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.
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.
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
"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.