Michael Bisping never wrestled before his MMA career, but has become extremely effective at stopping takedowns, to the point where he stymied Olympic wrestler and MMA takedown expert Chael Sonnen in a three round fight. Bisping's wresting is consistently underrated because of his nationality, the stereotype being that English MMA fighters cannot wrestle.
But Bisping has quietly become one of the best counter wrestlers in the middleweight division and he has done so with a few basic strategies:
- Initiate the clinch first
- Don't over extend when striking
- Use the fence and then escape from it
Bisping is a striker, and while he does make effective use of takedowns offensively, it is in his best interests to keep opponents at arm's length. Really the first layer of his takedown defense is his footwork and jab. Bisping is constantly moving on the outside, making it difficult for fighters to clinch with him. He also pumps his jab very effectively, using it to both measure distance but also keep his opponent trapped on the outside. While not a fool-proof strategy, oftentimes when a fighter wants to take Bisping down, they'll be forced to set it up with strikes.
When opponents do manage to get inside, Bisping does not make use of the traditional, exaggerated wrestling sprawl that many fans picture. Instead Bisping will actually work to be the first one to change levels. When he feels that fighters are looking to shoot in to take him down or just to clinch, Bisping will change levels to get his center of gravity lower than his attacker and clinch first, as if he is going for a takedown. (pictured below)
The goal of this is not for Bisping to take the other fighter to the mat, but instead set himself up in the most advantageous position in the clinch so he can quickly push away and resume striking. This prevents his opponents from getting under his center of gravity and helps him head off many takedowns.
Chuck Liddell defined "sprawl and brawl" by keeping his hands low to defend the takedown. It worked well in keeping him standing, but also exposed him to strikes. Bisping however uses a very high guard to protect himself from strikes. (pictured below)
His preemptive strategy is what allows Bisping to make use of a traditional striking guard without being taken down at will by everyone he fights. When the distance changes and Bisping feels threatened by a takedown he quickly changes his body position.
Here is a still taken about a second after the above picture from the Jason Miller fight. Miller had just throw a wild jab and stepped in close to Bisping. Sensing the distance change, Bisping lowers his base and drops his hands for a fraction of a second, preparing to clinch with Miller, but when Miller backs off Bisping returns to his upright stance. (pictured below). Notice that Bisping has opened his stance more and brought his hips and shoulders square with Miller, putting himself in excellent position for both clinch fighting and a possible sprawl.
Clearly this is a dangerous tactic as he leaves himself open for uppercuts, knees and other strikes. In real time, however, it happens so fast that the window is very small. But a fighter that is able to exploit this might have a great deal of success hurting Bisping on the feet. The other trade off in this tactic is in the effectiveness of Bisping's striking, as outlined here by fellow Bloody Elbow Judo Chopper Dallas Winston:
Michael Bisping is continually lambasted for his purported "pillow hands" but that's exactly why he's also lauded for his defensive grappling and takedown defense.
They key to Bisping's extraordinary takedown defense is the way he never allows himself to be broad-sided while over-committing to his combinations. It's all about balance. Balance is the cornerstone of any and every martial art, as Mr. Miyagi wisely consoled whilst ushering a bewildered Daniel-san out into the crashing waves. Balance is somewhat like cardio: it never seems like a highly imperative aspect of a fight until it disappears on someone; the better your balance is, the more effective every movement and action will be.
That's why the most difficult opponent for a wrestler to take down, which is really the simple act of using leverage to topple someone over, is an on-balance opponent. Conversely, the easiest opponent for a wrestler to take down is one committed to an activity that limits balance, the classic example being a striker who's amidst a meaningful combination. To strike with power, which is what everyone wants to do, the power comes from the hips and core, and that power is transmitted by planting the feet and using the stability of mother Earth to generate force by torquing your hips and core. And that vague summary of punching technique describes exactly what a wrestler hopes his opponent is doing while he drops levels and explodes forward for a single or double-leg takedown.
This means that, in order to land a punch without being taken down, a striker knows he has to assume the stance and position that makes him susceptible, right? You can't land a solid punch, or even throw one, for that matter, without putting your body in a position that's ideal for a takedown artist to capitalize on. Bisping has found a happy medium. He's an effective and talented striker, but he admirably mitigates risks by maintaining an excellent command of balance. With that balance fully intact, it allows him to stay light on his toes and cut the proper angle to defend or counter-punch, and/or to react quickly by lowering his center of gravity and digging in underhooks or retracting his hips to sprawl out.
A safe rule of thumb is that the more power and heft you put into a strike, the more you're at risk for a takedown. The perfect complement to this trait for Bisping is his intelligence and Fight I.Q., as he knows when to pour it on and when to ratchet back the power in order to defend. After all, he's finished 14 of his 23 wins by TKO, which is not bad for having "pillow hands." And these variables also demonstrate why the sport's elite sprawl and brawlers like Chuck Liddell and Lyoto Machida are so special and gifted, as their intelligence and timing afforded bulletproof takedown defense but still fostered knockouts aplenty.
But what about when Bisping is pressured in the clinch, like in the Chael Sonnen fight? Sonnen does not waste time when he fights; the man knows where his bread is buttered and employs a near bull-rush approach when looking for takedowns. He throws a few strikes with enough technique and power to force a fighter to respect them and then closes the distance in a rush.
In his fight with Bisping, Sonnen used just that strategy to blast through Bisping's layers of defense and clinch with him. When all else has failed Bisping retreats to the cage (pictured below), a strategy that has become very common in MMA.
A standard tactic, Bisping puts his back to the cage, literally giving him a wall to lean on and prevent the takedown. He spreads his base out wide to make himself as heavy as possible. He establishes a strong whizzer on Sonnen's right arm to prevent Sonnen from moving to a rear waist lock and dragging them away from the cage. Then he starts working for the under hook. The added benefit of being on the cage is that if Bisping is taken down he can immediately begin to wall walk back to his feet, minimizing the time spent on the ground as Dallas mentioned.
As seen above Bisping places a hand on Sonnen's hip, maintaining distance between them. If Sonnen is able to push his hips into Bisping it will provide him excellent leverage to either lift the Brit or bend him backwards onto the mat. Sonnen keeps his right shoulder high, denying Bisping a chance to swim for an underhook on that side and blocking Bisping's escape. So Bisping goes the other direction.
Bisping moves the hand that was on Sonnen's hip to his bicep, pushing Sonnen's arm away to keep it from underhooking. Bisping then side steps, releasing his whizzer, and now Sonnen no longer has control of Bisping's body. Bisping is able to slip away and establish his preferred striking distance.
While it is unclear if Vitor Belfort plans to take Bisping down at UFC On FX 7 this Saturday, it's certainly no small feat to take Michael Bisping down and hold him there.