Daniel Cormier's victory over Josh Barnett in the finals of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix was punctuated by Cormier's dramatic slam on Barnett. This move has to be on the short list of most exciting displays of wrestling technique in an important mixed martial arts contest. By slamming Barnett, Cormier boldly emphasized the significance of Olympic wrestling credentials in a cage and displayed athleticism on par with anyone in the sport.
On the surface this move seems simple: one big strong man launches the other through the air, but just like so much else in the world of martial arts, there is much more than meets the eye. This slam was built on a foundation of great wrestling technique and even more importantly, the proper wrestling mindset.
Keep reading after the break to find out how Cormier lifted Josh Barnett off the ground not just with explosive strength and determination, but with properly employed wrestling theory.
Anytime I want a chuckle, I can rely on 1985 wrestling/coming of age movie Vision Quest. The film features a particularly amusing scene showing the wrestling coach plying his trade by demonstrating a move to his team. While many things stand out as silly in this scene, none are as ridiculous as the coach's instructional ineptitude.
The coach explains how he is going to show the team " a move" and he demonstrates that "move" (in this case a double chicken wing, once the specialty of current UFC lightweight Jacob Volkman). He never explains how the move works, never explains what leads to the move, says nothing about how to finish the move and mentions nothing about how to react to the opponent's reaction when applying this move. Lack of oral explanation is the lesser of his teaching errors. The much greater error is his manner of thinking.
Wrestling "moves" do not exist in a vacuum as a series of unrelated maneuvers to be attempted capriciously. Wrestlers and their coaches should not think in terms of moves, rather, they should think in terms of basic concepts. Thinking of wrestling in terms of moves is like using a pictographic language where thousands of different marks must be memorized. Thinking in terms of basic concepts is akin to using a phonetic alphabet where all the knowledge in the universe can be conveyed manageable series of letters. Wrestling is most effectively taught when it is reduced to its primitive parts.
When we think of wrestling technique, specifically wrestling technique from the feet, in terms of unrelated moves and we classify each take down separately, we create a system that is cumbersome to the teacher and student.
To illustrate, imagine I am coaching you to shoot high crotch take downs and say this:
"Alright guys now we are going to learn a collar tie and high hook to a high crotch to a double, then we are going to learn the elbow-off to a high crotch to running the pipe, last we are going to learn the under hook to a high crotch to an Iranian lift."
I am making the error of treating each of these take downs as fully autonomous techniques. Imparting anything resembling comprehensive wrestling knowledge to my students would be impossible with this method as it would require me to teach each of the thousands of combinations of set-ups, shots, and finishes separately.
If I was thinking in terms of basic concepts I would reduce every take down to its three components, instruct on the components separately and then allow for their combination. I would teach all the set up holds I want my students to know e.g. elbow offs and under hooks. Then I would review all the basic shots, usually consisting of a back step and always incorporating a penetration step, either to the inside e.g. high crotch and basic double, and outside e.g. sweep single and knee pull single. Next, I would instruct on finishes to shots based sensitive to whether they are inside or outside steps. Finally I would show my students how to combine all three elements.
This is the efficient pedagogical choice and the correct way to think about the sport. Instead of teaching hundreds of different elaborate techniques, I have taught a handful of simple techniques in three different categories which can then be combined into hundreds of different elaborate techniques. Wrestling should fit together into an elegant and modular system
Wrestling coaches should teach wrestling according to a flow chart/decision tree in their brains (or for normal coaches who don't share my inability to utilize thoughts organized graphically on paper, a flow chart in their hands might be preferable). For takedowns the chart would list every technical progression from set up to finish. Wrestlers to a certain degree, need to think like NFL quarterbacks. When a quarterback drops back to pass he sees that his first receiver is not open, goes through his progression to his second receiver then his third and, if he plays for the Norv Turner era Redskins, he eventually settles on throwing to his fullback in the flat.
Wrestling technique is based around similar progressions. A wrestler achieves his hold to set up a takedown, he wants to shoot to one side but sees that leg is pulled too far away so he shoots to the other, then he launches into the appropriate finish. Finishes themselves would require their own somewhat elaborate sub-decision tree within the larger flowchart.*
The tree of leg attack finishes can be roughly divided into two primary branches: head inside or head outside. Each of these divisions can be subdivided three more times into low, mid-level, and high finishes (for simplicity's sake I don't distinguish between mid-level and high in my high school room). Then for each set of actual finishes at the bottom of the hierarchy should be listed in terms of preferability; for every shot on every level there is a particular finish that a wrestler should attempt first and then proceed through the other finishes in the progression accordingly.
As an example, for head outside singles, usually a high crotch, with a mid-level finish I would instruct my wrestlers to always attempt first to double-off to the far leg. This is the most dependable finish and the hardest to counter if done correctly. Frank Molinaro was really good at this. Look how tightly he cuts the corner against Dylan Ness.
The number two mid-level finish for this shot, and the second step of the progression would be running the pipe. Here is the Big Ten final match between Molinaro and Ness which took place after the previously pictured match. Here Ness is ready for Frank to attempt to double the high crotch and he fends off with a stiff cross face. Molinaro recognizes that getting to the far leg is impossible and pulls Ness to the mat in the other direction running the pipe in a sloppy but effective manor.
This is not the most beautiful example of the pipe being run so here I have current American University head coach demonstrating the technique in a much more visually appealing manner. Teague has his head on the outside with the leg between his own. Notice he has his arms extended straight downward and his hands locked, this keep the opponent's leg straigh, lengthening the lever that is the lifted leg causing increased forced to be applied to the hip. To complete the move, Teague pivots on his inside foot, draws a "C" with his outside foot, make a slight bowing motion, and pretends like he is snapping his partners leg through his legs like a football center. The subtle engine that drive this move is the right shoulder on the inside of the partner's thigh, this is a necessary part of the finish as the shoulder functions as the fulcrum that the lever of the leg is being pulled against.
Force is applied to the opponent's right hip down and away, cracking him down to his hip. Teague wisely snakes his arm around to the far hip to secure a finish. Failing to finish to both legs provides one of the great perils in running the pipe in college level wrestling. If control of only one leg is maintained throughout the crackdown, then the offensive man will find out just how freakishly good some current elite wrestlers are at wrestling from their hips. The resulting situation is below and it is a nightmare for the offensive wrestler.
I will take this opportunity to state that the widespread popularity of MMA has produced the weird phenomenon of unqualified people teaching wrestling technique on instructional videos. I found several clips of people teaching something called "running the pipe" improperly in what I assume are MMA gyms. Correct me if I am wrong but I get the impression that some MMA outlets are hesitant to embrace the knowledge of qualified wrestling coaches to teach standing wrestling technique stubbornly preferring to use whomever they have on hand to instruct on take downs no matter their background or credentials. If someone is teaching running the pipe with the head inside they are either using improper nomenclature for a different technique, or, and I fear this is more likely, they are charlatans teaching bad technique. The tragedy in this is that I have little doubt the charlatans make far more money than I in their coaching endeavors.
When I discussed how I teach the progression from double to running the pipe I neglected to mention my one exception to that rule, heavyweights. Heavyweights usually snatch this single without taking a true shot. It is undesirable to bear the weight of a heavy for very long and quick finishes are much preferred, doubling off on those tree trunk legs can be near impossible, and heavies usually just drop like a sack of bricks when the pipe is run with any level of proficiency. For these reasons I usually have my heavyweights run the pipe immediately after they pick up a head- outside single. Apparently Daniel Cormier was of the same mind on Saturday night as he successfully ran the pipe on Josh Barnett the very first time he had his leg on the head outside single.
This take down sets the table for the fantastic lift and slam later in the fight as the lift will be used as the second step in Cormier's progression of finishes. The hip-pop lift Cormier uses is a widely taught but underutilized finish to a head outside single and is a great way to take an opponent from his feet to his back. Cormier's Olympic teammate, Henry Cejudo demonstrates this technique in his gold medal match against Japan's Matsunaga Tomohiro.
After Cejudo secures the head outside single leg he squares his pelvis to Brown's right hip so that his hips are perpendicular. Lifting anyone off the ground is always made easier by facing them at a right angle. The key to the move is his left forearm which will bear his partner's weight. The forearm needs to be "elbow deep" under the crotch; no space should be left between the crook of his arm and the thigh. If you watch closely you will notice that Cejudo leaves some space when he lifts but his Olympic gold medal should insulate him from criticism in this case. A hip pop propels the lift, much like a standing clean, and Tomohiro is lifted easily off the mat.
When Cormier snatches his second head outside single against Barnett his immediate attempt to run the pipe is stymied. Daniel then progresses to his number 2 finish, the hip pop lift, by squaring his pelvis against the hip, driving his outside arm deep underneath the crotch, and popping his hips into Barnett. The right forearm of Cormier is bearing most of Barnett's 250 pounds. Not only does Barnett lift into the air, but his center of gravity, his chest, falls to the ground in front of him. When Barnett's chest falls, Cormier is now lifting far less weight with the same amount of force and he uses the lift's momentum to fling Barnett's hips and legs directly over his head and shoulders. The result is a jaw dropping slam.
This slam will no doubt be used in promos and Cormier profiles for years to come and can be appreciated the ignorant and knowledgeable of wrestling alike. But remember that this lift is more that a world class athlete heaving a large man with brute strength, it is a result of wrestling technique being taught, practiced, and most importantly thought of, the right way.
*Author's Note: this sounds like a too much thinking to do in a split second because it is, if wrestlers have to consciously think about these progressions they won't be very successful. Wrestlers need to be programmed, hard-wired, to instantly identify and act, otherwise they won't succeed. This is why wrestling is based so much on drudgerous repetition.
Mike Riordan is a high school wrestling coach, unsuccessful division one collegiate wrestler, and student of the sport of wrestling. He contributes to Bloody Elbow on matters of collegiate and Olympic wrestling.