Take a Position

Is wrestling ruining MMA?

Long before there was modern MMA, there was wrestling, and despite the rapidly increasing popularity of MMA and jiu-jitsu, the most popular combat sport offered by high schools and colleges is still wrestling. It’s no surprise that a common career path to the cage shoots across numerous wrestling mats along the way. Regardless of the demonstrated success and numerous titles of former Olympic and NCAA wrestlers in the UFC, there are many fans claiming that “wrestlers are ruining MMA.”

Not since Royce Gracie coerced Art “One Glove” Jimmerson to tap at UFC 1 due to a full mount has position alone so famously finished a fight (well, sumo Emmanuel Yarborough did submit Tatsuaki Nakano via belly smother, but that’s another story). There’s no doubt that pure wrestling lacks the finishing potential of striking or jiu-jitsu disciplines, but being able to control your opponent and establish dominant position can eventually set up finishes by strikes and submissions. So, what do the numbers say? Are wrestlers making MMA boring?

GROUND CONTROL

Historical UFC data from 2002 to 2010 shows that fighters are actually spending more time standing during fights, specifically in a distant standing position rather than in the clinch. While more than half of all fight minutes in 2002 were spent on the ground, that number has been declining recently, and it approached only one-third of fight minutes in 2010.

If wrestlers were truly taking over the sport, you would see an increasing amount of time spent on the ground where they are most experienced—and less time standing and striking where a wrestler would be more vulnerable. Yet, that is not the case. In fact, going to ground is still occurring at approximately the same rate, and the number of takedown attempts per minute as well as the overall success rate of takedown attempts have both been roughly constant since 2002. That also means takedown defense has not improved in recent years, but has been stable, despite the addition of many high profile wrestlers to elite MMA ranks.

There are only two noticeable differences during the time period from 2002 to 2010. First, once on the ground, fighters are choosing to spend less time in full guard and more time in a hovering attack stance over their opponents. However, they spend just as much time in advanced ground positions such as mount or side control. Second, due to standups occurring more frequently (a refereeing decision), fights are going to ground just as often but staying there for less time. Most criticism of wrestlers focuses not on whether they take opponents down but what happens after they’re on the ground.

STAYING BUSY

When a fight hits the ground, position is extremely important, and controlling an opponent is a clear path to grinding out a decision victory. If wrestlers are truly ruining MMA with boring fights, we should look at offensive activity metrics once fights are on the ground.

First, let’s check striking. From 2002 to 2010, the average rate of striking per minute spent on the ground rose slightly to about 14 total strikes per minute. Of these strikes, more than one-third were aimed at the head, and power strikes to the head landed with nearly 60% accuracy. None of these performance metrics changed significantly during the period in question. When we examine grappling
activity, fighters have increased their submission attempts, guard passes, position defense, and even their use of sweeps.

Actually, wrestlers are not ruining the sport by any means. As
MMA continues to evolve, we should appreciate that the level of skill continues to climb, and fighters are more competitive than ever before. Sure, there are occasional snoozers that seem to stall out on the ground, and live spectators are within their rights to vocalize displeasure. However, as the fan base grows, more and more newbies are filling the ranks and they may not fully appreciate what they’re witnessing. Fighters are risking a lot to enter the cage—all for our entertainment. We should appreciate that fighters have actually elevated their game and boosted their offensive skills in recent years.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?

• Fighters are spending more time in a stand-up position.

• Takedown attempts and takedown defense have remained stable, but standups happen more frequently, leading to less time on the ground.

• On the ground, fighters consistently spend a little more than one-third of their time past full guard, and this has not changed.

• The rate of ground striking has not declined, nor have submission attempts or the use of sweeps.

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