**I'm republishing this because of the foreshadowing many of you could've gotten from my omniscience
The discussion of the evolution of MMA always comes back to how wrestling has evolved along with mixed martial arts. In the older days, we were used to seeing a hard-nosed, take-hits-and-push-for-double-legs style of wrestling. Fighters like Mark Coleman, Sean Sherk, Matt Hughes, Evan Tanner, and Tito Ortiz perfected this style, where size and strength, along with what some would refer to as a ‘granite’ chin enabled them to wade through their opponent’s striking, latch onto both legs, and keep going until they were on top. Each had a few variations: Coleman, with his rudimentary headbutts, and knees to head in the nascent stages of the sport; Hughes, with a relentless takedown style accompanied with above average submission defense and also submission prowess. Sherk and Ortiz were somewhat cut from the same cloth- as they had decent enough boxing but little power, but when they were able to obtain top control they could rain down elbows, and use the cage walls to aid in control. Evan Tanner was just a tough guy, with excellent wrestling, but also a sick guard that I’m sure by now we’ve all heard he learned from instructional DVDs.
But then something happened. Athletes learned how footwork and sprawling could avoid the power double. Wrestlers were no longer able to shoot in from anywhere and take the necessary punches to put their adversary on his back. Chuck Liddell, who had wrestled collegiately, perfected a sprawl and brawl technique and became the ultimate foil for Ortiz. Coleman was never able to defeat the combination of striking, footwork, and submissions that Sambo provided to Fedor Emelianenko. Sherk, at a significant size disadvantage, was chased out of the welterweight division by an up and coming Georges St Pierre, and moved down to the lightweight division until BJ Penn came along. BJ’s flexibility, sprawl, and boxing technique kept his fights on the feet, and when a weary Sherk bounced off the cage and shot in for a double leg, was cracked by BJ with a flying knee from hell. Rich Franklin proved that footwork, an excellent sprawl, and precision striking could defeat Tanner. Matt Hughes had the first laugh in his saga- when his wrestling failed him against the better athlete in GSP, he used his submission skills to gain an armbar en route to yet another title defense.
Wrestle-boxers remained very competitive in MMA, and it’s obvious that GSP has been a stalwart in the welterweight division. Rashad Evans had a brief run at light heavyweight glory until he fell in love with counter striking and was dethroned by Lyoto Machida. Randy Couture was obtained the belt from Tim Silvia, but his style was anything but prototypical wrestling. Finally, BJ Penn and Anderson Silva used their striking, footwork, and submission skills, coupled with very technical grappling to remain at the top of their divisions.
That was until now. I believe we are seeing a rebirth in MMA through changes in the stylist aspects of wrestling. As MMA footwork and striking had developed to thwart wrestlers from dominating the ‘control’ aspect of the Octagon, wrestling needed a foil. It needed its own regeneration. There were several factors that enabled wrestling to be reborn, and I think I can break down a few. To be honest, I am not a long time hardcore fan. I am a TUF noob, overtaken by the sport when I saw Diego Sanchez brutally beat down Kenny Florian and Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar’s slobberknocker that was eventually crowned the top fight in UFC history. Since then I have devoured any and all MMA possible, and have scoured the boards of Bloody Elbow, picking up on any history I lost out on. Because of this, I feel that I have a great grasp on the renaissance in MMA, and so here goes with how I believe wrestling has progressed to Re-become the truly dominant martial art.
First, speed became the ultimate factor divisionally. As the weight classes drop, we see faster fighters and better reaction times. Speed enabled smaller fighters to get out of the way of wrestlers going for doubles and essentially made clinch takedowns and changing levels completely necessary. Georges St Pierre is the model for incorporating a change of levels- feinting strikes to get opponents reacting, and then going for the takedown- to secure the highest percentage of takedowns in UFC history. Raised in a striking art, GSP used devotion to his craft, and his natural athleticism to dethrone Matt Hughes and remain at the top of his division since (well, except the Serra Hiccup). Frankie Edgar used his speed and boxing technique to finally dethrone BJ- and we’ll be able to determine if the first match was a fluke soon enough. Rashad Evans is also using the GSP blueprint, where his natural athleticism enables him to get strikers to react, and changes level almost immediately for the takedown. He used this method to beat Thiago Silva and Quinton Jackson, and some pundits have stated this style could give him the victory over Mauricio Rua.
So that clears up one aspect- speed. There are a few more that I think keep wrestlers on top (pun intended). First, in the case of Chael Sonnen, who’s wrestling is so world class and techical that he makes above average wrestlers look like layman. Is there any aspect we can point to that Chael does phenomenally well, except get the TD and stay on top? No, because he uses the highest degree of technicality to demolish his opponents, coupled with unbelievable cardio and work ethic. Muhammed Lawal could fit in this category: His wrestling is so above other fighters that he was able to continually take down Gegard Mousasi en route to a unanimous decision for the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight belt.
Brock Lesnar, on the other hand, is a complete throwback to the old days of Mark Coleman. He is a highly decorated collegiate athlete, but Lesnar relies on his size and strength to power opponents to the ground, as evidenced with Frank Mir and Heath Herring. When his size was mirrored by his opponent, as in his last fight with Shane Carwin, he was unable to secure the takedown until Shane had succumbed to the tricky beast of Lactic Acidosis in the second round. I am among a few that believe that Cain Velasquez will be able to beat out the singular minded game of Lesnar, but again, time will tell.
And then we come to the trifecta of welterweight contenders that utilize durability with complete wrestle-grappling. Jon Fitch, Jake Shields, and Ben Askren have great a great wrestling foundation that they’ve built upon with jiu-jitsu knowledge to work for the takedown, and stay on top, looking constantly for dominant positions and threatening with submissions. It’s possible these fighters are younger versions of Matt Hughes, without the overwhelming power, and with a more thorough knowledge of jiu-jitsu. Though not as effective as someone who is faster and more athletic than his competition as with Rashad and St. Pierre, these types of fighters are becoming known as grinders- able to keep their opponent on his back for a majority of the fight, stay away from submissions, and threaten with submissions of their own. Another up and coming fighter that I’d say echoes this style is Phil Davis, who has yet to polish his striking, but has incorporated jiu-jitsu incredibly well into his arsenal. Benson Henderson might also fit into this mold, as he was raised with wrestling and Tae Kwon Do, but gained the nickname “Smooth” by seamlessly incorporating jiu-jitsu into grappling.
And then, there is Jon ‘Bones’ Jones. He is in a league of his own. We have yet to see Jones truly tested, but he has been in the cage against mortals like Vladimir Matyushenko, Matt Hammil, and Brandon Vera, who were considered world class MMA wrestlers, only to be thrown viciously to their back in the opening stages of the fight and subjected to the most brutal ground and pound we’ve yet to see in the sport. Bones incorporated judo and Greco- Roman wrestling along with his athleticism to become a beast that most suspect will reign over the light heavyweight division in years to come. I think that Jones fits the bill as being such a dynamic, “explosive” athlete, that he could possibly DEFINE the new era of ground and pound.
So what have we learned? Not much, unfortunately. But what I have taken away from the last few years of mixed martial arts is that wrestling technique remains dominant- as evidenced by most divisional “gatekeepers” being wrestlers- but to achieve the highest level of success in MMA, people have had to develop a style of wrestling that translates to MMA itself. And this is the dichotomy we hear of when people say “he’s a world class wrestler, but he isn’t a good MMA wrestler (I’m looking at you, Mark Munoz). MMA wrestling has become the art of incorporation- wrestling with striking, wrestling with grappling, and at the greatest pound for pound level- Georges St. Pierre- all three combined.