Wrestling: The Great Equalizer To Every MMA Match

mark munoz wrestling stance

Mixed martial arts has come a long way since the Gracie family brought the Ultimate Fighting Championship to the United States in 1993. In the past 10 years alone the sport has undergone drastic changes, not just in the rules that make up the sport, but in the fighting styles that combatants bring into the cage. Today’s fighting styles can be broken down into three general categories: striking, wrestling and jiu-jitsu. Of these categories, wrestling is the great equalizer — it exists as a bridge between striking and jiu-jitsu, and as MMA has evolved over time, wrestling has offered its elite practitioners the easiest entry into MMA because it can neutralize the strengths of the other two categories.

It's not that wrestling is a better or superior discipline in isolation than any other. Rather, in today's current era of MMA, high-level wrestlers have excelled at a pace exceeding other single discipline practitioners because its components nullify the strengths of the other categories more effectively than the other way around. To understand how this happened we’ve got to look back at how MMA has evolved in the United States.

UFC 1 was a grand experiment. It was created largely for two purposes. First, to answer an age-old question about which style of martial arts was the best. If you matched up the best of each discipline, which art form would be victorious? Second, the tournament was the introduction of Gracie Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) to the popular masses. UFC 1 did a much better job of accomplishing its second task than its first.

In 1993, the very concept of cage fighting was distasteful to many in the U.S. For that reason and many others (including lack of money and interest), UFC 1 didn't include the best representatives of each discipline. The professional boxer that night, Art Jimmerson, was at best a journeyman and had a 25-9 record. He retired from boxing in 2002 with a record of 33-18, having lost his last nine fights. The other professional boxer at UFC 1 was Kevin Rosier, who was also a WKA kickboxing champion with a pro boxing record of 7-17.

Of course there were better fighters that night, but the general point remains the same.  The representatives were good but not elite.

UFC’s biggest fault, however, was the glaring omission of any wrestlers. Teila Tuli, the sumo wrestler, doesn't count. Sumo does not share any of the characteristics that have made wrestling the trump card it has become in MMA. Ken Shamrock kind of counts. He wrestled in high school but never even placed in the state tournament, and he never wrestled in college or thereafter. Shamrock’s stints in professional wrestling circuits, like the WWF(E), are irrelevant.

The UFC could have tried to recruit real wrestlers like Kevin Jackson or Bruce Baumgartner — both 1992 Olympic Gold medalists — but that was very unlikely. Can you imagine what a fight between Royce Gracie and either of these men would have looked like? I can guarantee you they would not have been taken down by the subpar double-leg tackles Gracie used against other competitors — but more on jiu-jitsu takedowns later.

Even though the first UFC tournament didn't gather the best of all disciplines, it did serve as a brilliant marketing platform for Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Royce Gracie, a recently promoted black belt under Grandmaster Hélio Gracie, was 6’1’’ and weighed about 170 lbs. Through grit and the use of a mysterious skill set, he became the UFC's first champion.

He was not the obvious first choice, however. That was Royce's older brother, Rickson, who was heavier, generally a better physical specimen and more battle-tested. But when the Gracies decided to pick their representative, they specifically wanted to eliminate size as a part of the equation for evaluating Brazilian jiu-jitsu. If Rickson had won, people could have pointed to his size and strength as the reason for his victory. But with Royce, there was little to point to but his skills.

Royce was successful in part because of the refined technique the Grandmaster had bore into him since before he could walk. But he was also successful because at the time, Brazilian jiu-jitsu was so foreign that its novelty was beyond compression. In other words, it had the element of surprise.

Even if the striking disciplines (boxing, Muay Thai, etc.) didn’t have long histories, people would still intuitively know that when someone's fist or foot is flying rapidly through the air, you don't want your face to be the landing pad. The same can’t be said about the setups for an arm bar or a triangle choke.

The fighters at UFC 1 and for many years thereafter, when faced with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, had no concept of where the danger was coming from. They were blind men walking onto a minefield without even knowing it, unsure if their next move would be their last.

Fast-forward to the present. MMA is different than it was just 10 years ago and leagues away from how it existed in the first few UFC tournaments. Why?

First, the proliferation and popularization of Brazilian jiu-jitsu after UFC 1 changed the martial arts culture and ranks of professional fighting. As every professional fighter has added Brazilian jiu-jitsu to his or her arsenal, the effectiveness of BJJ has decreased. I’m not saying BJJ is ineffective. I’d be crazy to say that. But relatively speaking, BJJ isn’t as effective as it was at UFC 1 because now people better understand the danger BJJ poses.

In the world of blind men, the one-eyed man is king. But as BJJ technique spread, the mystery of the sport diminished and the setups for chokes and locks became more obvious. The blind became near-sighted and eventually learned to see quite well.

In the professional ranks what many recognized is that in order to compete they didn’t need to become Grandmasters themselves but had to develop, at the very least, a basic understanding of defensive jiu-jitsu. They had to learn how to avoid the most common submissions. That would allow them to stay in the fight long enough to use their stronger skill set.

Over time professional fighters have done just that. There are now plenty of fighters who've never submitted anyone and aren't likely to do so, but have successfully avoided being submitted even against some well-known and respected BJJ practitioners.

Great BJJ guys on the whole aren’t great strikers and don’t employ ground and pound as much as wrestlers. So when you’re on the ground against them, the first concern is submission defense.

Take Tim Kennedy for example. He's got eight submissions on his record. Leading up to his fight with Roger Gracie, he was considered a proficient jiu-jitsu player. And despite his black belt in the sport, there is no one who would put money down on him beating Gracie in a pure jiu-jitsu match. Roger Gracie is a seven-time BJJ World Champion, not to mention a champion in two weight classes at Abu Dhabi. He’s not only one of the best BJJ guys in MMA — he’s one of the best jiu-jitsu guys in the world. Yet, to the surprise of many, not only did Kennedy defend himself brilliantly on the ground, but he also managed to inflict some damage while he was down there.

Kennedy is a great example of what has been happening across the sport for the past 10 years. As fighters have focused on jiu-jitsu defense, it’s allowed some to excel to the point that they can defend against world champions.

So where does wrestling fit in to all this?

Wrestling, especially freestyle/folk style (the kind where you're allowed to tackle the legs), has served as a sort of antidote to the poison pill of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Jiu-jitsu guys hate to hear this, but their takedowns are atrocious. Especially when it's no-Gi, takedowns aren't set up with much finesse and are often telegraphed a mile away. Even the great Royce Gracie was guilty of this at UFC 1. A strong wrestler should be able to avoid getting taken down. If he does, then it doesn’t matter if the jiu-jitsu fighter is Abu Dhabi champion because his greatest asset has been nullified.

Against strikers, wrestlers can do the extract opposite. Taking down a boxer or Muay Thai fighter (like Anderson Silva) neutralizes the striker’s most dangerous set of tools.

Take Ben Askren for example. Many have criticized him for his repeated use of wrestling to take guys down and slowly pound them into a decision victory. Askren’s ground and pound has been developing slowly so he hasn't knocked many guys out, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any news reporter who'd say he wasn't in full control of his opponents.

In the recent past, good and great (not necessarily elite) wrestlers have been very successful at neutralizing their striking and jiu-jitsu opponents. You see, often the most touted wrestlers in MMA are only All-American college wrestlers (Chad Mendes, Gray Maynard, Chris Weidman, Cain Velasquez, etc.). Obviously, that is a huge accomplishment. But in the world of wrestling it is far from elite. It's not the same as NCAA champions (there are a few of those in MMA: Phil Davis, Bubba Jenkins, Mark Munoz). It's not a two- or three-time NCAA champion (the only two-time champion currently in MMA is undefeated Belator welterweight champion Ben Askren). And it's certainly not a world champion. It's not even in the same breath as an Olympic medalist (there are only two active in MMA: Matt Lindland and Henry Cejudo).

MMA has only one Wrestling Olympic gold medalist: Henry Cejudo, who is currently 3-0. He's got the skills to never go off his feet unless he chooses. Imagine this: an All-American like Chris Weidman took down the greatest striker, the greatest MMA fighter in the world, Anderson Silva, with absolute ease. Weidman, at best, is only half as good a wrestler as Henry Cejudo!!!

I'm not saying that wrestling alone is the greatest discipline. Or that Cejudo is certain to become an MMA star. But in placing odds on how well he’ll do, or how well a Jordan Burroughs or Jake Varner — both 2012 Wrestling Olympic gold medalists — would do, you’ve got to consider that good wrestlers, just All-American wrestlers, have done extremely well.

As effective as wrestling is today, it used to be even more effective. In fact, it was so brutally effective that the rules of MMA changed to both level the playing field and eliminate some of the “viciousness” of the sport.

There was a time when wrestlers like Mark Kerr could double-leg someone to the ground and quickly move into side mount. From there, fighters today use elbows, hammer fists, and look for Kimuras or Americanas — all valid and smart techniques. But they are not the most logical or effective.

A staple of a wrestler’s ground and pound used to include knees like you see in the video above. From side mount you could knee opponents and end a fight quickly. When the rules banned that, it disadvantaged wrestlers, with their penchant for takedowns, the most. It also had the effect of giving jiu-jitsu fighters a leg up against wrestlers.

BJJ fighters spend their lives learning to defend themselves from guard, half-guard, full mount and side mount. Most often they’re defending against submissions and punches. Knees to the face just don’t enter into the equation. Without that hard, blunt tool to breakthrough the protective barrier of jiu-jitsu, BJJ fighters have added chances to improve their position or escape from danger altogether.

Mark Coleman — the first UFC Heavyweight Champion and friend/workout partner of Kerr — best summarizes the second rule change that affected wrestlers greatly:

"When they took away headbutts, I had to learn some skills."

Wrestlers have hard heads. Every wrestler worth his salt knows that. Why? Head position in wrestling is extremely important. Wrestlers use their heads as another limb to force an opponent’s body into the right position and often just to merciless grind into the face of an opponent — using pain to get what finesse cannot.

Over the course of years, a wrestler’s forehead develops a hardness that is far beyond any other fighter’s. Strikers and jiu-jitsu fighters simply don’t think of the head as tool in the way wrestlers do, so while they could also use headbutts in MMA, wrestlers would be the more natural employers of the technique. To be sure, the headbutt is a rustic tool, but an effective one. A Muay Thai clinch would be less compromising if a wrestler was allowed to headbutt his way out of it. Various forms of a jiu-jitsu guard would be similarly disadvantaged if a wrestler could headbutt when his arms were otherwise occupied.

MMA has come a long way in the past 20 years. The sport has attracted elite strikers, elite BJJ practitioners and a smattering of elite wrestlers, but nowhere near at the same rate. Good wrestlers have excelled in MMA by nullifying the greatest strengths of their opponents, sometimes by keeping the fight on their feet, or other times by make sure the fight stays on the ground.

In a few short weeks, the International Olympic Committee will vote to determine if the oldest combat sport in the Games will keep its rightful place in the Olympics. Not only should the sport maintain a place at the Olympic table because of its broad international appeal, and because it is in many ways the most grueling test of physical will at the games, but MMA fans the world over should hope wrestling stays an Olympic sport because it will continue to motivate people to achieve the apex of the wrestling discipline. By definition, not all will make it. Along the way people will be weeded out, and they’ll bring their refined skills into MMA, making it a truly mixed martial arts form. And sometimes, just sometimes, MMA will be lucky enough to get a Ben Askren, or Daniel Cormier, or Henry Cejudo, who’ve tasted elite-level wrestling and can show MMA fans that one of the most dangerous things in the world is a determined wrestler.

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