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Outstanding Wrestlers and the Lessons Learned

For as long as there has been professional mixed-martial arts, wrestling has been one of the most dominant disciplines in the sport. A good wrestler is able to nullify his opponent’s offense and control the fight, all while absorbing the minimal amount of damage. Athletes who experienced success in collegiate amateur wrestling have gone on to have just as much (if not more) success in MMA competition.

In recent years the art of good wrestling has allowed several fighters to rise to the top of their respective weight classes. Georges St. Pierre transitioned from a striker into a top-level wrestler and has been essentially unbeatable ever since. Brock Lesnar combined his wrestling with his natural genetic gifts to become the top heavyweight fighter in the world. Frankie Edgar used his wrestling and an ever-evolving striking game to shock the world and become the UFC Lightweight Champion.

While history may have taught us that good wrestling can beat pretty much every other style of fighting, in the month of August we’ve had no less than three examples of how wrestling alone is not enough to win fights. By examining each of these three fights we can see exactly what needs to be done in tandem with wrestling to assure victory in mixed-martial arts.

Lesson 1: A wrestler can never be too passive when on top. Earlier this month when Anderson Silva met Chael Sonnen for the UFC Middleweight Championship most people assumed that while Chael could take Anderson down, he would never keep him there for five rounds. The collective fan base of the sport sat in awe that Saturday night as Sonnen took Silva down at will and maintained top control for four whole rounds. Sonnen made sure that the referee would have no cause to stand the fighters up, as he was relentless in his assault from the top position.

Then in the fifth round something changed. While Chael was still attacking from the top position there was no real urgency to any of his strikes. Earlier in the bout he had made a few attempts to try and work towards a finish but at this point his victory was all but assured, and he simply needed to stay busy enough to keep the fight on the ground. Silva had not given up though, and he landed a hard right hand from the bottom position. Sonnen moved his left arm in position to defend any more punches, but in doing so he let Silva take control of his wrist. We all know what happened from there.

This highlights a problem for all wrestlers (and Sonnen in particular). Even though you’re on top and have control of the fight, you can never underestimate what your opponent might do next. If you become too passive in your top control then you are more likely to leave a crucial opening for your opponent to capitalize on. Constant pressure and awareness are key components to a wrestler hoping to completely neutralize his opponent.

Lesson 2: A wrestler cannot abandon his gameplan. Last week WEC 50 took place, and the co-main event was a lightweight bout between potential contenders in Shane Roller and Anthony Pettis. Roller was the favorite amongst most MMA analysts simply on the strength of his wrestling and submission skills. Pettis was known as an extremely creative striker with knockout power, but if Roller could take his opponent down he would eliminate a majority of Pettis’ offense.

Unfortunately for Roller that’s not what happened. He was repeatedly stuffed on his takedown attempts, and he had little to offer on the feet during any of the striking exchanges. When Roller did manage to get Pettis down he was unable to mount any significant offense, and instead he was forced to play defense against Pettis’ submission attempts. Eventually his defense wore out and he was tapped out via triangle choke with just seconds left in the fight.

Roller did try for takedowns but Pettis was able to nullify those attempts and keep the fight standing. Afterwards we saw Roller repeatedly get into striking exchanges with his opponent, despite the clear difference in skill within this facet of the sport. What Roller should have done was continue to pressure Pettis with a never-ending assault of takedown attempts. Even if it would have resulted in Roller holding on to his opponent’s waist for long stretches of time, at least he would have been able to stifle some of that flashy striking Pettis was putting forth. Roller looked discouraged by the third round and I’m sure his confidence had suffered at that point, but by not trying to fight his fight he gave up the advantage to Pettis.

Lesson 3: A wrestler cannot be over-confident in his abilities. At Saturday night’s Strikeforce event in Houston, we saw Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal attempt to make his first defense of the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Championship against Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante. Lawal was coming off a dominant victory over highly-touted striker Gegard Mousasi, in a fight that saw “King Mo” use his outstanding wrestling skills to control Mousasi throughout five rounds. Most people assumed that Lawal would have no problems executing the same gameplan on another outstanding striker in Cavalcante.

From the beginning of the fight I was surprised at the way Lawal carrying himself. He kept his hands low and his stance was very loose. He had no feints, was not changing levels, and instead of using his striking to set up the takedowns he was simply relying on his raw power to take “Feijao” down. When “King Mo” executed a big slam in the first round he was unable to get a dominant position on the ground and Cavalcante got back to his feet immediately. Lawal held his own in the striking exchanges but without proper defense it seemed to be only a matter of time before he got caught, and that’s exactly what happened.

“King Mo” made the mistake of underestimating his opponent and overestimating his own abilities. While he was able to land some solid punches on Cavalcante, he should have known that mixing it up with a dangerous striker was the recipe for disaster. This loss will hopefully teach Lawal that while he has some of the best wrestling in the business, that alone won’t be able to carry him to victory every single time. In the modern era of mixed-martial arts we’re seeing athletes that have well-rounded skillsets in all areas of the fight game, and only by improving himself in those other areas will Lawal achieve his goal of becoming one of the best fighters in the world.

I’m not trying to over-simplify things here. Chael Sonnen, Shane Roller, and “King Mo” Lawal are three of the absolute best wrestlers out there, and each of them has shown that they have the ability to transfer their wrestling skills to the multi-faceted sport of MMA. In each of their most recent fights they were facing quality opponents, and I don’t want to sell Anderson Silva, Anthony Pettis, or “Feijao” Cavalcante short.

I’ll be curious to see what happens when each of these men fight again. Hopefully they’ll re-watch their last fight and pinpoint the errors made that led to their defeat. A loss in mixed-martial arts is certainly not the end of one’s career, but unless the fighter takes something away from that loss they’ll never truly be able to move past it and achieve greatness.

“All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.” – Winston Churchill