The surgeon lost his hands.
He couldn’t operate anymore. He lost his practice
Multiple sclerosis knocked Dr. Jim Jackson down. It took everything. It made him shaky and uncertain, robbed him of his strength.
Broken and depressed, Jackson felt relegated to the couch to deteriorate for the rest of his days.
And then one night in 2014, he went with his athletic daughter to the gym. He stumbled inside to watch her work out.
That’s when he saw Johnny Mercurio, a local MMA fighter of some renown. Mercurio’s career hadn’t gone the way he had hoped. He was making more money leading workouts for soccer moms than he was in the octagon.
Jackson watched Mercurio admonishing novice boxers to jab-jab-cross.
“I could never do that,” Jackson remembers saying aloud.
“Why not?” Mercurio said.
Four years later, the lives of both men have diverged in unexpected directions – thanks to each other.
“I didn’t mean to change his life, and he didn’t mean to change mine,” Mercurio said. “That’s just how it worked out.”
Signs of change
There was a time, not too long ago, that Jim Jackson could fix things. He could mend anterior cruciate ligaments and disjointed hips.
For 20 years, he worked as an orthopedic surgeon at the Los Alamitos Medical Center seeing as many as 50 patients per day.
And then, in 2008, someone in his office noticed he was walking with a limp. It was so minor, he hadn’t noticed.
“You don’t recognize things going on with yourself,” said Jackson, who was a competitive cyclist logging 120 miles per week.
Within days, Jackson found himself leaning against the operating table to keep his balance. He would hold his elbows close to his rib cage to calm the tremors in his hands.
Jackson had surgery on his neck, but that didn’t fix him.
In 2009, he was so unstable, he fell into his backyard pool. His daughter had to save him. He couldn’t be a doctor anymore.
What he didn’t know at the time was that he had multiple sclerosis.
Johnny Mercurio has been fighting since he was tiny.
He entered his first martial arts tournament at age 7. He turned pro in mixed martial arts at age 20.
“I fight for the same reason that birds fly,” Mercurio said. “I have to.”
Mercurio, now 32 and a resident of Huntington Beach, was a football player, too, and a decathlete. But his chance to be a Division I college athlete fell apart because he didn’t have the grades.
“I was such a knucklehead kid,” he said.
He dropped out of school and dropped into the world of fighting. He boxed, he kicked. He fought in squares, circles and octagons. His YouTube highlight reel is as exciting as it is bloody.
In his first fight, he got his opponent in a choke hold and won in less than a minute. After that, he was hooked.
“I’m an attention whore,” he said. “I love people cheering my name. Everybody was screaming. My cousin lifted me up. You feel like a rock star.”
He was 16-1 as an amateur.
He says now that he didn’t treat his professional fights professionally. He didn’t study his opponents like he should or train properly. He amassed a 9-8 record.
He won his last fight in 2017, but it was a fight earlier in the year that made him think about the rest of his life.
“I got knocked out,” he said. “And I got sick of trying to climb the ladder in my career.”
So he started training other people to make some money. He charges about $50 per hour.
That’s when Jim Jackson helped him stumble into an idea.
Helping each other
Jackson’s first punch as a student of Johnny Mercurio was a mess.
He missed the bag and fell down.
“He was trapped in a body he didn’t want,” Mercurio said. “He couldn’t punch and move his feet.”
Slowly but surely, Mercurio taught Jackson about balance and boxing.
“He went from pushing his punches to snapping his punches,” Mercurio said.
Jackson, who, at one time, could barely walk, found himself boxing.
“He takes you through sequences and exercises that stimulate both sides of the brain,” Jackson said, his voice cracking with emotion.
The more he pushed, the more his coordination came back.
“How could I possibly be doing this?” he said. “I can move. I can pivot and turn. I can duck and move.”
And as Mercurio watched training help Jim Jackson regain his confidence, he thought about how many Jim Jacksons there are in the world who need help.
There was one more thing. The kid who had dropped out of college, was becoming friends with a surgeon. Johnny Mercurio suddenly felt like he wasn’t just a dumb fighter. Mercurio said he still has trouble reading, and having a friend like Jackson is very important to him.
“He made me feel better,” Mercurio said. “He was telling me, ‘Johnny, you’re talented.’”
“He’s brilliant,” Jackson said.
In 2018, Mercurio flew to Indianapolis to take a week-long course to become certified in “Rock Steady Boxing,” training people with Parkinson’s disease and other neurological impairments.
He now trains 12 fighters who didn’t think they could fight. They don’t battle other fighters, they battle to keep themselves moving. Mercurio teaches six classes per week.
“I force people to get out of their comfort zones and push themselves,” Mercurio said. “When they fall, they get up off the mat. And that makes me feel good. I love working with these people.”
None of it would have happened if Jim Jackson didn’t stumble into the gym.
“He is patient zero,” Mercurio said.
Mercurio held a “Moving Day” fundraiser for the Parkinson’s Association of Orange County. He was able to raise $1,000. He will work on fundraising for the PAOC in 2019.
“I would be in a wheelchair or on the sofa,” Jackson said. “Without Johnny, I would be unmotivated. Done.”
Mercurio hopes to fight again in 2019.
And Jackson hopes to do something he never thought he would do.
He’s going to a conference for orthopedic doctors in Las Vegas to try to restart his medical career. He knows he can’t be a surgeon anymore.
“I can box for six or seven rounds,” Jackson said. “Why can’t I be an orthopedic consultant?”
Source: Orange County Register