Evans showed at UFC 114 that he's making the biggest leap an MMA fighter can make. It's one thing to master striking, wrestling and grappling. It's a whole 'nother level to combine the three phases of the game into an integrated attack. Only the very best fighters are able to do this. When I think of fighters who use really blend their game, I immediately think of B.J. Penn, Fedor Emelianenko and Georges St. Pierre.
In MMA, fighters stand at a longer distance because of the striking aspect of the sport. This longer distance creates problems because a fighter looking for a take down has to close a longer distance and be mindful of the danger of strikes.
Closing that distance can be a very tricky thing and misjudging the distance is the quickest way for a takedown to fail. The basics of a wrestling-shot take down consists of getting under a fighter's arms and hips. This allows a fighter to disrupt an opponent's balance by lifting him off the ground and then taking him down.
(Basic double leg take down positioning)
There are two basic strategies for closing the distance: evading the strikes and coming in or throwing strikes and coming in. One of the first steps in either strategy is called 'changing levels' meaning crouching down both to help gain leverage in the clinch and to avoid punches.
One of the the very best at mixing takedowns with strikes is Cung Le, a fighter who not only wrestled in college but competed in Sanshou kickboxing matches. Sanshou is a comeptitve form of Kung Fu that allows takedowns as part of a match and points are awarded based on the difficultly of the throw.
Here is Le in a Sanshou match (kickboxing that allows take downs) against Scott Sheely, in which he demonstrates the concept of the level change nicely. It starts early in the fight with Sheely taking a lunging step forward and feinting a punch to see how Le would react. When Le moves straight back Sheely takes another lunging step and throws a lead jab, attempting to hit Le as he moves straight backwards.
But Le is expecting this and changes his level with a swift bend at the knees and avoids the punch. Sheely's step is so large that it covers all the distance between the two fighters and Le is able grab Sheely's leg without moving forward. Le then transitions to a body lock, brings his hips in under Sheely and is able to lift and slam Sheely with little effort.
Changing levels is often just the first step in a take down however, normally a fighter needs the speed to cover the distance before an opponent can defend. Speed is what separates the men from the boys, and Sean Sherk from the men.
Here is Sean Sherk in his UFC 98 loss to the now Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar. Edgar is coming forward in a more measured fashion that Sheely, taking a feinting step. Edgar then attempts a 1-2, the basic jab-right cross combination. Sherk slips the jab and feeling the second punch coming he changes levels to avoid the right hand coming straight down the pipe. Edgar controls the distance well enough to not be the easy prey that Sheely was to Le, but he is still wide open for a double leg shot.
Sherk takes a very small stutter step with his lead foot to properly square up and have his lead foot between Edgar's legs. Then Sherk explodes into Edgar, driving his shoulders in Edgar's stomach and pulling his legs out from under him in a classic power double leg.
This basic strategy of using an opponent's strikes to close distance is often the first one employed by grapplers coming to MMA. The more advanced strategy is mixing together strikes and take downs.
Here is Urijah Faber in his UFC debut against Eddie Wineland. Faber's take down prowess is well know and Wineland is standing at distance with his hands up but low enough to quickly fend off a take down. Faber throws a lunging jab that does not land, but causes Wineland to pull his hand back by pure reaction. The jab freezes Wineland for a mere second and closes the distance between the fighters just enough for Faber to grab the single leg.
GSP at UFC 100 shows a more advanced version of this set up against Thiago Alves. While his fight against Josh Koscheck showcased the Canadian's jab, the Welterweight champion has had a top notch jab for years and the thought of that jab is what opens up the take down. By the fourth round of this fight, Alves had been served a healthy helping of GSP jabs and was ripe for this take down.
GSP feints with his lead hand and Alves reacts as if GSP had thrown a jab, moving his head and bringing up his hands. That moment of hesitation is enough for GSP to lunge in for a double-leg. GSP's speed of hand and foot is what makes this take down work so effectively and he has been on the forefront of mixing wrestling and striking.
One of GSP's teammates, Rashad Evans has also tinkered with the mixing of martial arts. Evans favors a lower set boxing stance he calls 'The Cuban' which allows to seamlessly move from striking to grappling.
'The Cuban' is a very low, wide stance that lets Evans throw big, power punches. Against Rampage Jackson, Evans throws big, power left hooks in a genuine effort to do damage. Rampage uses the high guard he favors in striking exchanges to block both strikes but Evans has slipped off to the side and is too low for Rampage's weak counter right hook. Evans is easily under Rampage's arms and is able to take him down with one of the most technically perfect blending of striking and wrestling seen in MMA.
The other side of 'The Cuban' is using wrestling to open striking opportunities.
In that same fight, Evans moves forward against Rampage in the 'The Cuban' throwing pawing jabs. Rampage is wary of a take down attempt here as he backs up. At the wrong moment both his hands drop to look to get double under hooks on a double leg shot that wasn't coming and Evan's right hand lands flush on Rampage's chin.
The training of MMA is moving more and more away from distinct individual styles and closer to melded techniques that cross disciplines seamlessly. The integration of strikes with wrestling style take downs is one of the most cutting edge aspects of the sport and continues to be pushed forward by new generations.