The podcast Heavy Hands has been doing a great job of using archetypes to help classify MMA fighter's striking games. Creating archetypes and then sorting fighters is a useful analytical tool because it forces a deeper level of though over an athlete's approach to fighting than just "he is a wrestler".
I've attempted to do something similar with grappling. These categories are not meant to be perfect, they are simply analytical and discussion tools. In trying to come up with these and finding fighters that fit into them I had to really consider the grappling in MMA as a whole, not just the elite of the elite grapplers.
The archetypes are largely focused on the mentality and path to victory, and not on specific techniques. Does the athlete follow the traditional jiu jitsu positional progression or seek to create scrambles? Is the first goal gaining position or finishing a submission? Some of it does transfer well to stand up grappling, but it is largely focused on mat work.
So here are the grappling archetypes of MMA:
At its heart the Grinder style is all about attrition. On the feet the "Pressure Fighter" uses constant forward motion and relentless offense to force opponents to make mistakes, the Grinder implements a similar game plan on the ground. Grinders drag their opponents to the mat and then use a relentless pace, constant pressure, and a barrage of strikes to wear down an opponent's will and ability to fight. On the feet grinders tend to prefer cage clinch work, driving their opponents into the cage and forcing them work to escape and look to take them down from there. On the mat grinders don't generally follow the positional progression of jiu jitsu, preferring not to pass guard, preferring to use the guard or half guard top position to lock down an opponent's hips.
While it is almost impossible to fully control and immobilize an opponent, Grinders seek to give every movement of their opponent a cost, forcing them to expend huge amounts of energy escaping. When an opponent manages to get back to their feet, Grinders will often maintain a connection, drive them into the cage, look for a takedown and start the entire process over again. Grinders tend to spend long stretches on the ground, and when they get a finish it is often the result of them overwhelming an opponent's defenses or wearing down the cardio of the opponent to the point where he is no longer able to protect himself. Grinders tend to favor striking offense over submission offense, they will occasionally take a choke or joint lock on a battered and broken opponent, but they do not tend to have dynamic submission entries as part of their offense. However Grinders must be on point when it comes to submission defense as they spend a great deal of time on the mat, and often in the guard, meaning they increase the amount of time an opponent has to find a submission.
Grinders from all grappling backgrounds, but American Wrestlers tend to develop along these lines because it meshes well with the American Folk Style wrestling matwork style. The wrestling ride position is particularly useful in this style as bottom players tend to try to escape to the feet and the ride provides good control, puts down a great deal of pressure, and creates openings for strikes. Many fighters have made excellent use of the grinder approach including: Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier, Chael Sonnen, Jon Fitch, Chad Mendes, Rashad Evans, and Nik Lentz.
Daniel Cormier used classic grinder tactics to wear down Anthony Johnson in their UFC 187 title bout. Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
The Position Grappler
Position grapplers very much stick to the established jiu jitsu positional hierarchy and always seek to have the best the position possible based on their situation. The mentality of position first and advancement of position is what defines a positional grappler. They approach grappling as a process, your goal is attain a position that provides control on an opponent and leads to offense, such as the mount, back mount, and to a lesser extent, the guard. The form that offense takes varies based on the grappler, some seek to strike, others look for submissions, and some simply look to solidify their control further and win rounds based on the control.
Positional grapplers are very adept at moving and transitioning between positions and as a result positional grapplers tend to be very good guard passers, be very adept at taking the back or other dominant positions, and tend to have good guard games. Submissions tend to be a big part of the positional grappler game, but are often viewed as either the end game of a dominant position or the result of an opponent making a mistake. They also tend to be very defensively sound and difficult to finish on the ground.
Positional grapplers tend to hail from jiu jitsu backgrounds as a positional focused grappling is very much rooted in the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu philosophy. In some cases positonal grapplers can approach matches very similar to a grinder, and really the only difference becomes how much emphasis a grappler places on fully passing the guard. A few of the more pass-to-submit position grapplers in MMA include Fabricio Werdum, Jacare Souza, Demian Maia, Gunnar Nelson, Beneil Dariush, BJ Penn, and Gilbert Burns. Positional Grapplers who tend towards a more grinding style include Georges St. Pierre, Jake Shields, Rafael Natal, Gleison Tibau, and Rafael dos Anjos.
Demian Maia elbows Alexander Yakovlev after progressing to mount in their 2014 fight Photo credit: Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports
The Submission Hunter
A Submission Hunter is defined by their overriding goal on the mat: find the finish. Often they respect the positional hierarchy, but aren't dogmatic to it. They understand the advantages good position offer but are more willing to risk losing position to attempt to finish an opponent. Some Submission Hunters will make use of less orthodox positions and submissions not favored by other grapplers such as the crucifix, leg entanglements, footlocks, and neck cranks.
The games of Submission Hunters vary, some specialize in a single submission while others have a diverse game of different submission attacks. Submission Hunters are happy to work on the mat for entire rounds at a time and many are equally happy to play top or bottom. As a result Submission Hunters often will give away rounds, and sometimes fights, trying to create an opening for a submission. At times, especially early in their careers, Submission Hunters can become too aggressive and end up being trapped in bad positions or getting caught in a submission from the opponent, making this something of a "live by the sword, die by the sword" style.
Historically this was a very popular style in MMA, with Kazushi Sakuraba being the greatest Submission Hunter of all time. Now however, the Submission Hunter is something of a dying breed in MMA because the current metagame of grappling does not favor fighters willing to give away rounds seeking a finish. You see a great deal of fighters like this at the regional levels of MMA, but it takes something special to make it work at a higher level. There are a few left, most notably Rousimar Palhares, Charles Oliveira, Shinya Aoki, Masakazu Imanari, Joe Lauzon, and the Diaz brothers.
Charles Olivera takes a risk by dropping for a front headlock choke in his rematch with Nik Lentz Photo Credit: Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports
The Explosion Grappler
Some grapplers really don't care for the orderly step-by-step progression and prefers to operate in the chaos of transitions and scrambles. There is a level of opportunism and patience in this style, explosion grapplers will often need to create several transitions in a fight to find the right one. The goals of the transition vary from grappler to grappler: some look to find a specific submission, some try to catch the back, others use the transition to stand back up from the bottom.
Where the Explosion Grappler waits for the transition also depends on the grappler: some wait on the feet and use takedowns as their transition creator, if they don't get what they want, they allow their opponent to stand back up so they can rinse-and-repeat their process. Others operate a bit more like grinders, waiting in the closed guard or half guard for the opponent to make a move and creating the transition from there. Some Explosion Grapplers are very well equipped for long, step-by-step exchanges on the ground and simply prefer to operate in scrambles, others might not be technically equipped to go move for move with good grapplers but can compete with superior grapplers in short bursts. One of the very first fights I remember seeing a fighter use what I mentally termed as "hit-and-run" at the time was Rick Story's win over Dustin Hazelett in 2010 and it still provides a prime example of how a fighter could overcome a better technical grappler with aggressive bursts of offense mixed in with a few well timed disengagements back to the feet. However if a explosion grappler can be forced to remain on the mat often technical holes can be exposed and exploited.
The Explosion Grappler Archetype is very well suited to MMA judging and the hit-and-run tactics it represents are becoming increasingly popular. At Tri-Star coach Firas Zahabi teaches his fighters the "60-second guard" where they are taught then when they are taken down they have one minute to find a sweep, submission, or to stand back up. Exploding up to the feet from the bottom is considered a basic skill in MMA and most fighters who make that a primary aspect of their grappling such as Jose Aldo, Junior dos Santos, and Luke Rockhold would be Explosion Grapplers. Other Explosion grapplers use takedowns and top position to create transitions and used them to attack in sort bursts of striking or submission offense, examples would be Ronda Rousey, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Ray Borg, and Urijah Faber.
Ronda Rousey finishes her opponents with short bursts of offense after takedowns, but often gets into trouble in prolonged grappling exchanges Photo Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Those are my thoughts for MMA Grappling archetypes, but they are far from set in stone. These are meant to be a discussion tool so I look forward to hearing what you thought I missed and where certain fighters fit.