The wrestlers are taking over MMA and they have big plans—score takedowns, lay and pray, win decisions, and take all the titles. Some of them even want to steal your girlfriends and wives. Non-wrestlers are literally being squeezed out of MMA. Anyone that hasn’t wrestled might as well find another sport.
Okay, now that I have your attention … I realize this may be a little over the top, but the fact is, wrestling’s influence on high-level MMA cannot be ignored. Three of the five UFC champions have wrestling bases (Frankie Edgar, Georges St-Pierre, Brock Lesnar), and the top contender in each weight class is a wrestler (Gray Maynard, Josh Koscheck, Chael Sonnen, Rashad Evans, Cain Velasquez). According to FIGHT! Magazine’s rankings, the top five fighters at 170 are all wrestlers. With more wrestlers making the move from D-I to the cage, this trend is not going away any time soon. However, is this influx of high level wrestling talent really a bad thing?
To understand why wrestlers are finding success in MMA, it is important to look at the strengths a wrestler possesses when he starts MMA training.
• 10 Year/10000 Hours
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. And again. This is the magic number generally associated with high-level athletic performance. By the time collegiate wrestlers enter MMA schools, they have easily surpassed these numbers. Most wrestlers will have also accumulated thousands of actual matches. There is no replacement for high-level competition. I don’t believe any other combat sport prepares its athletes for immediate MMA success the way wrestling does.
• Technical Crossover
Wrestlers spend time in all three games of MMA (stand up, clinch, ground). With some modifications, the clinch/wrestling game translates almost directly to MMA. Add in some basic submission defense with a wrestler’s top game and we can create a ground-and-pound machine. Arguably, wrestling is the skill that ties all of MMA together. The wrestler has the ability to dominate changes in range during a fight. With current MMA judging the way it is, this might be the most important skill in a fight.
• Strength and Conditioning
Wrestling practices are some of the hardest of any sport. The strength, conditioning, and explosive power that wrestlers bring to MMA can be scary. Many of the top wrestlers coming into MMA are world-class athletes. Wrestlers are also skilled at cutting weight and often have a size advantage in the fight.
• Wrestler/Boxer Hybrid
In my eyes, this is the most dangerous evolution of the new breed of wrestler in MMA. Confidence in takedown ability and takedown defense changes the way a fighter approaches the standup game. The ability to move forward and punch hard can overcome many technical standup problems. On a side note, one of my least favorite fights is when two good wrestlers fight. Instead of MMA, this match up has a tendency to look like a bad kickboxing match.
The fact of the matter is, sports are always evolving. Training methods, strategies, and even the fundamental properties of a sport change overtime. This is true in any sport. It is up to both the coaches and the athletes to stay on top of these changes. Sometimes the evolution is circular, and sometimes it is a new innovation pushing the competition to change. So, how do we counter the new breed of wrestler in MMA?
• Wrestling (Clinch)
We start with the following assumption: We cannot beat a world-class wrestler at wrestling. However, this does not mean we can’t catch up, especially within the context of wrestling for MMA. This involves choosing the areas of wrestling most important to MMA and learning how to apply and counter them. Georges St-Pierre is a great example of a non-wrestler applying wrestling as his base.
Crisp striking has to be mixed with solid footwork and angles. Standing in front of a wrestler and throwing sloppy punches is a guarantee that you will soon be on the ground. Having a powerful sprawl can be a boxer’s best friend.
Right now, BJJ seems to be a step behind the wrestlers in MMA. Part of the reason is the familiarity everyone has with BJJ. It is not uncommon to see a wrestler in MMA who is also a purple belt or above. Part of the answer lies in the guard. Fighters need to start using aggression to attack guard. This means mixing up continuous submission and sweep attempts, all the while trying to get back to the feet. Demian Maia is a great example of what an outstanding BJJ player can do in MMA.
WHO IS IT HURTING?
I don’t really believe that wrestling is hurting MMA. Wrestling has provided a talent base that has helped make the sport as popular as it is. As more and more world-class athletes (from wrestling and other sports) begin training and competing in MMA, the sport will continue to grow and evolve rapidly. If anything, the talent drain on wrestling due to MMA appears to be a problem for wrestling. At the recent Wrestling World Championships held in Moscow, Russia, the United States failed to take home any medal in Freestyle or Greco Roman wresting. I can’t help but wonder if some of our potential World Champion wrestlers are, instead, fighting MMA. After all, MMA has provided a place for collegiate wrestlers to continue their competitive careers and to make money doing it. The popularity of MMA will drive more young athletes to choose wrestling as there foundation in MMA. Recruiting wrestlers for MMA at the NCAA Wrestling Championships will become the norm in the near future. Wrestling will not kill MMA, but MMA might play a role in wrestling’s future.