Bloody Elbow Open Mat: Where are all the Sweeps?

Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

The Bloody Elbow Open Mat poses a question to both BE Staff and readers concerning MMA technique for consideration. For this installment, why are sweeps not seen more often in MMA?

Recently the MMA Fight Database website ran a study to look at how common sweeps are in MMA, as defined by BJJ competition's definition of a sweep. For those unaware, the basic definition is when a bottom fighter uses his or her closed, open, or half guard to go from the bottom to the top. Reversals out of dominant positions, such as side control, mount, or back control, are not counted as sweeps.

The study looked at 1438 fights and observed 90 sweeps, putting sweeps in at a rate of about 0.06 sweeps per fight The study also did a run down of what types of sweeps and how common they are compared to other grappling techniques. The full study is right here and certainly worth a look.

Sweeps are extremely common in grappling competitions, but clearly not so in MMA. So we pose the question, why are there not more sweeps in MMA?

KJ Gould: I don't think there's any one reason. It could be that the posture of fighters in guard is different enough in MMA that sweeping is more difficult than in grappling where there is no striking. It could be because stalling and disengaging is not penalized the same in MMA as it is in grappling making it easier to sit in guard and shut down sweeps. Or it could be because sweeps aren't trained to as high a standard in MMA as in grappling.

Zane Simon: Basically I'd assume we don't see it as much because it takes concentration on the sweep to do it. Most fighters in MMA are either looking to defend once they're on their back, looking to find a quick way to instantly get up from the bottom, or are looking to attack from the bottom because they feel like they've practiced arm bars and triangles a lot. Setting up and then executing a sweep may be the most advantageous thing to do but it requires a lot of forethought at a point when most fighters don't feel like they have the time to use any.

Ian Kidd: My theory is that it could be down to the differences in the types of openings provided in both types of competition. In grappling, being in someone's guard isn't all the useful, there aren't any real submissions you can pull of from there, so you're looking to pass constantly and your center of gravity and position of your hips changes to reflect this, making you vulnerable to sweeps during transitions. In MMA, lots of guys will stay very tight in the guard, waiting for the opportunity to land strikes, the position you end up in while throwing strikes lends itself to triangle/arm bar attempts, so guys are more likely to look for that.

This is from someone with very limited experience of full contact ground and pound, though.

Mike Riordan: One thing that plays a factor is the prevalence of fighters with American folkstyle wrestling experience. In a very real way, at least on the ground, scholastic wrestling is the art of resisting sweeps.

KJ Gould: Good point, though there is a variance in skill between Folkstyle wrestlers in MMA when it comes to riding and pinning due to what they may have specialised in during their scholastic career. Their base on the mat is generally better than non-wrestling fighters though.

Ben Thapa: Checking in from the ancestral village Nepal in an antiquated rig that came straight from the early 90s. Hello all, thanks for continuing on in my absence and I have to give my thoughts here.

In general, the person on top in an MMA match is better in the ground game. Exceptions such as Werdum/Overeem do abound, but they actually point towards the overall idea I'm about to make: Almost always, one person on the ground really wants to get up and back to the feet, rather than engage further on the ground, because top position allows for the unleashing of enormous damage when held by someone very competent.

It is that ethos and the necessarily imperfect identification of the opponent's skill package that makes sweeps rare. By the time the balance shift registers, the sweep victim usually wants to GTFO, rather than set the defenses and continue to grapple with an opponent who could very possibly have a moment of, if not fully sustainable, Fedor-like G'n'P skills or the ability to squeeze an arm triangle like Jacare.

The risk-reward of allowing a sweep in full is too high for athletes formerly on the top to do anything other than the wrestling-style bailout. It's also too high for an athlete on the bottom to prime the sweep in the first place and risk gifting the opponent the time and opportunity to deliver punches or pass the guard.

The exception to this is in WMMA, where the skill levels haven't quite gotten to the near-mutual stalemates that the men's side so often produces. There's still disparities, they're light enough for opponents to physically move with regularity, and they have the cojones/courage to go for the sweeps and submissions because they still risk things in this day and age.

Namaste and I will regale you with tales of Nepali judo and momos when I return.

T.P. Grant: I think Ben and Ian have really hit on the cause of it, and to me the root of this lays in both ground striking and MMA judging. Top position provides serious advantages in MMA, both allowing a fighter to strike with the aide of gravity, but also in that the judges will award them the round based purely on position 90% of the time. So, fighters who are on top seek to preserve their position by hunkering down in guard, or if they do try to advance as far as the half guard, and use the position to simply keep fighters down and avoid sweeps, rather that generate their own offense or seriously advance position.

Likewise, the fighter on the bottom's goal is often not to sweep or submit, but simply to escape to standing and return to the judging neutral position.

Additionally, I think Ben has a point about how generally the better grappler tends to be on the top in MMA. Also, sweeps can take a good deal of time to develop in a match, the battles in Jiu Jitsu matches between elite players can be focused on a single grip for several minutes. Once that grip is achieved the sweep follows fairly quickly, but that kind of slow developing marathon grappling isn't really viable in the 1-2 minute sprint grappling that often occurs in MMA. Also, strikes make that kind of prolonged fighting for a single grip more difficult.

And I do think there is something to the number of grapplers in MMA coming from a wrestling background, but as I'm sure anyone who has done grappling in North America can attest to, wrestlers are a plenty in any grappling school and while they tend to have a good base, they are not immune to being swept. In fact in some cases they can be more prone to being swept when they start out, and it can take several months or in some cases several years for even good wrestlers to adapt their grappling to the different environment of submission grappling. And some never get past the notion that squeezing someone's head regardless of position is a key aspect of control. In the end top level wrestlers are very difficult to sweep, but no more so than elite Judoka or BJJ fighters in submission grappling.

Connor Ruebusch: I'll expand on what Ben said and propose that, because the man on bottom in MMA is usually the inferior grappler, he is not often equipped with the best tools to execute a sweep in a no gi, no shirt situation. Most fighters still seem to resort to closed guard, which seems to be becoming quickly outdated in MMA. The rare occasions when we do see an excellent grappler on his back in MMA, we usually see him resort to half guard (and deep half), some version of butterfly guard, or feet on hips. These all appear to be more viable situations for both sweeps and escapes in the context of MMA, though being a grappling novice, I couldn't tell you exactly why without looking into it further.

T.P. Grant: As it stands in MMA, the value of the bottom game is at an all time low, in fact the biggest benefit of a killer bottom game is that your opponents don't seek to put you on the bottom and try to keep things on the feet. So it also needs to be said that the majority of MMA fighters are quite content to be mediocre off their backs and only work their ability to a stand up rather then develop any sort of complete or threatening guard or sweep game.

Ben Thapa: Sweeping is akin to counter-striking. Other than Anderson Silva, there has been no elite level counter-striker in almost a decade. Counter-striking is too hard to do and takes too much experience, talent and the particular mindset to implement for most MMA athletes - who generally aren't the top of the heap in terms of physical or mental base talents either. Sweeping in MMA is the same way. The rounds are too short to truly allow the best set-ups to happen and if they do happen, it takes time to exploit the holes in defenses - time that isn't allowed by the five minute round structure.

Helio may have been a self-serving jerkface, but his criticism of the short length of rounds and fights in general point towards the intentional devaluation of grappling in favor of stand-up fighting. It is what it is, and only truly phenomenal talents like Jacare Souza or perhaps Werdum will bust out the extraordinary sweeps on the regular. We're "stuck" with the wrestling-style scrambles, which Riordan should be happy with.

Dallas Winston: The big-picture answer is a combination of what everyone's already stated: no-gi environment, the mass development of "Anti-Jiu-Jitsu" top games, face punching and no time to work from the bottom.

The way MMA treats guard play has made it a dead art. See Guida x Hioki -- even when a fighter basically dominates off his back, he loses if he doesn't sweep, submit or escape.

Well that does it for us, so now what is your take on it? Maybe you're a long time grappler with thoughts on the matter, a striker who hates that ground stuff, or just an MMA fan with thoughts to share. We want to hear it!

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