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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

29 COMMENTS
  • GIKE MOLDBERG says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Weak-Sauce. Thumb up 5 Thumb down 22

  • Rece Rock says:

    I don’t know about eye gauging but as a “streetfighter” you can also just hit your opponent with a Hadouken… : )

    Well-Done. Thumb up 23 Thumb down 2

  • Dufresne says:

    Great article Adam.

    For a while MMA had kinda turned into “Elite Wrestlers and all the non-title holders.” Wrestling is just a bad matchup for almost every single fighting style. Muay Thai fighters can’t use their kicks or knees as effectively due to the takedown, boxers can’t get much power behind their punches when they’re tied up in a clinch, and BJJ practitioners have to either try and out-strike a guy if they can’t get it to the mat, or wait for a mistake by the wrestler to try and slip in a submission.
    These days everyone has at least some wrestling. It’s often not on the same level as their other skills, or even on the level of their opponents. But as Pettis and Cavalcante showed, you just have to stuff a few takedowns or get back up from your back a couple of times to be able to turn the fight towards your strength.

    MMA seems to go through fighting-style based phases; first was BJJ, next was wrestling + GNP, now it’s mostly control wrestling, I’m curious which direction it will turn next.

    Well-Done. Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0

  • JBAR says:

    In MMA wrestling is an excellent base set of skills but it is just that, a starting point. It does not matter what your base is in MMA, you have to evolve as a fighter and turn your weaknesses into strengths until you are a well rounded fighter if you want to become and stay a champion. The thing is that you do not have to become a great wrestler to beat a wrestler, you have to become good at defending takedowns and scrambling back to your feet. This requires less training than trying to become a wrestler because most will never be good enough to beat them at their own game but you can become good enough at stopping their game to make them play yours.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  • boomnutz says:

    gike, you’re a street fighter?!? i was told i look like Guile the other day, you down for a fight to the death, best 2 out of 3…JBAR i think you make some good points, i think you can look at GSP to enhance what you say, he become the best wrestler in the sport, and now he’s becoming one of the best BJJ practicioners too, and for his next fight he’s working with Freddie Roach, constantly improving…

    One thing i will say about the influx of wrestlers is that it’s forcing fighters too become better athletes, they’re aren’t as many brawling slobs out there anymore or even soft BJJers, if you notice there are more and more explosive athletes out there entering the sport, which is a good thing.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 2

  • bigbadjohn says:

    Ruining MMA Gike? what an absurd way to attack the issue at hand. How can one accuse a fighter of ruining their sport when supposed world class opponents can’t manage to move an essentially exact same weight man out of their guard? … by chance are you the same person who insists that Wildcat offense is ruining the NFL as you watch your favorite team get ripped up all the way down the field?

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  • bigbadjohn says:

    oh and I don’t suggest substituting wrist control for eye gouging as an effective strategy against an elite wrestler in a street fight. aside from letting his hands free.. eye gouging would be just as easy for the wrestler

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  • JBAR says:

    Boomnutz, GSP is a great example. His lack of a ground game cost him so he dedicated himself to it and became one of the most well rounded fighters in MMA. I don’t think GSP could beat a world class wrestler in a wrestling match but in MMA he can dominate them due to his excellent striking and good submissions. These are the things that limit the extent that pure wrestling can be used. A double leg takedown is a lot different when you have to worry about the choke or a knee, the clinch is a lot different when you have to worry about the knees and elbows.

    And this is in no way putting down GSP’s wrestling, if he quit MMA and trained only for wrestling he would be an elite wrestler but 2 guys with similar talent and the match will go to the guy who trains daily for that sport not part time.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  • JBAR says:

    Gike, the early days of the UFC had very few rules (no eye gouging / biting) and the grappelers still ruled the day. It was not until you had a striker that also had a ground game that strikers started winning. The first striker I can remember that came in and dominated with striking was Don Frye and he had an NCAA wrestling background along with boxing. Street or in the cage you better be well rounded because anything can happen.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  • Yourdaddydevilandlord says:

    Yeah, well, in a streetfight when a wrestler shoots in for a double leg you could also shoot him in the face but that isn’t the discussion. The thing that will most likely stop control wrestlers like Fitch being dominate is the boring to watch factor that will have them constantly getting passed over for title shots and big fights until they prove that they are willing/capable of ending a fight, either with subs or GNP. Chael was at least going for it and was trying to end it, then he got caught. He just needs to work on sub defense, but did anyone want to see him bury himself in Silva’s chest and lay there for 5 rounds, even if he got the win? Dana and co were thrilled with the way he lost and would have been pissed had he won that way, in affect it was better for his career.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  • Rece Rock says:

    “Yeah, well, in a streetfight when a wrestler shoots in for a double leg you could also shoot him in the face but that isn’t the discussion…”

    aaahhh that’s a comment of the day canidate for sure…LOL!

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  • MCM says:

    It’s funny you wrote this article, cause I’ve been working on a similar one about wrestling in MMA. Great minds right….[high five].

    All of your points are sound, but they are also not limited to just wrestlers.

    Lesson 1: A wrestler can never be too passive when on top.
    True, but no fighter can be too passive. Look what happened when Serra was content to hold Hughes in his guard and wait for the standup, or when Houston Alexander was too passive in striking with Kimbo. Effective aggressiveness , like Sonnen did for 4 rnds, wins fights.

    Lesson 2: A wrestler cannot abandon his game plan.
    How many times have we heard to looser of a fight say that he should have stuck to his game plan. Mau Tai, BJJ, Boxing, Wresting, doesn’t matter. If you’re taken out of your game plan and are not well rounded enough to get back in it, you will loose. This has been proven time and time again.

    Lesson 3: A wrestler cannot be over-confident in his abilities.
    Again, nor can any fighter. Mia forgot about striking when he met Marquart, Dean Lister forgets about everything but BJJ, Hell even BJ Penn got over-confident in his striking abilities. All fighters at one point or another seem to forget that they have more than one ability and that more than one is needed to compete at an elite level.

    Excellent article Adam with spot on examples, but all these lessons should be learned by every fighter no matter what their primary discipline is.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  • GIKE MOLDBERG says:

    wow!!-quite the response-I am in no way anti wrestling as a skill in MMA-flying knees-underhooks and sprawls are the antidote-It just infuriates me to see these modern day gladiators who don’t come with the obvious skills it takes to finish a fight-eye gauges aside

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  • Dufresne says:

    “Yeah, well, in a streetfight when a wrestler shoots in for a double leg you could also shoot him in the face but that isn’t the discussion…”

    aaahhh that’s a comment of the day canidate for sure…LOL!

    I always love it when YDDaL stops by. Funny as hell, and almost always has something worth adding to the conversation.

    By the way, thanks 5Oz for being here for me while I have to sit in boring-ass classes. I love this site.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  • JBAR says:

    I don’t know if it is a lack of fight finishing skills as much as it is a risk vs reward gameplan. Anytime you get overly agressive you leave yourself open to something. If a wrestler gets too agressive with his GNP vs a BJJ guy he often winds up submitted but if he takes him down, controls him and lands a few low risk punches he will win the round. If a striker sticks his jab and stuffs a wrestlers takedowns he wins the round but if he gets agressive with his striking and over commits he winds up on the ground. Not much that you can do about it though, a no time limit fight with no rounds does not work for PPV time slots. Plus if you think the current lay and pray is bad I remember some 45 minute fights with 44 minutes of grinding on the ground and 1 minute of sudden excitement.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  • GIKE MOLDBERG says:

    good point at the end JBAR-I guess I am a bit spoiled these days

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  • GIKE MOLDBERG says:

    I just have to give Rece Rock a thumbs up on that comment-If you read my entire post you won’t be so animated

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  • JBAR says:

    Maybe Dana could offer to add 25% to any fighters purse as a bonus for any fighter that ends a fight by KO or Submission then MAYBE they would not be as inclined to play it so safe and would be working to finish the fight.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  • GIKE MOLDBERG says:

    i think little baldy already does

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  • GIKE MOLDBERG says:

    I don’t think wrestlers are the end all to MMA-They just bring a boring fighting style to the mix-I mean how many red blooded men want to watch two guys rub all over eachother

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  • MCM says:

    GIKE MOLDBERG says:
    “….in today’s rules of MMA we see a new breed that is not worried about the finish-guess what?-That is the whole point of a fight”

    I think that’s where your wrong GIKE. The whole point of the fight is to see who can utilize their Martial Art to WIN the fight.
    In BJJ (even though points are given) the definition of wining is usually who can force the other person to quite by Tapping Out.
    In Striking (even though points are still given) the definition of wining is usually who can KO the other.
    In Wrestling the definition of winning is points based and is usually the person who can Control the other.

    Yes, there are submission holds in wrestling but the majority of wrestling is “imposing your will” on the other person, or if you will, it’s a defensive based attack. Wrestling is used to nullify other Martial Arts while maintaining control over your opponent and inflicting damage however possible.
    So you don’t want to see “two guy rub all over eachother.” That’s fine and it’s a personal choice, but is it any less red blooded than trying to get another man to fall asleep with his face in your crotch? (triangle choke)

    I personally like the wrestling aspect of MMA. I’m man enough to admit I like watching Fitch fight. I just feel that as educated as we’ve all made ourselves in the past 17yrs in BJJ and Mau Tai, and Sambo, you’d think that we wouldn’t forget everything we learned about wrestling along the way.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  • Dufresne says:

    I personally like the wrestling aspect of MMA. I’m man enough to admit I like watching Fitch fight. I just feel that as educated as we’ve all made ourselves in the past 17yrs in BJJ and Mau Tai, and Sambo, you’d think that we wouldn’t forget everything we learned about wrestling along the way.

    I like the wrestling aspect as well, but I still don’t like watching Fitch fight. He’s very, very good, but he’s also very, very boring. But he hasn’t always been. In the first fight with Alves, Fitch controlled using his wrestling, but he also had some vicious GnP. Elbows, knees to the body, hammer fists, punches to the gut, he was just nonstop beating the hell out of Alves. But lately he, and a lot of other wrestlers, has turned more towards simply controlling his opponent and not worrying as much about damage.

    I understand that control is the basis of wrestling, but in MMA it just seems that if you can do damage without putting yourself in unnecessary danger, why wouldn’t you? A UD is nice but if you can get a finish on the same opponent without risking a loss, you not only make for a more “exciting” fighter but you also cut down on your time in the cage and thus the chances of getting hurt yourself.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  • GIKE MOLDBERG says:

    MCM you couldn’t of said it better-“wining”

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  • Creature says:

    see i was gonna comment on this post but seems like everything i could have thought 2 say has already been said lol. but since i used 2 wrestle guess ill have slight advantage when i start doing MMA, ill be starting my muay thai and boxing training hopefully within the next month

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  • GIKE MOLDBERG says:

    Good luck Creature-keep us posted on when and where you will make your debut

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  • Creature says:

    Thanks gike and i will, haha 4 my debut id like 2 call out liverpunch ;)

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  • LiverPunch says:

    Bring it on baby.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  • Dufresne says:

    Thanks gike and i will, haha 4 my debut id like 2 call out liverpunch ;)

    LiverPunch says:
    August 25, 2010 at 5:16 am

    Bring it on baby.

    Hell yeah! That’s a fight I’d pay to see :)

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  • Yourdaddydevilandlord says:

    I always love it when YDDaL stops by. Funny as hell, and almost always has something worth adding to the conversation.
    AAAAHHHHH, Thanks!!!! See, entertaining and skilled!!! Appreciate the kind words man, now we fight to the DEATH, HHHEEAAAAAAYYYY YYAAAAAAAAA SHO NUFF Bruce Leroy!!!!(Greatest Martial Arts Film EVAH!!!!!!!)

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

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