I’m beginning to wonder if there are, in reality, two Mike Wilkins. You know how in Star Wars Episode 1, Darth Maul is actually split into two people? Now without a doubt, if there are indeed two Mike Wilkins, they definitely are aligned with and fight for the good side of The Force. Still, my perplexity remains. Sure, there’s the hilarious Mike Wilkins that his family and friends know and love. That’s the one that can throw a lightning-quick, deadpan look, and make an entire room crack up with his endless array of one-liners. Yet there’s another Mike Wilkins that surprisingly gets so nervous before fights that he tells himself every fight will be his last ever.
Jaime and I headed to Renzo Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy in Pittsburgh’s Strip District to meet the man who was fresh off a dominating win in his first main event fight for Gladiators of The Cage in June. *Editor’s note to any journalists headed to the Strip District on a beautiful Saturday, summer morning to interview a top-ranked MMA fighter – give yourself more time than you think you need to park! The Strip was a frenetic, veritable madhouse of an outdoor market. After searching for a spot – any spot to sneak my Nissan into, we finally found a parking garage and gladly forked over the few bucks to head for the gym. After a few block’s walk we buzzed to get up to the 3rd floor of a beautiful, 19th Century-looking building. Mr. Wilkins was waiting and greeted us warmly, and I didn’t catch a glimpse of his doppelganger anywhere. Also joining us for the interview were boxing trainer Will Morrill, and fighter/trainer Andy Anderson. After a quick tour of the beautiful gym, replete with antique woodwork and very high ceilings (I felt like I was in a multi-million dollar building in Manhattan), the five of us gathered and got down to the fight business. For those of you that have joined me in my twin Mike Wilkins conspiracy theory; I’m sorry to report that there was still no double in sight.
In Ya Face MMA : When I saw the Gladiators of The Cage Heavyweight Champion Chris Dempsey at your main event of the same name in June, I asked him when his next fight might be. He told me he was taking a little break. I think the entire Pittsburgh MMA community was happily surprised, but not shocked that Chris got the call to fight in Dublin, Ireland for the UFC on July 19th. He gave me the rope-a-dope. Are you, in fact, “taking a break?”
Mike Wilkins : I’m taking a break, too! I am taking a break. (Everyone laughs)
IYF : So we’ll see you next at the Jones vs. Gustafsson rematch in September?
MW : I hope so, yeah! I’m actually hoping to fight again in the fall, because there are things I need to work on. There are some things that I am focused on other than fighting.
IYF : One of the other things you do besides fighting is instructing. You’re one of the main instructors here at Renzo Gracie Academy Pittsurgh. Can you tell us about your start here?
MW : We opened in 2010. We were in a very small space down in Lawrenceville on Butler Street. Very small. We’ve more than doubled our size by moving down here. But we did pack that place down there. We just outgrew it and it was time to move. We moved down here, but it’s almost like, it didn’t do it. Every class is packed. It’s a great environment down here. And it just breeds positivity. Every day we have something like – a guy that’s been here for two months, all of a sudden he’s bringing in two of his friends. I’ve honestly never seen an ego in here. It’s like, how can you even come in with an ego when everyone is so positive? I’m really big on the environment down here. I never dread coming to work. Every day I can’t wait to come here. I even show up to work early.
IYF : Are you here every day?
MW : No, I don’t come in Sundays, and Mondays I’m only here during the day.
IYF : How long have you been in this beautiful, new space?
MW : Since March of 2013.
IYF: Ok, now I’m going to ask you the question I always ask first. But I had to get the UFC business out of the way. Were your parents athletes?
MW : Yes, they were both athletes. My mom played basketball in high school. My dad was a basketball player and a baseball player. He was a really good baseball player, a really good pitcher. In high school, he threw in the low 90’s (mph on a radar gun.) My dad coached me in pretty much every sport I played up until high school.
IYF : What was it like growing up in Braddock Hills?
MW : There weren’t any kids in my neighborhood. I grew up in a neighborhood of all old people. So, when I was too young to walk to other neighborhoods, I didn’t have anyone else to play with. When I started playing sports, I would never miss practices because that’s the only time I got to play with my friends. Wrestling practice, baseball practice. If practice would get cancelled, I’d freak out and want to cry. So, it worked out great, because I ended up getting super involved in sports. I identified with it, and I think that’s what really helped me develop into a good athlete.
IYF : What other sports did you play?
MW : I started off playing soccer, but real unorganized. Basically, like little kids just starting to learn how to use their bodies athletically. Wrestling was my first sport. I started wrestling when I was five. Pretty much every kid I wrestled with, we also played baseball together. Everyone just stuck together. We all played football for Woodland Hills. We all wrestled for Woodland Hills. We played baseball for the tiniest borough, I think, in Allegheny County – Chalfonte.
IYF : Really?
MW : Yes, it’s literally like 3 blocks. But we had one of the best baseball teams. I played baseball all the way through Colt League. Then in college (Waynesburg University) I wrestled and ran track.
IYF : Well, that kind of nixes my next question. I guess you didn’t get in any fights as a kid as there were no kids in the neighborhood to get into fights with.
MW : No. As a teenager, just a couple, but no more than anybody else does. I hung out with a pretty rough group of kids. We were all real aggressive. If we were playing a game of pick-up basketball, there’s no way a fight wasn’t going to happen. And then after the fight and the game, there was no way that anyone would still be mad.
IYF : What about a fight nickname? You don’t have a nickname yet.
MW : No nickname. Mike Wilkins is a fighter. So…
IYF : Don’t even want one, then?
MW : I don’t want one.
IYF : Anyone ever try to saddle one onto you?
MW : (Laughing) Yes! Matt Leyshock gave me a good one. I liked it, but I was just too fond of sticking with no nickname. He was making compilation videos of us sparring and he was like, “Mark (Cherico) has a nickname. Khama (Worthy) has a nickname. Everyone has these nicknames, but you don’t. Then all of a sudden, he just fired out, “The Wild Card.” And I really liked it, but I just don’t want to have a nickname.
IYF : When we interviewed Khama, he talked about how long you guys have known each other. Do you remember the first time you met him and Mark?
MW : Yes. We all hated each other!
IYF : That’s what Khama said, that you guys didn’t get along at all in the beginning. Was it the big fish meeting in the small pond kind of thing?
MW : We were each other’s primary competition locally. But then we were like, “There’s a lot of other people here to fight. Let’s be friends.” How it came about was, none of us liked each other. Mark and I were fighting (different opponents) on the same card at Yankee Lake. And he hated me, or whatever. But he saw me fight. And then he had a fight coming up against a kid who was tall, and I’m tall for my weight class. So, he wanted a sparring partner who was tall. He sent me a message on MySpace. He was like, “Hey, you wanna help me out? I’m going to fight a tall guy.” And I was like, “Yeah.” So, I went over to his gym (Fight Club Pittsburgh) and started working out with him. And since then, we’ve continued to work out together. We’ve always been at different places, but we’ve maintained it. We work out about two times a week together. Then, we all started fighting at Cage of Chaos. That became our real home as amateurs. All the really good fighters around here; Mark Cherico, Khama, Josh Baker, Todd Bevin fought for them. Justin Steave was in there too. Justin has fought so much, that it’s hard to put him at a certain place. He’s just fought everywhere. We all came up together through Cage of Chaos. I can’t remember, but one time if I was fighting and Mark was holding pads, or it was the other way around. But Khama’s warming up. And he’s just going crazy on the pads. Exerting so much energy. And Mark and I are just sitting there on a John Deere tractor. We’re just sitting there, and we’re talking shit. And I was like, “I’d totally throw Khama around. And Mark was like, “I’d knock him out.” (Everyone laughs) A couple years later, Khama was there. And we’ve all been together since.
IYF : Tell us a little bit about your fights at Yankee Lake.
MW : Yankee Lake is a life experience. It’s a life experience. I had my first fight there at Yankee Lake III. I made my amateur debut in Ohio at a now defunct promotion called the IFBL. I fought this kid named Danny Jones. The coincidence is, now I’ve been dating his sister for six years.
IYF : That’s crazy! Did you win that fight?
MW : I did win the fight. Since then, we’ve trained together a ton of times. He’s submitted me a bunch of times. I’ve submitted him a bunch of times. Fighting is just one of those sports, you fight somebody, and then you become their fan and friend. Because you’ve shared that experience with them, you become friendly with them. And then you eventually become a fan of them. Because whether you lose to somebody, or beat somebody, you want them to start winning. If I lose to you, I need you to win all your fights so it looked like I lost to someone good. If I beat you, I need you to win all your fights so it looked like I beat someone good. Later on, we both fought on the same card again at Yankee Lake. All his people were rooting for me, and all my people were rooting for him. From there, I started dating his sister, and we’ve been together since.
IYF : How did you get your start in Jiu Jitsu?
MW : I was a wrestler and whenever I started training for MMA, I felt more comfortable on the ground. I used my wrestling as my Jiu Jitsu. I learned a couple submissions here and there. So, I thought I knew Jiu Jitsu. But I didn’t. I was getting by though at the level I was competing at. Since Warren (Stout), has opened up (owner of Renzo Gracie Academy) my Jiu Jitsu has improved tremendously. I’m a purple belt now. Our belt system, you earn your belts here. Nothing is given to you. It’s tough. I feel like I’m maybe held to a higher standard here, because I’m his…
IYF : Protégé?
MW : Yes, at least I’d like to think so. So it means a lot. Now that I’m a purple belt, I know I’ve earned it. He’s given out some purple belts. But the purple belt he gave to me was his. It was the one that was given to him, when he became a purple belt. So he can never give that one away again. The level of Jiu Jitsu here is incredibly high. I’m known as one of the better Jiu Jitsu fighters in Pittsburgh MMA, but down here, I’m only in the top ten.
IYF : That’s hard to believe.
MW : We have a couple brown belts that train here. We have a guy from Brazil who moved here that’s really good. And of course Warren’s here, beating me up every day. There are a handful of purple belts who just make me look like I’m stupid. (Everyone laughs) I think I’d be better if I could just focus on Jiu Jitsu. But being an MMA fighter, there’s a lot of other things I have to think about. When I retire, I want to just focus on Jiu Jitsu, and coaching it. I love it.
IYF : What goes through your mind as you’re on the way out to the cage for a professional fight?
MW : Just huge relief. I’m freaking out in the back a little bit right before we walk out. We’re back there, and I’m asking, “Is he in the cage yet? Is he in the cage yet?” And I’m like, “Shit.” And I’m hoping something happens, like someone falls off the balcony or something so the fight gets cancelled. I’m like, “I don’t want to do this.” Every fight I’ve had since my last amateur loss, every fight since then, I’m like,“This is the last one. Never again. Never again!” (Everyone laughs) But then I walk out, and everyone’s cheering for you. Or cheering against you, depending on where you’re at. Then you’re just like, whatever, and go in there and go nuts. I’m either going to get knocked out, or I’m going to win. I’m just going to let it hang. Once I step into the cage, I just feel great. I feel ready to fight and I have no more nerves.
IYF : You’ve asked your boxing coach Will Morrell to hang out for the interview. Tell us about some of the work you’ve done with him.
MW : I feel he’s helped change my conditioning tremendously. I’ve always been really athletic, so I’ve never worked that hard in my life at anything. He forces me to work hard. Even with these experiences of getting tired in a fight, you’d think I’d come back and want to work hard. Not me. Nope! Slack off as much as I can. (Everyone laughs heavily) Cardio workouts? If the coach isn’t looking right at me, I’m not doing it. Push-ups? I’m always looking at the coach. If he’s looking at me, I’m doing them. If not, I’m just in push up position. Will’s on me like a dog. So now, I work out tremendously hard. In this last fight (a submission win over Eric Calderon at GOTC) I displayed my cardio. In the first minute, my opponent’s coach was like, “He’s tired already!” “You picked the wrong one to not work hard for, big man. This is going to be a long one.” And it almost got into my head. I was like, “Oh, Shit! I am tired.” It was only a minute into the first. But then I was like, “No, I’m not.” Calderon has got a gas tank too. I’ve seen him fight Corey Hill. He beat Corey Hill with his gas tank. He lost the first round and came back and won the next two rounds. He just never stopped clawing at him. So, when I came out for the third round, I just knew I had won the fight. I knew there was no way that I was going to lose this fight. I still felt great. I think if you watch that fight, I look strong in the first round, and I look pretty strong in the second round. But I look like I have even an extra bounce in my step in the third round. If you watched it and didn’t know which round was which, you’d probably think the second round was the third round. I think I looked a little more tired in the second than in the third. And of course, I have to thank my coach Will for that.
IYF : You found a higher gear in the third round.
MW : Yes.
IYF : Adrenaline? Excitement because you knew you were going to win?
MW : Yes. It was my first time ever being in the third round in a pro fight, too.
IYF : Andy Anderson is also here with you today. Can you tell us about Andy, and do you guys train together?
MW : Andy gives me rounds all day long.
Andy Anderson : This is my full time job, so I’m here all day.
MW : Andy is actually our program director. So, at any point during the day, I’ll just be like, “Andy, let’s go.” And I’ll do moves on him.
AA : All the time. We’re training all the time. And people will ask us, because Mike’s teaching a lot, “How are you guys getting better? We never see you in class.” And we just say, “We’re here all day, every day.”
MW : Justin Steave is also down here a lot.
AA : Justin just got his blue belt from Warren recently.
MW : Justin is one of the most underrated fighters in Pittsburgh. He’s so good. He’s ridiculous. Justin’s one of the best sparring partners you can have, because he can knock you out at any second. But he never will. He threw a cross at me, and I was able to slip it. He followed it up with this perfect head kick. It literally would have put me to sleep. He has so much control. He stopped it at my head, took it up over my head, back around my head, took it back down, and rolled it around. He’s amazing. If you’re ready to get some battle rounds in, you call Khama. Because he goes hard! He’s a great sparring partner, also. And Mark Cherico of course, comes down too. We have a very similar fighting style, so we complement each other very well when we train. I’m lucky to have these people around me, on top of the fact that I’m getting my head boxed-off by my coach Will. Warren beats me up every day. Warren runs LONG games on me. He’ll make me think I’ve caught up for months. He’ll let me keep it close. Keep it close. And I’ll actually believe it. I’m like, “I caught up. This is it. It’s the takeover. I’m taking over!” And he’ll be like, “Just kidding.” And then he’ll totally destroy me.
IYF : Let’s talk about the Calderon fight in greater depth. You just beat him, headlining your first Main Event for Gladiators of The Cage in June. As you have said, you had a huge third round, submitting him by guillotine choke at the 2:02 mark. You told me at your after party at Gus’s in Lawrenceville, hosted by the amazing George Haritos, that you would rush your opponents right out of the gate, trying to score a takedown immediately. Why didn’t you do that in this fight?
MW : I looked at that situation as now or never. My opponents keep getting better and better. So, I haven’t fought anybody who I can’t take down. But I will. Someone is going to be there, and I’m not going to be able to take them down. So, I’ll have to stand with them. I’ve been working a lot on my stand up recently since Will came on board. I wanted to prove it to myself. You either are, or you are not. You’re either going to do it, or you’re not. So, this is the fight to do it in. I put a lot of pressure on myself in that fight to do more stand up. If something would have happened, like, if he would have shot in early and left his neck open, I was going to take. I wasn’t going to shrug it off. But I didn’t take a shot (from Calderon) in that entire fight. And I don’t think that there’s even been a minute where I haven’t taken a shot in a fight before. Maybe not even thirty seconds. So, you know, I was really proud of that. And I think it helped me grow. I think I won every single striking exchange in that fight. It gave me a lot of confidence.
IYF : What are you going to work on before your next fight?
MW : I want to keep progressing with my stand up, getting more comfortable. Getting to the point where I can hold my own with guys who are going to be better. Guys who are going to be able to come back at me crisper with combinations. I want to prepare myself to be down in a fight and pull through. You know what I mean, like losing combinations? I won every exchange in the Calderon fight, I feel. You know it’s not always going to happen like that. I need to be able to counter off those. I need better head movement. I need better accuracy. My footwork could get just tremendously better. If you watch Frankie Edgar, he could probably win fights without punching. He just moves so well. I’m really working on getting my striking better. On the ground, what I want to do is transition smoother. I want less time in between my transitions. So, every time I’m transitioning, I’m not just gaining a step, I’m gaining a step and a half. In mount, I don’t want to go to mount. I want to go to a high mount. If I pass, I don’t want to just pass. I want to pass and smash. That way I can be dangerous right away. So, that’s what we’re focusing on right now.
IYF : Where do you hope to be in one year from today?
MW : I hope I’m in the UFC. I’m confident I will be. I think it’s going to happen.
IYF : That’s awesome. At 155 lbs?
MW : Yes, at 155. I’m not going to move weight classes. I’m a 55’er. I’m a good height for a 55’er. And I’ve got room to get bigger and stronger at it. I can afford to lean out a bit and put some extra muscle on. Maybe cut from 175 or 180.
IYF : Well, we are just so excited that Dempsey is in the UFC.
MW : Yes, hopefully that opens it up for a lot of us.
IYF : To see Dempsey go first, and then hopefully Cherico, Cody Garbrandt, Khama and yourself to all get the call around the same time, it’s so exciting. You guys are like the first graduating class of Pittsburgh MMA. And then you guys will leave big shoes to fill. We’ll get to see who will be the new generation, the fighters who will be headlining for Gladiators of The Cage and Pinnacle.
MW : I think Cherico is going to be next. If we’re counting Cody Garbrandt as a Pittsburgh guy, then I’m definitely throwing him in there, too. Their profiles are so high. Skill-wise, Khama really needs to be in there. And like I said, if you want to talk about an all-around great fighter who’s not getting the press he deserves, then you’ve got to talk about Justin Steave. We all have better records than Justin, but that’s because we haven’t had as tough fights as Justin. Everybody he fights is just ridiculous good. You have to keep your eye out for Justin.
IYF : In closing, tell me about the ring interview you had with UFC fighter Jessica “Evil” Eye at Stage AE after your win last July. Fighting for Gladiators of The Cage, you had just defeated Jason Willett. Then you displayed your quick wit, answering her questions in front of some 2,000 fight fans.
MW : Yeah! She was like, “How are you doing? Or, how are you feeling since you just won the fight?” And I was pretty pumped, because at the time she was fighting 125’ers. So I was like, “I am pretty pumped to be interviewed by the women’s number one flyweight in the world.” You know?
IYF : Unfortunately, she didn’t play off of that. You’re quick. You threw her off guard.
MW : (Laughing) No, she didn’t. That’s cool, though. She was really nice. But I tweeted her and she could’ve tweeted me back! (Everyone laughs) I’m in there, all super knowledgeable about her career, and stuff. I’m a big fan. I could’ve at least gotten a retweet or something…
I never did find out if two Mike Wilkins roam, fight and coach in Western PA. I’ll have to rest in my ambiguity, at least for now. I’m just not sure. But one thing I am sure of is this – There is not a better 155 lb. fighter (or fighters) than Mike Wilkins. And we can’t wait until his “break” is over, and he gets his break all the way into the UFC.
Favorite food – Hot wings
Alcoholic Drink – Beer, any kind! And all of it! (Don’t forget to add the salt, also.)
Sports Team : Team Renzo Gracie Fight Team – Chris Weidman, Frankie Edgar
Actor – Marc Wahlberg
Movie – Foxcatcher
Musical Artist – Jay Z
Dream date – Jennifer Love Hewitt (Early JLH is better, though.)
A place to travel for the first time – Japan
MMA fighter – Frankie “The Answer” Edgar
Hero – Teddy Roosevelt
IYF MMA write up by John Neiderer III
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