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UFC 192 Judo Chop: Alexander Gustafsson . . . Wrestle-Boxer?

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Bloody Elbow's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch delves into the world of wrestling to break down the underrated grappling chops of Alexander Gustafsson.

Esther Lin - MMA Fighting

The wrestle-boxer is an old archetype--at least old by the standards of MMA, which is of course still a very young sport. Historically, we have identified wrestle-boxers as fighters who use use their wrestling to generate powerful punches, and then use those punches to disguise explosive takedown attempts. We derived this definition from the early pioneers of the style, men like Sean Sherk, Randy Couture, and Rashad Evans. To a one, all of these men are wrestlers by trade, who learned some boxing skills, and then for the most part used those skills to enhance their wrestling base.

There are fighters today, however, who take a different tack. Much in the same way that the first generation of wrestle-boxers put their wrestling to use in a boxing context, these new wrestle-boxers--or perhaps we should call them box-wrestlers--apply their fundamental striking skills to grappling. Georges St-Pierre is a fighter of this type: he has spoken of the advantage he felt his Kyokushin Karate background gave him in picking up the distance management and explosive movement required to hit his spectacular takedowns. Strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk comes from a Muay Thai background, and uses her footwork and clinch striking skills to ward off wrestlers that, by all logic, should be able to take her down in a cinch.

And at the forefront of this breed is Alexander Gustafsson, a man whose wrestling is so well integrated into his boxing game that the term "wrestle-boxer" as we know it doesn't seem to describe him at all. But make no mistake. Wrestling is very much an integral part of Gustafsson's fighting style. In exploring this aspect of Gustafsson's fights, I hope to whittle away at the barriers put up between boxing and wrestling, two arts that have always gone hand in hand whether we realize it or not.

If Alexander Gustafsson hopes to beat light heavyweight titlist Daniel Cormier at UFC 192, then it'll be his subtle combination of wrestling and boxing that gets the job done.

My thanks to former Bloody Elbow wrestling analyst Coach Mike Riordan for his help with research and wrestling terminology for this piece.

STOPPING THE SHOT

Obviously the first thing that stands out about Gustafsson from a wrestling standpoint is his takedown defense. Since losing to Phil Davis--in a fight that showed off just how good Gustafsson's instinct for wrestling already was--Gustafsson famously began training with the man who had bested in order to improve his mat skills. His takedown defense has been much discussed since then, but I'm not sure it's ever been underscored just how crucial Gustafsson's particularl brand of takedown defense is to his style of fighting. In order to work his boxing, it is instrumental that Gustafsson not only be able to stuff takedowns, but to escape the prolonged grappling exchanges that often result from a stuffed shot (it was a long sequence of chain wrestling that saw Gustafsson cradled, headlocked, and ultimately choked out by Phil Davis).

In an Alexander Gustafsson fight, no one wrestles unless the Mauler says so.

Gustafsson's first layer of defense is his footwork. Following the Jones fight, Alliance head coach Eric Del Fiero commented that Gustafsson had managed to stuff so many of the champion's takedowns because he kept him from setting up those takedowns in the first place. And he did that by utilizing angles. Here's a nice, obvious example from Gustafsson's 2011 fight with Matt Hamill.

1. Gustafsson circles at range while Hamill comes forward.

2. As Gustafsson looks for a long left hook, Hamill ducks down low.

3. Rather than retreating in a straight line, Gustafsson moves sharply to his right.

4. As Hamill continues to chase the shot, Gustafsson uses his extended left hand to frame . . .

5. . . . and creates space as he continues to circle out of Hamill's range.

A double leg takedown requires a certain amount of drive to work effectively. In this way it is very much a linear attack, at least until the wrestler comes into contact with his target's hips, at which point he can use angles of his own to attack the weak planes of his opponent's base. By moving laterally before that stage is ever reached, however, Gustafsson keeps wrestlers from ever getting in on his hips, instead letting them drive straight through the empty space where he had just been.

Even if the opponent manages to close the distance and attack Gustafsson's hips, his angular footwork still plays a pivotal role in his counter-wrestling. From the Jones fight:

1. Gustafsson retreats and draws Jones forward.

2. As Jones steps in, Gustafsson meets him with a jab to the body . . .

3. . . . and then comes up with a short overhand right--but Jones ducks and comes in under the punch, grabbing an underhook in the process.

4. Immediately Gustafsson gets an underhook of his own, creates an angle, and throws his hips back away from Jones.

5. As Jones moves in Gustafsson prioritizes distance over angle and blocks Jones' hips with his left hand.

6. This forces Jones to look for an inside trip from too far away, failing to ensnare Gustafsson's right leg.

7. With Jones on his knees, all it takes is a quick crush from Gustafsson's overhook to break Jones' body lock . . .

8. . . . at which point Gustafsson goes back to his angles and sneaks out to the left, away from the fence and out of Jones' reach.

For a lover of striking first and foremost, it's fascinating to watch the layers of Gustafsson's takedown defense unfold. First, Jones comes in low, sliding under Gustafsson's punch. Jones' footwork here is awkward, but Gustafsson plays it safe and treats his initial entry like a serious shot, quickly pummeling in with his left arm to get an underhook, thereby preventing Jones from easily changing levels and taking Alex's hips out from under him. Gustafsson also uses a quick angle (quite reminiscent of Mike Tyson's unique footwork) to take away Jones' drive, but quickly realizes that it's not a double leg Jones wants.

As soon as he feels Jones connect his hands, Gustafsson knows to change tactics. By body locking in the over-under clinch, Jones strengthens his overhook, flatting Gustafsson's arm to his side and taking away the leverage in his underhook. So instead of fighting for that grip, Gustafsson switches up, and dedicates his left arm to distance management, blocking Jones' hips rather than fighting his superior upper body control. Unable to simply walk through Gustafsson's posted left arm, Jones can't get his legs close enough to Gustafsson's to hit his inside trip. As he falls to his knees, Gustafsson knows that the trip is no longer a threat, and one again prioritizes the grips and the angles. With Jones so low to the ground, Gustafsson's own overhook is strengthened, and it's an easy task for him to wrench down on Jones' left arm, pulling his hands apart. Freed from the body lock, Gustafsson gets himself away from the fence and kills any further wrestling ideas Jones might have by pivoting and exiting range completely.

There are a lot of different tactics going on here, but all of them say very good things about Gustafsson's wrestling instinct, even if his technique isn't always perfect. In the words of Del Fiero, "We can see certain things that we can counter and build Alex's defense on, but he's such a phenomenal athlete and just a hard worker that even if he doesn't have the perfect technique, he'll work his way out of it."

DISTANCE MANAGEMENT

Gustafsson's boxing background allows him to control distance in a way than many wrestlers struggle to comprehend. We've often heard it said that it's easier to teach a wrestler to box than it is a boxer to wrestle, and that may be true in some respects, but even high level wrestlers do not control distance the way boxers do.

In boxing, the classic "pure" boxers are those who employ Gustafsson's strategy, turning the opponent and using the jab to manage distance. Every great out-fighter, however, knows that there comes a point when moving away from one's aggressor no longer works. When these fighters are about to run out of real-estate, they perform a typical change of direction, only instead of switching from right to left, they switch from backward to forward. What better way to throw an aggressor off than by stepping right into him even as he continues to set up for an attack?

Here you can see Juan Francisco Estrada doing exactly that to Milan Melindo.

The problem for out-fighting mixed martial artists is that, unlike in boxing, the clinch is not a relatively neutral zone in MMA. Out-fighters in MMA, many of whom fight the way they do in the first place because they wish to avoid the ground game, fear stepping into their opponents lest they be taken down. Alexander Gustafsson's solution to this problem is admirable in its simplicity. Gustafsson doesn't worry about the takedown--he goes for the takedown.

1. Gustafsson circles to his right.

2. As Shogun Rua comes forward looking to kick, Gustafsson changes direction . . .

3. . . . pulling his left leg out of danger and moving to his left to keep Shogun from lining him up.

4. Rua comes on aggressively regardless, and Gustafsson feels his back nearing the fence.

5. Instead of looking to get away, he steps forward, feigning a jab and posting on Shogun's cheek with his left hand.

6. Shogun, expecting Gustafsson's jab, is already committed to a counter right as Gustafsson wraps up his left leg.

7. A quick pull up with the right and a shove out with the left, and Gustafsson puts Shogun on his back.

Distance management means so much more than keeping the other guy at bay. Whether maintaining it, expanding it, or taking it away, distance can be controlled in so many ways--and yet too many fighters lack the confidence in their wrestling skills to really use distance as a weapon.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, Gustafsson's offensive wrestling is actually a key component of his boxing game. People often speak of "MMA boxing" as being different from typical pugilism, but the reality is that boxing technique has never needed changing in order to work in the cage. Rather, sound boxing needs to be surrounded by the correct components to remain effective. The crazy thing is that by fighting like a boxer, Alexander Gustafsson has succeeded in not only neutralizing but outwrestling opponents with ten times his grappling and wrestling experience.

TIMING AND MOVEMENT

Part of Gustafsson's distance management is his excellent timing. Despite lacking a particularly strong shot or even particularly technical wrestling, Gustafsson manages to put opponents on their backs at an alarming rate. He does this by walking his opponents into his shots, timing his takedowns with his opponents' forward movement.

1. Gustafsson fights just outside of Jon Jones' kicking range.

2. Gustafsson circles, stepping back with his right foot (note the position of the black line on the canvas compared to the previous frame).

3. Thinking he has his man on the run, Jones steps forward with a kick. Gustafsson blocks it somewhat awkwardly . . .

4. . . . but he spies his opening. He changes levels as the momentum of Jones kick continues to carry him forward.

5. Grabbing Jones' left leg and blocking his right hips, Gustafsson drives his head sideways into Jones' ribs, tilting him off balance.

6. Jones tries to recover, but Gustafsson turns with him, finishing with a strong lift and a final burst of head pressure to put Jones on the canvas.

I've seen this takedown referred to as a "high double," and it seems to suit Gustafsson perfectly. As a tall man, he struggles to get underneath his opponents the same way they can usually get underneath him. That height also gives him great leverage, however, and you can see that at work in the way he guides Jones to the ground using his head and upper body, or in the way he ripped Shogun's leg out from under him the previous example. More important than the finishing technique, however, is the entry. Gustafsson uses short backward steps to draw Jones forward. It's a series of dozens of micro-retreats, each one designed to let Gustafsson capitalize should the other man lose patience and lunge after him. In this case, Gustafsson times his shot perfectly as Jones is committed to his forward momentum, and simply stays one step ahead of him after making contact.

Gustafsson doesn't always hit his takedowns as well as this--in fact, he tried several more times against Jones and couldn't repeat his initial success--but his willingness to go for takedowns makes him a dangerously unpredictable opponent. With more power than advertised and better wrestling than most realize, Alexander Gustafsson seems to fit right into the old wrestle-boxer archetype.

Which just goes to show: nothing really changes all that much. What matters is how you put the pieces together.