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In the main event of UFC 156, Jose Aldo defeated Frankie Edgar due, in part, to impeccable take down defense. A close look at the techniques used by Aldo in defending Edgar's take downs reveals a level of defensive wrestling skill which should give pause to any potential Aldo opponents who want to defeat him by taking him to the mat.
In the interest of brevity, this post will not explore the origins of Jose Aldo's wrestling skills (I'm working on that) but, rather, celebrate and analyze them. The analysis comes naturally but I celebrate grudgingly; I really get troubled and anxious when a Brazilian with no real wrestling background out wrestles a very accomplished NCAA division one wrestler.
MMA fans might respond that I should not get alarmed when a someone like Jose Aldo gets the better of Frankie Edgar in wrestling exchanges. They might point out that this is mixed martial arts, a combat sport with so many more variables involved than a simple wrestling match. In a cage fight, Frankie's wrestling may not just be thwarted by Aldo's skill, but by the threat of a choke or devastating knee to the head.
These fans who point this out aren't completely wrong, no doubt exists that MMA wrestling is significantly different from conventional wrestling. However, this viewpoint discounts the fact that Aldo bested Edgar during some of their match's brief pure wrestling situations-exchanges lasting mere seconds where both competitors were simply wrestling, and where the threat of strikes and submissions played no part. The wrestling Aldo showed in UFC 156, though limited in scope, was good whether inside an octagon or on a mat.
Developing these good wrestling skills, defensive or otherwise, has a great deal to do with talent, those with great strength and speed are usually going to become better wrestlers than those without. The best wrestlers also possess a special kind of smarts, an understanding of how the sport works. Important as they may be, speed, strength, and smarts are no substitute for experience. The best wrestlers hone their skills over a period of many years, wrestling live from the same position time after time. Generally speaking, wrestling is nothing more than a series of repeating situations and the athlete with the most experience and comfort in a particular situation is going to come out ahead. Jose Aldo's defensive wrestling against Frankie Edgar greatly impressed me for it showed that he has clearly invested the necessary time and effort in becoming very adept in wrestling in certain important scenarios.
Round 2, Aldo escapes a high single
Edgar often engages in a leg attack with a sort of running knee pick/high single hybrid. He initiates the take down with a jab to the head; this jab hand stays extended and becomes an open-handed post to the head which is used the push the opponent backwards. As Frankie drives in with this post hand, he snags his opponent's lead knee with his other hand. If the opponent is off balance, this can be enough to convert the take down, if not, Edgar drops his post hand to the picked knee to finish the attack as a high single. This is a brutally effective method of taking an opponent down, and one that is well adapted to MMA.
Edgar attempted this take down multiple times during his fight with Jose Aldo. Notably, in the second round, Edgar drives in with the knee pick, doesn't get Aldo to fall, and switches to the high single. This is MMA, and Aldo could respond by punching Edgar in the face, or could fall back on his ample BJJ capabilities, instead, Aldo responds like a seasoned wrestler.
One of the key components in successfully finishing a single leg is leg security. The attacking wrestler risks losing the leg if his hold on the shin or ankle is not secured up to the elbow. It's hard enough to get in on a leg, reliable control of the leg must be established. In the fourth frame from the left below, Aldo, whether by fell or by sight, identifies that Edgar has not fully secured the leg, he then deftly turns away and limp legs away from Edgars grip. Most impressive in this whole series is Aldo's instant recognition of the situation, and the appropriateness of his reaction, this speaks of a large amount of preparation wrestling from this position.
Russia's Besik Kudukhov shows a similar limp leg from the leg clinch in the 2010 60 kilogram world finals, this is difficult to see due to the referee in his silly suit, but it is incredibly slick and initiated a dramatic flurry which won the match for Kudukhov.
Round 3: Double Leg Defense
At the beginning of round three, Frankie Edgar gets in deep on a double leg. A novice wrestler, when getting blasted to the mat by a double leg or any powerful take down, would fail to counter or attempt to escape until he or she has landed. Aldo demonstrates no such lag in reaction time. More or less in mid air, Jose has the whizzer in with his left arm and is starting to pressure in with his left hip. Aldo already has a clear plan in mind while being driven to the mat, he lands not just with the whizzer in, but with his right hand posted on the mat. Jose immediately scoots his knees out from under Edgar's chest on the side opposite Edgar's head, freeing his left leg. Meanwhile the posted right hand provides the necessary leverage to elevate his hips, force more pressure in with Aldo's left hip and whizzer. This culminates with the necessary pressure and elevation for Aldo to pop his right leg out and back, resulting in a full sprawl and Edgar in a position of disadvantage. Once more, I'd like to emphasize that what takes place in this exchange is pure wrestling with no other discipline sprinkled in.
Brock Lesnar might have lost his 1999 NCAA finals match against Cal State Bakersfield's future world champ Stephen Neal, but in the process he fends off a take down very nicely in a manner similar to what Aldo did above. Neal switches to a double from a crack down and Brock keeps his hips elevated by posting his massive arm and whizzers his hips out with extreme prejudice.
Round 4: Aldo Gets Edgar Off Of His Back
Edgar attempts his punch to a driving knee pick/high single again in round 4. This time Frankie eschews the attempt to pick up the leg and swings around behind Aldo. Jose, with absolutely no hesitation leans back into Edgar and achieves hand control on Edgar's high hand (frame 3). This is perfect wrestling technique from this position for two reasons.
First: Many wrestling coaches will testify to the difficulty and frustration in training their wrestlers to lean back and force their opponent to bear their weight in this position. The natural instinct is to lean forward, however, leaning forward forces the hips back into the opponent's hips, facilitating the mat return. Leaning back is absolutely necessary as it generates space between the competitors' hips while forcing the opponent to support the weight of two people. Look at the third frame below. in that moment, were Edgar to disappear, Aldo would fall to the floor.
Second: Aldo is obtaining control on Edgar's high hand. This might be accident or evidence of very good coaching. Good coaches instruct their wrestlers to attack the high hand in this situation as trying to grab the low hand (Frankie's right) could result in a re-grab and cross wrist control for the man in Edgar's position.
From this shoulders back hips forward position Aldo wastes no time and hits a high shear to face Edgar, he pulls Edgar's hand off his chest with his left hand, brings his right foot underneath him and pivots on the ball of that foot, and finally slices his right hand across Edgar's chest to fully turn.
What happens next really demonstrates a high level of wrestling on Aldo's part. Aldo shears away to face Edgar but Frankie immediately drops to the double. Jose doesn't stop wrestling here and is immediately able to defend Edgar's second take down bid. I believe that in this situation most would have been caught off guard by Edgar's persistence. The ability to wrestle successfully in a closely linked succession of different positions is the true mark of a well schooled wrestler. Once more, this portion of the match, though fleeting, features only wrestling techniques, and Jose Aldo, the Brazilian with no experience in formal wrestling competition, is coming out ahead.
Jose even had the presence of mind later in the match to hook Edgar's leg with his toe to prevent the lift to a mat return. This may seem unremarkable, but it further reveals the depth of Aldo's wrestling preparation.
Jose Aldo has risen to the top of the MMA world through impressive striking abilities backed up by the potential to submit opponents with high level BJJ. After his fight with Frankie Edgar, there is no doubt that he also possesses a scary level of skill in defensive wrestling, skills of the sort that they allow him to beat a near All American wrestler at his own game.