Throughout the sport of mixed martial arts there are many successful fight teams and camps but few have obtained the level of success that Jackson's/Winkeljohn's MMA has experienced. With an all-star roster of champions, contenders and rising stars the team in Albuquerque has raised the standard of success all the while maintaining their unique close knit dynamic. Despite laying claim to some of the sport's top fighters the camp has come under fire for promoting an apparent "safe" style of fighting but regardless of criticism or backlash, the team presses on. A key aspect to keeping his athletes focused on the tasks ahead and the challenges to come is striking coach Mike Winkeljohn.
A former kickboxing and Muay Thai champion, Coach Wink (as he is known to his fighters) has trained some of the top competitors in the sport in the ways of the stand up exchange. A technician by trade, Winkeljohn not only focuses on teaching his craft but is instrumental in the full spectrum of fighter development from breaking into the professional realm onto the upper tiers of super stardom. Winkeljohn has worked diligently to assist the transition of wrestlers like Clay Guida as well as the sport's fastest rising star Jon "Bones" Jones from their foundations to becoming well rounded mixed martial artists and while Carlos Condit and Rashad Evans have contributed to highlight reel knockout montages, Winkeljohn feels the best is yet to come. With several high profile bouts on the horizon I sat down with Mike Winkeljohn and in his Bloody Elbow Exclusive Coach Wink talked about the evolution of striking, shared his insight on what matters the most and fired back at critics who attack his camp for a so-called safe style of fighting.
"I think it is a very unfair critique because you look at our fighters and we are getting knockout and submission fight night bonuses...so it doesn't make sense," Winkeljohn stated. "Actually we have a very high level of finishes if you examine the stats of our fighters and we just had a couple of high level bouts where our fighters did not finish their opponents and we are getting criticized for it. I think it happens when you are at the top of the game and people are always going to look for something to give you a hard time about. I personally take it as a compliment. If people are that interested in what we are doing and how we are performing then that tells me that we are at the top."
Of the fighters on the Jackson's/Winkeljohn's roster the fighter who receives the bulk of the "safe" fighting criticism is welterweight champion and top pound for pound fighter Georges St. Pierre. The 170 lb. champion has been given a stigma for his preference to fight on the ground and recently GSP decided to leave the fight standing as he picked apart number one contender Josh Koscheck at UFC 124.
"I think it was beautiful what Georges did with the jab," Winkeljohn stated. "They wanted to hit Georges with a big overhand punch and take him down but once they figured out it was not going to happen Koscheck didn't know what to do. In a perfect world you would like to see Georges hit him with a right hand or a kick to knock him out but Koscheck is such an athlete that wasn't something that happened. It's not like Georges wasn't trying. The constant jab in the face and the ability to close the gap and extend that Georges has...in addition to how explosive Georges is with his footwork and with his legs people completely underestimate how hard it is to actually hit the guy. It's hard to move in and hard to defend the takedown because he is not where you think he will be in the flash of a second."
While St. Pierre primarily trains out of Firas Zhabi's Tri-Star Gym in Montreal he is still apart of the network of fighters that fall under the Jackson's roster. In addition to Grudge in Denver all camps work in the same network with Jackson's/Winkeljohn's in Albuquerque and if support or assistance is needed it will never be hard to come by.
"A lot of that has to do with Greg Jackson," Winkeljohn explained. "He is always going out to help others and he is going to look at game plans that other coaches have put together and if they prefer he will oversee it. The problem with a lot of gyms is there are always egos involved and I think Greg has the ability to step outside and see what is best for the fighter and not what is best for the individual coach and his ego. As for Grudge and Tri-Star...they do most of their training on their own and are ultimately responsible for what they are doing but I feel it is an overall lack of ego that has lead to the success of our school."
Winkeljohn has been working with MMA guru Greg Jackson for the better part of two decades but when the opportunity came for Winkeljohn to focus strictly on the development of the professional fighters it was an opportunity he could not pass up.
"I ran a martial arts studio the entire time I was fighting," Winkeljohn replied when asked how he got into coaching. "I was coaching amateurs...getting them going along with professional boxers and kickboxers but then MMA took off and Greg Jackson and I started hanging out and by 1992, wrestling and kickboxing with each other a little bit and that was the beginning. We put our heads together. He was training fighters and I had my school so up until about 5 years ago I decided to close my school and focus on training professionals full time. I told Greg I just wanted to train the pros and go home but I've been blessed that the sport has really taken off so I can dedicate even more time now to developing professional fighters."
Throughout his time working with Greg Jackson, Winkeljohn has trained some of the sport's top fighters as he helps to make their striking skills sharper. One fighter in particular, Melvin Guillard, attributes much of his growth to the training and coaching he has received in Albuquerque and "The Young Assassin" credits Coach Winkeljohn for helping him make the changes that have thus far made all the difference.
"Melvin has some God given natural abilities," Winkeljohn remarked. "He is very talented athletic wise and so I wanted to take that to a new level by using movement with purpose. Just make him calm down a little bit, understand what is going on and I don't think he has had the guidance in that fashion that would enable him to utilize all of the talent that he has. My job is easy because I can have him do some things because he is so explosive and I think the biggest thing is to slow down, train properly, make sure he's in shape and don't react or panic in the situation that presents itself."
In addition to the work he has done with Guillard, Winkeljohn has also dedicated himself to expanding the stand up game for several other fighters who come from drastically different backgrounds and it so happens that a few of them have high profile bouts just around the corner.
"This weekend you are going to see Clay Guida looking great. He broke his opponent's jaw in his last fight and the game plan obviously isn't to stand and trade with Gomi but I think people will be surprised," Winkeljohn stated. "Another fighter who will wake some people up is going to be Brian Stann. He is fighting this weekend and people have no idea how much better his jab has gotten. He used to be a brawler but he has improved his footwork, angles and finishing with power shots after he has set up the opportunity using movement and angles. Brian Stann is somebody I'm very excited about. Also people have no idea how good Jonny Jones is with his hands. They see his crazy throws and stuff but he's come a very long way thru the meat and potatoes of basic boxing as well as kick boxing. So we are very excited right now with what is going on in the camp."
With the topic of conversation on developing the striking skills of a fighter who comes from a different background I asked Coach Winkeljohn to share his insight on the process he used to force fighters to adapt to the loss of comfort that comes with fighting away from their strengths.
"With a wrestler it is probably a little easier because he can usually defend the takedown and then I teach them to attack from that low position," Winkeljohn shared. "The next thing I teach them is how to throw punches and not get hit and not only to throw them but to do so with power to set up the takedown. I don't want to turn the wrestler into a kickboxer but I want to take what he is good at and use that in a manner that will be advantageous to him against the opponent he is fighting. Training a kickboxer at first is a bit tougher because I have to get him to defend the takedown. That will include teaching about distance as well as positional changes. Some times he will need to be lower and not standing as tall as he is accustomed to. Knowing when and how to strike their opponent depending on the stance and angles that are presented are definitely something that needs to be learned. It's actually quite different but those are the basics."
With nearly two decades invested in developing the skills and careers of his fighters, Mike Winkeljohn has played a major role in the successes his fighters have experienced. In addition to the personal relationships he has forged Coach Winkeljohn knows that what matters the most is sometimes the things that no one else sees.
"So far it has been the right place and right time type of moments for me," Winkeljohn replied when asked what he will take from the sport. "I think footwork is another thing our camp is known for but I don't know if I will leave that mark on the sport because I don't know if I'm that important in the game but what matters to me are moments and relationships that I have with the fighters. For instance...the moment when Rashad Evans knocked out Chuck Liddell. We had talked about it the night before, going over the game plan and I told him that he was going to hit Chuck so hard at the proper distance with the right amount of power that it was going to suck for me because I wasn't going to be able to get in the cage fast enough to celebrate because Chuck was going to be out cold. It unfolded that way...he looked at me and I looked at him and it was an amazing moment. That what is important to me and it's not so much what other people think but that relationship I have with the fighters."
As the topic turned to former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, I took the opportunity to ask Winkeljohn about Rashad's upcoming bout with current champion Maurico "Shogun" Rua. Evans received a bit of backlash for his decision to wrestle Quinton "Rampage" Jackson but with the power he has displayed in his hands and the top level wrestling he possess, Evans now has the opportunity to regain the title he once held.
"We are going to keep Shogun guessing," Winkeljohn stated. "That's one thing people don't understand about Rashad...he has tremendous power. When he came to us after The Ultimate Fighter he wasn't a great stand up fighter by any means but he has become one of the most feared strikers in the game...he is Tyson-like and Rashad is capable of so much more than people have seen. We fell to Machida and honestly it was just one of those nights. Every fighter has them and that was ours. If Rashad sits down and does his homework he is basically unstoppable with his hands and feet, as we saw with Shaun Salmon. He is putting together the combination of using his hands and his wrestling and Shogun is going to have a long night."
With the interview coming to a close Winkeljohn took the final moments to the let MMA fans know about a few fighters that you should keep an eye on in the upcoming year.
"A couple of things I'd like to get out there. John Dodson at 125 lbs...boy would I love to see the UFC pick up that division because he's the fastest and most exciting fighter in the world so people need to be on the lookout for him and we have a girl named Holly Holm and she is pound for pound the best women's boxer in the sport. There are no more challenges out there for her. She's cleaned out three different weight divisions and she's moving over to MMA so look for her in a year's time to challenge anybody out there for any title."