This is number sixty-nine in Jack Brown’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re pleased to feature MMA striking coach, Mike Winkeljohn. Coach Wink has had a very successful coaching partnership with Greg Jackson for their fight team out in Albuquerque for many years now. They’ve coached champions together like Rashad Evans, Jon Jones, and Carlos Condit. Coach Wink may be the lesser known coach of the two, but he says that he is fine with being the “Bad Cop.” Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Mike Winkeljohn: It was a street-fight. A kid threw a spinning back-kick at me and it actually took away a lot of my breath. It was one of those tough situations where I didn't know what that was in high school. I won the fight out of sheer luck, but that being said, that was part of the reason for my looking up, after I graduated from high school, a martial arts school. I was really lucky that I walked into Bill Packer's school. At that time he had some of the best kickboxers in the world. That was, again, pure chance.
JB: You were a champion kickboxer and Muay Thai fighter. What were the highlights of your fighting career?
MW: I beat Coban. He was kind of a Thai legend and it was a big fight for me because everybody had feared what he could do power-wise. He was just a little fireplug, one of those guys who was hurting people's legs when he was kicking them. One of the exciting things about it was, in my mind, I beat him in the leg-kicks war, and won the fight. It might not mean a lot to a lot of people. I didn't knock him out, but I easily won the decision. That was probably one of my best days.
JB: How did you eventually come to the decision to end your fighting career, and what kind of MMA fighter do you think you would have made if you were just starting out now?
MW: At the end of my career I had already had a couple of the world titles from the IFK and the World Muay Thai Organization. I was doing something called Draka which was a combination of takedowns along with Muay Thai fighting. So I started wrestling quite a bit. I was getting up in years in the fight world, and for a long time I was always waiting to make money. It was always, "This next fight is going to make you money," you know? I actually had a trilogy with some kid out of Russia. I had won one and he had won one, and I was fighting him for the third fight. It was one of those things where he was punching me in the face, and I could see the punches coming, and I didn't do anything about it. He actually blew my eye open in that one pretty good. I kicked him in the head, but when I knew that my reactions were no longer there, I figured, "It's best to leave now," and not be like others that I'd seen that would take too many punches.
When I fought, I was more of a tough guy. I know, as a coach, I've become the guy that says, "Hit and don't get hit." It's more about strategy, but I was never that kind of fighter. If I was that kind of fighter in MMA, I think that I would have been a good B-level fighter, but never an A-level fighter because I didn't have the mindset to listen to coaches. I don't think I would have ever been an A-level fighter. I don't think I was ever as fantastic an athlete as some of the other guys. I think I had a good work ethic and I was in great shape, but that being said, I don't think I had the willingness. I was too stubborn to listen to the coaches to be an A-level fighter.
JB: I believe that you first met your current coaching partner, Greg Jackson, in the early 1990s. How did you two first meet and what enabled you to establish such a successful partnership?
MW: Because I started doing Draka, and the UFC was kind of starting back in those days, I started wrestling quite a bit. I wrestled with a buddy of mine, Chris Luttrell, who was an All-American wrestler that I had known from high school. Actually, Chris, finally, after I had shown him his first armbar, got into it quite a bit. He introduced me to Greg, and Greg and I just started hanging out numerous times a week, working with each other on our different games. The years went by and Greg became a big name in the grappling world. He was constantly taking people to grappling events. I always had my kickboxing school, and I started teaching the ground-fighting in my school as well, but my base was always the stand-up. We put our heads together, and just started training fighters, and that's where we're at today.
JB: Jackson's/Winkeljohn's MMA has had, and continues to have, some of the best fighters in MMA on its roster. Who are some of the fighters that you really connected with in the early days of the team?
MW: Keith Jardine and Joey Villasenor were two of the guys in the early days that I got pretty close with. Then Rashad Evans came along, and Rashad and I were pretty close and we're still close to this day. That was the early days. Nate Marquardt was from the outside. I didn't travel like Greg Jackson did so I didn't really build that rapport with him. But in the early days it was really Joey Villasenor, Nate Marquardt, Rashad Evans, and Keith Jardine. Those guys, at the beginning, really built our team along with Diego Sanchez.
JB: You have been in the corner of several champions. What fights stand out as the most satisfying from your perspective as a coach?
MW: It's those fights where you've worked on a specific game-plan, specific techniques for certain situations, and they unfold just the way that you planned it. Those are the ones where after the fight, the fighter looks at you and gives you that nod because we know that was what we did repetition after repetition after repetition and that's how it played out.
Rashad Evans knocking out Chuck Liddell with his overhand was huge for me. That was just one of those situations. I've told the story before, and people have heard it. We talked about it so much that we could take Chuck out of his game-plan of when to counterpunch and come to us. We could time his stepping with proper footwork. We knew what he was going to do, and how he was going to want to counter, so that we could beat him with an overhand. So we threw thousands and thousands of overhands over and over and over in that situation. It was one of those things that was just surreal because we had talked about it the night before when Rashad was nervous about his fight. I told him, "Afterwards, what's going to suck, Rashad, is that you're going to do these things, and then after the fight, they're not going to let me into the cage to congratulate you because Chuck's going to be out cold." And it happened that way. They kept the cage door shut until Chuck woke up. It was just one of those things that played out. I have had a lot of them where I've been blessed that the guys have believed. That's the biggest thing. I'm just a lucky guy that has a lot of great fighters.
JB: As your team has expanded over the years, fighters have come and gone and sometimes returned. How difficult is it managing that aspect of a fight team, deciding who is going to be part of the team and who will train with each other?
MW: We take on a lot. There's no doubt. Greg has got the biggest heart of anybody out there. If anybody asks for help, Greg Jackson wants to help them. Of course, I'm willing to help too. But like I said, Greg's just got this big heart. He'll let anybody in for whatever. It's easier to accept them. It's harder to turn them down. After they've kind of burnt their bridges here, that's the tough part. Then it's, "You know what, it's best not, because you just didn't work out with the guys that are here." And the guys here kind of solve a lot of problems for us because if you're not welcome because you're a jerk or you're real selfish and not willing to help others, others won't help you and you'll be their target a little bit in practice. With that uncomfortable feeling, along with that it hurts, it makes it so they have a tendency to leave. Honestly, it manages itself because of the environment that we have around the gym.
JB: What are the issues in the sport of MMA that you are most concerned with at the moment?
MW: I don't see anything bad happening. I see the sport growing. I'm excited about what's going on with it. I think the future is really, really bright for the sport. We're all lucky to just have jobs at this point. Fighters just need to have something to do when they're done fighting. First off, who makes it into the UFC, for starters, and those that make it, what are they going to do when their career is over? I see kids, just like any pro athlete, they're going through their money, the little bit they make. And they don't have anything to fall back on afterwards. That's always one of my worries as well as when we have somebody that's champion, all of a sudden everybody in the world wants to come up to help that individual. They try to coach them, try to change them, try to give them advice. It's overdone and not needed, and after the kid loses, they're gone. That's kind of a norm that we see quite often. All they do is they get in a kid's head and tell him that he's the "greatest," and that helps to produce somebody that's going to fail down the road.
JB: Is that kind of like when Steven Seagal wanted to go into Jon Jones’ locker room?
MW: I didn't even know that was happening when Jon told him, "No, that just wouldn't be the right place for you because my coaches are my coaches. I don't need any more advice." I'm not sure of the exact wording of it. You know, that makes sense. Even if he had great advice, it's too late for it anyway.
JB: Who are some of the fighters on your team that you are working with most closely right now, and who are some of the ones that you think are going to surprise us with their potential?
MW: Oh gosh. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. There are a lot of them. We've got Travis Browne, Jon Jones, Clay Guida, Carlos Condit. There's no one that I don't work closely with, that I haven't tried to build a rapport with. My rapport is not the same as everybody else's because I'm Coach Wink. I'm kind of known around here as being the "Bad Cop." "Do this and you'll win the fight. Don't do this. Don't do that." I'm not there for the fluff and stuff. So I've taken myself out of being their friend. We're friends of course, but not being their best friend. I'm just being their coach so I don't hang out with the guys. But I care and they care if that makes sense.
I think John Dodson's right there. Here's a kid that's not only knocking people out at 125lbs, but he's so charismatic, so energetic. I think the world is his with the right opportunities and if things fall into place for him. He's huge. Rustam Khabilov, the kid out of Dagestan that fights for us, that's known for his great supplexes, etc., that kid has got potential. His work ethic is fantastic. I like our Chechen, Adlan Amagov. There are a lot of guys that are coming up that people don't even know about. We've got some guys that are underneath them. We have a kid, Landon Vannata, that's waiting to be signed, but I think he's a future champ that no one knows about yet. And I got another kid, Clint Roberts, that's the same way. I got some guys that are coming. It's just a matter of keeping them injury-free and making the right decisions.
JB: Last question, Coach, and thanks for taking the time to do this. You've accomplished a lot already, but what plans or goals do you have for the future?
MW: I can't do this forever, being hands-on with the guys. I'm getting old and my arms are falling off from holding mitts for guys. I think as I've gotten older, I've started to be smarter about helping out with the game-plans and those types of things. I think what I want to be known for is implementing the long MMA game and kind of being known for the "Hit and not get hit" fighting style. That does not mean backing up, but being in the right place at the right time with the proper footwork to knock people out or obtain your takedowns. So my goal is to be known for something like that and for my fighters to win using a lot of the strategies that I've helped implement.
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