Burning Question: Will Wrestling Forever Be the UFC's Dominant Mixed Martial Art

Jonathan ShragerCorrespondent IMay 25, 2011

5 of the current 7 UFC champions have wrestling backgrounds
5 of the current 7 UFC champions have wrestling backgrounds

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 recently declared 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 reiterated by the South Dakota behemoth, having witnessed his last-choice pick (a German stand-up fighter) get completely outwrestled by a decorated American wrestler in Episode 1 of TUF 13. 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 cage-side colour commentator has also attested to 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-documented appearance on Jay Leno, the purpose of mixed martial arts is to ascertain the 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. Not only is wrestling indispensable at the upper echelon of the sport, but also for budding prospects, as borne out 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 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 Lesnar rapidly becoming the Heavyweight champion within a mere/Mir (mind the 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 (which spawns the most impressive physical specimens), it would appear that the leverage exerted by wrestling cannot 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 recently pointed out 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 hub of mixed martial arts. After all, the British have always had boxing, the Dutch kick-boxing, Thais Muay-Thai, Brazilians Jiu-Jitsu, Chinese Kung-fu, Japanese Judo, Korean Taekwondo, Russian Sambo, so following logic Americans would want to own and dominate a martial art, which coincidentally is proving to be the governing component of MMA.

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, though this entails numerous inherent financial (not to mention logistical Visa) complications, or procure the assistance of wrestling coaches in the UK.

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. 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.

          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 possessed by the influx of world class wrestlers into the UFC, the future of UK cage-fighters in the UFC looks uncertain unless wrestling (or the lack thereof) is imminently tackled.

          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 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 an elite 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 art-form, 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 TUF13 Ep1 bout, 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 much-maligned “snoozefest”. Yet, some would maintain that the responsibility rested with Nordin Asrih, whose duty as a mixed martial artist is to become well-versed in all areas. Shamar 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”, a statement which underscores the crux of this article.

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 “cuddle”) 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.

Such public criticisms by British fighters directed towards “negative” American wrestlers have become commonplace (Dre Winner to Nick Lentz, Paul Daley to Josh Koscheck, 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, by sporting a wrestling singlet and ear guards as part of a spoof documentary, were futile. 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.

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 captivating, it is infrequently pretty, 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 controlling the whereabouts and nature of the bout, the crux of MMA which purportedly decides the fight in the eyes of the cage-side 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 is justified, effective wrestling wins fights.

Conversely, 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 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 (yet 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. 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. 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.

The UK’s glaring wrestling deficiency is a well-publicised fact. Even Britain’s premier MMA reporter, Gareth A Davies, described collegiate- or Olympic-level wrestling as “the kryptonite for so many British fighters” If the casual observer may detect it, then a professional fighter will telegraph it and exploit accordingly. 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 its future. 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 no.1 ranked 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, the general consensus remains, as generally evidenced by the statistics in the UFC, that a pure grappler will defeat a pure boxer on 9 out of 10 occasions. Imagine the prospects that 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.

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