By John Fullilove, jacksons.tv
jacksons.tv: How did you become involved in Martial Arts?
Mike Winkeljohn: I started in high school. I got in for all the wrong reasons. I just wanted to learn how to fight better. I thought I was a tough guy but I had been beaten in a fight and thought I had to learn how to fight better. So, I got into it for all the wrong reasons and then I learned that tough guys don’t really have to act that
way. I walked into Mr. Bill Packer’s School and I was very lucky. He was the best kickboxing trainer in North America at the time. I walked in and saw these guys just beating the crap out of each other and said, “Wow, I want to do that”. That was the beginning. Four months later I had my first amateur fight and turned pro about a year after that.
jacksons.tv: Can you describe how you developed as a fighter with Mr. Packer?
Mike Winkeljohn: Mr. Packer was my mentor. He was constantly telling me to stay out of trouble and that type of thing and to grow up. I was going to college and was a young kid who thought he knew everything. He was able to slap me around and did so much for me, other than my parents, he did the most for me. He was the king of the mental game. For him it was all about being tough. He could talk you into anything and turn you into that guy. He was just mentally tough, that gentleman.
jacksons.tv: Can you describe developing from an amateur to fighting for world titles under Mr. Packer?
Mike Winkeljohn: When I started I thought if I could get in the ring how neat that would be. Like most fighters it became about being in better shape and being tough. If you are in shape and are tough; it will take you pretty far. I started fighting more talented guys and learned you have to learn more skills and listen to your coaches if you want to succeed. Funny, looking back now I realize how much more I should have listened to my coaches now that I’m coach. Over a year I had only four amateur fights and the opportunity came to turn pro so I took it. The thing about kickboxing and Muay Thai in the United States back then was that there were not a lot of fights. If you wanted to go Pro, the only opportunity, unless you had a promoter that was local so you could sell tickets, was to go to someone else’s hometown and fight their bad boy. Like I said, Mr. Packer could talk you into anything. He said, “Beat this guy”. You are fighting out of your weight division, fighting guys with some talent, but he made me rise to the occasion. It took off from there. I really enjoyed it. I took some time off. I had 17 fights in a row that I trained for that fell through. I didn’t have contracts but it was more like this guy wants a fight and I started training hard. Then, the fight wouldn’t happen. That was disappointing at that time. I then opened up my own martial arts school. Mr. Packer required that if you kickboxed you also had to do the traditional karate which was Kenpo. I loved the fighting part but actually the Kenpo did a lot for me as a person. Kenpo opened up my eyes to a lot of things which later on helped a lot with the transition to MMA. I kept fighting and won my first World Title in 1992. I knocked out a guy from Ireland and won the ISKA World Title – ISKA was the biggest sanctioning body at the time. ISKA was on T.V. all the time. At that time ISKA lost their T.V. contract so there were not any televised fights just as I was starting my career – that was a bummer. I continued and won a couple of World Muay Thai Titles. I was probably best known for beating Cobon. He was a legend from Thailand. He was fighting in America and destroying everybody. Everyone thought I had no chance and I beat him up. That was a good thing. After that I transitioned into Draka. It was out of Russia. That was toward the end of my career. It was kind of like shootboxing where takedowns were allowed with kickboxing. I had 3 World Title fights in Draka. I had a draw in the first fight. I won the second and lost the third. It was funny because I was doing better with the throws and takedowns than with the kickboxing. It was weird how that happened. That was about the time I started working out with Greg and he was helping me with the takedowns and takedown defense. Greg and I have been working together since around 1993. I started wrestling with him all the time and worked with him on kickboxing. This thing just took off.
jacksons.tv: Where you also coaching at the same time your were fighting?
Mike Winkeljohn: I was actually coaching at the same time because I had my own school. I had a group of guys who would come in and spar and would spar with me. It was tough. I didn’t do them the justice they deserved sometimes. We had a good group of guys that were very talented amateurs. I had one my guys turn pro. I was coaching those guys at the time but when they got to a higher level I ended up trying to send them down to Mr. Packer. I did that because I knew I couldn’t put the time into them because of traveling oversees all of the time. I was trying to have my own career, my own family, finishing up school for my degree and running my own business. It was rough. I have always been coaching guys. When I stopped fighting I started analyzing things at a totally different level. When I fought it was sound the charge and go. I thought I am going to train harder than anyone. No way am I going to run out of gas. I’m going to outgas this guy and break his heart even if I’m not as skilled as him. I always had that thought. I was getting older and started to coach and said, “Wow, why don’t we really start working on technique, start working on angles.” Angles and footwork has become a big thing for my fighters as I started thinking about things and how things work.
jacksons.tv: What made you think about angles and footwork?
Mike Winkeljohn: For the guys I was coaching I started thinking about what we have to do in order to win this fight. What is missing? Going back and seeing what we should have done. I should have done this or that when I was fighting. At that time, Mr. Packer was still around; he has passed away since, he would say, “Mike, I saw one of your fighters and their hitting their angles or their slipping these punches and working on their footwork. You should have done that when you were fighting. It’s funny, I had taught you to do that, tried to get you to do that but you didn’t do much of that.” I told him, “I’m sorry sir. I was that stubborn kid that thought he knew everything.”
jacksons.tv: What else besides techniques did you think you could bring to coaching a fighter?
Mike Winkeljohn: Being there. Having been in there helps you see things differently. You know what is going through a fighter’s mind. The different fears – everyone has them. The worries about not performing are much worse than actually getting hit. The fear of loosing is much worse than getting hurt. Almost everyone I know is ok with getting hurt as long as they win the fight. As a coach it was easy for me to understand that because I have been in that situation. It’s just you and that other guy; it’s not a team sport in that sense. I think that understanding that helps quite a bit. My fighting was kicking and punching. Toward the end I started doing a lot of boxing. That also helped me in understanding other things as well. A coach that hasn’t been in there may think it’s easy but it’s not always that easy. I’ve had fighters as well as myself when you are in there fighting and you get asked a question and wouldn’t have the answer to the simplest question because you are so into the fight.
jacksons.tv: How did you meet Coach Jackson and evolve to participate in MMA as a coach?
Mike Winkeljohn: In 1993 the UFC had recently started. We were watching it and I was doing my Draka (Kickboxing with takedowns and throws) and thought the UFC was pretty neat. I thought I better learn how to wrestle better. I knew I had a hole there other than being tough and being able to scramble. I saw a buddy of mind from college and said, “Hey Curtis, you want to start wrestling because I need somebody to work with me. I will work with you on the stand up stuff.” He told me, “Not me Mike, I’m just too old for that but my little brother will.” His little brother was a 2X All-American Wrestler in college. His name was Chris Luttrell. Chris and I got together. He thumped me for a while and I showed him some stand up. The next thing I know he got me going down to college (wrestling) practices. For a whole year I was going to the college practices. I went to wrestling camps. The rest of the wrestlers were like “who is the old guy here with us?” It was pretty neat because at that time I was actually gassing some of them. The program had fallen since Chris had been there. They were no longer considered a top level college wrestling program. It helped me because I was actually gassing some of these guys out. It gave me a little bit of confidence. Greg and Chris got together. They put their heads together. Chris brought the wrestling and Greg the Jiu-Jitsu and took it to a whole new level. Chris Luttrell is one guy who doesn’t get enough credit for that. He really helped this thing take off and got it going.
jacksons.tv: You mentioned earlier about going into boxing later in your career – Is that how you got into boxing as a coach?
Mike Winkeljohn: I did have some guys who came to me. I will work with people individually quite a bit. I was willing to do the one on one. I was getting some boxers who were dong pretty good. Holly Holm just happened to be in an aerobics class in my school. She wanted to fight. She comes to me at 17 and wants to fight. She had a kickboxing match, another one and then won a national title as an amateur. No boxing at all. Now she is done with kickboxing because there is no where to go except to turn pro as a boxer. Her very first boxing match was a professional one. That was it. It kind of took of from there. Holly is jus a fantastic student and she was always an athlete. Out of all the fighters, Holly, with the exception of a few times when Rashad and Keith have been on, Holly is the one who always listens. In the middle of a round I can change the game plan and she will do it. It’s just one of those situations where we are kind of tied together in that way because we have been together so long.
jacksons.tv: You mentioned earlier that Kenpo has helped in MMA – can you elaborate on that?
Mike Winkeljohn: The Kenpo had a lot of locks, a lot of arm bar type techniques and so much of it was from stand up. So much was done through our katas in the air. So much of it I did when I was younger and I didn’t understand how to do it. Working with Greg and the other guys with the Jiu-Jitsu, I said, “Man, I was suppose to know these stuff and know I’m doing the application of it.” It gave me understanding of my body and an understanding of how things work. How to fit things in, that was neat, just to help me out as far as ground fighting goes. But as far as the coaching part – it helped me because Kenpo is an open hand art form for strikes and it helped me in understanding how to strike from inside, how to strike when someone is trying to grab you. It has helped a lot with our transition striking because it just is not kickboxing, boxing, Muay Thai and then you add wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu. There is that little in between place that there are strikes involved. Someone is grabbing your wrist; you break off the wrist and open the face. Everyone is doing that but early on in the early days you would be surprised that a lot people didn’t know those little things that you could see being developed in the sport.
jacksons.tv: Is your approach to coaching the same regardless if it’s boxing, kickboxing or MMA?
Mike Winkeljohn: It’s different. They are definitely different sports. Boxing is fought at a different range. Kickboxing can be fought at close range or long range. MMA is definitely a different range situation. The angles change. You have to close the gap before you can hit those angles. You have to set more things up. There are more level changes. It’s definitely different. I think footwork is actually more important in MMA than it is even in boxing.
jacksons.tv: Kenpo has very quick footwork in there katas. Do you use any of that in MMA training?
Mike Winkeljohn: Oh yeah. Without even thinking about it – something like back pedaling. We do that all the time. We have guys back away and cut an angle that has to do with things we called “cat stances” in Kenpo. We have different stances that we go through and people say what is that for? But it’s a quick way to change your feet and change an angle. For example, you can use quick footwork when you are tight and close to someone or someone is attacking you. We use that all the time. In fact, people think Rashad Evans knocking out Chuck Liddell was all about the overhand right – it was and it wasn’t. We did work the overhand right for that fight specifically but it was all about being in the right place at the right time. It was about knowing where Chuck’s feet were at so he couldn’t be properly planted to throw his first and second punch at the right time.
jacksons.tv: Is the mental approach to boxing, kickboxing and MMA the same?
Mike Winkeljohn: The mental part is pretty much all the same. The fights are important to them (the fighters). They have to be tough and ready for it. I can’t say it’s a lot different. It’s all encompassing no matter what. There are more things to worry about in MMA and that’s why boxers are so much better with their hands because there are fewer things to perfect. Mentally it’s pretty much the same.
jacksons.tv: Do you have a preference or do you enjoy getting fighters ready for either boxing, kickboxing or MMA?
Mike Winkeljohn: It’s equal. I’ve grown to love the fighters. What’s important is that they win. I really don’t care about all the other stuff just as long as we win the fight. When it’s a boxing match, I’m into the boxing match. When it’s MMA, I love it being MMA. I’m the stand up coach but I enjoy it all.
jacksons.tv: How much better are the conditioning programs now for the fighters?
Mike Winkeljohn: They are better now. The technology has change. The old school boxers would run really far, really slow, jump rope forever, jumping rope is not bad. Now you are seeing much explosive exercises, the plyometrics, the box jumps - that type of thing. Change the footwork, quick, quick. The goal is trying to get all the explosiveness and the quick twitch actions going. But at the same time you have to have the endurance to last the distance. It’s a touchy thing. The technology people are starting to figure it out. They are getting much better at it. There are some tremendous trainers that help us out as well- Chris Luttrell being one of them.
jacksons.tv: Where do you see MMA evolving?
Mike Winkeljohn: I think as far as I’m concerned it’s going to be in those transitions. I think there is going be improvement, like we talked before, striking in transitions. I think there’s lots of room for improvement there. As far as I’m concerned that is what I’m going to be working on to get that better. I think everyone thinks MMA guys’ strikes should get better or their wrestling should get better but what people have to realize or understand is that there is so much to learn. It’s very hard to perfect it. What’s makes it neat is that no matter what, everybody is going to have their base discipline or their favorite thing they put more time and effort into. They say it takes 10,000 hours to perfect something. How many hours are in a lifetime? You can’t perfect everything.
jacksons.tv: Anything else you would like to add or comment on?
Mike Winkeljohn: Gosh, I lived the dream. Even though I lost my eye in the gym and I’m going to get it back. I live the dream working with these guys. The economy where it’s at, MMA is taking off; just like in the depression boxing did well. I love it. I enjoy it. I’m just glad they let me be around.