Most MMA trainers seem content to lurk in the shadows while their fighters get the attention, but few are so adept at slipping the spotlight as striking coach Mike Winkeljohn of Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA.
His partner, Greg Jackson, widely regarded as one the premier cagefighting savants, gets credit for nearly everything that happens in their gym, even as Jackson tirelessly refers to Winkeljohn as his “mentor.”
That’s okay for the lanky, decorated kickboxer. The silent but deadly technician behind many of the UFC’s most exciting finishes is happy to play the glue behind the glitter.
But his carefree days of anonymity appear numbered.
“What’s important to me is guys winning fights,” Winkeljohn told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. “If I’m doing the interviews and all that stuff, I don’t get to spend as much time with the fighters.”
He speaks with a gravelly voice that sometimes breaks down into an extra-low, awestruck “yeah” when particular fighters of his are mentioned. Thanks to a freak accident at the gym a few years back, he has one glass eye, adding irony to his longtime nickname, “Wink.”
His good eye remains focused on the prize—and little else—but Winkeljohn’s cherished seclusion is in serious jeopardy.
Indeed, his agreement to this interview is an acknowledgement as such. With a bout agreement signed for a welterweight title fight between stablemates Carlos Condit and Georges St-Pierre, Winkeljohn knows he’s about to get some airtime.
The fight, at UFC 137 in Las Vegas, will be the maiden voyage of Greg Jackson’s new “protocols,” as he calls them, by which he will handle title fights between teammates that have become an inevitable result of the success of his and Winkeljohn’s gym. Per these protocols, Coach Jackson will recuse himself from either man’s preparations and refer questions of Condit vs. GSP to Winkeljohn.
This scenario could very well repeat in short order, depending on the outcome of the main event at UFC 135 in Denver this weekend, when Jon Jones defends his title against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
Winkeljohn is confident Jones is going to beat Rampage —wherever the fight might go. With this confidence comes the probability that his former student, Rashad Evans, will soon challenge Jones for the light heavyweight title.
“Rashad [Evans] is probably the most dangerous person out there for Jon Jones,” Winkeljohn stated. “Rashad’s got that explosiveness. We saw it with Sean Salmon and with Chuck. I think Rashad has the ability to knock anybody out when he gets his feet underneath him in the right place. He’s a fantastic wrestler too.”
That isn’t to say Winkeljohn thinks Jones wouldn’t be able to handle his former teammate:
“People have seen [Jon] throw long front kicks, they’ve seen him throw roundhouse kicks, they’ve seen him throw long punches, spinning elbows. But the difference now is that Jon’s throwing those strikes with much more intent, much more power," said Winkeljohn. "Before they were distractions for his takedowns, now they’re just hurting everybody. He’s hurting everybody in the gym whenever he wants to.”
Should the Evans matchup be next for Jones, it would be the second time Coach Jackson bowed out of preparation for a teammate vs. teammate title scrap. Winkeljohn doesn’t share his partner’s need to stay neutral in these situations, though he understands Jackson’s point of view:
“It’s like your two sons fighting each other, what do you do? Greg cares about both guys, so he made the right move pulling out.”
But in the case of Condit vs. GSP, it turns out that Winkeljohn hasn’t done much work with GSP, which eliminates the potentially icky feeling of using intimate knowledge of the fighter against him. Winkeljohn has learned most of what he knows about GSP from tape and says they’re studying his habits closely.
Condit is a local boy, born and raised in Albuquerque, and Winkeljohn says it’s been exciting watching the city rally behind him. Condit’s last three fights have been KO/TKO victories, and the final two finishes, says Winkeljohn—a left hook against Hardy and a flying knee against Dong Hyun Kim—were strikes and combinations they had specifically trained for.
Carlos Condit is disciplined and studious in the gym, according to Winkeljohn, and seems to possess that coveted “X-factor.”
"Carlos is just a fighter. He’ll just do it," Winkeljohn said. "He’s that guy who digs deep and just does it. He believes in himself and that’s going to play out. If Georges plays that safe game, which I think he might a little bit, he’s going to find himself in a bad situation against Carlos.
"Don’t get me wrong, Georges is the best out there. And you know, we’ll have to defend the takedown all day long —and we will get taken down. But Carlos is going to get back up. Carlos is going to try to hurt Georges every chance he gets.
Coach Winkeljohn may not cherish the spotlight, but he better get used to it—especially if his fighters keep striking their way to highlight-reel finishes, and his partner continues staying away from high-profile bouts between the embarrassment of top-tier talent and riches at Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA.