Tim Marchman: Q&A with MMA coach Mike Winkeljohn; other MMA notes - Sports Illustrated

Q&A with MMA coach Mike Winkeljohn; other MMA notes

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Ask Greg Jackson about his partner and friend Mike Winkeljohn, and the man gets effusive.

"The guy is a genius, he's amazing. Most of the big knockouts in our camp have come directly through Mike Winkeljohn's game plans," Jackson told me recently. "That guy is so smart, he sees so many things that I miss. I'm just lucky to be his friend, and I consider him my mentor."

As a fight fan, you likely know about Jackson, the eccentric theorist who has earned a deserved reputation as one of the best coaches in the sport for his work with, among others, Georges St-Pierre, Rashad Evans, Jon Jones, Nate Marquardt and Shane Carwin. You may not know that his team is actually called Team Jackson-Winkeljohn, or that the better known of the two men who run arguably the best camp in the game right now gives as much credit to Winkeljohn as he takes for himself.

I recently spoke to Winkeljohn by phone about the value of being in the right place at the right time, how striking is like playing with swords and how Jon Jones will conquer the world, among other topics. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

SI.com: Tell me a bit about yourself, and your background in martial arts.

Mike Winkeljohn: I fought professionally for 17 years, kickboxing and Muay Thai. I had the ISKA world title in kickboxing, and then I had two world Muay Thai titles. That's back in the day, that's old times. Now I'm just really enjoying working with the fighters. We've got a good group of guys. Greg flies in early, does the interviews and all that. He gets out to the camps. I don't do that, I kind of stay at home and hold the fort down, so I don't get the publicity, but that's OK. I like it that way.

SI.com: Why do you like it that way?

Winkeljohn: It's time consuming. I'm a family guy. I like spending time with my wife and kids. God, I love Greg Jackson. He's made a lot of sacrifices getting out and doing what he's doing, and it's real important, because by getting out he's brought so many great talents into our camp, which gives me the opportunity to work with them. So I'm real happy about that.

SI.com: Walk me through a typical day for you.

Winkeljohn: We have kickboxing classes in the mornings that I run. It's a heavyweight class, anybody over 170 pounds on up for a good hour, and then we have another one right after that where the lightweights come in, 155 and down. Usually quite packed. After that, usually I run privates for the guys, and that's where I think I might be a little different from a lot of coaches. I will run, by evening time, seven or eight, sometimes 10 privates with different fighters, so they all get that one-on-one, like half an hour at a time. I stack these guys, and just work with them. I try to be their opponent and there's a lot of repetition. Working those basics, working footwork, whatever it is that they need to work on for their fight, or just for new tools for their toolbox.

SI.com: If you're drilling a guy for half an hour, what do you typically run through with him?

Winkeljohn: I get them warmed up, hit their basics and then we start moving. If they're fighting a guy who's going to be constantly hunting them down, we'll do a lot of pad work, throwing those punches the opponent will throw at them, make them block and counter, whatever it might be. If they're trying to shoot on a guy, I'm that guy throwing punches at them and having them use their punches to set up their takedowns. So I try to mimic their opponent as much as possible, working with the footwork and a tremendous amount of mitt work. I think bag work is fantastic, but a bag just hangs there. In real life, in MMA especially, distancing is so huge, compared to boxing that that's a main part of the game that needs to be worked on.

SI.com: Is that a big thing, just creating the distance, and getting them used to that space?

Winkeljohn: Oh yeah, getting them used to the space and the potential that their opponent has, and the potential that they have. At certain angles, at certain spaces, your opponent can only do so many things well, so you want to be able to defend against those things. But you also want to be able to take advantage of them when they do attack with those things, and counter, and be in the right position for your offense at the right time. So it's kind of like a big game of chess ... The more we do it, the more it becomes an unconscious confidence, because we try to do it with so much repetition. It's real important to be in the right place at the right time in this game.

SI.com: What do you see in an athlete that makes you think he'll be able to understand that and work on that level?

Winkeljohn: Definitely intelligence level. When athletes come to us, usually they're already naturally talented, with God-given gifts. They're already more in the upper echelon as far as talent goes, so we already have that to work with. If I've got a guy that already has the athletic ability and the heart, they've just got to sit down and be willing to listen. And if they're willing to listen, there's no limit to what they can do.

With our team it's so nice, because there's not much in the way of ego around here. Everybody understands that they have to help each other to get better, and that's kind of incorporated in what we do, that interdependency between themselves and others. You can't do it by yourself. You can't come in and hit a bag and expect to defend takedowns. You have to have somebody shooting on you. You have to have somebody throwing punches at you to get better at this, and you can't do that all by yourself. So you have to be here when those other guys are doing training camps and help them get better at what they're doing. It's working out, you know. Our fighters are doing very well, and I'm quite happy with our progress.

SI.com: From everything I understand you're pretty good at game planning. I'm curious about what goes into that.

Winkeljohn: The first thing is, what I want to do or what Greg wants to do in a fight doesn't matter. We've got to look at our athlete's abilities, what he's capable of pulling off in a confident manner. Some people, you look at it and say, 'Well, just do this, and you'll beat the guy.' It doesn't do any good to tell our fighter to do a different technique if our fighter's not capable of doing it, or if he's not confident to do that move. So first off, it's knowing our fighter well, and then studying the other fighter. So we're lucky that in the world of the Internet or with people who have fought in UFC before, we actually have the ability to study people. That makes it nice because it's not the unknown, and we get the ability to game plan against a guy's strengths and weaknesses, so it kind of works out.

SI.com: What kind of tendencies do you look for when you're breaking down tape?

Winkeljohn: Greg takes care of most of the groundwork, and we throw ideas around depending on what we see. Of course I get the standup, and the transitions between. Footwork, angles. Is the guy tall? Is he short? How explosive is he? What is he capable of? What kind of guy is he? Is he quick-twitch, or is he more of an endurance athlete? Does he have knockout power? Is he going to gas? It goes on and on. We look at the guy's strengths, and avoid those things. Sometimes bait him into something where he tries to use something but we have a counter for it. And we definitely look at a guy's weaknesses. But my big thing is with footwork, and being in the right place at the right time.

SI.com: Is footwork the key to striking?

Winkeljohn: I think in MMA, it's being in the right place. Basically, everybody punches hard. Not everybody's Mike Tyson, but everybody punches hard enough that with little gloves, you can get hurt. You can't survive a lot of punches with little gloves, so it's a matter of just not being there when those punches come. You know, not getting hit by them. It's really, really important to avoid those punches, and make the ones that you throw count. You can't throw a flurry of 10, 15 punches like you can in boxing -- I guess I'm overdoing it, five punches --because now you're standing tall, the guy's getting underneath you. He's going to kick your legs, he's going to shoot and pick you up on a double, or whatever the case is. So it's different, and it becomes more important to hit the guy with a few shots and not get hit with the few your opponent throws. It's almost like playing with swords. The first guy who gets hit hard loses.

SI.com: How do you get in position to throw those punches that count, or those kicks that count?

Winkeljohn: Fake, feint, stall a guy out, find out where he's going to go. But watch your tendencies. If you're throwing feints and fakes and you notice a guy has a tendency to duck a certain way, lift a certain way, parry a certain way, then you fake it and hit that space where you know he's going to be.

SI.com: One thing that has really struck me about guys who come out of Jackson's is that they work in off-kilter rhythms. How do you work with rhythm when you're in there with a guy and drilling him?

Winkeljohn: I want my guys to flow, and break the other guy's rhythm. That gets kind of deep. People get to where they start bouncing their footwork. Sometimes, you can get the fighter that you're fighting to start bouncing with you. It makes it easy for you to change that rhythm and attack. Or, when he changes that rhythm, that's when you know he's going to attack. So it's one of those things where, again, the intelligence to see things unfold before they unfold pays off. There are so many things going on out there and that's why I'm big into mitt work. I try to be their opponent, watch where their footwork is. If they're known to go side-to-side right before they attack you, start going forward and back a little bit before the rhythm picks up. We try to take advantage of the situation.

SI.com: When you have a guy like Jon Jones, who's capable of doing so many unconventional things, how do you strike a balance between keeping him creative and yet focusing on the basics?

Winkeljohn: That's a tough nut right there, there's no doubt. Jon is an anomaly, he's capable of so much. I work with him a good four, five days a week. I don't want to take away his creativity, so I'm all about coming up with the crazy striking, and Jon's easy because he's such a fantastic wrestler. But also, when he does strike, I want them to be more effective strikes. Everybody would be surprised at how little technique some of these guys have in boxing, or some of the boxers have in wrestling, and there's not enough time in anybody's life to perfect all of it. So it's one of those things. With Jon, it's basically let him be creative, let him have fun, but I want to increase his power for when he does let those creative shots go. With Jon he's so creative that he's throwing things at people, and sometimes those things don't hit. We've got to find out which way a guy's going to duck, going to move, going to shoot, so Jon's second strike is going to catch him.

SI.com: So some of these crazy things that we see are things that have been set up and you're coming up with various counters to them so that he knows positions.

Winkeljohn: Yes. A lot of them. His spinning elbow, he fakes that. Like when he's dropping down to grab a leg, pick a leg with something like an ankle pick, then he comes with his elbow -- that's all Jon Jones. Now that people have seen Jon do that, now we can fake that and go somewhere else. So Jon's very creative, he comes up with a lot of things himself, but now that people are starting to scout him and see it, we have to put ourselves in their eyes and their mind and what they're thinking about their counter. So it gets pretty deep sometimes. Sometimes it just comes down to the fact that we're lucky. Jon Jones is a great athlete.

SI.com: Is it difficult for you to set some of these things up because the opponents aren't thinking as deeply into the fight as you are?

Winkeljohn: No, usually we can look at the opponents camp and get an idea of where they're coming from. How he's fought before in the past, if they just throw, if they just react or if they actually sit down and work a game plan. So usually you can tell by their past performances if they're deep into thought on what they're doing, whether it be ground or stand up, or if they're just going off reaction and natural ability. I like it when people aren't that deep, because it makes it easy for us to game plan -- "Hey, you know what, stay away from this, this and this and we own the guy." Maybe that's too simplified, but it's worked out well for us.

SI.com: What camps out there are doing things you're impressed by?

Winkeljohn: Gosh. The guys coming out of Couture's camp are good. A.K.A. is looking great; they've got a good group of guys. Black House. The Brazilian fighters are doing so well. So quite a few camps are out there. It's not always just the camp, because guys jump camps, too, so you have to kind of look and see if the fighters are willing to listen to what they're being told.

SI.com: Out of the guys you've worked with, who has the best capacity for seeing a fight structurally?

Winkeljohn: I'll tell you who is becoming really high level with that -- Jon Jones. He studies, he sits down, he looks at the fights, he looks at his fighter. Jon is definitely becoming one of the highest intellects we have around here, as far as breaking it down and listening. He's willing to, if positive energy is out there, listen to what we have to say. And he's a true believer because he understands if things are logical, they will work. He's at that age where he believes the sky's the limit, and we believe that for him.

SI.com: How good do you think he can be?

Winkeljohn: He's going to go through the light heavyweight division first, and then I can definitely see him going to the heavyweight division and dominating there as well. I think he's going to be that guy that's going to be the future of the UFC.

SI.com: What do you think it's going to do once he puts on the weight? How is that going to affect his game?

Winkeljohn: You know, I think he's still growing. He's just 23. I don't think it's going to affect him at all. In a weird way, the heavyweights might be easier for him because he still has the length -- these guys are not getting a lot taller -- and he's got the mobility, and it will be his speed that outdoes everybody in the heavyweight division. I don't see him ever growing into a 250-pound heavyweight. I see him using his speed and being a tall, leaner heavyweight out there moving around the guys. So I'm definitely up on Jon Jones. If you could buy stock in him I would. And that's one of the reasons I work with him, I guess.

SI.com: How long a time do you think it's going to be before he's ready to go up to heavyweight?

Winkeljohn: Oh, you know what, that would be down the road. I haven't even discussed it much with Jon. We've got to get through light heavyweight first. That could be four years down the road. We've got to get the light heavyweight title first, and there's a lot of talent out there. One of the guys I think could be the most talented would be Rashad Evans. You know, these guys are friends. Rashad trains mostly in Denver now, he used to train daily with us, but he's going to be here next week. There's some good talent out there right now in the light heavyweight division.

SI.com: From the outside, it can be difficult for people to understand why guys won't fight guys from their own camps. Can you break that down a little bit for me?

Winkeljohn: With our camp, it's that team concept. These guys are here and -- it's hard to explain. OK, I'm training Rashad Evans and he's getting ready to fight [Michael Bisping]. Keith Jardine had just beaten Chuck Liddell. Anyway, to make a long story short, Keith's working that corner with me for Rashad Evans, and he's yelling out all these instructions for Rashad. What people don't understand is that if Rashad wins this fight, it's going to actually bump Keith down as far as getting his title shot. Keith did it anyway, and that's just the love these guys have for their training partners, especially the ones that have been there from day one, day-to-day, helping each other out. The guys that help you win your fights, you don't want to fight those guys. A tremendous amount of money might change it, but that's something that Greg and I wouldn't be involved in. I can't train one of our fighters to fight one of our other fighters. It's just not going to happen.

SI.com: What gives you the most satisfaction as a coach?

Winkeljohn: It's not about me. It's not about my name being out there, by any means. I truly enjoy the individual relationships I get with the fighters. Like Rashad Evans, the night before he fought Chuck Liddell, he's up in my room, asking me about the game plan one more time.

He's real nervous and I said, "Rashad, just stop. We have worked on throwing this overhand and being in the right place to throw when Chuck does his thing at the right time. What's going to suck is, you're going to knock him out, you're going to hit him so hard to knock him out and they're not going to let me in the cage to celebrate with you until Chuck gets up. And it's going to kind of suck because I can't celebrate with you. That's what's going to happen."

Well, I'll be damned. I don't know if it was luck, whatever it might be, but that happened. That moment actually happened. He hit Chuck hard, the crowd got quiet and you could hear the crickets. He stops, he looks over at me, he looks at Chuck, who's out cold. Those moments, that look, that's what makes it work to me. That's what I remember, that's what I'm there for.

If you're confused by the goings-on in the UFC's lightweight division, where champion Frankie Edgar is set for a rematch with Gray Maynard following their classic New Year's Day draw while nominal No. 1 contender Anthony Pettis is due to fight Clay Guida, you aren't alone. Before he knocked out Evan Dunham in Texas this weekend, I asked Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter Melvin Guillard if he thought a win would get him into serious championship contention, and where he saw the 155-pound scene this year.

"Right now, honestly, as a fighter, speaking from a fighter's standpoint," he said, "I think to make everything fair we should just do a 155 Grand Prix, and the winner of the Grand Prix gets the championship fight. I mean, that's the only way to really settle it, because if not, some of us are going to be waiting even longer. Maybe another year, maybe two years, you know what I mean? Because some fights are happening, like the last lightweight bout, where they ended up having to do a rematch. So when you really look at it, man, the more guys have to rematch or do something of that caliber, or a champion gets hurt, that's just longer that we have to wait for something that we all want so bad."

Who should be entered in the tournament?

"I would say myself, Dunham, Pettis, Ben Henderson and 'Cowboy' [Donald Cerrone]. I would say Clay Guida. Who else is up there? I would say Jim Miller, he's up there. Maybe one or two more people that I can't really think of right now. Just those names I called out alone are some top names that I think would be one hell of a Grand Prix. The only problem with that would be that I would have to make sure that me and Clay don't fall in the same bracket because we're teammates, and the last thing I want to do is fight my teammate."

According to reports out of Japan, Kimbo Slice is due to fulfill his destiny by taking his first bout as a pro wrestler for the Inoki Genome Federation on Feb. 5. That same federation delighted the public by booking the long-awaited first meeting between former UFC heavyweight champions Josh Barnett and Tim Sylvia last September, now available to you in all its predetermined glory through the miracle of YouTube. Given Sylvia's questionable athleticism and general gormlessness he seemed a dubious fit for the squared circle, but according to Barnett such a line has it all wrong.

"I think that Tim has a very good future in professional wrestling," Barnett told me. "He doesn't have the experience, necessarily, but if he did have more time put into it I think he could be quite a good professional wrestler. He's got a good mind for it, and he's very easy to work with. The match came off better than I hoped, and while it's not a four-star match, I think that he did a really good job for it being his first time in the ring out there. I told the IGF that they should try and work with Tim in the future; I actually think there is something there."

By my math, this means that the possibility of a pro wrestling match between Kimbo Slice and Tim Sylvia exists. This is an outstanding thing.

Fight purists have lately praised Strikeforce for organizing a real Grand Prix, featuring, among others, Barnett, Fedor Emelianenko and Alistair Overeem. The promotion has also been the subject of those same purists' aggressive yawns, as this Friday's Showtime card will feature, in addition to title defenses from welterweight champion Nick Diaz and middleweight champion Ronaldo Souza, 48-year-old football legend Herschel Walker's second MMA fight.

This isn't a case where promoter Scott Coker is doing much wrong, though. The Walker bout seems more like a television executive's contrivance than anything else, but the man is clearly sincere in his passion for the sport and his desire to help fighters make more money and earn better treatment. (He's spoken up in favor of unionization, for one thing, more than a lot of other famous fighters can be bothered to do.) Moreover, Strikeforce is using him the right way, putting him on a card with legitimate, high-level fights. The idea is clearly that curious gawkers will tune in to see Walker, and then stay around to see Souza and Diaz. Things may or may not work out that way, but the theory is sound.

UFC, it's worth nothing, is hardly above this sort of thing. There are obvious examples, such as matching punch-drunk boxer James Toney against multiple-time heavyweight champion Randy Couture in a bout that probably shouldn't have been sanctioned last year, or having Tito Ortiz fight an utterly shot Ken Shamrock twice in 2006. There are slightly less obvious examples, such as building Mauricio "Shogun" Rua toward a light heavyweight title fight by matching him against Mark Coleman and Chuck Liddell, both beyond washed up at the time when he fought them in 2009.

What all of these fights have in common is that they were successful on their own terms and essentially subsidized more interesting and competitive MMA. This is just how combat sports work, and if it takes football players or pro wrestlers to get Nick Diaz fights on the air, so it goes.