UFC 121 Analysis: Brock Lesnar and the Limits of Wrestling for MMA

Photo by Tracy Lee via Cage Writer

In recent months, it's become more and more accepted that amateur wrestling is the strongest base style for an MMA fighter. Our own Jonathan Snowden penned a great three part series breaking down the base styles of UFC fightersbase styles in Japans' famous Pride promotion, and base styles in Japan's current top promotion Dream.  He found a strong case that wrestlers dominate today's MMA and have done so for at least the past half-decade. 

But Brock Lesnar's devastating loss to Cain Velasquez -- also a top-notch wrestler -- shows that excellent wrestling skills alone are not enough. When Lesnar found himself unable to take down Cain and keep him on his back, he panicked and was quickly demolished in the stand up game. 

We've seen this happen before in MMA history with even more accomplished wrestlers than Lesnar. 

Here's Dave Meltzer talking about the best amateur wrestler to ever enter the game:

Arguably the best wrestler to ever enter MMA at his peak was Karam Gaber Ibrahim of Egypt, who not only won the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Greco-Roman at 211 pounds, but destroyed everyone in his path, tossing around world champions like they were high schoolers. He was universally considered the best wrestler of any style or weight class in Athens.

A few months later, Ibrahim debuted in MMA against Kazuyuki Fujita on a New Year's Eve show in Japan. Fujita was a well known pro wrestler who switched to MMA. Ibrahim had only a few weeks of training for MMA. Instead of trying to wrestle Fujita, he decided to come out and box, which he had no experience in. It was a bad idea, as he was knocked cold in 1:07 and never fought again.

There's also the case of Kevin Jackson, the freestyle wrestling gold medalist at the 1992 Olympic Games. Jackson entered MMA in 1997 at 32 years of age -- still in his athletic peak -- and immediately made a big splash by going 3-0, winning a UFC tournament and mauling the highly regarded (at the time) John Lober.

Unfortunately for Jackson, he couldn't deal with submissions and back-to-back losses to Lion's Den fighters Frank Shamrock and Jerry Bohlander via arm bar were the end of his run at the top of the young sport. 

While it seems clear that a strong foundation in amateur wrestling is a great starting point for MMA success, without the ability to handle striking and submissions a purely positional grappler is at a big disadvantage.

Brock Lesnar's loss to Cain Velasquez at UFC 121 is an excellent reminder of that.

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