Credit: Frank Thetank
Part I - Background & Fight Theory
I'm an amateur mixed martial artist in training, and I started training 6 months ago. I train out of Greece, NY, a suburb of Rochester. Being that I live in the last and only state where professional MMA is unsanctioned, I'm in a unique position. The gym I train out of is small, and home to all kinds of athletes from wrestlers to boxers. We have a professional mixed martial artist who has fought as high as M-1 Global and even on the undercard of an Eddie Alvarez Bellator card. He also happens to be my training partner: Mike Winters.
I wanted to interview Mike since he has a fight coming up on January 23rd in Atlantic City, New Jersey for Ring of Combat 50. Mike will be fighting Randall Brown for the vacant welterweight belt.
Full disclosure: I am not a journalist. I'm 27 years old, I consume a lot of MMA media (Ariel Helwani, Luke Thomas, Kid Nate), and I recently began training in the sport. I have trained jiu jitsu and sparred with Mike, so I am certainly not pretending to be objective here. The whole point of this interview was to sit down, be relaxed, and talk about stuff I don't see journalists usually talking to fighters about. Given I have the perspective of actually training with Mike specifically, I felt I could ask more pointed questions. I also have a side agenda: I want to bring attention to local MMA as it's homegrown in NY, and perhaps shed some light on future top-10 talent. This will be part I of a three part series. Part II will be released tomorrow. Edited for irrelevant colloquialisms and brevity's sake.
Who is Mike Winters? How old are you?
I’m 25 years old.
What is your background in terms of martial arts?
I originally started with karate when I was 10 years old.
Do you find that that helps you?
Yeah I actually practiced that today.
Really? Because I’ve seen pictures of you doing it on facebook. How long have you been doing it?
My sensei is like my best friend. I’ve been training with him when I started.
Did you play sports growing up?
Karate was my first sport, really.
So aside from karate, what is the next major thing you did in terms of sports/athletics?
About a year and half into karate, I started taking jiu jitsu classes. When I was 11 or 12.
Oh, that early?
Yeah, this was when I was living in Greece. Spencerport/Gates area.
Did you ever compete in your younger years as a teenager?
Yeah I won some small karate and jiu jitsu tournaments.
Full pads/head gear?
Yeah headgear, you have rib protector; you have the gloves, and the foot gear.
I did Isshin-Ryū for a few years. All I remember from the experience is that it didn’t seem in retrospect it just didn’t seem like a legit martial art – it didn’t seem practical. They were handing out black belts to like 10 year olds. How does it help you? Would you say it’s your base?
My base mostly comes from my wrestling.
When did you get into wrestling?
7th grade. But as far as the karate goes, it’s all about how it’s applied. On its own, karate can’t stand by itself.
That I would agree with.
But it’s another weapon, it’s another distance that you fight at. Karate is the furthest distance martial art that you have. You know, boxing is a little bit closer range, from there you get into grappling. I compare karate to having a sniper rifle. So you can attack someone from a further distance.
There are a lot of different disciplines of karate right?
Do you know who Michael Venom Page is?
shotokan karate if I’m not mistaken (*note: I was mistaken). When I watch him fight, people who watch MMA all the time, we’re not used to what MVP does. Because he’s coming out from, like you said it best, a sniper rifle distance. He’s landing like one punch and people don’t know how to defend against it, it throws people off…very few people seem to apply karate or you could even noticeably or visibly see karate at the top level. Why do you think that is? Is it difficult to teach in the United States?
It has to do with a lot of people’s views on it. When you’re a black belt in jiu jitsu, that means you’re an expert. When you’re a black belt in karate, that means you’ve just begun your journey. It’s not the same thing.
So their scales are not comparable.
Yeah black belt in karate is not the same thing as a black belt in jiu jitsu.
Why do you think that is? Is it a cultural thing?
Usually you get your black belt in 4 years in karate. Whereas in jiu jitsu it’s more based on your skill level. I think you have to be more qualified to get a black belt in jiu jitsu.
You started doing wrestling in 7th grade. How long did you do that for?
I did it until I graduated from highschool.
How did you do in wrestling? What was the experience like for you in terms of its wear on you day-to-day? How did it affect your school? Your scholastics?
I think wrestling is the toughest sport that you can possibly do.
That’s what I hear.
If you think about a fight, or jiu jitsu, if you’re being hurt, you can just turn away from whatever’s hurting you. But let’s say you’re being pinned in wrestling. You have only one direction – you have to get off your back. You have to put yourself in pain to get out of the situation. You have to go towards the pain sometimes instead of away from it.
Yeah, yeah that’s a good point. You have to walk into the fire to get outta’ the fire.
Yeah, also just cutting weight.
How much weight did you have to cut?
Just 15 lb. or so.
Do you think it was mostly water weight?
Yeah mostly water weight but also dieting.
Have you been physically fit since you started wrestling?
Yeah I’ve always been a decent athlete.
So martial arts has been a part of your life since basically since you started going through puberty. How did you think it affected the way you socialize with people? Were you friends with only combat athletes? Did people perceive you differently? Like a meathead?
No I’m friends with all different types of people. I liked to play video games a lot when I was younger. So I was friends with those types of kids. And in highschool I was in a lot of accelerated classes so a lot of meathead-type kids weren’t in a lot of those classes.
That’s interesting. Did you go to college?
I got my bachelors degree from Cortland.
What do you do for a living, for a job? Because I’m assuming you cannot make a living off of fighting.
I am basically part of a team that is involved in activating services and billing. Phones and internet. Telecommunications.
I work in a call center.
I used to work in a call repair center.
So I sit in a cube all day getting mad wishing I was in a gym right now.
I do the same thing, haha. Yeah.
It drives me nuts.
Call center is brutal. I did that for a year.
You said you trained in Jim Miller’s gym.
Yeah I’ve trained down there.
I’m fascinated by people and how people perceive them. What did your family and friends say to you when you first wanted to start fighting? What was their first reaction?
My grandma - definitely against it. She didn’t want me to have any brain damage or anything like that. My dad was very supportive. My dad started karate with me when I was very young. We did jiu jitsu together. He obviously knew my skill level and was very comfortable with me doing that.
I assume you had an amateur career before your pro?
When did you take your first amateur fight and your first pro?
My first amateur was just after my first year of college. I was 19 at that point.
I assume you told your family and close friends.
Yup. They showed up. It was on an Indian reservation.
Yup. I forget where.
How many came?
I’d say about 12.
Were they super nervous? Scared for you?
I’m pretty sure they were kinda' nervous. But I was definitely well prepared at that point in time for my first amateur fight.
Yeah I was training with some guys who were in the UFC already and some guys that were in the WEC at that time. So what I was dealing with in practice wasn’t even comparable to the guy I was fighting. It was a pretty easy fight for me.
When did you take your first pro fight?
My first pro fight was my junior year of college. I think I was 20 at the time.
Did you have a girlfriend or anyone you were close with whenever you had a fight that tried to talk you out of fighting?
No I never really had to deal with that because whatever girlfriend I had at the time really knew it was such a big part of my life. If you’re getting involved with me you know it’s a package deal.
Is that a thing that you tell people, 'oh by the way, I’m a fighter?' Do you say, ‘I’m a fighter’? Do you define yourself as a fighter?
Sometimes I tell them off the jump. Sometimes I don’t bring it up. It kinda' depends on the situation.
Yeah I would think so. It might be unnatural to just be like, ‘hey I’m a fighter by the way.’
It is an interesting thing though when people know you’re a fighter. Because it kinda' changes your perspective of reality. Let’s say you know someone who’s a real jerk, you know what I mean? And then if I talk to him, I’m like dude, that’s the nicest guy I’ve ever met. Because that guy’s not gonna’ be mean to me. Just 'cuz he knows.
Like I live in a different world than everyone else.
Do you enjoy that? It’s like an added buffer. It’s like wearing a winter coat.
On the flip side of things, I’ve also been humbled by people that are a lot better than me. So I don’t think I’m king of the world or anything at the same time. Because I’ve gotten my ass kicked.
How long would you say you’ve been preparing for this fight? How long was your training camp?
Probably 2 or 3 months.
So when you’re preparing do you think about, what if I prepare for 2 solid months, what if I get knocked out in 3 seconds?
I couldn’t imagine that. I’ve never been knocked out before. I’ve never even been really like dropped like where I go out.
In a fight or in training?
Is that a testament to your toughness or a testament to your skill? Or both?
I think it’s a combination of both.
Or have you just not been sparring with guys who are good enough to do that?
No I definitely have. I’ve sparred with some monsters. But, I think it also has to do with that I’m still young. So when you’re younger your chin’s gonna be better.
Did I tell you that I used to spar with Jones?
Yeah so when I first started, basically the story on when I started doing MMA-
He’s a big guy right? He’s like 6’4"?
Yeah. Huge compared to me. I went to college. I was thinking about doing wrestling in college. I ended up not doing wrestling in college. I heard about a jiu jitsu class. I started going to jiu jitsu school. At some point the team that I started with – Team Bombsquad, they had a dispute with the gym that they were at before. Then they started training at the gym that I was at. I talked to the manager there – Ryan Ciotoli.
Basically he said I could start fighting for them, I could start training for free.
This was in Cortland? When Jones was still based out of Cortland?
Okay. And you sparred with him?
Yeah, I was a little bit heavier at the time. I was trying to put on a lot of weight. (*note: Mike fights at 170 at 5'11" and doesn't get heavier than 190-195 lb.)
Oh you know what, my first fight was my sophomore year. Right after my sophomore year was my first amateur fight. I was weighing maybe 203 at that time. And there wasn’t many guys around Jones’ size.
We had a lot of smaller guys in the gym, like 145 lbers. So I would spar with him on Friday nights.
Could you see then that he was good? That he was gonna be something?
Yeah, well I mean he was already in the UFC at that point.
That was the fight leading into his Stephan Bonnar fight.
Okay. That’s interesting.
Was it that way the whole time? Was he always going for the kill? Was he really technical?
He was dominant. And he was the guy that asked the most questions. He asked so many questions. That guy, if you’re on the outside with him, he’s gonna pick you apart. If you go clinch with him, he has a huge advantage from the clinch because of his height. And he’s gonna' be able to throw you.
You’re not gonna be able to get a thai plum around him. Unless you’re anywhere near his height.
How long were you there at that gym with those guys?
Jones had one or two fights after that and he ended up going down to Greg Jackson’s camp. So he wasn’t around for too long.
How long were you at that place?
I was training there for 4-5 years.
Oh wow. I assume you got into fighting 'cuz you saw UFC and Pride and stuff on TV. Or did you not watch it that much?
Yeah I actually had some UFC greatest hits dvds and stuff and I’d watch it all the time in highschool.
Is this something that you thought about before?
I never planned on being an MMA fighter at all.
My first memory of MMA is walking into Media Play. They had like a UFC display. This was when Chuck was on top of his game, and he had his rivalry with Tito. I don’t remember, I think they had a display. They had the xbox games.
Yeah I had the xbox game. Tito Ortiz was the best in that game.
Okay. When I was 15 or 16 I remember walking by that display and just seeing, I don’t remember if they were just playing the footage of Chuck finishing Tito, when I was 15, I thought it was the most gruesome thing I had ever seen. I had done Isshin-Ryū karate for 3 or 4 years, and I did a Greco roman wrestling camp for one summer. So when I saw Tito getting bludgeoned by Chuck, I thought this is terrible, this is the worst thing in the world. For some reason that turned my stomach. Chuck bludgeoning Tito turned me off completely. When I was in college, I remember looking at dailymotion, or youtube, and I saw a Fedor highlight, and then I saw a Crocop highlight, and after that I fell in love. Did you have anything like that? A moment where you saw a video or highlight where you thought, ‘ok, this has me hooked.’
I can’t say anything like that, but I can say the society in which I was raised in, and the time period, combat was the coolest thing ever. When I was growing up, the most popular thing was Power Rangers at one point, X-Men, basically all those things taught me that if you can win in a fight, you can basically solve any issue.
That’s an interesting perspective.
That was kinda ingrained into my mind from a young age. Watching Jean Claude Van Damme, watching Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sylvester Stallone. All those guys, everything that was really popular in the 1990’s.
I would agree.
Were you trouble-prone as a kid? Did you get into a lot fights?
Yeah, I kinda’ had some issues with that in 3rd and 4th grade.
Oh that’s really early. I can barely remember that age.
That’s when I first started taking karate. That’s basically why I started taking karate. To start learning more discipline.
But after that I would assume you were pretty disciplined. You didn’t get into any fights?
Yeah I never really fought kids that much.
I’ve never been in a fight in my entire life. It seems kinda’ pathetic. I feel kinda’ pathetic about it. I think that’s why I’m into MMA. I feel like I’ve lived too much of a privileged life, I just wanna feel what it’s like to get my ass kicked. And I felt that when I got my ass kicked. When it first happens you’re like, oh this is terrible. I don’t want this to happen again. But ten minutes afterwards, I had this euphoric, ‘I feel alive.’ Right?
That’s a feeling that I think a lot of people chase. And I think a lot of fighters have trouble letting go of.
Oh my god. You know that feeling? Now imagine that with you winning in front of thousands of people.
I can’t imagine that.
There’s no drug compared to that.
I can’t really imagine that.
I’ve performed in front in highschool plays like that. But that’s like a golf clap applause. It’s not like people applauding you to bash someone’s head into the ground.
Do you draw energy from your family and friends? Are you happy that they’re there? Do they frequently come to your fights?
Yeah definitely. I draw from that. I have this one story. I was fighting on M-1 Global.
That’s Vadim Finkelstein’s promotion. Fedor’s manager.
Yeah. First round I got stuck in this real deep guillotine.
On the feet or on the ground?
It was on the feet pulled to the ground I believe. As tight as possible, like a vice. I was going against this stocky guy, strong upper body. He had it real tight. I felt the lights start to go out. But then I start to hear my fans start the ‘Wints’ chant. "Wints, Wints, Wints."
You could hear them?
I could hear them. And I knew that they were all watching. So I was like, there’s no way I’m tapping. He’s putting me out, he’s gonna’ have to put me out.
Did you do anything technical to get out or did you literally just-
He was squeezing as hard as he could. Eventually his arms got tired from choking me. I felt the grip loosen a little bit, and then I popped my head out, and I started the ground and pound. And that was like an amazing feeling.
Do you know how many people were at the show?
It was like a packed ballroom.
When you say you could hear them, I imagine the crowd was loud. Your ears are tuned to them.
That’s really cool.
Actually in the same fight, in the third round he got me into an arm crank. They have this one picture of me, my elbow just looks completely busted. I was getting out of this thing, I rolled out somehow, my elbow popped. We ended up back on our feet. And he’s like yelling at the ref, "his arm’s broken!" and I’m like, "my arm is fine!" but the way that I got out of the lock, my arm, my elbow popped. It must have disclocated and popped back in. And I still have some problems from that to this day.
When was that fight?
That was beginning of my senior year of college.
There’s this other cool time, I was the main event in Maine. Another time I was up two rounds to nothing. I was facing a good jiu jitsu guy, his name was Ryan Sanders – you can actually see this fight on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aG5zV2wk48
And in the third period, I go to shoot in on this guy a double-leg, and right as I’m shooting he times it perfect, knee right to the face. And almost puts me out, I get knocked to my butt a little bit. And I ended up getting the takedown, but I’m out of it at this point.
Do you realize it immediately, or do you finish the takedown and realize, ‘oh shit, this is not good.’
I probably couldn’t even really think at that point. He ends up throwing me in a very similar situation, a guillotine. Super deep.
I shouldn’t have gotten out. He had me deep – I even rolled to my back. He had me in mount with the guillotine.
Did he have his legs curled underneath your calves?
-hooks. Yeah. And I popped out somehow. I ended up winning that fight on a decision. After the fight, he saw me in the locker room. And he’s like, "dude, do you have gills or something because I don’t know how you were breathing." And being willing to go out or anything like that or risk everything just for the win and for it to pay off is just an amazing feeling. And I actually take a lot of pride in never being finished in a fight.