Sadly, some highly decorated wrestlers seem to leave behind their years of training on the mat when they step into a cage. Meanwhile, fighters with less impressive wrestling resumes contend for championships by leveraging every last bit of their more modest wrestling skills.
Such is the case with Josh Thomson and Ben Henderson. Neither competed for glitzy Division I wrestling institutions, or medaled at prestigious international tournaments. Rather, they conducted their college careers at schools most people never knew existed. Thomson wrestled at North Idaho College, a junior college, for some undetermined period of time, and with an unknown degree of success (he's mum about his college wrestling days, likely because of his bizarre claim from early in his career that he wrestled for Stanford).
Henderson wrestled for Dana College, which no longer exists. I'm not just talking about the wrestling program; the entire school closed its doors a few years ago. When Henderson graced their lineup, Dana's wrestling program won an NAIA national championship. Henderson placed fifth at 157 pounds at NAIA nationals, a nice achievement, but one which pales in comparison to the wrestling accolades boasted by some of his UFC contemporaries.
Gaudy wrestling resumes or not, Thomson and Henderson do an awfully good job applying their wrestling abilities in a prize fight. Their fighting clearly shows that they receive quality wrestling coaching, and that they actually take this coaching to heart.
They spent much of their recent bout in the over-under position (MMA people refer to this as "the clinch"), a wrestling situation where very few American wrestlers are comfortable. If you go to a scholastic wrestling tournament, you will even see coaches of very good wrestlers urging their athletes to avoid over-unders. Most wrestlers don't spend enough time practicing this sort of upper-body situation, and many wrestlers and coaches would rather avoid the high level of risk associated with it.
Thomson and Henderson demonstrated an impressive amount of technique wrestling from over-unders, in fact, parts of their fight resembled a moderately high-level Greco-Roman match. Most fans find this boring, and fair enough, but wrestling well in an upper-body clinch requires finely honed skill, skill most fighters (and wrestlers) do not possess.
The best bit of clinch wrestling in Henderson vs. Thomson came early in the third round. Both men achieved standard over-unders where each fighter held corresponding underhooks and overhooks with their heads on the overhook-side shoulder. Here, Henderson executed a slick foot sweep, which I picture below and explain step by step.
1. Henderson understands how to properly wrestle from over-unders. His underhook hand grabs Thomson's latissimus dorsi (lat) to use as a handle. He can pull Thomson's triceps to move him to the left, and his lat to move him to the right.
Meanwhile, Thomson extends his overhook arm to deftly block Henderson's right leg from stepping in. Most takedowns from this position are predicated on stepping into "the danger zone" between in opponent's feet. Blocking Henderson's leg prevents these takedowns, at least on that side. Henderson identifies the block, and while he is unable to step his right foot to Thomson, he can make Thomson step to his right foot.
2. Notice the position of Henderson's right foot, he is preparing for the sweep. He also begins to pull Thomson to the right with his grip on the lat. Henderson's posture has gone from hunched over to upright. This is necessary because he must turn his body on a vertical axis.
3. Henderson pulls hard on the lat and lifts his right foot. This is the tricky part. He has to induce Thomson to take a clockwise step. Just as Thomson takes the weight off his left foot, Henderson must place the arch of his foot in the crook between Thomson's ankle shin and foot.
4. With his foot now holding Thomson's foot off the ground, Henderson continues to twist Thomson clockwise while lifting Thomson's shoulder with a deep overhook. Thompson's center of gravity passes overtop of Henderson's foot, and Thomson now cannot take a step with his left foot to support himself.
5. Thomson now starts to fall to the mat. Henderson helps the process by pushing into Thomson's side with the overhook arm.
6. Henderson gets his hips back, positioned to drive into his opponent when Thomson falls to his hip.
7 and 8. Henderson drives in so his opponent cannot pop back up, and Thomson reverts to guard.
I've provided an animated GIF of two-time NCAA Division I champion and Olympic hopeful Jordan Oliver practicing this same technique in the Oklahoma State wrestling room. He hits it with a bit more vigor than Henderson, of course, he's also only drilling.
Thomson and Henderson's main event at UFC on Fox 10 may have ended in controversy, but this footsweep was a high point of a fight filled with great wrestling. Henderson also hit a nice underhook throw-by soon after his foot sweep. Not to be outdone,Thomson contributed a wide away of wrestling techniques to the mix. While in back mount, he repeatedly applied a power half-nelson to create space for a choke. Late in the fight, Thomson even performed a roll through cradle on Henderson (I discuss roll-through cradles in my break down of the wrestling of Zach Makovsky's win over Scott Jorgensen).
Some fight fans like to bitch and moan when fighters commit themselves to using their wrestling as a path to a successful MMA career. However, commitment to skilled and innovative use of wrestling can result in the increased occurrence of really impressive techniques just like Henderson's foot sweep.