By Lem Satterfield
BALTIMORE — During training for his inaugural berth in Shogun Fights No. 20 at Royal Farms Arena, Gaithersburg-based 170-pound welterweight Josh Jackson left nothing to chance for his revenge mixed martial arts match with Andrew Johnson on Saturday, Oct. 6.
Not only was Jackson coached by Montgomery Blair graduate and former MMA pro Zach Davis, but the 27-year-old had logged several workouts with Frederick-based 170-pound fighter Matthew Semelsberger, whose 3-1 record included three appearances at Shogun, which were composed of two knockout wins with a submission loss in between.
“Matt and I share the same striking coach, and it helped that we together worked on individual game plans for one another against our opponents,” said Jackson, whose 5-1 amateur record included a split-decision loss to Johnson. “The guy I fought was about Matt’s size, and the guy Matt fought was left-handed and I’m left-handed. We could both emulate our opponents’ size and strengths, and Matt’s very talented, so it all worked out.”
But things didn’t go well for Semelsberger, who suffered an upset stoppage loss to debuting Jerome Featherstone of Baltimore. On deck was Jackson, who witnessed Semelsberger’s defeat from backstage.
“When I saw Matt get dropped and finished, the first thing on my mind was getting revenge for my teammate,” said Jackson, who stands 5-foot-10. “That got my mind focused on doing the right thing, which was getting the next one back.”
Jackson did just that with a brutal knockout, ending a competitive clash with several head-swiveling, unanswered blows on Johnson, who was defenseless with his hands down and back against the cage as the referee stepped in to end their bout midway through the third of as many five-minute rounds.
“I hit him with a ton of elbows and could see they were setting up my big overhand lefts off of my straight lefts. In that last round, I felt his guard starting to slip, and I threw three straight lefts down the middle. He threw a low kick, and I threw another straight as a counter, batted his lead hand down, and snuck in another straight. As his body sagged, that’s when the referee stepped in,” said Jackson.
“Our first fight as amateurs, he was able to grab me and take me down. So, the biggest thing going in was not giving up the takedown – but if I did, to try to get up as quickly as possible. In the second round, our game plan was more breaking his clinches and staying in the middle of the ring as he engaged. As the fight went on, I got better and better. In the end, I would say I landed five or six unanswered punches.”
Having trained Jackson out of the Gaithersburg-based Evolve Academy, Davis kept him focused in the wake of Semelsberger’s defeat.
“That was a tough moment, because, just like in wrestling, when you watch one of your teammates take one on the chin and go down, and you’ve bled and sweat[ed] with him, that can take your pride down pretty low. But as a coach, I wanted to keep Josh’s head straight and his eye on the task,” said Davis, a 189-pound fourth-place county finishing wrestler who graduated from Blair in 2002.
“But Josh has done a lot of sports over the years, and he’s good at being a competitor. When things get ramped up, and there’s a lot of adrenaline going around, it takes that rare athlete who can remain poised and relaxed and still believe in himself. Josh has a workmanlike ethic, where he can remain composed, and that’s probably his strongest asset. So I said, ‘Matt was winning up until that point, so let’s go out there, show how tough you are and get one back for him,’ and Josh was able to put Johnson away.”
Jackson graduated in 2009 from Frederick High, where he was a second-team All-Frederick County running back in football and a centerfielder on the Cadets’ Class 3A state championship baseball team. He ran sprints in indoor track, including a 6.75-second personal best in the 55-meters.
Jackson had a big game as the leadoff batter during the Cadets’ 7-2 title-winning victory over Fallston in baseball, singling three times – scoring once and driving in two runs for a squad, which won its final 10 games and finished with a record of 21-3.
In the stands was Dean Branham, Jackson’s childhood friend, who was astonished trying to reconcile his buddy’s presence in the cage and the violence he inflicted on Johnson.
“I played little league football with Josh, who was always a great athlete,” said Branham, a 28-year-old resident of Ellicott City. “But what’s surprising is that he always seemed like a quiet, reserved kid, not the kind that would fight you. Even his walkout song had no words to it. I kind of wish his nickname was ‘the silent assassin.’”
At Frostburg University, Jackson played football and baseball and earned a degree in sociology, graduating in 2014.
“I originally wanted to be a cop, get into law enforcement or the FBI, but then I switched that to wanting to work with at-risk youth,” said Jackson. “I ended up getting into social services after college and working with disabled adults for maybe a year and a half in Frederick. Working with the adults was great. They’re definitely underserved, but I wanted to devote more time to training.”
Jackson’s first mixed martial arts experience resulted from partnering with a friend, Brent Walter, who recruited him for sparring in advance of a toughman contest. That led Jackson to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and, ultimately, Davis at The Frederick-based Fort MMA facility.
“I had been enamored by combat sports since I was 10, but I had no experience. Brent had an entire gym in his attic, and we’d box and do some jiu-jitsu,” said Jackson, who stands 5-foot-10. “It was my senior year, and I was just about done with baseball at the time, so I took a fight, won it, and I just did well from there.”
Jackson’s athletic versatility was molded into a fighting force to be reckoned with by the 34-year-old Davis, who narrowly missed the cut for “The Ultimate Fighter 7” MMA reality television series in late 2007 before qualifying for the 2011 version of “The Ultimate Fighter 13” cast of 14 in 2011.
“Josh is using his boxing well, and his energy management was good for this last fight. We wanted Josh to finish this opponent with his hands,” said Davis, also a former swimmer and cross-country runner who graduated from the University of Maryland in 2006 with a criminal justice degree.
“But with other opponents, we’ll have an opportunity to work on the ground more. I’d like Josh to keep his back off of the cage more, circling out and being able to strike without getting stuck in the clinch, disengaging and continuing to build on all of his skills. But Josh picks things up so quickly,” he said.
Jackson credits Davis for helping to add polish to his finish, particularly concerning his tendency to smother his own offense.
“As an amateur, I’d have the problem of getting someone hurt and then rushing in. So when I hurt Johnson, I had to control myself from doing that. I saw Johnson’s body relaxed and slumped against the cage twice, and my first instinct was to go after him. But instead, I remained cognizant of my positioning, threw my punches from range and was able to finish it,” said Jackson.
“I train to be a better overall fighter in MMA, and I’ve still got a lot of work to do in all areas,” he added. This was my first knockout as a pro, and it all started at Shogun. Getting a trophy and fighting in front of all of those people is as big as it gets in this region. I’m definitely expecting to return to the next Shogun in April, but if my coaches have something else for me, I’ll be ready.”