MMA’s 33 Best Wrestling Wizards
Viewing their recent success in the cage, it’s a wonder amateur wrestlers were slow to embrace the fight game. Like Darwinian dropouts, the masses of former NCAA Champions and All-Americans watched as other disciplines prospered fighting in Pride and the UFC. The first wave of well-known wrestlers, including Dan Severn and Kevin Randleman, were impressive but sparse. The second wave of well-conditioned, college-trained wrestlers have built on those examples and are busy capturing titles across all major promotions, proving that wrestling is the most essential technical skill for a fighter to posses. Here are the 33 mixed martial artists who use their wrestling better than the rest.
• Stoppages: Wrestling sets up ground-n-pound and submission opportunities from the top and back position. The goal of a fight is to earn a stoppage, much as the point of wrestling is to earn a fall.
• Style Points: Blast double-leg takedowns and high amplitude throws rarely end fights, but in the eyes of the judges and viewing public, they can swing the momentum and outcome of a bout.
• Reverse Wrestling: When two mixed martial artists with comparable wrestling skills are fighting, the successful fighter can negate his opponent’s takedown attempts and win the fight with his striking.
• Ground Control : Wrestlers don’t give up their back and they don’t intentionally go to their back.
• Scrambling: When a fight goes FUBAR, the best wrestlers are able to recover position through the use of solid technique.
• Accolades: The successful application of wrestling skills inside the cage is given precedence over past wrestling accomplishments,although accolades are essential in separation and in giving non-wrestlers the recognition they deserve for playing catch-up successfully.
33. JOHNY HENDRICKS:
The Okie State alum is the most decorated collegiate wrestler in the UFC, winning two NCAA Championships for the Cowboys in 2005 and 2006. His tenacious attack allows him to score powerful takedowns and demoralizing ground control.
Hendricks earned a hard-fought majority decision over TJ Grant at UFC 113 courtesy of his ability to get the fight to the ground and beat on the well-rounded Canadian.
32. RICK STORY:
The former Southern Oregon University wrestler and NAIA All-American has the instincts to finish every shot he attempts. His wrestling ability allows him to set up his slick submissions and KO power.
Story gave Johny Hendricks his first MMA loss by hitting a nice outside single in the second round of their fight last year. He was able to extend his lead with a monster double-leg and Octagon control. Once Hendricks lost the ability to defend his legs, Story stayed aggressive with his hands and earned the win.
31. CHAD MENDES:
A minion of Urijah Faber at Team Alpha Male, Mendes has exploited weaknesses in the stand-up of every opponent he’s faced. He has some of the sport’s most energetic scrambles, along with high percentage double-legs and a transitional single-leg against the cage.
Prior to their WEC 50 bout, Cub Swanson offered insight into his matchup with Mendes, saying the challenger was pitting “his wrestling against my everything.” Swanson’s everything couldn’t stop Mendes from securing three takedowns in the first round and spending more than eight of the fight’s 15 minutes plastered to the canvas en route to a unanimous decision loss.
30. JOSEPH BENAVIDEZ:
The Team Alpha Male fighter was once a lowly 103-pound high school state champion from New Mexico. Now, his only loss in the WEC/UFC is to current champ Dominic Cruz. He’s aggressive on his feet, stays chest to the floor during scrambles, and sells out for submissions.
The guillotine finishes of Miguel Torres at WEC 47 and Wagney Fabriano at WEC 52 were indicative of his wrestling pedigree.
29. JOSH BARNETT:
“The Baby Faced Assassin” comes from a catch wrestling background, but he also possesses a bullying double-leg and strong takedown defense. When he’s not trying to lock on a toe-hold submission, he can pound his opponents out from top position.
In the main event of Sengoku II, Barnett faced longtime friend and seasoned grappler Jeff Monson. Barnett earned the unanimous decision after securing two takedowns in the final round and dishing out some GnP.
28. TYRON WOODLEY:
The Missouri Top Team star is pals with Ben Askren, and like his former Mizzou Tiger teammate, the former NCAA D-I All-American is a dominating competitor. However, unlike Askren, Woodley loves to throw his hands and create distractions while standing, which forces opponents to trade leather on their feet or risk receiving the wrong end of some serious GnP.
BJJ savant Andre Galvao probably should have had a better gameplan for Woodley in their Strikeforce bout. When the Brazilian couldn’t take Woodley down or match him with strikes, he desperately tried to pull guard. Woodley sprawled on each of Galvao’s takedown attempts, knocking Galvao out with a flurry of punches at 1:48 of round one.
27. GILBERT MELENDEZ:
The San Francisco State wrestler gave up his college grappling aspirations after meeting teammate Jake Shields, who urged Melendez to begin training MMA. Melendez used his wrestling as a base to hone his Muay Thai and BJJ skills.
In his Strikeforce Lightweight Title defense against Shinya Aoki, Melendez used a steady stream of takedowns over five rounds to force Aoki to the mat, where he stood over the Japanese submission ace and peppered him with a barrage of power punches.
26. SCOTT JORGENSEN:
The former Boise State wrestler lost a convincing decision to Dominick Cruz in December, but Jorgensen was fighting his fifth fight in 12 months. He’s aggressive in attacking submission attempts from top, and when he masters a more effective striking game, he’ll see opponents straighten up and become more vulnerable to open double-legs.
Jorgensen choked out Chad George at WEC 47 after George’s double-leg left his neck exposed. The Blue Turfer pinned George’s butt high on the cage, leveraging his neck and cranked…hard.
25. CLAY GUIDA:
He wasn’t a phenomenal high school or college wrestler, but inside the cage, he’s become a madman by controlling the ground game with a high number of successful takedown attempts. His biggest assets are his speed and aggression, which are augmented by constant level changes and the ability to finish his outside single-leg.
Guida’s last three results over Shannon Gugerty, Rafael dos Anjos, and Takanori Gomi have exemplified his growth as a wrestler: arm triangle, broken jaw, and guillotine.
24. Daniel Cormier:
Two-time Olympian Daniel Cormier is one of the few wrestlers in MMA worthy of the descriptor “world-class.” Though Cormier excelled as a collegiate and freestyle competitor, his strength has always come from his superior Greco-Roman style of upperbody throws and pummeling setups to inside trips and double-legs on the cage.
The former Okie State wrestler’s recent unanimous decision victory over Devin Cole at Strikeforce was rife with throws, trips, and smothering GnP.
23. Cole Konrad:
The Brock Lesnar training partner and Marty Morgan disciple is on his way to becoming an MMA superstar, due largely to his wrestling pedigree. Konrad was a two-time NCAA Champion at Minnesota, going undefeated in his final two years of competition. Konrad’s unmatched girth and agility allow him to concentrate on his boxing and striking, rather than double-leg defense. In the cage, he handles the action and makes it believable that he’ll never give up a takedown.
In Konrad’s Bellator Heavyweight Championship fight against Neil Grove, he took the Brit down, planted him against the cage, worked to a mount, and then softened Grove up with some GnP before transitioning to a key lock submission at 4:45 in the first round.
22. Ryan Bader:
A two-time All-American at Arizona State, Bader won TUF 8 by utilizing his blast double-leg and smothering GnP. Although he was outmatched by Jon Jones at UFC 126, Bader’s powerful physique and willingness to evolve will serve him well in upcoming fights—plus, he has a lot of punching power.
Bader earned a unanimous decision over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 119 by never letting Little Nogget comfortable. “Darth” feigned double-leg attempts to get inside the pocket and pepper Nogueira with combos, and then he took the fight to the canvas for some GnP.
21. Rampage Jackson:
B.A. Baracus is one of the most powerful wrestlers to ever compete in MMA. His brand of slam-bam fighting has meant knockout wins, enormous popularity, and a short reign as UFC Light Heavyweight Champion. Jackson’s wrestling is non-traditional—no high crotches or inside trips—but he does use the aggression and power of a wrestler to break free of submissions and create opportunities for his hands to fly.
Jackson’s powerbomb KO of Ricardo Arona during an armbar attempt is still one of the most popular MMA highlights of all-time.
20. Brock Lesnar:
The former UFC Heavyweight Champion won the 2000 NCAA Heavyweight title and enjoyed several years as a professional wrestler. Lesnar is freakishly strong, but he moves like a little guy, which has led to victories over Frank Mir, Heath Herring, and Shane Carwin.
Lesnar took a serious beating from Carwin in round one, and it appeared it would only be a matter of time before the wrestling behemoth was TKOed. However, Lesnar showed true grit in the second round, securing a double-leg and an arm-triangle submission.
19. Ben Askren:
The two-time NCAA Champion and Olympian has a 5-0 MMA record that is due entirely to his wrestling prowess. He’s a phenomenon who decided to pit his style of funk-first wrestling against the entire Bellatorfield. Askren does not throw punches. He does not throw kicks. In a way, he is a throwback to the UFC’s first fights, where competitors were categorized and stereotyped according to past expertise.
Dan Hornbuckle broke Askren’s nose with an up kick in the latter rounds of their Bellator title fight, but Askren soldiered on and scored takedowns in each of the five rounds, smothering Hornbuckle and frustrating him by relaxing while retaining full mount—the ultimate insult.
18. RANDY COUTURE:
The MMA legend is an Okie State All-American and one-time member of the Greco-Roman National Team. “Captain America” has revolutionized MMA with his smothering clinch work and devastating dirty boxing. The 47-year-old has proven time and time again that he should never be counted out.
Couture has defeated a who’s who of MMA legends, including Vitor Belfort, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Jeremy Horn, but coming out of retirement to dismantle UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia at UFC 68 was nothing short of Rocky IV.
17. MATT HUGHES:
The UFC Hall of Famer and former Militech fighter has excited fans for years with highlight-reel slams and vicious GnP. Although Hughes possesses all the physical attributes of a great wrestler, no one demonstrates the never-say-die mentality of a wrestler better than “The Country Boy.”
After being floored with a kick to the groin in his second fight with Frank Trigg, it looked like Hughes was down for the count when “Twinkle Toes” locked in a tight rear-naked choke. But Hughes wouldn’t tap, and he somehow reversed the position, forcing Trigg to submit via choke at 4:05 of round one.
16. MUHAMMED LAWAL:
Cormier’s best friend was once the brightest star in American freestyle wrestling, but he made the switch to MMA in 2008. King Mo uses a rare blend of speed and power to dominate his opponents with lighting-fast snatch single-legs and inside trips.
Lightweight Champion Gegard Moussasi wanted to keep the fight standing, but Lawal’s constant pressure and takedowns in each round helped him claim the title with a unanimous 49-46 decision.
15. JOE WARREN:
Warren is the most accomplished international wrestler in the lightweight division. The Greco-Roman grappler battled his way to a gold medal at the World Championships in 2006. Inside the cage, he’s managed to go from consistent underdog to dirty boxer and Bellator Champion.
Warren’s come-from-behind knockout against Joe Soto was less about wrestling as a skill and more of it as a mentality. Soto had pounded Warren on his feet for the first two periods, but with one punch, Warren took the fight to the mat, where everyone, including a dazed Soto, knew the fight was over.
14. PHIL DAVIS:
The NCAA Champion from Penn State always wrestled to win, and that mentality combined with upper-level technique from his college days in Happy Valley have melded with the requirements of MMA. He utilizes open double-legs, creative finishes, and a top game that is quickly becoming the most impressive in the sport, highlighted by violent knees and submission attempts.
His “Phil-mura” submission over former Edinboro wrestler Tim Boetsch at UFC 123 was something like a modified, reverse, upsidedown chicken wing. While it remains tricky to describe, this is the latest example of a wrestler creating a move in the Octagon.
13. URIJAH FABER:
The California Kid has finished 11 fights via rear-naked choke or guillotine. His creativity is unchallenged and his aggression and heart are unmatched—all are hallmarks of a wrestler. Faber’s flowing, funky, and fun wrestling style is so effective and popular, it’s been adopted by the entirety of Team Alpha Male, who have become equally known for their affection for twirling elbows, submission attacks, and standing rear-naked chokes.
Faber had lost two of three heading into his WEC 46 fight against Raphael Assuncao. Still, Faber seemed undeterred and delivered a virtuoso performance, ending the night and silencing the critics with a rear naked choke of the jiu-jitsu ace.
12. DAN HENDERSON:
The two-time Olympian has dominated opponents with his bomb of a right hand, but that fist is a result of the respect others have for his wrestling. Though he has relied on his punching in recent fights, his early career was laced with pummeling into opponents and taking them for rides.
Hendo’s resume includes the third-round knockout of Wanderlei Silva at Pride 33 and 2009 FIGHT! Magazine knockout of the year against Michael Bisping. Both knew that trading punches was a risk but that wrestling the legend was an impossibility.
11. CHAEL SONNEN:
The All-American wrestler from Oregon State is one of the best at earning takedowns and smothering his opposition once on top. He also knows how to make his opponents pay in the clinch, with a dirty boxing style reminiscent of his former training partners Randy Couture and Dan Henderson.
Sonnen’s destruction of Nate Marquardt at UFC 109 proved that his wrestling was a fight-changing skill that no other UFC fighter at 185 pounds possessed. Now, if he can just stay out of those triangles.
10. CAIN VELASQUEZ:
The current UFC Heavyweight Champion was a brutal top wrestler in college. Where many other heavyweights were content to keep position, Cain was always working. Nowadays, he’s throwing fists and kicks, but he still relies on his wrestling ability to keep him confident enough to throw kicks from a distance and talented enough to secure takedowns from close range.
The turning point in the Lesnar-Velasquez fight came after the second takedown attempt by Brock was met with an immediate escape. That lack of control and Cain’s athleticism combined to turn what was an evenly matched ground game into a standup war. Velasquez won that war with a TKOat 4:12 of round one.
9. DOMINICK CRUZ:
The kid is known more for his unorthodox use of uppercuts and Ali-esque footwork than his wrestling. Don’t be fooled. The UFC Bantamweight Champion was brought up as a wrestler. Cruz’s fast hands are his first line of protection and aggression, but when fighters clam up or move away, the Arizona-native is equally adept at finishing high single-legs and double-legs.
Cruz’s destruction of Joseph Benavidez at WEC 42 came after landing six takedowns. He also managed six takedowns against Jorgenson, who was left vulnerable after chasing the champ around the cage.
8. RASHAD EVANS:
The Michigan State alum earned his spot in the UFC by dominating the heavyweight division on TUF 2 with a steady diet of takedowns. Though he was criticized for his pragmatic, wrestling-first approach, he managed to win fights and give his striking game the time it needed to mature. Now, Rashad wins fights by intimidating with his wrestling and finishing with his explosive combinations from his feet.
Chuck Liddel and Forest Griffin have both been victim to Rashad’s quick right hand. However, it was his blanketing of Rampage and Thiago Silva that put him back in title contention.
7. JOSH KOSCHECK:
Although his face was turned into a pulp of bone fragments by Georges St-Pierre, Koscheck is still one of the best wrestlers in the welterweight division. Kos was unstoppable in college because he was able to combine superior positioning with superior training. In MMA, his positioning has been his bread-and-butter, with an occasional overhand right to seal the deal. Wrestling Wizardry:Kos used his advanced wrestling against the bigger, stronger, more athletic Anthony Johnson at UFC 106. After taking him down with a double-leg in round two, Kos softened “Rumble” up with some vicious elbows before taking his back and sinking in a rear-naked choke.
6. JON FITCH:
No college wrestler has improved more in the Octagon than Fitch. At Purdue, he was mostly a backup, but his teammates respected his work ethic and desire enough to vote him team captain. Now, he grinds out victory after victory, and no matter what the pundits say, that’s job security in the UFC.
NCAA Champion Koscheck failed to secure any takedowns in his loss to Thiago Alves, while Fitch has earned 14 takedowns in their two fights…and more importantly, two wins.
5. FRANKIE EDGAR:
Consistency pays. The former Clarion University wrestler has excellent single-leg finishes and is one of the best scrambling fighters in the lightweight division. Like Rashad Evans, the current UFC Lightweight Champion was able to develop boxing while still depending on his wrestling to win fights.
Edgar took the title from BJ Penn at UFC 112 with a steady stream of takedowns and crisp boxing. When fans called “bullshit” on his performance, he shut them up by doing the same thing to Penn at UFC 118.
4. GRAY MAYNARD:
The four-time All-American wrestler from Michigan State was a bruiser on the mats, which transitioned into a bruising MMA style. However, no wrestler has taken more shit for his lay-and-pray wrestling than Maynard. To silence his critics, he put his improved boxing skills on display in his UFC 125 draw against Frankie Edgar, flooring the champion in round one.
To earn his title shot against Edgar, Maynard had to first get through Kenny Florian at UFC 118, which looked easier than imagined as Maynard took Florian down at will and pounded on him for a unanimous decision.
3. JAKE SHIELDS:
Shield’s has branded his ground game “American Jiu-Jitsu,” which he describes as a combination of folk style wrestling and BJJ. Regardless of the title, the California native has proven brilliant at both, scoring takedowns against some of the strongest competition in the world while finishing fights from top and neutral. He has a dominating clinch and is the very best in MMA at controlling his opponents from top position.
When Dan Henderson unloaded his lead weighted right into the head of Jake Shields in round one of their Strikeforce title fight, everyone — including Shields — probably thought it was “Hasta Lasagna, Don’t Get Any On Ya.” However, Shields hung tough, maintained his composure, and out-wrestled the two-time Olympian, eventually winning the five-round fight.
2. GEORGES ST-PIERRE:
In a mixed martial arts world over run bycollege wrestlers, the man with no wrestling background has become one of it’s most successful practitioners. Maybe it’s the desire for knowledge or the eschewing of distractions, but few in the history of the sport have been able to capture then employ the techniques of wrestling better than GSP. His double-legs are lightning fast, he’s creative in scrambles, and his cage ownership allows him to dictate the pace of any match. While he’s No. 2 on this list, he is not likely to make the Canadian Olympic Team—freestyle wrestling is a complicated sport filled with foolish rules that are non-complimentary to St-Pierre’s grappling style.
St-Pierre’s first fight against NCAA Champion Josh Koscheck proved GSP was a worthy wrestler. The second match against Kos solidifi ed his position as one of he best. Koscheck was forced to respect GSP’swrestling, which led to farther distancing and the subsequent orbital-smashing jabs of the champ.
1. JON JONES:
“Bones” is not the best prep wrestler on the list, but he is the best wrestler in MMA. Where Severn and Couture introduced what was possible for wrestlers, and wrestlers like Maynard and Evans used it to develop better hands, Jones has mastered and utilized his techniques in a completely unique way. Jones is a third wave of MMA wrestler—a guy who possesses the techniques, owns unique athleticism, and uses wrestling with fluidity in competition. He’s taken wrestling from being the glue that holds MMA together, to being more of the caulk—able to bend and conform to his environment. His affection for wrestling is displayed everytime he walks out with his Warriors Wrestling jacket. Inside the cage, you’ll notice his trips, throws, double-legs, and submissions are an ode to all those guys who came before and a notice to all who will come after.
Bonnar: tossed. Hammil: tripped. Matuschenko: bonked. Bader: choked. Every fight has been a highlight reel of high amplitude throws, off-balanced trips, and vicious top control. The most amazing piece of wrestling was probably the more subtle techniques used to disjoint Bader’s head from his neck at UFC 126. After his front headlock takedown, Jones used a cradle to reposition Bader and make him fight vertical, thereby leaving his neck exposed to a modified guillotine.