really just like to watch people get their ass whooped. Some people like it for the science of it and some people just want to watch people get bloody.

City Boxing is becoming much more of a household name, especially among young people in Southern California. What is it that you guys do here?

This place houses and over the years has housed some of the best guys on the planet. You’ve had so many top-name superstars in every sport that we offer here that came through this place. I mean, the thing that separates us from every other gym out there is the people that we have teaching the class. Sometimes you have one superstar and he just kind of walks around n no, our superstars teach class every day. They’re normal, regular people and we don’t have time for the ego stuff around here. That’s what separates us.

Ok, you have the superstars, but what about a guy like me who comes in off the street with virtually no fighting experience. What can you teach me?

Eighty percent of the people who come in here are beginners, so they’d never thrown a punch, they’d never want to throw a punch in their whole lives. So we just teach you the basics and work from the ground up. Like, if I’d have thrown you in the ring with me the other night, it would have been overwhelming. It’s just like teaching a baby how to crawl. A lot of people come in and say, “Oh, I don’t know if I ever want to fight.” They train for six months and the next thing you know, they’re coming in saying, “Hey man, I’ve been thinking about it and I want to fight.”

Do you ever worry that people might be taking what they learn here and taking out of the ring and into the streets?

I don’t think we’ve really had that problem, but we’ve kind of heard about it. You just kinda have to laugh, those people are so dumb. I’ve been in four street fights my whole life. I definitely won’t walk away from something, but I’m definitely not gonna run up and start something either. And that’s the attitude we try to have and teach in our classes. But we’ve never had a problem where people are always out starting fights. Most of the people are pretty respectful and understand that this is a sport. It’s not like something you go out and do with your friends, because you really can get hurt.

You know this is soft, the mats are padded. Concrete’s not. So, we really don’t have that problem. We’ve been fortunate.

I’ve heard from a lot of people who do MMA or any other type of fighting that there’s a competition between gyms in town — almost like Karate Kid-style. Could you tell me a bit about that?

In San Diego, it is very political. It’s all about who knows who and all that. But, as far as I go, as far as most of the people I know, I’m cool with everybody at every gym in San Diego. I want to train with everybody at every gym in San Diego. I do think it’s almost the most ridiculous thing on the planet and please quote me on that. All these people are like, it’s a he-said, she-said popularity contest. I’m a fighter and I work for the fans. My job is to come out and put on the best show I can for the fans.

I lost my fight and I’m pissed about losing, but I’m pissed that I didn’t come out and put on a better performance. So, if I’m working for the fans, I want to do the best job I can, which means I need to get the best training I can.

It is very political, but I just kind of roll my eyes and laugh.

OK, what inspires or motivates you when you get into the ring?

I just want to win. And, honestly I want to prove to all the people who said that I was just a gym fighter, or I was just a great sparring partner, or a lot of people who told me that I wasn’t going to be shit with my life — ’cause there was that time, where if I didn’t get my act together, I probably wasn’t gonna be shit. And I really just want to be like: You know what, I am somebody now. I lost my fight, but I fought. And I am somebody. I think I’m in the position to be one of the best fighters in San Diego at 155 and 145 pounds. I just need experience, that’s it.

— Interview by SAM HODGSON

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