Q&A with MMA coach Mike Winkeljohn; other MMA notes
MMA coach Mike Winkeljohn works with Greg Jackson; they run best camp around
Winkeljohn believes the key to victory is being in the right place at the right time
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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?
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