Jackson, who once taught out of his garage, said there would be no Southwest MMA empire without his trusted friend.
“He continues to mentor me today because he’s very smart, he’s very strategic and he looks out for me,” Jackson said. “[When I got started] I didn’t know much about anything. He taught me a lot about business and work ethic -- I look up to him. He’s bulldog loyal, always has my back. I really owe that guy everything.”
Jones arrived in New Mexico as a growing fighter with a trio of solid -- but not overwhelming -- UFC victories against Andre Gusmao, Jake O’Brien and Stephan Bonnar. Today, he is a champion and a superstar, with one of the greatest years in MMA history just recently in his rearview mirror.
When the New York native and his seemingly boundless potential were late for a workout with Winkeljohn early on in his Jackson’s MMA tenure, he suffered the consequences.
“I remember from day one he used to make me earn my place. He wouldn’t just give me pad work -- if I was late, he’d just skip me,” Jones said. “He definitely made me respect him from day one of being on this team, to the point where I realized how much of an honor and a privilege it was to have time with him, and I would never show up late to our kickboxing sessions anymore. I had to earn his attention when I first joined the team. He used to say it to me all the time: ‘I’m not gonna kiss your butt like people around here. I’m not impressed.’ I always thought that was cool that he took that approach to me.”
Jackson likes the approach.
“He’s that guy that doesn’t let the fighters get away with anything,” he said. “If they’re lazy, he reminds them that they don’t have jobs. He works harder than everybody so you can’t come to him with [any complaints].”
The gruff exterior does not mean Winkeljohn does not care. The coach has developed close relationships with many of his fighters and has adopted a different approach based on the personality of each. Some fighters respond well to motivational ploys and fiery speeches, while others appreciate a more understated demeanor. He is also a master of adapting strategy to suit an individual skill set.
“I used to be just a solid wrestler, but, with him, I became an advanced striker. I became comfortable on my feet and creative,” said “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 14 winner John Dodson. “He didn’t try to make me a fighter that he wanted [me] to be; he let my own creative juices flow.”
Jones has taken note.
“A lot of times, I like to sit and watch coach Winkeljohn teach other students, because he teaches them completely different things than he teaches me,” he said. “He definitely doesn’t have a generic style that we all learn. Wink has trick plays for all of us.”
Winkeljohn is adept at finding whatever it is that makes a competitor click, but delivering a heaping helping of praise just is not his style.
“I just tell them the truth,” he said. “I’m not their cheerleader. I’m not here to tell them how great they are or how well they’re doing in the cage. I don’t just criticize; I try to let them know when they’re doing something that’s working.”
Winkeljohn’s concern for his fighters extends far beyond wins and losses. He loves it when a game plan comes together but even more so when it is executed with his guys taking as little damage as possible. Having been through multiple wars himself, Winkeljohn is well aware of dangers that can arise from the trauma of being hit repeatedly. Over many years in the fight game, Winkeljohn has seen the adverse effects of his chosen profession first hand, including death. It is why he drills the concepts Packer taught to him years ago.
“I’m all about angles -- hitting and not getting hit. That’s kind of how I want my guys to fight; not stand there and brawl, which I know excites the fans,” he said. “I tell guys all the time: I’m not against winning the ‘Fight of the Night,’ but really I’m not excited about it. Usually, [it] means there’s a slugfest and it could shorten your lifespan down the road.”
Carlos Condit’s recent over Nick Diaz at UFC 143 in February is a prime example of Winkeljohn’s teachings. In capturing the UFC interim welterweight title, “The Natural Born Killer” frustrated Diaz with his movement and striking. It also frustrated a number of fans, but Winkeljohn was far more concerned with the end result: he had convinced Condit to believe in a strategy, and getting a fighter to believe in a game plan is at least half the battle.
“Carlos did exactly what I wanted him to do. I wanted him to break down [Diaz’s] body, break down his legs and hit and step off at an angle. I really wanted Carlos to knock him out in the fifth round,” he said. “We didn’t finish him, but he did everything I wanted him to do.”
Brian Stann, a former WEC light heavyweight champion who has risen to Top-10 status at 185 pounds in the UFC, calls Winkeljohn the “whole package” as a trainer.
“He’s got all the technique, he’s got all the experience, but then he’s also a very positive role model for you in life. He can help you mentally through the process of dealing with everything in your life, along with being a big-time fighter,” Stann said. “He’s been there and done that.”
Stann, who resides in Georgia but travels to New Mexico for his fight camps, met with Winkeljohn shortly after the trainer learned the loss of sight in his right eye would likely be permanent.
“He flew to Atlanta to see a specialist and get the final word on whether his eye could be saved or not. I was there with him right after he got back from the doctor’s appointment,” Stann said. “I said, ‘Coach, how’d it go?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I’m never gonna see out of it again, and that’s OK. I’m gonna cry later. It’s certainly not gonna be now.’ And that was it. As anybody can tell, he’s never allowed it to affect him.”
The truth was, Winkeljohn did not -- and does not -- have the time to wallow in self-pity. A devoted husband and father of three daughters, Michelle, Autumn and Teagan, he quickly realized family duties superseded his own troubles. Winkeljohn had undergone four surgeries in hopes of salvaging his eye and vision. He spent the better part of a week lying upside down to save his retina. He endured intense pressure and pain near his eye without complaint. In the end, all of it was for naught.
Winkeljohn did not have to look far for perspective. He found it at home, in the form of his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Autumn. She is hemiplegic, which means she suffers from paralysis on the left side of her body. She was delivered by vacuum extraction at birth, and an error during the procedure resulted in a stroke that robbed her of 75 percent of her left brain.
“She’s got one arm that looks like a little wing; she’s not able to use it really well,” Winkeljohn said. “So I spend days sometimes trying to do everything with one hand. It’s a lot easier to be blind in one eye than it is to have one hand. Talk about frustrating. Try to open up a jar with one hand. Try using a can opener with one hand.”
Winkeljohn’s wife, Heather, wrote a book about the raising a special-needs child: “On Autumn’s Wing.” She credits Winkeljohn for playing a key role in raising Autumn. It is not all that surprising then that she was initially attracted to him for his skill with kids as a martial arts instructor.
“I was always drawn to his affinity for kids. I always admired the way that he could draw kids in from various backgrounds and various needs,” Heather said. “He’s always so adept at captivating them, not even just the kids but the adults, too.”
While fighters like Stann might not notice Winkeljohn’s day-to-day struggles, Heather remains fully aware of them. As a developmental therapist, she can keep life in perspective, much like her husband.
“Even to this day, he starts complaining about his eye ... and he sees [Autumn] struggling to zip her coat and he’s brought down to earth,” Heather said. “There’s days when [his eye] bothers him. He goes to put his sugar in his coffee, and he misses the cup. It’s never dull in our house. We have my daughter with hemiplegia, we have a three-legged dog and we have my husband with one eye. We all feel that we have to be very grateful for what we have. We know there’s many people that have much more difficult situations.”
Winkeljohn took off approximately three months before heading back to work. While he could no longer spar and roll with his fighters, he found that muscle memory allowed him to still be effective as a teacher and trainer.
“As it turned out, my depth perception got better,” he said. “I think I had mapped so many things in the fight world that, holding mitts, I almost went harder than I had before. I think I had to prove to everybody that I could. I wear goggles now so I look like a geek.”
Safety equipment aside, Heather still worries about her husband while he is at the office.
“I think a lot of people tend to forget that he’s blind in one eye. He’s in the cage with these guys half his age, and he’s catching these bombs and these kicks that are being thrown at his head and his body,” she said. “They’ve got to remember he can’t see out of his right eye before they crack him. Sometimes that toughness, that refusal for him to speak up and say, ‘Hey this hurts’... it’s a good attribute but it’s also sometimes his weakness.”
Most of the time, the toughness is a gift. As a coach who often arrives at UFC events on fight day so he can spend more time with his family at home and his fighters in the gym during the week, Winkeljohn does not always receive the full recognition he deserves. He is always accommodating with a quote when asked, but posturing for cameras has never been his thing. The true tough guys never feel the need to alert the world of their identity.
“He’s kind of like this sly, one-eyed fox who’s lurking in the shadows of the cage back there,” Heather said. “Don’t underestimate him because he’s not basking in the limelight or seeking attention. It doesn’t mean that he’s not a force to be reckoned with.”
Anyone who has squared off with a Jackson-Winkeljohn-trained fighter -- or Winkeljohn himself -- would have to agree.