After Mayweather's fight last night, a question that's been on many minds is "how would he do in MMA"? The answer to that is, of course, absolutely awful. However, it does bring up an extremely interesting topic; how do you fight someone who you know is going to take you down?
This is a topic that comes up pretty frequently and the general consensus is that a better wrestler is going to beat a better striker in most cases. Or, at the very least, that it's very hard to strike when you're worried about grappling. For a while I accepted this as truth without ever considering WHY. Recently, I've come to the extremely simple conclusion that you can use striking to out-grappler a better grappler just like you can use (the threat of) grappling to out-strike a better striker. So here's my basic explanation of simple adjustments to make that will give you the edge over a superior wrestler.
First thing's first, hit the mats. You need experience and confidence on the ground if you plan to fight a grappler. This doesn't mean you should start spending years developing the intricacies of a heavy top game, but relentlessly drill basic sweep and submission chains from the bottom to help you get up if your takedown defense (which you'll also be drilling) fails. That's my little disclaimer for the "just learn to wrestle" crowd.
With that out of the way, I'll go into the theory behind striking a superior grappler and how to apply specific techniques to accomplish your goals, assuming you’re competent in the clinch and on the ground. If you don't have time for that, here's a quick solution to the takedown for those of you who are feeling particularly badass today.
Then again, just be aware that a good wrestler might do this:
On a conceptual level, your goal is to get him standing tall and moving backwards. His goal is to move forward relentlessly in a low stance until he can grab you. If he’s moving straight forward and you’re moving straight back then you’re screwed when he catches up or you run out of room to back up. If he’s lower than you, he’s got a built-in leverage advantage and you’ll struggle to defend the shot.
The first thing you need to understand about fighting a wrestler is to NEVER STAND IN FRONT OF HIM DOING NOTHING. An analogy to help illustrate this concept is that a shooting wrestler is a train. If you stay on the tracks you're gonna get run over, but if you simply step to the side it will rush harmlessly past you. Don't ever just stand on the tracks without a specific reason. Circle, circle and circle some more. It doesn't have to be fast, but keep constant lateral movement going when nothing else is happening. Force the opponent to always be turning to face you and he'll struggle to ever line up a shot. The best example I've ever seen of this in MMA was Gustafsson vs Hamill. Gustafsson spent the entire fight circling to his right and he managed to defend every single takedown attempt. Another important tip is to get yourself to the center of the cage as often as possible. You want as much room as possible to move at all times and by far the most common tactic for a wrestler is to back an opponent against the cage before shooting because it ensures that some sort of grappling exchange is going to occur. There are some strikers who prefer this (see Anderson Silva and BJ Penn) though so if you like to fight off the cage or use it to stand up then it isn't as much of an issue. So the basic footwork strategy is to maintain distance and circle whenever you aren't attacking. Please remember that it's momumentally important to angle out and circle away after attack, as it's very common for wrestlers to shoot during and after being attacked.
So you're avoiding him, but he's still in a very threatening stance and still coming forward...how do you get him to stand tall and back up? First, go down to his level. In wrestling, it’s a hugely important concept to get your hips beneath your opponent’s and it works as well on defense as it does on offense. Also, in striking, we know that it’s never a good idea to spend an entire fight trying to punch downwards, both because you lose your leverage and open yourself up for counters. But you don’t wanna be walking around in a wrestling stance all day; you need to be constantly moving. Thus, in my opinion, body shots are your best friend against a wrestler for two extremely important reasons. 1: It's very, very difficult to hit grapplers in the head because of all the level changing and 2: committed body shots will get you at least as low as them. One of the most important punches you'll be throwing against a wrestler (or anyone in general who moves their head a lot in any direction) is the jab to the chest. I can't emphasize this enough. DO NOT TRY TO JAB A WRESTLER IN THE FACE. It's a deceptively small target that can very easily be moved out of the way. The chest, however, is much larger and easier to hit, as well as below the head. The worst thing you can do is miss a punch and jabbing the chest ensures that you'll be hitting something at all times. The absolute least this will do is make it harder for the wrestler to move forward.
Instead of missing a punch to the head and having him shoot under it, my favorite combination is to pivot to the side, plant myself and get low to throw a hard cross to the body followed by a left uppercut. Something to note about this is it's great to break rhythm when you attack. Try circling slowly to numb the opponent to that movement before explosively pivoting or sidestepping and attacking. Gustafsson actually does this in every single fight, which could play a role in his bout against Jones. The advantages of this are that 1 you get an angle and temporarily avoid his forward momentum 2 you get your hips low like his so he doesn't have a built in advantage based on his lower center of gravity and 3 you threaten him with an uppercut that he'll hopefully be ducking into and will be set up well. Take a look at this picture of JDS in his first fight against Cain.
Look closely at the level of their hips and their heads and notice that JDS has moved his center of gravity below Cain’s. If Cain wanted to shoot from here, he’d have to lower his level significantly while Junior is already in a good position to sprawl. If he had chosen to follow up with an uppercut from the position he’s in, it probably would have landed cleanly. Also note that in that short fight of striker vs. grappler, most of the few strikes Junior landed were to the body.
This is just my favorite example but there are a lot of options with the same idea. Punch him anywhere in the body then use an uppercut (or even a rising hook) to punish him for matching your level change. Helpful hint: you don't only have to jab the chest and throw power shots to the stomach. Punching at the chest is excellent because it gives you a chance to catch the opponent as he starts ducking for a shot:
Watch closely and you'll see that Rashad started lower than Machida and was starting to go even lower, but Machida parries Rashad's jab and times a perfect straight left. But if you watch that gif and put your mouse over the spot where Machida's fist is when it connects, you'll see that he's actually punching at Rashad's initial chest level. So the takeaway is that to punch the head, you first punch the body. Even when aiming for the head, aim at the chest and you're much more likely to hit it.
Threatening the Level Change:
Something the more observant among you may have noticed is that the level change is central to this article. It simply means getting lower in your stance, which can be done by widening the stance, bending at the knees and in some ways by bending at the waist, though this is never advisable. In a wrestler's case, the level change often involves transferring weight to the front foot if it isn't already carried there. Arguably the most important concept when fighting a wrestler is to threaten that level change. They need it to shoot quickly and to keep moving forward quickly. If you take that away from them, their grappling becomes both easier to see and defend. I alluded to this concept in the previous paragraphs, but the way to do this is to attack with upward strikes. Chief among these being the uppercut, but the category also includes front snap kicks, knees (flying and otherwise) up-jabs, rising hooks and even some elbows. The ability to use these techniques constantly will go a long way towards changing the stance of the opponent. In fellow poster Archelon's outstanding article Nodes, Control, and the MMA Landscape (Part 1), he writes about the close relationship between a fighter's stance and the techniques they are best able to perform; a concept he calls "stance dictation". The goal here is to force-ably alter the opponent's stance so that it no longer suits their goals. Being attacked with upward strikes gives the opponent the option of either standing up taller and moving the weight farther back to defend properly or remaining an easy target and potentially being knocked out. Both of those options are advantageous to you, the striker. You either keep landing those strikes (which are sufficiently damaging on their own) or force the opponent into a position where you are free to more easily unload a more varied assault.
Allow me to take this time to preach an unpopular idea: let your hands down from your normal high guard the next time you're fighting a wrestler, even if its only your lead hand. Try it just once and pay attention to your ability to throw uppercuts, up-jabs and rising hooks. Also see how much easier it is to establish underhooks and inside grips. If you're not satisfied, just put the hand back up in the future and forget I ever mentioned it. I'd be willing to bet that you'll be pleasantly surprised how much of a difference it can make for both your offense and defense. The main advantage of this is that it places a threat outside the opponent's field of vision. He now has to worry about the punches coming from beneath his line of sight as well as the ones coming straight at him. The better your jab is, the better this threat becomes and the more initiative it gives you. The low lead hand works great to slow down the opponent and make him have to think really hard about how to attack and get past that up-jab. Once you start feinting with it you can really capitalize on this type of hand positioning.
We’ve all heard that it’s a bad idea to kick against a wrestler (it’ll get caught and you’ll get tossed). However, I believe that all it takes is a little thought. You can use a teep to back him up or maybe even a quick sidekick if you like those. Linear kicks are key because they are specifically designed to counter forward momentum of the opponent or create it for you. It's very frustrating to try to move in when the ball of the foot or heel of a good kicker is spearing into your gut and chest consistently. I hate to recommend oblique kicks because something about them bothers me, but I admit they do keep the wrestler hesitant to commit weight to the front foot. Side, front and oblique kicks to the legs are all highly intelligent strikes to throw against anyone who depends on getting their weight on the front foot (wrestlers, brawlers, left hookers). All of those techniques are very difficult to counter, no matter what anyone tells you. They require a great deal of skill to catch (yes, even teeps) and when timed as the opponent is committing to moving forward are exceptionally difficult to do anything about. Anyway, in my opinion, the single most useful kick against a wrestler is a simple front snap kick to the chin. It's a quick move that comes from underneath and can be recovered from faster than most kicks. It fits with the theme of punishing him for getting low and can be thrown from a little farther back than an uppercut can, with either the lead or rear leg. Remember, the ideal strategy is to stop him from ever being in position to take a shot. We’re trying to nip that in the bud. Or, worst case scenario, put ourselves in a better position to defend than he’s in to attack. Just ask Overeem how dangerous that type of kick is against a low, front foot heavy stance.
Putting it all Together:
When we get him upright and nervous about ducking or committing weight to the front foot, we can start to open up on his head a lot more. He’ll be watching for body shots, so feint them to land clean punches to the head. If he starts backing up, that’s when you unload with leg kicks as he retreats. It's hard to be backing up and check a leg kick and almost impossible to get a takedown while moving backwards, so throw them with as much impunity as you'll ever be able to in a fight. Kinda like this:
Now I know Machida isn’t exactly a wrestler, but it’s the best gif I could find quickly to demonstrate the concept. If you land a few good ones like that, mix it up and blast one to the head.
Kinda like that, but make it a little less ugly.
Also note that most fighters stand up taller as they back up, making it much easier and less risky to land straight punches and hooks. Just know that a lot of wrestlers instinctively react to getting rocked badly by shooting wildly or clinching, so even if you have him conditioned to not crouch down he'll still do it if he thinks he's about to go out. But anyway, that should be easy to defend and once you have him tall and taking a few shots he'll hopefully either start backing up or at least move forward more cautiously.
Defending the Takedown:
Alright, so if you follow every piece of advice above and adhere strictly to the principles of turning the opponent and threatening the level change, you're still going to have to defend the take down. It's a simple fact that wrestlers are still going to shoot on you at some point. Hopefully, they'll be doing so from already compromised positions (they're either too far away, not facing you properly or higher than you in their stance). Whether or not they are, how you defend is vital. In my opinion, and I've said this before, the worst thing you can do is sprawl. Sprawling is an absolute last resort because it puts you into a pure wrestling situation where they are likely more experienced and skilled. This gives them the ability to chain takedowns or pull guard if they're Demian Maia. Instead of sprawling, the best defense is to get prevent them from establishing any grips, pivot hard and push off. It's all about footwork and preemptive positioning.
Notice in this gif how Silva gets his feet and hips back and immediately starts moving his feet to the side. He uses his hands and forearms to push Weidman away as he fights the hands to make sure Weidman never manages to start wrapping either arm around him. Especially beautiful is his escape from the cage. Notice that Weidman is able to bully him into it as Silva tries to pivot to his own left, but once against the cage Silva quickly changes directions and pivots out, avoiding the takedown without ever being in any sort of meaningful grappling position. For another example, watch Lyoto Machida deny Phil Davis:
Note that in this case, Phil manages to get his right arm partially around Lyoto's waist. Machida responds by whizzering that arm and violently pivoting to his right, using that grip to whip Davis around and divert his forward momentum, shaking him off. This happens even though Machida is stepping forward to strike as Phil times the shot. Had he decided to sprawl, it is highly possible that the control on his waist would have allowed Phil to continue his wrestling assault and the timing might have allowed him to get decently deep on the hips. This method that relies mainly on tight footwork greatly shortens the length and complexity of the grappling exchange. In my opinion, it is always the ideal method for a striker whenever possible. It also gives the opportunity for a good clinch striker to potentially land some solid knees or elbows as they manipulate the highly committed momentum and balance of the opponent.
In short, get your hands inside and circle out. If the opponent gets an arm around your body, whizzer and pivot away from it hard. Get off the train tracks. If you're still not convinced, here's Junior dos Santos using the same type of defense:
Notice how he gets his left hand on the upper arm to stop the right arm from getting around his body, then uses that hand to push Cain away as he pivots out. Junior's right arm is blocking Cain's left. That's how it's done. So three former UFC champions (two of whom are currently set to fight for their belts back) that are mainly known as strikers should be enough to prove my point.
Now that the basic techniques and fundamental principles for dealing with this type of opponent are understood, here are some more advanced techniques that can be used to great effect but are not recommended initially:
Leaping in Knees:
Demonstrated by the master, Lyoto Machida against the wrestler Tito Ortiz. There are some very key things to note here, Machida is countering Tito's forward momentum to greatly increase the power of this strike, allowing him to score the knockdown. Regardless of that, Machida is very careful to ensure that he will not be trapped in the clinch or taken down. Watch how his left arm changes positions and he slides the forearm against the collarbone of Ortiz. Had he tried to come forward, this would have held him back. At the same time, Machida controls Tito's left arm with his own right hand, preventing it from establishing any grips. He immediately circles out to avoid any grappling. That's some seriously high level stuff right there, everything about it is perfect. It's very easy to get taken down attempting a move like this if you lack the stopping power and the ability to use your arms properly during the attack.
Demonstrated by the master tall man, Jon Jones vs the wrestler Rashad Evans. This is a beautiful move. The biggest difficulty when throwing elbows is, obviously, the range. It's best to attack with them as the opponent is stepping in quickly, such as during a takedown attempt. This is risky because the elbow is being lifted, allowing a great amount of space for the wrestler's body to move into. However, if you can catch them before they get that low it's a very damaging move. Note that in the above gif, Jones performs a falling step (push off with the rear leg as weight "falls" onto the front foot) to add to the power and range of the move. Also note how he hand fights before stepping in. You tall, lanky guys may want to take notes.
Push Off Head Kick:
Ok, this isn't even an MMA fight. But the potential for it to be used in one is overwhelmingly awesome. Stuff a shot, give the wrestler a little shove and blast them with the high kick. The beauty here is that the push both puts them into range of the kick and takes away their balance, often causing them to drop their hands as they work to regain it. One of the situations where this is most applicable is against the cage. Imagine being pinned against the cage by a wrestler and managing to spin out. If you can break the grips and push him back into the cage, he'll be stuck waiting to eat the kick. The risks here are that you have to get close enough to push the guy away and it may be difficult to find a situation where this works against someone intent on taking you down, but lucky for you it's a great move against any type of fighter.
The hop step is a piece of relatively advanced boxing footwork. It can be performed backwards or forwards, but here we're looking at the backwards hop step. It is performed with the weight starting on the rear foot. The lead foot starts moving first as it moves slightly back towards the position of the rear foot. A split second after this begins, the rear foot moves back and out as it is "replaced" by the front foot. The weight ends on the front foot. The weight shift is the key to using this as a counter because the natural weight shift of the hop step is basically the same that occurs when throwing a rear handed strike. In the above gif, you can see Conor McGregor using it to land an elbow on Brimage. He also uses it later in the fight to land a straight left. It's a fantastic counter because it allows you to strike while moving to an angle. The footwork can be tricky but it isn't overwhelmingly difficult to learn.
Being John Dodson:
Unfortunately, this one only works if you're John Dodson.
Hopefully this gives you some valuable tools and a solid understanding of what to do the next time you're sparring or fighting a stronger wrestler. I firmly believe that the primary advantage wrestlers have is that strikers are not training to account for the unique challenges presented by them. Remember that it's of the utmost importance to be very mindful of positioning and timing when you plant to commit to your punches. Only do it when you're at an angle and/or the opponent is turning. Jab to the chest to back them up and keep circling when they come forward. Hit them with body shots as you change levels to find an easier target and sap their typically superior cardio. Use upward strikes to take apart their stance and linear kicks to all targets to halt their forward movement and force their weight back. If you can get them to stand up tall, attack with your straight punches and hooks then angle off after you attack. When they shoot, use explosive pivots and lateral movement to spin them as you fight off their grips. Only attack with round kicks as they're backing up or circling into them. Have an answer for when all of this inevitably fails.