The Wheat from the Chaff: Examining Wrestling’s Dominance in MMA

 

For decades, wrestling has rightly been recognized as one of the most favourable skill sets a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter can possess. Last month, Khabib Nurmagomedov left the MMA world reeling by announcing his retirement on the back of a win over Justin Gaethje. Nurmagomedov’s incredibly dominant victory capped off his career with an astonishing 29-0 record, allowing him to step away with both his lightweight title and the top slot in the world’s best P4P fighter ranking secure. Khabib largely owes his success to his relentless wrestling-based style of attack, and is widely regarded as one of (if not *the*) best MMA wrestlers of all time. But what do we mean when we talk about wrestling in the context of MMA? How does wrestling function differently in the cage than in pure wrestling competition?

 

Rampage Jackson used his wrestling abilities to dominate opponents

 

Depending on where you are and who you ask, “wrestling” can refer to many things. Generally, wrestling refers to various forms of unarmed sport combat whereby competitors engage in up-close grappling exchanges with the overall goal of positional dominance. These contests can include establishing upright clinch control (Greco-Roman wrestling), high-amplitude takedowns exchanges (Freestyle wrestling), or cementing top position while your opponent attempts to get back up (American Folkstyle). It’s worthwhile to draw a distinction between wrestling (as is described above) and submission grappling/jiu-jitsu (which puts a greater emphasis on attacking from the bottom and where conceding position is common). The latter deserves another discussion altogether.

 

 

When we talk about the success of wrestling in MMA competition, there are two distinct concepts we are referring to. First, there is the value of wrestling as a “base” discipline — a foundational martial art that a competitor has practiced long before transitioning into MMA. Countless UFC and MMA world champions over the years have credited their success to their wrestling backgrounds, including all-time greats such as Daniel Cormier, Frankie Edgar, and Henry Cejudo. 

 

Wrestling gym Vancouver
2 Division UFC World Champion and Olympian wrestler Daniel Cormier slams an opponent

 

The other (arguably more important) way to understand wrestling’s dominance is as a system of techniques employed to achieve a superior position or otherwise dictate the realm in which a fight takes place. These techniques must be added to the toolkits of all MMA fighters looking to succeed at a high level, regardless of their foundational discipline. As recently as 2019, celebrated kicker and KO artist Donald Cerrone mixed in his wrestling-based attack to outwork & defeat Alexander Hernandez, a dangerous up-and-comer. Jose Aldo and BJ Penn — two fighters without any formal wrestling background to speak of — made careers out of their incredible wrestling defense, employing techniques to stave off the takedowns of opponents who, on paper, were the superior wrestlers.

Let’s examine how & why wrestling in MMA functions so effectively.

Wrestling as a base for MMA

As we touched on above, wrestlers make up a staggering percentage of former and current MMA world-champions. Much of this success can be attributed to the natural tendency of high school & college wrestling programs to produce quality, competitive athletes. From an extremely early age (as young as 4 or 5 years old in the USA), members of these programs take part in regular athletic competition. Tournaments are frequently held throughout the year at the local, state, and national levels. Athletes must practice nearly every day of the week, and become comfortable with a strict diet and frequent weight-cutting procedures.

Like most sports, highly-athletic, explosive athletes tend to rise above their peers in wrestling. However, the relentless, grinding pattern of practice-compete-practice also requires a vast degree of mental toughness in those who stick it out. Weak-willed competitors are weeded out, be it through the demands of the schedule or by being broken at the hands of another athlete in competition. The end result of this system is an ongoing crop of hardened competitors, athletic individuals fueled by a deeply ingrained work ethic. 

 

Wrestling practice is known for it’s grueling intensity

 

Wrestlers in MMA routinely display a level of strength, cardio, and mental toughness a cut above other martial artists. Drawing on their decades of competition experience, they can steadily break down their opponents over the course of the fight. This kind of mental toughness — both in training and in competition — can’t be earned overnight. A successful wrestler can go shockingly far in MMA with little more than a double-leg takedown and a solid overhand punch.

This history of MMA is full of wrestlers who exhibit these intangible qualities. NAIA All-American wrestler Benson Henderson earned the nickname “Bendo” for his apparent flexibility and submission defense, but refusal to quit under any circumstance is textbook for a wrestler. Greco-Roman Olympian Dan Henderson, one of MMA’s all-time greats, is perhaps known more for his unbelievably powerful striking than his use of wrestling in the cage. And Olympic Gold Medalist Henry Cejudo, arguably the greatest wrestler to ever compete in MMA, channeled his competitive spirit to capture UFC titles in two divisions.

 

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2 division UFC World Champion and Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo

 

The familiarity wrestlers have with some of MMA’s most challenging positions & techniques gives them another leg up on their opposition. On the mat, a wrestler with relatively little jiu-jitsu experience can quickly learn how to effectively control & avoid the submission attempts of a more experienced grappler. A strong example of this came in 2019, when hulking wrestler & BJJ blue belt Nick Rodriguez bested some of the world’s top black belts to take 2nd place at ADCC.

 

Vancouver wrestling class
Nicky Rod reverses an opponent at ADCC

 

wrestling in Vancouver
Despite being a relatively experienced grappler, Nicky Rod took second place at ADCC, defeating ADCC and IBJJF black belt world champions by utilizing his wrestling prowess

 

Wrestlers are also far more comfortable than their peers at stringing together different wrestling techniques. Often called “chain wrestling”, this relentless form of attack sees wrestlers stay several steps ahead of their opponent in order to secure a takedown. Fighters who lack a wrestling base are more likely to simply bail and try to reset after a stymied takedown attempt, making their shots predictable and easy to defend. Daniel Cormier mixed up his high-crotch and single-leg attacks beautifully throughout his career, allowing him to score high-amplitude throws against other decorated wrestlers like Dan Henderson and Josh Barnett. 

Defense is another area when lifelong wrestlers can shine. Self-styled strikers like Chuck Liddell and Justin Gaethje, known for their tremendous knockout power and exciting fighting style, have their wrestling experience to thank for their continued success on the feet. Both men practice their wrestling “in reverse” as a way of dictating that the fight remains standing. Through high-level defense and the ability to quickly get up from bottom position, they can settle into a comfortable and effective rhythm on the feet.

 

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Chuck Liddell used used his wrestling to avoid getting taken down, and keep the fight on the feet

 

Wrestling as a system of techniques for MMA

“If you’re a wrestler and you’re coming over to MMA, or vice versa, you need to understand that most of everything needs to be thrown out” — Chael Sonnen to mmafighting.com. March 9, 2003

At the purest level, wrestling empowers a fighter to determine where the fight will take place. Without a solid grasp of wrestling defense or offense, a fighter will be completely at the mercy of his opponent’s whim to fight on the feet, the ground, or against the case. One of clearest examples of this came when Randy Couture & world champion boxer James Toney met at UFC 118. An accomplished Greco-Roman wrestler, Couture took Toney down effortlessly, negating the latter’s significant striking advantage and submitting him with ease.

 

Decorated wrestler Randy Couture easily takes down professional boxer James Toney

 

But one doesn’t have to be Randy Couture to understand and implement a wrestling attack in MMA. Georges St-Pierre, despite his background in Kyokushin Karate, famously developed himself into one of the best MMA wrestlers of all time. In a perfect example of what makes MMA so great, Georges turned his quick, in-and-out Kyokushin movement into a powerful double leg takedown. His mastery of this technique proved so successful that he was able to dominate lifelong wrestlers like Josh Koscheck and Matt Hughes.

 

Vancouver wrestling classes
Georges St-Pierre lands an explosive double leg takedown

 

Chael Sonnen broke down GSP’s success as an MMA wrestler with stunning clarity in his 2003 MMAFighting.com interview with Luke Thomas:

“Georges St. Pierre has one wrestling technique, Georges St. Pierre could never push and pull and pummel and set a guy up. He has one technique, which is the double leg. Now off of that double leg he’s got about three different setups he uses to get to that position, and he’s got about six different finishes depending on what his opponent does when he gets there. I would call him the best wrestler in MMA, but I would also go out and go ‘Georges knows extremely little about wrestling’. If you want to go into a wrestling match, Georges is not the guy you want to coach and train you.”

Wrestling in Vancouver
UFC World Champion Georges St-Pierre is well known for controlling his opponents with his wrestling skills

 

What GSP illustrates is that in MMA, a fighter’s ability (or inability) to execute a specific technique is ultimately more valuable than their base. If your opponent can keep you from being able to execute your techniques, you’re in a heap of trouble. As Chael describes, when it comes to effective defense “you don’t have to learn wrestling to stop wrestling.” BJ and Jose Aldo, two fighters with no wrestling background to speak of, are remembered as much for their impeccable takedown defense as their devastating finishes. These champions both knew the importance of adding wrestling to their repertoire of techniques, even if it was strictly in a  defensive capacity.

For those of us who didn’t grow up wrestling, this is heartening news. Serious MMA gyms in Vancouver and around the world know the importance of the art and have incorporated it into their lessons.

Because of the efficacy of defensive wrestling in MMA, many fantastic wrestlers have had a hard time transitioning their skills to the sport. Yoel Romero, despite his incredible Olympic pedigree, has displayed pretty minimal top control in the octagon. The most successful wrestlers to transition are those who marry their skillset with the unique aspects of MMA — striking to set up shots, ground and pound, submissions, and utilizing the cage.

 

wrestling BC
Khabib used his wrestling to become one of the most dominant champions in MMA history

 

This is where Khabib shines. Many attribute his success in MMA to his Sambo background — a fighting style which blends elements of wrestling, striking, and jiu-jitsu — but so much of what made Khabib’s great is particular to MMA. For years, the cage has been the friend of the fighter on bottom, an extra post to help the fight back to their feet. Khabib turned this saving grace into a nightmarish trap, dragging his foes down and battering them with punches as they worked their way back up — only to be taken down again. Khabib understood how to apply wrestling techniques to MMA in a way that people will be analyzing for years to come.

Conclusions

Wrestling is absolutely critical for success in MMA. Although a background in wrestling offers a slew of benefits, the basics can be picked up and applied by anyone with the drive and determination to learn. Highschool, colleges, and other Vancouver gyms are great places for people of all ages to discover the joy of wrestling. 

DCS enjoys a rich reputation as the top Vancouver kickboxing school, but our world-class MMA and grappling programs are a fantastic way to build up your wrestling basics as well. Gym Owner Ryan Diaz is a 2x MMA World Champion with a lifetime of experience in MMA wrestling techniques. Ryan teaches a proven, tried & true system of rules for wrestling in MMA. Our youth program, spearheaded by wrestling fanatic and accomplished youth coach Jonathan Hutchinson, lets children build their wrestling fundamentals in a safe, positive environment. Best of all, our instructors are all available for private lessons — there’s no quicker way to sharpen your wrestling skills than with the best personal training in Vancouver.