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So Meta: Examining the MMA Metagame of Top Position Grappling

Bloody Elbow examines the conventional approach to top position grappling in MMA, what are the factors leading to this MMA "metagame" and how fighters are looking to take advantage of it.

While this piece was authored by T.P. Grant, it was assisted by a lengthy conversation with the Bloody Elbow Technique group with contributions by Fraser Coffeen, Ben Thapa, Zane Simon, Patrick Wyman, Connor Reubusch, James "aguy" Stapleton, Jen Flannery, and Kwasi Kwakwa.

In any competition or contest, from military engagements to card games, there emerge generally accepted paths to victory. These patterns influence how the participants strategize and think about their contest, guiding their thoughts along similar lines, creating what is generally referred to as "the Metagame".

This article seeks to examine a portion of the MMA metagame and for that purpose we will lay down a definition of the term as a point of reference. So as far as this article is concerned, "MMA metagame" refers to an overarching, general trend concerning how athletes and coaches approach, perceive, train, and practice mixed martial arts as a sport.

MMA is a sport that is evolving extremely quickly and has already seen several major shifts in its metagame in its short history. At one point, ground grappling was the dominant skill set, but Maurice Smith caused a shift in 1997 when he beat Mark Coleman. In Pride FC, weight-cutting was not a priority, but now it is a critical aspect of being a fighter. Fighters used to neglect conditioning training and tire in minutes, now a fighter who noticeably slows in later rounds is given the nearly unshakable label of having cardio issues.

So this article will examine the current thought process on top position grappling in MMA, what are the contributing factors to this metagame, and how fighters are evolving their skill set to build on the current meta or to counter it. It is important to remember that this article is speaking generally, there are exceptions and trend breakers to be sure.

The Current Metagame and Contributing Factors

The first, and trickiest, order of business is putting a start time on the current approach to top position grappling. First there was the titanic shift in MMA when Maurice Smith pioneered the "survive and escape" strategy for fighter wishing to strike in 1997. This, combined with universal addition of gloves, made striking a far more viable strategy in MMA and broke the grappler's choke hold on the MMA metagame. The other major milestone was the death of Pride FC in 2007, with the Japanese promotion gone not only did the UFC become the most prominent MMA promotion in the world, but the Unified Rules become the dominant form of regulation and scoring for MMA bouts. These two shifts provide the largest factors influencing how fighters think about MMA currently.

The number one factor influencing how fighters grapple from the top is how MMA judges score rounds. It isn't a secret that in prolonged grappling exchanges MMA judges award the round to the fighter on top, almost regardless of what actually took place, and as a result the emphasis of many bottom games in MMA has become simply to escape back to the feet. In some cases, fighters are so comfortable to escape from the bottom they don't spend a great deal of energy fighting takedowns and instead concede a takedown, immediately transitioning into an escape.

Fighters have adjusted their top games to counter this shift in the bottom game, namely making the chief priority of top position control. Controlling the hips of the bottom fighter is key to prevent them from standing. When it comes to approaching the guard this has caused a rise in playing low in guard and a decline of the higher posture play, as used by Fedor Emelianenko in the early 2000's to defeated the vaunted guards of the Nogueira brothers.

While many fighters are skilled a preventing submissions and sweeps in guard, remaining in the full guard for prolonged amounts of time can be risky, so progressing to the half guard provides an excellent blend of control of an opponent's hips and limited offensive options for the bottom fighter. But, overall actual passing of the guard has declined in MMA.

Chael Sonnen's later career top game was a perfect case study of this particular approach to winning rounds. Sonnen would play low in the full guard, occasionally progress to half guard but very rarely actually passing the guard. His striking game was effective at times, but at other times was meant to prevent referee stand ups.

Also, the conventional wisdom that you press a guard player into the cage to kill his hips has changed as wall-walking has become the primary tool of bottom players to escape. So, now top players now seem to prefer getting their opponents down away from the cage wall.

Another huge factor impacting how top players operate are time limits. The introduction and standardization of five-minute rounds has made the ground game in MMA sprint grappling. The exchanges between top level grapplers in pure grappling settings are played out normally over 10 uninterrupted minutes where every grip is contested, every transition tightly controlled, and every position solidified. In modern MMA, the classic Brazilian Jiu Jitsu progression of takedown, pass, and submit can play out a bit too slowly and can be stalled long enough to either be stood up by a referee or see the end of the round.

Striking has overtaken submissions as the primary offense on the ground, and submissions that occur tend to either be the result of a serious mismatch on the ground, the victim being tired or hurt, or a submission that was snatched up in transition. Striking is less risky; it is a more obvious form of offense for judges, and prolonged periods of ground striking can grind down an opponent. Striking from the top provides a chance for fighter to implement a volume striking game without a serious risk of return fire coming from their opponent.

With the focus switching more to control and striking, the back position has fallen out of favor with some in the MMA world. The rules on strikes to the back of the head, which are completely reasonable for fighter safety, make striking from the back largely ineffective and at the highest levels of the sport fighters are very comfortable defending chokes and waiting for a chance to escape.

In general, the metagame of MMA ground fighting is starting to resemble what takes place in Sambo, Wrestling, or Judo, where pinning is a legitimate path to victory and ground time is limited. The protracted grappling exchanges that are common in Jiu Jitsu matches are getting rarer, but they do occur when a fighter is able to impose that kind of grappling exchange.

Evolutions within and Responses to the Current Metagame

This section will examine trends that have emerged in the last few years in MMA that either are evolutions following the current metagame or are directly exploiting holes in it. Keep in mind that while specific examples are cited, this again is speaking generally. Not all fighters will conform to this, some may have games that utterly reject these statements, but large portions of success fighters are starting to add some of these aspects to their games.

Rough Riders

With the back position being somewhat diminished in modern MMA, many fighters are more than willing to turn their back in an attempt to escape to their feet. With the limitations on striking, many wrestlers have shunned the back mount and instead go to what is referred to as riding position in American folk wrestling. In wrestling these rides are used to stop opponents from escaping back to their feet, the same problem facing MMA fighters, so it is a technique set that very nicely transitions to modern MMA.

Riders also have the advantage of providing much better angles to strike heavily from than the back position. Damaging striking from this position, especially the feared uppercut through the armpit, used to be the domain of a select group of elite MMA wrestlers who had blended their skills with strikes in a way that was ahead of its time. Now it is a common tool set that many MMA fighters poses.

Georges St. Pierre used the riding position to defuse the dangerous ground game of Nick Diaz and finish off Matt Serra in their rematch, C.B. Dollaway savaged Jason Miller from this position, and just recently Rory MacDonald used a ride to deliver the final strikes to a dazed Tarec Saffiedine. But, perhaps nobody embodies this particular approach to top position better than UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez, who brings down a hailstorm of strikes from his riding position.

The ride position is quickly becoming a dominant position in MMA and one of the more common positions for fights to be stopped.


Cain Velasquez demonstrating riding position and its benefits in MMA to Junior dos Santos

Head Hunters

Some fighters exploit the scrambles that occur in attempts to escape back to the feet in other ways, namely attacking for front headlock chokes, the most popular being the guillotine. While certainly not new to MMA, the guillotine choke in MMA lagged behind its counterpart in sport-grappling for a very long time, in terms of technical application. Joe Stevenson became famous for his guillotine, which was a power version of the choke where he would use his much talked about "squeeze". For a long time, MMA fighters would attempt to simply power their headlock chokes, and the rare exceptions, such as the Nogeruia brothers and their Anaconda Choke, were regarded as technical marvels.

Today in MMA though, many fighters have very fleshed out front headlock sequences, linking together a variety of grips, finishes, and chokes. In addition to guillotine chokes, a huge variety of chokes that were not frequently seen in MMA have become increasing popular, such as the D'arce Choke, the aforementioned Anaconda Choke, and the Peruvian Necktie.

Two camps in particular have been on the forefront of this, really pioneering this particular shift, namely Nova Uniao and Team Alpha Male. Nova Uniao has long been famous for their love of the arm triangle choke, a choke almost exclusively used from the top and fighters from that camp have learned to apply expertly in an MMA context.

Team Alpha Male has become the home of the most technical guillotine chokes in all of MMA, The traditional MMA use of the guillotine was as a part of takedown defense, but Team Alpha Male fighters have used them very effectively in scrambles and from top position, in ways that previously were not often seen in MMA but now are becoming increasingly common.

Now in 2014 front headlock and head-and-arm chokes are a common site, while submissions have declined somewhat in the larger MMA picture.

Joseph Benavidez shows Tim Elliott one of his favorite guillotine chokes

Attack of the Back Snatchers

While the back mount is a position that has fallen out of favor for some fighters, many MMA fighters are so casual with how they expose the back in their attempts to disengage that there are fighters who have focused their game on attacking and keeping the back.

Again this is not a new idea, it is one of the oldest tenants of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but in the last 7 years of MMA the back has ceased to be the death sentence it once was in MMA. Most MMA fighters don't devote a great deal of time learning to control and finish from it and that is creating a bit of a hole in the meta game, there are scant few elite finishers from the back. Prolonged time spent holding back control does normally win a round, but many an inferior grappler has survived a superior grappler's back mounts for long periods of time.

But it is possible the pendulum may be in the process of swinging back the other way on back control as some fighters are becoming specialists at the position. Michael Chiesa has formed his entire grappling game around getting to and finishing from the back and has been finding a great deal of success. On a recent card, Chas Skelly, despite extreme exhaustion from taking two fights just weeks apart, was able to use transitions to the back to defeat Sean Soriano. Renan Barao and Urijah Faber are both dynamic at both taking and finishing from the back, particularly after hurting their opponent on the feet.

While taking the back has been and always will be part of MMA, currently, at the rate at which most fighters expose their backs, it is a hole that can be exploited.

Michael Chiesa explains to Anton Kuivanen that he made an error by surrendering his back

Hit and Run Tactics

This is not a trend has emerged on a large scale, but is a possible evolution. MMA is increasing encouraging sprint grappling that needs to play out in a time span of 1-3 minutes. In Judo or Sambo grapplers get even less time to work on the ground, and as result competitors tend to pick their battles on the ground and save their energy for a time when they feel they have a real advantage. In MMA this would mean top fighters engaging in grappling exchanges in which they feel they have an advantage and if they feel they are at risk or are being slowed down, simply disengage and then look to get another takedown later.

This is a tactic that could be used very well in MMA, and in some cases already has. Ronda Rousey obviously likes to engage on the ground and because of the advantage she holds when it comes to takedowns has no problem allowing her opponents to stand up rather than engage in prolonged efforts to pass guard. She much prefers to try to throw her way past the guard or engage in more fluid exchanges that lead to more transitions and opportunities for her to find an armbar.

In 2010 Rick story defeated Dustin Hazelett with a strategy of scoring a takedown, getting in some quick body shots and disengaging from Hazelett's dangerous guard before he could start to work his bottom game. On this current season of the Ultimate Fighter coach Gilbert Melendez told his fighter Lisa Ellis that if she was able to score a takedown but was forced to work too hard to keep an opponent down to just let that fighter up and then look for another takedown and continue making an impression on the judges.

This is a tactic that could very much find a larger place in MMA as the sport continues to evolve to fit the rule set laid for it.

That concludes what is a brief and general look at the metagame for top position grappling in MMA, if you have any thoughts to add please do so in the comments.

For more MMA and Grappling analysis, history, technique, and discussion be sure to follow T.P. Grant on Twitter or Facebook.