Lately we've all seen what seems like an increase in wrestlers dominating fights (or dominating decisions) with takedowns, top control, and basic submission awareness. This has led to some pronouncing the end of our sport as we know it, and a permanent deference to our wrestler overlords. Others point to an earlier era of MMA where wrestlers were similarly thought to be invincible, only to see Maurice Smith, Chuck Liddell, and jiu-jitsu burst that bubble. More likely, both sides are right in some ways and wrong in others. The pessimists are correct that the sport as we know it has changed. MMA grappling has evolved to the point where a high level guy just isn't going to fall into the same old triangle/armbar/kimura submissions, and the top wrestlers now entering MMA are coming in younger, better coached, and better pedigreed than the previous generation. The optimists are correct also in that the high stakes and competitiveness at the top of MMA all but ensures an inevitable innoculation against the wrestlefucking epidemic. Keeping both of these sides in mind, I'd like to look at some actual tactics necessary to defeating the modern MMA wrestler, and some important things to avoid. There are no .gifs in this post, but I've tried to describe moments as much as possible.From my observation (both in watching MMA and time spent on the mat), the antidote to the modern wrestler still falls under the same basic category as when Royce Gracie was triangling Dan Severn-- MMA forces wrestlers to attack and defend in positions they are not naturally accustomed to. With this in mind, I'd like to look at a few tactics that have been effective in defeating wrestlers in the past:
1. SPRAWL AND BRAWL. While this tactic has been countered somewhat by wrestlers who've learned how to brawl a bit themselves before going for takedowns, it is still a fundamental tactic that should be well-understood by anybody hoping to defeat a wrestler in MMA. Chuck-Randy 2 is still the prototype. Chuck uses good footwork to keep distance from Randy, constantly circling throughout the short fight, punishing Randy with hooks and overhands whenever Randy tries to close the distance, until he finally, inevitably, drops him.
2. JIU-JITSU/JUDO/SAMBO TAKEDOWNS. Wrestling generally relies on strength and positive force for its takedowns, which, as luck would have it, plays right into the many leverage-based takedowns of these other martial arts. Maia-Sonnen is a good benchmark for a jiu-jitsu guy dominating a wrestler with takedowns, but also look at the way a Jacare or even Fedor reacts when they are in a bad position in the clinch. They immediately use the momentum of the wrestler to try and reverse the takedown. Even if they don't reverse, they ensure a scramble when they hit the ground or at least that they won't be flat on their backs.
3. AGGRESSION FROM THE BOTTOM. So many people complain that ignorant MMA judging is biased toward top control, and maybe it is, but if that's the case then BE MORE AGGRESSIVE THAN THE GUY ON TOP OF YOU!!! From my observation, a wrestler on top against a jiu-jitsu guy is akin to the old adage your mommy told you about insects and snakes-- "they're more afraid of you than you are of them." A wrestler has one main offensive option on the ground and that is to ground and pound the guy on bottom, a tactic that has been watered down by mount defense and the unified rules forbidding headbutts and knees to the head of a grounded opponent. There are some secondary options, like simple chokes and wearing out the opponent, but a wrestler is hardly going to present a wide variety of attacks on the ground. A jiu-jitsu guy, however, can throw up submissions, sweep, strike from the bottom (yes, it's true-- he can!), or absent that he can just get back to his feet. More significantly, a jiu-jitsu guy has a gigantic inherent advantage over wrestlers in that he is comfortable and can attack from nearly any position, whereas the wrestler wants like nothing else to stay on top with the opponent's hips on the ground. People who complain about wrestlers holding guys down for 15 minutes don't realize just how difficult it is to hold somebody down for 15 minutes! And just imagine how hard this would be if you had to defend against submissions, sweeps, and elbows at the same time.
The prototype for getting your ass kicked by a wrestler because of a lack of back aggression has got to be Dan Hardy-Anthony Johnson. Hardy spends the majority of the fight laying flat on his back groping for a kimura against a very strong guy, and that's about as stupid a tactic as Hardy's haircut tactic. The kimura in that situation should be used as the first in a chain of moves. You make Johnson react to the kimura, then you use that reaction to set up something else or to improve your position, and so on. Go watch round 5 of the Sonnen-Silva fight and you'll see bottom aggression to great effect. In the last minute or two of the fight you suddenly see Silva come alive and start throwing hard strikes from the bottom (the first time he'd really done that in the fight up to that point). Sonnen is forced to react, and that gives Silva the opening to slap on the triangle. Contrast this to Pettis' hail mary triangle attempts last night against Guida.
4. ADVANCED GRAPPLING TACTICS: Yo, dude, I hate to break it to you but wrestlers are ready for your guard. If you're going to make a living against a wrestler you need to show him something he's not ready for. MMA grapplers need to evolve in the other direction and start showing wrestlers stuff they can't handle. Shinya Aoki-Eddie Alvarez is a good example in this vein. Alvarez reverses an Aoki takedown with a nice hip toss (see #2 above), but as soon as Aoki hits the ground he's already hooking Eddie's leg with his own, which starts the chain that allows him to put on the heel hook that caused Alvarez to scream in pain.
5. ANTI-TAKEDOWN STRIKING: I remember a very salient point my high school basketball coach used to make in regards to the full court press we were using against some such team. "If they're not scoring off it, then we'll keep doing it all day." What he meant was that it's not enough for the other team to just break the press-- even if we didn't cause a single turnover all game there's no reason for us to stop if all they're doing is crossing half court and setting up their offense. It is the same thing when facing a wrestler's takedowns. You can't just let him push you against the cage and spend the next minute trying to peel him off your legs. Even if he doesn't actually complete a single takedown, there's no reason for him to stop trying unless you make him pay! Guys need to start developing striking sequences directed entirely at a wrestler's takedown sequence. Think Cheick Kongo-Cain Velasquez, even though Kongo isn't really that great of an MMA fighter and didn't know how to properly capitalize on the advantages he created through his striking. If you watch the fight, it appears that Kongo spent his training camp drilling a right cross/right knee combination to counter Cain's takedowns, which is such a great and simple thing to do against a guy who you know is going to rush at you and then change levels that I'm shocked it's not the starting point for all striker vs. wrestler matchups.
6. DON'T MOVE BACKWARDS: This is the one that annoys me the most when I watch somebody against a wrestler, and it's the culprit in 90% of all terrible TUF fights. Guys are trained not to go straight back when striking, so why the hell do they do it against a wrestler trying to take them down? Move forward or circle, and, whatever you do, STAY OFF THE CAGE! You always see it in fights where a guy is so afraid of being taken down that he stands defensively, his hips practically already in sprawl mode, backing up tentatively as the wrestler paws his jabs and then ends up taking the guy down anyway. Why make the wrestler's job easier, especially a wrestler who doesn't want to strike with you? Carwin-Lesnar is a great example of doing this the right way. Carwin hardly has the best footwork in the world, but for Lesnar's two takedown attempts in the first round, Carwin stands his ground, keeps moving, and so when Lesnar rushes in he's in a good position to whizzer the first one and to pop him in the second.
These are just a few tactics that came to mind, but I'd welcome any others or criticism of the ones I mentioned.