We’ve all heard Joe Rogan say it over and over (and over) again: Wrestling is the best base for MMA. By the sheer numbers of top level fighters that were previously top level wrestlers, this seems to be the case. As professional MMA is becoming a more attractive option for top collegiate wrestlers, I think we can see trend of how these All-Americans develop into mixed martial artists.
Generally speaking (of course, there’s always outliers), we’re seeing wrestlers go down one of two paths of development as fighters, and which path they choose can be predicted by looking at their wrestling style. Top level wrestlers, at least for the first several years into fighting, tend to develop either their striking, throwing powerful punches that knockout their foe, or their jiu jitsu, using their already strong takedowns to submit opponents. "Duh," you might be thinking. Of course fighters develop striking or jiu jitsu. The key is, though, that I think whichever path the wrestler chooses depends on their wrestling style. The best way to explain my point is with real examples. A few videos after the jump…
A top level collegiate wrestler that develops his striking before his grappling is generally an (yes, I hate to say it) explosive-style wrestler. Perhaps the quintessential wrestler-striker is Josh Koscheck. Obviously, early in his career, Josh relied very heavily on his wrestling alone, but clearly he has opted for strengthening his standup instead of relying on his takedowns and submissions. This isn’t to say he’s an amazing striker, just that he favors striking.
If we look at Josh’s wrestling style, we notice that it relies heavily on explosive, fast-twitch muscle moves. Wrestlers like this prefer power double-legs over low single-legs. I’m not saying they’re not technical, but their wrestling style utilizes explosive, powerful techniques. For an example of this, see the video below. Around 1:55 Josh tries a power double (that should look familiar). Instead of switching to a lower single-leg or a high-crotch, Josh opts to try to power through. Then, at 4:00 Josh prevents an escape by simply driving his opponent off the mat with another power-double.
2000 NCAA: Byron Tucker (Oklahoma) vs Josh Koscheck (Edin) (via stardust9094)
Another wrestler-striker that follows this trend is Michael Chandler. His striking was on full display in his victory over veteran Eddie Alvarez. Again, his wrestling style indicates that Chandler would likely develop into a strong striker. See below at 3:55 where Chandler opts for the he-man super-suplex over switching to low single-leg or a trip. His wrestling style relies heavily on these types of overpowering, explosive moves.
Jordan Leen dec MIchael Chandler Missouri (via CornellWrestling)
The reason wrestlers of this ilk tend to develop into strikers seems obvious: they have become accustom to relying on powerful, fast-twitch muscles to be successful in wrestling, and these are similar types of muscles used in striking. Striking can be very technical, and I wouldn’t expect a wrestler to develop into a master kickboxer just because he has a strong double-leg, but these types of wrestlers are, by their very nature, well-suited to be good strikers. Their punches pack serious power, and they’re generally quicker than most opponents.
On the other side of the coin are top level collegiate wrestlers that seem to develop their jiu jitsu at a significantly faster pace than their striking. Unlike the wrestler-strikers, these wrestlers were more technical on the mat. Instead of powering through double-legs, they often shot low singles or worked ankle picks to get their opponents down. Their style might appear a bit slower, often achieving a takedown through a scramble or contorted limbs.
A couple of fine examples of these wrestler-grapplers are Phil Davis and Ben Askren. As for Davis, his greenness in the striking department was on display against Rashad Evans, but his natural submission ability could be seen in his victories over Alexander Gustafsson and Tim Boetsch. His style in college is markedly different than Koscheck’s or Chandler’s. Below is Davis’s 2008 NCAA National Championship match. It not only shows his awesome defensive wrestling, but we see him using some very technical wrestling. At 4:40 he scores a takedown after defending one, utilizing his balance, flexibility, and long limbs.
2008 Finals 197: Davis (Penn St) vs Michalak (CMU) (via stardust9094)
Ben Askren is the crème-de-la-crème of this style of technical wrestling. His nickname, "Funky," comes from his wrestling style, but that's not to say his wrestling lacked technique-- far from it. Ben relied on low single-legs and carefully applying his weight and balances in specific places to score takedowns. The entire video below showcases this style. Ben rarely uses a powerful double-leg, but rather trips and ankle picks. His wrestling style, with all his scrambles and flexibility, seems custom made for developing a strong jiu jitsu game.
Ben Askren Highlights (via bobsagetisgangsta)
Whereas wrestler-strikers use their power and quickness, wrestler-grapplers use their creativity and technique on the ground to submit their opponents. Their takedowns might not always be so pretty, but once their opponent is down, these fighters use their innate ability to understand weight and balance and predict another fighter’s next move to work for the submission.
Again, these are very general categories, and there will always be outliers (Jon Jones??). There are still wrestlers that are more old school ground and pounders, like Chael Sonnen. Nonetheless, I think these two categories make sense for actually predicting what type of fighter a collegiate wrestler will turn in to. Hopefully the ultimate goal for any wrestler is to be well-rounded and skilled in all areas, but for the first several years, wrestlers tend to develop one area quicker than another.
So what did I mess up? Any predictions on Bubba Jenkins?