There's not much that gets by Mike Winkeljohn when it comes to the fight game these days. That is, except, just how well Alexander Gustafsson performed against the striking coach's star pupil in UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones at UFC 165.
"No, I didn't," Winkeljohn said in terms of whether he anticipated the Swede fighting that well to Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "It surprised me. There's no doubt that, I think, Gustafsson performed much better and did a lot of things that I didn't expect. I think I was a little more overconfident than I should have been, there's no doubt, as Jon's coach."
Winkeljohn believes the judges' decision was right and argues Jones won three of the five rounds. Still, he admits quite a bit didn't go according to plan.
There was some speculation Jones' nearly severed toe in an injury he suffered in the Chael Sonnen fight would or may have caused problems. Winkeljohn concedes Jones was slightly worried about it and even tried to tape it before the commission ordered any tape removed, but suggests one way or the other, it didn't play a role.
Some fans wondered whether the absence of Greg Jackson in the corner - the consequence of a commission rule limiting the number of cornermen and how they're listed on paper - played a role. "Without Greg, there's always a little missed because it's a little different for him," Winkeljohn concedes. "It didn't play out where it was as important in this fight because Jon was cut and because Jon was standing I was in the cage by myself with the cut man, which is kind of our protocol that Greg and I have. Anytime it's on the ground and there's a cutman, then Greg stays in and I go outside. Usually we're in there together, but because of that, it probably didn't play out as big of a deal."
Mindful of what went wrong, Winkeljohn is still more focused on what went right. The team can correct what they improperly game planned around. And even though Jones was tested, there's a valuable lesson to be learned there. The striking coach believes Jones will 'greatly benefit' from the experience and train even harder.
In fact, Winkeljohn says there are many misconceptions about Jones, how he trains and who he is that fuel a sense of estrangement and even dislike from a wide swathe of the MMA fan base.
For starters, Winkeljohn may be speaking on behalf of Jones, but he claims he does so because he's speaking the truth. He doesn't cater to what Jones wants. He does things his way and if the fighters - Jones included do what he says, then they can work together.
"That's just how I am. I don't care who you are. If you're going to come in and train hard, check your ego at the door, help others, then anybody can help you out.
"I'm not trying to be his friend. I'm always there for these guys, but I gotta stay his coach. I think that's a mistake some trainers have," Winkeljohn insists. "I just want to train him. I just want to coach him."
The Albuquerque native says "there's no socializing" with Jones that that he's "had lunch with him one time because we had some business to talk about."
That isn't to say Jones was always the hardest worker or that they always had the ability to work well together. Winkeljohn claims Jones wasn't particularly deficient in terms of doing what he was supposed to, but more a product of his particular generation. "It wasn't an ego problem at all," he says. "He's a kid. He's ADD. He was a kid. He was just that way. He'd show up late. It's the American kid, young kid's mentality. It's just do what you want when you want. That's not my old school mentality, which is if you show up on time, you show up early before class starts. And if you do these things and you work real hard, you succeed and can follow your American dream."
Jones has come around, Winkeljohn notes, and has evolved into a new person as he's immersed himself in the Jackson/Winkeljohn gym. "I'll tell you what now. Jon is the opposite as far as work ethic goes," the striking coach observes. "He studies tape more than anybody I know. He really, really, really works hard at what he does."
So, if he's matured, is one of the best fighters alive and is a hard worker, why is Jones still such a polarizing figure?
In Winkeljohn's mind, fans and others confuse Jones confidence as evidence he lacks in character. They also don't value how important and natural that level of confidence actually is.
"I think because Jon's confident," Winklejohn says. "Have you ever known a world champion at a high level - Muhammad Ali, etc. - that wasn't confident at what they did? How can you get in a cage or a boxing ring and think you're going to win if you're not confident in your skills?
"That's to be commended, I think, to be confident in your skill level," he continues. "I don't think it's a cockiness. It's just he's telling the truth about how he feels. I know it hurts some people's feelings and when you're the top dog, people that are jealous of other people's success, I believe want to see you fall because they feel less about themselves. Jon's just a confident guy and it's a shame that people react to him that way."
In the way Winkeljohn describes it, Jones' confidence isn't only natural, it's also not going away any time soon. It's both what propels Jones to greatness and is a byproduct of that effect.
Regardless, that's not what Winkeljohn cares about most. Either people get Jones or they don't, as he sees it, and he's got more important tasks to worry about, anyway. On the docket? Turning Jon Jones into the best fighter he can be, whether the critics and fans love him or not. As far as he's concerned, the possibilities that await the new, reformed Jones are endless even if the critics can't or refuse to see it. The striking adamantly asserts Jones has the ability to go down as the greatest MMA fighter in history.
"Oh, that's my goal. There's no doubt about it," Winkeljohn says. "Right now, that's what I want Jon to be: the greatest of all time. If he keeps working at it, he's going to get better and better. I see that goal being obtained for him."