For most, the holidays evoke warm memories of family joined around the dinner table with pleasing aromas filling the air and children reviling in their newly acquired treasures. For 25 year old emerging MMA star, Ladarious Jackson, the holidays can be a painful reminder of a childhood tarnished by a mentally and physically abusive, drug addicted mother.
Ladarious recalls how he felt the first time he visited his mom in prison during Christmas time “It was horrible, I was seven and the thing I remember the most is the cold, hard steel of the tables and chairs.”
He would spend many days in that sanitary visitors’ room.
The sixth of ten children born to Lawanda Jackson, Ladarious drew the ire of his troubled mother the most of his nine siblings. Ladarious comments, ” She really seemed to hate me, to this day I still don’t know why.” Jackson’s mother had multiple arrest for drugs, including a short incarceration for crack cocaine just months after Ladarious was born.
Perhaps it was his unwillingness to shoplift like she had commanded of the young boy – even in early youth Ladarious displayed the courage and independence required to make it in the unforgiving fight game.
When he began school Jackson was encouraged to misbehave so he would be placed in special needs classes and his mother could collect an extra “crazy check” from the state every month.
By the time he had reached high school Ladarious was heading down a path not uncommon for a child raised in his circumstance. Frequent suspensions for fighting and a ten month stint in a juvenile detention center pointed to a bleak future for the rudderless teen.
Jackson enrolled at Gulf High and was placed in a dropout prevention program due to his troubled past. The man in charge of the program was Travis Dewalt. Dewalt was also the head coach of the wrestling team and saw in fourteen year old Ladarious what no others had: Potential.
Dewalt recognized the young man’s athletic promise and knew Wrestling could give Jackson the structure that he lacked in his home life. The offer intrigued the life long WWF fan, but what he envisioned was much more Stone Cold Steve Austin than Cael Sanderson.
Dewalt’s suspicions proved to be accurate. Jackson went 47-4 his Freshmen year and he found an escape from the chaos that awaited him at home.
Jackson was on his way to another stellar season his Sophomore year when his life was turned upside down. He retuned home following a wrestling tournament to find his belongings in the dumpster and the house completely empty. His mother had moved unbeknownst to him and left him homeless at fifteen years old.
Knowing the troubled teen had nowhere to turn, Coach Dewalt rallied the Gulf High Wrestling community to find a temporary residence for young Ladarious to prevent him from living on the streets.
Dewalt knew that if Jackson was going to rise up from the vicious cycle of poverty and crime that had claimed his older brothers, he would need to remain on the Gulf High Wrestling team. For the next few years Ladarious would live with numerous team mate’s families until he was old enough to get a place of his own.
One of his many stops was with teammate Anthony Ayres and his dad William. William recalls, ” I knew he had to stay on the Wrestling team and I didn’t think twice about him living with us. The whole Gulf High Wrestling community was there for him. Whether it was helping to get him his gear or a place to live, we had Ladarious’s back 100%. The team was one big family. “
Over the next three years Jackson would go on to lead the Gulf High team to two state titles. The first the school had won since Coach Dewalt wrestled for them in the early 90’s.
Needless to say Jackson’s talent peaked the interest of many college scouts and after receiving numerous letters form interested schools. He decided to attend Indiana Tech on a full athletic scholarship. A young man once deemed special needs by the state and headed for life behind bars was college bound with ambition and hope for a bright future.
Jackson’s path to success had always been down the road less traveled and after only one semester at Indiana Tech it was clear to Ladarious that College was not going to be the path to his desired future. Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (A common side effect of children born to mothers who abuse drugs) he struggled to maintain the academic requirements necessary to continue his scholarship.
At only nineteen Jackson’s train was derailing right as it left the station. Unsure of what the future had in store for him he headed back home to Florida sure of one thing he wanted to continue to wrestle. He quickly found that there were very few options for wrestlers outside of college, but his desire to compete was still a driving force in his life.
Ladarious would find that competitive outlet when urged to try Mixed Martial Arts by friend Joe Macaluso. The two did a short Google search to find gyms in their area and ended up at Viet Le’s Gator MMA in New Port Richey. Not a fan of MMA the 2x state champion Wrestler was unsure if his skill set would transfer to this new sport.
All of his questions about the sport and his life were answered after his first day of training MMA. Ladarious had been fighting since the day of his birth and now entering manhood, he discovered that his struggles as a boy had been preparing him for the life of a professional fighter.
Bitten by the bug he wanted to begin competing straight away. Three months after beginning to train Jackson would test himself in a amateur fight. Ladarious recalls, “I was fighting Keith Flowers who was also making his amateur debut and I’m not going to lie, I was terrified. I had to make one or two emergency trips to the bathrooms waiting to go out to fight.”
Ladarious won his debut knocking out Flowers in the second round. It was becoming more and more obvious that the twenty year old had found his calling with each passing victory. Six amateur fights and six wins later Jackson made the jump to the pros.
Since becoming a professional fighter in 2013, Jackson’s talents have caused Florida fight fans and promoters to take notice. He captured the RFC Lightweight title by defeating Vince McGuiness in a five round war and has consistently shown that he has the ability to become a future champion.
Unable to find a home gym in Florida, Jackson decided to head to Pennsylvania to move in with a few family members while he searched for a gym and a job. When things didn’t work out with his family Ladarious took refuge in his car, which he is currently living out of today.
Familiar with the struggles that life can present, Ladarious Jackson continues to grind with visions of the UFC octagon never leaving his thoughts. Recently being accepted to fight with the Ricardo Almeida BJJ Pro fight team the future is wide open for the young warrior in search of his next battle.
The next time Jackson dons his trademark American flag fight shorts and steps into the cage, he will be fighting for a future, a dream and to show the thousands of young people born destitute, that no matter what path you are on, you have the power to change it.