Mike Winkeljohn Talks to the Science of 8 Limbs
By Mike LNg
Michael Winkeljohn was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico and graduated from the University of New Mexico with a business degree. Winkeljohn began kickboxing in 1980 and his twenty plus year career in the sport has cemented him as both a legendary fighter and unparalleled coach.
Winkeljohn’s fighting style earned him a reputation of extreme toughness and conditioning that led him to three world titles, including an ISKA championship in 1992 and two Muay Thai championships in 1993. He retired with a kickboxing record of 25-7-3 and a boxing record of 2-0, which includes a notable win over legendary Muay Thai World Champion, Coban Lookchaoemaesaithong. I caught up with Mike Winkeljohn at the famous Jackson and Winkeljohn’s gym in Albuquerque, NM. I have to extend much thanks to Mike Winkeljohn for generously extending his time while busy training the many fighters that populate Jackson and Winkeljohn’s gym.
Q: The first and most obvious question is how did you start in kickboxing and combat sports?
A: I honestly started off with sort of the wrong motives. I wanted to fight better in any encounter I may have with someone. I started off at Bill Packer’s and I learned both classical martial arts (Kempo) and kickboxing at the same time beginning at the age of 18. There I had the opportunity to train with John Moncayo who was a middleweight world champion and Mike King, a heavyweight champion.
The classical martial arts training taught me a lot about kinesiology and movement in general. Especially in regards to movement and transitions in the fights which I still feel make all the difference in fighting. I had a relatively short amateur career with only 4 fights before switching to professional.
What were some of your goals early on in your fighting career?
At first I just wanted to fight and prove myself to the world. As time went on I went on to eventually attain world titles and challenge the legends in the sport. I grew to love it for the challenge and the sport.
As a coach how do you tailor your training to suit the kind of athlete whether it is a kickboxer, international boxer or MMA fighter?
Nowadays, basically all combat athletes have great conditioning: everyone can punch or kick hard. I try to build around my students specifically to leverage their advantages. I focus on what they individually need to win fights. I focus on smart mitwork and the use of angles. I work hard on my fighters between fights to build up their arsenal of tools they can use in future fights.
What is the most important things you can teach beginners?
The most important things I teach are the basics that work in fights. For standup striking I work on basic kicks, punches and transitions. For MMA I would suggest solidifying 3 basic submissions. Meat and potatoes are most useful at this stage.
What has been your proudest accomplishment as a fighter?
In Muay Thai I was very happy to have won against Coban Lookchaoemaesaithong. I also drew with Marek Piotrowski after 8 rounds for the ISKA world title. [Marek had famously defeated Rick Roufus].
For those who don’t know what are some of the curriculum requirements of Jackson and Winkeljohn’s gym before becoming a fighter in MMA?
We require fighters in MMA to have finished or placed well in a grappling tournament. We also require fighting in boxing and kickboxing. Obviously, to ensure they are well rounded and tested at a reasonable level before becoming a professional fighter. There is no set number to meet this requirement and Greg (Jackson) and I assess the fighter’s progress on a very individual level.
Do you train amateur fighters different from professional fighters?
I don’t train amateurs much different from our pro fighters. I train both to fight and at their best level. With all my fighters I assess them individually and don’t try to apply one set method for everyone.
Muay Thai seems to be growing at a grassroots level in the USA. What needs to change in the United States to accelerate that growth and sustain it?
Muay Thai needs to be seen more and have an actual nationally broadcast product. Muay Thai needs more exposure and the press need to treat it as more of a bonafide sport. Pay per view buys and audience support got MMA where it is now and the same should happen with Muay Thai.
Who were some of your early influences when you began fighting?
I liked Benny “The Jet” Uriquidez. I admired his toughness and creativity in fights. At times in my early fights I wasn’t always creative. The fights I lost were because I didn’t have the tools or the right game plan. As I said before these days most everyone has the conditioning and the power. The creativity and tactical smarts is less common.
Who was your toughest opponent?
Marek Piotrowski, for his toughness and strength.
Does it make much of a difference in your students if they already come from an established athletic background such as American rules football?
I see a very noticeable difference in training fighters with an already established athletic background. Mostly in their work ethic, their discipline and their physical conditioning. Most of these kinds of fighters are used to doing their “homework” so working hard is not new to them.
In some circles there seems to be some schism between MMA and Muay thai fans. Is there a reason why?
I really don’t see it. I see most of the MMA crowd giving respect to Muay Thai. To me, if you are ignoring one sport you are missing out on the other too. A good boxing fighter can see the skill in Muay Thai and vice versa. I think Muay Thai fans may need to understand how difficult it is training in the 8 limbs with the addition of the MMA range: the ground and shoot distance.
You have become well known for your tactical plans that get wins for your fighters. Is there a general approach or is it customized for each fighter?
No, I always customize strategy and game plans around my fighter’s strengths. If I have a general approach it is: to hit and not get hit.
As a coach you have champions in boxing, MMA, and Muay Thai and kickboxing. How do you specifically train fighters of each style?
With every fighter in their respective style I train specifically on their strengths. I mold the tactics on their body type and their disposition as a fighter I must also say I am blessed to be coaching talented fighters and their success brings success to others too.
There have been recent concerns that have come to the surface regarding the recent IKF amateur event in which Adrienne Simmons died. Do you have an opinion on some of the concerns that have been raised about how the event was regulated?
To be fair I don’t know all the details of the event or the incident. For my own events I have always had paramedics and medical on staff with an ambulance. And I do feel strongly that the 2nds in the corner are always the primary party responsible for their fighter’s safety. This sort of thing happens in boxing as well and this is a concern that touches all fight sports.
What are your current goals as a coach?
Right now I am focusing on Holly Holm. Holly will be transitioning from international boxing to MMA. And I want to see Holly become an MMA world champion as well.
And of course I want to help my fighters get more UFC gold.
Is there any fighters you are working with now that we should know more about?
Look for Travis Marks at 135 lbs. coming soon to the World Extreme Cagefighting promotion. I also have in Muay Thai Terris James and Mike Justus who need matchups but matchmaking for Thaiboxing can be difficult.
What do you think you bring to training that other coaches may not?
I think I bring genuine enthusiasm and passion and I will put in the time fighters need. Coaching fighters and operating the gym is not my only stream of income. I love fight sports. I think also unlike some coaches I look to fighters’ futures outside after the fight career. I try to advise them to look after themselves once their fight careers are over.
As Muay Thai grows in the United States what are some of the difficulties with regulation?
The main issue is a lack of education on the sport. Here in New Mexico they want to assess Commission fees yet they don’t have the education among their staff and officials to properly do safe regulation. They’ve approached myself and others for training their staff and yet coaches and gyms have to pay for their commissioning fees. I feel in general its over regulation and with the fees being assessed, its killing the sport.
Any last words for fans and readers of this site?
Thanks much to everyone for their support. And thank you for the recognition.
To contact Mike Winkeljohn for coaching inquiries please visit http://www.jacksons.tv/