One of the wonderful things which has happened since I began writing technical pieces is that I have been able to speak with some of the men in this sport whom I truly admire. Recently I was pleasantly surprised to be offered a chance to interview the great Mike Winkeljohn; striking coach to Jon Jones, Carlos Condit and just about every other elite fighter coming out of New Mexico as he helps prepare Condit to face Georges St. Pierre at UFC 154.
It was an incredible honor for me to be able to ask anything to one of the sport's premier coaches, and I prepared a list of questions and sent them over to him with expectation of some being too dry or too intrusive into the strategies of his camp. To my surprise and excitement 'Wink' was happy to answer any and all of my queries with no spin or secrecy.
In truth the fan in me took control when I wrote these questions so some of them may be a little nerdy for readers but I hope you can all enjoy the honesty and insight that coach Winkeljohn provides.
Jack Slack - How did you become involved in martial arts and combat sports?
Mike Winkeljohn: Jack, I got involved in kickboxing after high school when I walked into Bill Packers kickboxing school in 1980. Mr Packer was training some of the best at the time. I had 4 amateur matches then turned pro. I trained off and on as the sport was sporadic. Won the ISKA world title in 1992 and set my sites on Muay Thai. Received 2 world titles one beating Thai legend Coban. Started fighting Draka at end of career which allowed take downs. Met Greg Jackson in 1993 started rolling with him and helping him with stand up. The UFC with The Ultimate Fighter exploded and we had Diego Sanchez on the show. We have been riding the wave ever since.
JS: Did you have any heroes or idols when growing up? Have you had the chance to meet or train with any of them?
Wink: My heroes at the time where Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler. Never met them nor would my ego allow me to try. I always enjoyed Chuck Norris films and was excited when he came to see me after one of my early fights.
JS: Who in MMA would you like to coach that you haven't had the chance to? Is there anyone you'd like to learn from?
Wink: Two guys I always wanted to help were Gray Maynard and Brock Lesnar. Never had the chance but thought I could have helped with distancing and footwork.
Greg Jackson and myself don 't find time to work out much anymore. I have learned so much from him and it helps me coaching because we can mold our two disciplines together in the transitions. Greg has great insight to so many things as we all know. Caio Terra is another who I would like to work out with because his technique is so great in deep chess game of jiu jitsu.
JS: You have coached two fighters whom I feel use their height and reach especially well in MMA: Jon Jones and Carlos Condit. While you've mentioned in previous interviews that Jon Jones' athleticism makes him a pleasure to train, how much of his success can be attributed to his proper use of reach?
Wink: A great amount of Jon's success is from his proper use of reach. He has only begun to perfect it. Jon's throws and trips make it hard for people to drive him back. We have just begun to increase his ability to fight at greater lengths with the use of front kicks etc. Jon is reading their attacks well and reacting properly which is part of it. We plan on increasing his versatility in the future using more foot work. Length has its disadvantage as well as many holes can be driven through. Look at what Mike Tyson did in boxing and Daniel Cormier has done with heavyweights. Jon has to be extra cautious when people get inside those long arms.
Daniel Cormier - Photo via Esther Lin / MMA Fighting
With that being said, similar to the advantage of the gun over a sword; if you can do damage from a safe or further distance, then you win.
JS: Could a less athletic fighter such as Stefan Struve be made into a similarly dominant force on the feet? What advice would you give to Stefan to start making use of his genetic gifts?
Wink: If I was giving advice to Stefan, I would have him start using his kicks a great deal more. This is because it would add to his arsenal, increasing the unpredictability of his techniques.
JS: Greg Jackson and yourself are known for giving your team members intelligent gameplans - who are the fighters that have the most trouble sticking to the game plan on fight night when the adrenaline is pumping?
Wink: We've had many fighters who have had a tough time sticking to game plans when the cage door shuts. Most notable is Leonard Garcia, who will start the fight off using the proper plan but once hit, all that's out and he starts throwing the kitchen sink. Leonard is just who one of those guys who fights with so much emotion because of his big heart but that sometimes supersedes the strategy. Diego Brandao is another one who has forgotten the game plan due to lack of belief in his conditioning and lack of experience in going the distance.
Leonard Garcia (Left) fights Nam Pham. Photo by Esther Lin / MMA Fighting
JS: With multiple contenders in all the weight-classes you have in Albuquerque, workouts must get a little competitive - what are some of the most heated rivalry you have ever had at your gym?
Wink: We have many heated rivalries in our gym, but at the end of practice they are back to being brothers. So I can't really tell you who gets the better of who but I can tell you anybody that Donald Cerrone spars, can expect a war either by throwing hard at him or by not going hard enough, where he feels you're capable of more.
JS: One technique that your fighters seem to use frequently is the thrust kick to the front of the knee joint. Many people see this is an unsportsmanlike and potentially dangerous kick - including Frank Shamrock and Pat Miletich who believed it to be illegal when Adlan Amagov used it to stop Keith Berry.
Striking the front of the knee is a large part of the games of Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Brandon Vera and Carlos Condit - how would you respond to the question of whether this kick is in poor sportsmanship given how many athletic careers are cut short by knee injuries?
Wink: I definitely have my fighters throw a front kick to the knee. I see it as a very legit technique and not nearly as dangerous as punching or kicking someone in the head. I believe it is starting to add a new dynamic to the game because fighters have to worry about their base being taken out of their attacks even more than before. I also would rather have dinner in twenty years with a fighter who limps into the restaurant than with the fighter who can't remember his own name, because he never stopped his opponent's striking advances. The knee joint is very strong if people know how to defend that kick properly.
JS: How much of the Jon Jones - Lyoto Machida match was planned? Obviously Jon got caught with a good counter while he was throwing his low kicks - but ultimately that set up the superman punch later in the fight. Was the intention to bait the counter from Lyoto with low kicks?
Wink: Front kicks and any linear kick were definitely a very big part of the Jones and Machida game plan. Round houses were to be used as long as Jon's head came off of the line during, or after the kick. Lyoto caught us when we didn't do that and I had that discussion with Jon in between rounds, ( with codes we use), as well as many times during our warm-up.
Like many fighters, Jon knew what to do, but by over-thinking it he did what he what he was not supposed to. We knew Lyoto wanted to counter us off of our round houses with his excellent timing and explosion. I told Jon between rounds to fake the kick and throw a straight or a hook, when Lyoto countered. We had two options straight or hook because Lyoto's counters used to be linear but they are now both linear and falling off. Jon listened well because he believes and he dropped Lyoto and he easily set up the submission.
Learn the techniques and strategies of effective striking in Jack Slack's BRAND NEW ebook: Elementary Striking.