Will wrestling forever be the dominant mixed martial art?
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It’s difficult to refute the fact that wrestling has become the hegemonic entity of mixed martial arts. Those involved directly in the sport, including athletes and analysts alike recognise this undeniable truism. Brock Lesnar declared in a recent pre-TUF 13 conference call that “To be able to take a fight wherever you want is very powerful in this sport. I just look across the board and I see wrestlers starting to take this sport to another level”. This was a sentiment that the South Dakota behemoth reiterated having witnessed his last-choice pick (a German stand-up fighter) get completely outwrestled by a decorated American wrestler. In other words, Wrestling 101. Sound familiar? Innumerable instances spring to mind. In fact conjuring up the moniker of one great alone, “the Natural”, on how many occasions can you recall a fight in which Randy Couture has utilised his stifling tactics (namely “Wall and Stall” and “Lay and Pray”) to grind out a decision victory over sometimes more talented foes?
Joe Rogan, iconic cageside colour commentator, elaborated on this topic during his excerpt on Phil Davis’s pre-Nogeuira fight blog by underscoring the importance of wrestling. He pointed out that wrestling is the optimal base discipline at which to become proficient, and thereafter the other skills may be accumulated on top of this fundamental platform. So, has wrestling become the holy grail of the holy trinity (wrestling, kickboxing, BJJ)? If, as Jon Jones articulated during his much-publicised appearance on Jay Leno, the purpose of mixed martial arts is to ascertain the “best”/most powerful realm of combat, then can’t we confirm with a degree of certainty that wrestling is currently the most dominant martial art?
At present as I scribe these musings, it would be extremely myopic to dismiss the sport’s strong wrestling trend; 5 of the 7 existing UFC champions (Cruz, Edgar, GSP, Jones, Velasquez) have wrestling backgrounds, whilst 6 of the 7 current no.1 contenders (Faber, Maynard, Shields, Sonnen, Rashad, Lesnar) would affirm that wrestling is their base. These statistics serve to underscore this specific “art’s” supremacy within the sport’s elite organisation. The champions that lack a wrestling background comprise two of the sport’s phenomenons (Aldo, Silva- whose only real challenge of late has arrived against the inimitable wrestling juggernaut Chael Sonnen-), freakishly talented athletes that are very much an exception to the rule. In this sense, such athletes constitute anomalies. Not only is wrestling indispensable at the upper echelon of the sport, but also for budding prospects, as attested to by the fact that half of 18 previous TUF winners and runners up have entered the competition with a pure wrestling background. The patent conclusion would evidently be that wrestling is progressively becoming a pre-requisite component of the blueprint for success in mixed martial arts.
Brock Lesnar perhaps best epitomises/exemplifies the clout of the “noble art”. A standout wrestler as both an amateur and a professional, Lesnar made the transition from the WWE to the UFC and his wrestling skills seamlessly translated into MMA (with Jeremiah Riggs substantiating that the prospective transition is bilateral), with Lesnar rapidly becoming the Heavyweight champion within a mere/Mir (intentional double entendre) 3 fights. Whether you choose to ascribe this phenomenon to the values inculcated by wrestling during one’s youth (such as discipline and determination) or the blatant physical attributes instilled by the sport (an often monstrous physique-wrestlers in all weight categories generally prove to be the most impressive physical specimens-), it would appear that the leverage exerted by wrestling cannot, and will not, be denied.
Those closest to the sport also underline that MMA is de facto increasingly tailored towards collegiate and/or Olympic wrestlers, a sport in which Americans traditionally excel. The highly-respected Pat Militech pointed out during a recent broadcast that legalising elbows on the ground (part of the unified rules that has now been introduced into Strikeforce following the Zuffa takeover) strongly favours wrestlers. In keeping with this vein of thought, Nick Diaz, during one of his notorious invectives delivered to Ariel Helwani, emphasized that modern-day cage-fighting is “geared up towards wrestlers, unlike back in Pride where there were more technical martial artists”. Of course the spiritual home of martial arts has been relocated from Japan to North America, and maybe a cynic would deign to suggest that the rules have been moulded to benefit the participants that emanate from the new home of mixed martial arts. After all, the British have always had boxing, the Dutch kick-boxing, Thais Muay-Thai, Brazilians Jiu-Jitsu, Chinese Karate, Japanese Judo, Korean Taekwondo, Russian Sambo, so Americans would need to originate and dominate a martial art. Wrestling, whilst certainly a martial art (the dictionary defines martial arts as “literally meaning arts of war but usually referred as fighting arts, are extensive systems of codified practices and traditions of combat. Martial arts all have similar objectives: to physically defeat other persons or defend oneself or others from physical threat”), is a modern Western Martial art that relies more on pure brute strength than technique, as opposed to a highly intricate ancient Eastern martial art.
The title’s question is one which I have been pondering for a protracted period of time. As an MMA enthusiast from the UK, it particularly disconcerts me that a Brit may never reign supreme at the pinnacle of a UFC weight division unless certain dramatic changes occur, including the introduction of wrestling into our school system by secondary school level at the very latest (in the US kids commence wrestling in primary school), so that it becomes an immanent part of British sporting activity. In the likely event that this does NOT materialise (unfortunately the negative stigma that remains attached to MMA by the mainstream renders it highly improbable that schools will incorporate wrestling with the ultimate objective of enhancing our pedigree in the UFC), Brits that want to pursue a career in MMA seemingly possess only a small number of options; relocate permanently/temporarily to the US from as early an age as possible (post studies at 16 or 18), though this entails numerous inherent financial (not to mention logistical Visa) complications, or procure the assistance of wrestling coaches in the UK (though yet again this is not without difficulty).
Given that some Americans may possess a decade’s worth more experience in the area of college wrestling (one could also contend that a sport is easier to absorb during one’s formative years), it will always prove nigh on impossible for a Brit (even with intensive coaching) to acquire a level of wrestling tantamount to that of an NCAA All-American goliath. Consequently, at the very least, a Brit is compelled to attain a level of skill in the field that will assist in nullifying the wrestling credentials of his adversary in the cage (thereby not necessarily mastering the art of wrestling but to be able to readily harness it to their advantage). I am of course alluding to Take Down defence. The inability of both Dan Hardy and Paul Daley to stuff a TD prevented them from obtaining, and being provided an opportunity to vie for, the Welterweight championship belt respectively. It is that simple. Both GSP and Josh Koscheck realised this would likely be the case, and they exploited it ruthlessly. GSP (who embodies this notion that wrestling is required to become TTP in MMA) even explicitly stated that this would constitute his game plan, yet Hardy remained powerless to negate it. It appears, therefore, that Brits have at times entirely neglected this facet of the sport. The preceding examples should provide ample evidence of the repercussions of doing so.
Whilst Chuck Lidell’s legendary capacity to “Sprawl and Brawl” invariably enabled the “Iceman” to retain the fight in his domain, wrestlers are typically persistent, and will thus persevere in their attempts to transition the fight to the ground, rendering a portion of time on the mat a sheer inevitability (also, it is oft-overlooked that Chuck himself had gained invaluable experience in wrestling at university). For British martial artists, with only a rudimentary grasp of wrestling, coupled with the increasing calibre owned by the influx of world class wrestlers into the UFC (Brock Lesnar, Phil Davis to name but a couple), the future of UK cage-fighters in the UFC looks uncertain unless wrestling (or the lack thereof) is imminently tackled.
Purely ameliorating defensive-minded wrestling may not necessarily suffice, and in fact may provide nothing but a quick-fix solution to the substantive exercise of learning how to comprehensively wrestle. Whilst judging continues to prove a major bone of contention in MMA, with arbitrary criteria determining outcomes, it appears that defending a takedown (and subsequently dictating the location of a fight) is not always acknowledged as it should be. I direct you, amongst the myriad available examples, to Sanchez-Kampmann and Davis-Nogueira (round 1 in particular). To the contrary, those who have endeavoured to impose their will (yet ultimately failed to do so) have been venerated for their efforts. This represents just one of the plurality of issues which need to be addressed imminently by the governing bodies that formulate the judging principles.
Another mode (commonly construed as a Plan B) in which to countervail strong wrestling would be to drastically develop one’s grasp of BJJ grappling or submission wrestling, so as to ensure that you could prove effective whilst on the ground in addition to potentially deterring an opponent from taking the fight to the mat. However, whilst Hardy may be congratulated for the marked improvement in his BJJ game (a testament to his intensive training in the art, and attributed to the employment of an elite BJJ coach at Team Rough House in Nottingham) within a sole year between fights with GSP and Anthony Johnson (evidenced by the fact that he progressed from exclusively defending submission attempts to proactively seeking them), “Rumble” was still able to largely dominate the grappling from top position, and this is characteristic of most wrestlers nowadays when they assume the top position against a BJJ practitioner (see Davis-Nogueira, in which a wrestler was comfortably able to out-grapple a black-belt BJJ specialist without being seriously threatened by a single submission attempt). Indeed, the wrestler-BJJ dynamic has altered considerably since the sport’s inception nearly two decades past. Originally, as substantiated by Royce Gracie’s victories at UFC 1, 2 and 4 tournaments, BJJ proved the superior martial art. A large portion of its success was due to the mere fact that it was a relatively unknown artform, yet once fighters became familiar with BJJ, it struggled to retain its mystique and effectiveness. As perfectly encapsulated by the king of contradiction Nick Diaz; “Nowadays everybody’s a BJJ guy even if they ain’t”. Ultimately BJJ was supplanted by wrestling, and hitherto those martial artists with a non-wrestling background are still endeavouring to concoct the most expedient antidote.
It has been posited that some genus of takedown limit could be applied. However, it is verisimilar that the UFC will never incorporate this. The organisation would probably claim that it could not vindicate such a stipulation. After all, strikers are not circumscribed to the amount of punches they are permitted to throw, and similarly submission artists are not constrained by a cap on submission attempts. Following such logic, a wrestler may contest why he/she should be limited in enacting his specific forte. I would be inclined to concur. The concept of a TD limit is of course contingent upon the extent to which wrestlers continue to dominate the sport of MMA. As a fan, I think I speak for the majority when I claim that I would prefer to see an array of arts on display (a veritable assortment of knock outs, TKOs, takedowns, grappling and submissions). After all, it is precisely this diversity which relentlessly draws us to the sport. Unfortunately, there exists the distinct danger, of course, that MMA could essentially develop into a glorified, marginally more dynamic version of wrestling.
It also depends on the implementation of sensible refereeing. Vicious “Ground ‘n’ Pound” too often relents to docile “Lay ‘n’ Pray”, without the necessary action taken by officials to dissuade such sterile and fruitless “activity”, which ultimately leads to non-event fights. Octagon arbiters must be more consistent in their enforcement of the rules. If a wrestler isn’t proactively seeking to conclude a fight on the ground, whether by ground ‘n’ pound or submission, then return the combatants to their feet. It is that straightforward, yet frequently neglected by a number of cage umpires. Even Dana White concurs that a pure wrestling-based bout is decidedly monotonous; after enduring the bout between Shamar Bailey and Nordin Asrih, he uttered with a wry smile “Round 1 he lay on top of him for 5 minutes, round 2 he lay on top of him for 5 minutes, not the most exciting fight in ultimate fighter history”. Whilst White was left to vocalise the verdict of most, the onus lay (mind the pun) with the referee to prevent a “snoozefest”. Yet, some would maintain that the responsibility rests with Asrih, whose duty as a mixed martial artist is to become well-versed/adept in all areas. Bailey had even intimated his intentions to physically and technically overwhelm his opponent via takedowns and grappling; “I know he likes to stand and bang…But I think there’s a little difference between European fighting and American fighting”.
Perhaps the most droll part of TUF 13 Ep 1 was the German’s post-fight comments, which intrinsically revolved around the idea that had Nordin wanted to physically embrace (aka “cuddling”) a fellow human being for ten minutes, he would have preferred to have returned to his wife. In keeping with such sentiment, Dan Hardy recently apologised to his Twitter followers for the onerous one-sided wrestling match with Antony Johnson, apportioning the culpability firmly on the man known as “Rumble”. Johnson’s retort; “Tell Hardy to go f*ck himself, and learn to wrestle, if he wants to keep the fight standing”. Hardy felt slightly aggrieved by the fact that Johnson had promised a slugfest, but ultimately delivered a “hugfest”. Johnson, however, did not transgress any official UFC rules which declare that a fighter must choose his proverbial “poison” (or weapon of choice) prior to entering the Octagon, instead opting to not comply with such tacit pre-fight talk etiquette. Such public reflections by British fighters directed towards “negative” American wrestlers have become commonplace (Dre Winner to Nick Lentz, Dan Hardy to various fighters) but to little or no avail. Indeed, UFC fighters have become too professional nowadays to be enticed into a mindless brawl, they are innately risk-averse and understandably want the “W” which guarantees the acquisition of more revenue and retention of a place on the overcrowded roster (Dan Hardy’s attempts to lure the ever-sensible GSP into a boxing match were quite frankly risible. Fighters like GSP arguably don’t fight to entertain any longer, but rather to protect their legacy and brand). The ostensible frustration experienced by European fighters towards the stalling tactics of their American wrestler counterparts was instantiated by the mercurial/enfant terrible Paul Daley, and manifested itself with a sucker punch landed to the face of Josh Koscheck following on from Daley’s decision shut-out (ironically, Nick Diaz empathised with this exasperation felt when being subjected to “Lay and Pray” that dictates a fight). This inexcusable outburst cost him a place on the roster.
So have you guessed the conclusion? That the only remaining inexorable solution would be to accept, embrace and conquer the entire wrestling facet of the game. It is rarely eye-catching/captivating, it is infrequently pretty/popular, but it remains wholly necessary in order to win fights at certain junctures. After all, the ability to wrestle (both offensively and defensively) can significantly improve one’s chances of influencing/controlling the whereabouts and nature of the bout, the crux of MMA which purportedly (though not always as outlined above) decides the fight in the eyes of the cageside adjudicators. So it’s high time we discard any negative connotations attached to wrestling, tantamount to aggressive “cuddling” in the viewpoint of those Brits who believe that it is inherent in our DNA to “stand and bang”. Whilst the negative stigmatisation carried by the ilk of wrestling that stultifies contests (aka “Lay and Pray”) is justified, effective wrestling wins fights.
Conversely, the inability to wrestle will always render the Brits/Pan-Europeans more susceptible in the context of any combat sport which comprises the “art”. Without wrestling, Brits are destined to always be mid-tier fighters, gatekeepers if you will, with a miniscule probability of leading a UFC weight division. I’d go as far to say that without it, the majority of Brits are merely quasi/pseudo-mixed martial artists in the modern milieu of ultimate prize-fighting. We have reached an MMA plateau, overly one-dimensional in a self-proclaimed multi-faceted sport. As glorified boxers/kick-boxers they will always pose a threat, the so-called “puncher’s chance”, but then again so did James Toney (and the man from Xtreme Couture made an extreme example of “Lights out”).
It strikes me (unintentional pun) as purely a short-term policy on behalf of Dan Hardy to specify a fellow stand-up opponent for his one fight reprieve in the UFC. As much as I attempt to overlook comments by internet trolls who revel in negativity, one such keyboard warrior made a valid point in declaring that Hardy should transition to K-1 tournaments if he is adamant on selecting stand-up dance partners. As Brad Wharton of MMABay, it’s inevitable that Hardy will eventually have to encounter a wrestler (especially if he has designs on challenging for a title) and the conundrum needs to be deciphered. Indeed, any aspiring Brit in any weight division is liable to meet a wrestler as he converges upon the upper echelons of the sport. It is no coincidence that Michael Bisping has fared better than any Brit within the sport’s ultimate playing field, the UFC, and this may be partially ascribed to his series of decent performances against decorated wrestlers such as Josh Haynes, Matt Hamill, Rashad Evans and Dan Miller, ensuring that his stock has remained positive and leaving him on the cusp of title contention. In fact, Bisping has even employed takedowns when facing inferior neophyte wrestlers such as Rivera. Bisping will face superior wrestlers again as he claws his way towards a shot at the coveted belt, including characters such as Chael Sonnen and Nate Marquardt, though his past endeavours indicate that he is better-equipped than his British counterparts to admirably cope with these challenges.
I may seem stern in my humble opinion and terminology, but I have the purest intentions; first of all, our glaring wrestling deficiency is no secret, but rather a well-publicised/documented fact. If the casual observer may detect it, then a professional fighter will telegraph it and exploit accordingly. My constructive criticism will hopefully precipitate the change signalled prior and form part of the catalyst to Brits becoming adept wrestlers, and therefrom more well-rounded mixed martial artists. After all, nothing would delight me more than to see a Brit hoist a significant MMA belt.* By writing this article I must emphasize that I do not wish to tarnish the cachet of British MMA, nor do I intend to convey an overridingly pessimistic impression for the future of British MMA. After all, our boys are widely perceived to possess some of the best stand-up in the game (Mike Chiappetta, eminent MMA writer, recently described Paul Daley as a “British bomber”, and he stood toe-to-toe with the consensus best boxer in MMA, Nick Diaz, and could have arguably out-boxed the 209 native had he been able to also match the triathlete’s impressive cardio levels). But, imagine the prospects our fair nation/Blighty would yield should teenagers training in mixed martial arts also receive wrestling tuition akin to that provided in the U.S. This, combined with our innate propensity towards boxing and kickboxing would undoubtedly engender some future greats.
*I write as Paul Daley only a matter of days following Paul Daley’s fight against Nick Diaz for the Strikeforce Welterweight. Had he prevailed, many would have pointed towards Nick’s lack of offensive wrestling, thereby his inability to remove Paul from his comfort zone, as a crucial factor (even Britain’s most recognisable/premier MMA reporter, Gareth A Davies, commented pre-fight on MMA Live that “Diaz doesn’t have the collegiate or Olympic wrestling background which is the kryptonite for so many British fighters”). I would also indicate that the Strikeforce belt is not parallel to a UFC belt (MMA’s premiere organisation). Although each fight should ordinarily be considered in isolation, Daley was comfortably outpointed by Kos, who was even more comfortably outfought by GSP. Logically, I think it’s safe to envisage that Daley would not defeat GSP if he were to fight for the belt, in what would most likely result in a carbon copy of GSP-Hardy or Kos-Daley (the much maligned “snoozefest”).
By Jonathan Shrager (follow me on Twitter @jonathanshrager)