Deron Winn fell to Hayden Zillmer in the finals of the World Team Trials (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
With one minute left, Deron Winn held a 7-4 lead over Hayden Zillmer in the second match of their best-of-three series at the World Team Trials. Zillmer had won the first match, which meant that Winn would have to hold that lead in order to have any hope of advancing to Final X and facing J'den Cox for a spot on the World Team.
Zillmer, a Minnesota native, seemed to feed off his home-state fans in Rochester. He scored with a step out to cut into the lead. He then followed up with a takedown and gut wrench to win the match 9-7.
As the clocked ticked down, it was clear that Winn was justifiably worn out. The trials process in freestyle wrestling is seemingly tedious by design. To qualify for the World Team Trials, Winn wrestled five matches and finished fourth at the U.S. Open on April 27-28. He then returned for the World Team Trials three weeks later. In the interim between those events, Winn also made his Bellator MMA debut and won by first-round knockout.
Despite packing his schedule with competition, Winn has to be at least somewhat pleased with the results. He earned a win in his big-show MMA debut and earned a spot on the U.S. National Team (top three in the country). To hear him tell it, he was not even sure about going to the Open until the week of the event.
Deron Winn battles J'den Cox at the U.S. Open (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
"I almost backed out of the Open and everything, but I actually talked to Coach [Kevin] Jackson on Monday of the week of the Open. He was telling me, 'You know, I think you're going to get a pretty good seed.' I've been there. I've wrestled at the Open six times, and I know how much of a grind it is," Winn said. "I am going to have a bunch of tough guys in a row, and it is going to be a grind. When he said I would get a pretty good seed, I said screw it and I did it."
Winn's prediction of a grind proved to be prophetic. At the Open, he won his first three matches before running into Olympic medalist J'den Cox in the semifinals. According to Winn, the two have a history that dates back to their days coming up in Missouri.
"Me and J'den kind of have a past, kind of a big brother and little brother past. I actually don't have anything against him. I beat him a couple years ago when he was fresh off his NCAA title, and there was always talk like, who would win?" Winn said. "Obviously, since he had such a great career, I think he is an amazing athlete, I really do, but I like to talk smack. A lot of people know me. I talk smack, but a lot of the time, it is just funny to me. I like messing with guys. I know I get under his skin, because people have told me that he doesn't really like it that much."
Tempers flared in the Deron Winn-J'den Cox match at the U.S. Open (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The animosity did not end with talk. With 17 seconds left in the first period, Cox raised up out of his stance and was demonstrably upset about something. While it was unclear at the time, Cox was taking issue with one of Winn's tactics.
"I couldn't get through anything he had, so I started digging my thumb into his neck a little bit, not a lot. I've done that 100 times, but I knew I was in his head when he stood up and started freaking out about it. So, you know, I didn't go right back to it, but yeah, I think I get in his head a little bit, which is a good thing," Winn said. "He's a stud, man. I'm going to have to do more than get in his head to beat him."
Cox pulled out the match with a 3-0 score. He went on the win the U.S. Open and take a spot in Final X. Winn went on the finish fourth and qualify for the Trials. However, before he could even prepare for that tournament, he had a fight for the second biggest MMA promotion in the world.
"I literally got home to Fresno on Sunday night, and then Monday morning I woke up at like 7:30 a.m. and I drove like two and a half hours to San Jose, and I sparred that day with [Daniel Cormier]," Winn said. "Then, I did the last two weeks of camp in San Jose, and I actually fought in San Jose. It was a long time coming, but it was just kind of crazy that it all came together at the same time."
Winn signed with Zinkin Entertainment in 2015 with the intention of starting an MMA career following the 2016 Olympics. He made his debut last year and won three fights via first-round knockout. Bellator has been quick to sign wrestlers. The promotion has snatched up several fighters, including Aaron Pico, Joey Davis, Jarod Trice, Romero Cotton, Tyrell Fortune, Tywan Claxton and Ed Ruth, before they have even made their professional MMA debuts. While Zinkin also represents several of these fighters, there was a different plan for Winn. He wanted to fight at middleweight, and his teammates at Dethrone Base Camp, Ruth and Chris Honeycutt, were already competing for Bellator at 185 pounds
"The original goal was for me to get to the UFC," Winn said. "With the Bellator guys, Zinkin and them have a really good relationship. We didn't want to sign with Bellator right away, and we were just going to try to get me a few fights to see if I could sign with the UFC or something other than that, but â€¦ before I even fought it was super hard for us to get opponents as a high-level wrestler."
Winn has developed a close relationship with UFC champion Daniel Cormier over the years. He admittedly models his fighting style after the former Oklahoma State wrestler and considers the man he reflexively calls "DC" to be a big brother figure.
On May 19, 2012, Cormier defeated veteran Josh Barnett in the finals of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. The bout, which took place at an arena then named HP Pavilion, was only Cormier's 10th professional fight. However, in the cage that night, he staked his claim as one of the best heavyweights on the planet. Fast forward to today, and Cormier is the current UFC light heavyweight champion and considered one of the best 205-pound fighters in history.
Seven days short of the sixth anniversary of Cormier's victory and in the same arena, now known as the SAP Center, Winn walked to the cage for his first bout in Bellator. He was set to face Ahmed White, who would be making his professional MMA debut. White, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, had also had trouble finding opponents. He had his debut scheduled twice before, but on both occasions, his opponents pulled out.
From the start, it was clear that White had the height and reach advantage. He tried to fight on his back foot and threw looping punches from his hip. While White had some limited success with this strategy, it was only a matter of time until Winn caught him with power shots. About halfway through the first round, Winn closed the distance and landed a hard right hook that dropped White. He followed up with punches on the ground. The fight was over.
"As the fight went on, I knew that if I just stalked him down ... It is hard to move backwards than forward in a fight. That is just my whole game plan. I am stalking you down. I am cutting you off. Whatever I need to do, feints, fake or grapple, if I need to, and get in and land my big shots, because I have really big power," Winn said. "You watch DC fight, and he's the same way. He comes out kind of relaxed, and a lot of these guys try to fight DC hard by striking a lot in the first round and then they get exhausted, because he is just blocking and walking you down. We are both sturdy. Like [White's] jabs, he connected with them, but they were not hurting me. I was just walking right through them. That's my whole plan, be patient, walk you down, wait until you get tired, smother you, and knock you out."
Deron Winn topped Timmy McCall to advance to the finals of the World Team Trials (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
Despite his budding MMA career, Winn still describes himself as obsessed with wrestling. He speaks of long phone calls with Cormier discussing the sport from the youth level to the Olympics. In the fall, the pair, along with former World Team member Shawn Bunch, will take over coaching duties at Gilroy High School, a program that finished this past season ranked No. 12 in InterMat's Fab 50. Winn is already familiar with the lineup and predicting future success.
"Gilroy lost a couple kids, but we still have some studs on the team, and we think with our coaching, our next level coaching, we will really develop some of these kids to the next level," Winn said. "Then in the next few years we have some studs coming up to where we will be top five in the country in high school."
Competing at a high level in both MMA and freestyle wrestling certainly seems like a tall order. While the two sports have similarities, they are also distinct. At some point, Winn might need to specialize in one or the other. For at least the immediate future, he will try to balance the life of a wrestler and the life of a fighter. With that being said, it is hard to imagine a world in which Winn strays very far from the world's oldest sport. While he did not make Final X at 92 kilograms, he is quick to analyze the match at his weight.
Deron Winn shoots a fireman's carry on Hayden Zillmer at the World Team Trials (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
"I just think that Zillmer is a stud, he trains hard, and he goes hard, but I just don't think he has the actual skills to beat J'den," Winn said. "To beat J'den you have to go get him, and I don't think Hayden can. No offense to Hayden. J'den is so hard to score on at this point in his career. That's one thing, I almost score on everyone that I wrestle, but I don't think I even sniffed a takedown against him at the Open."