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So Meta: Ronda Rousey and the decline of the grappler

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Rousey represented one of the last truly grappling-centric champions. Can the pure grappling style make a comeback?

Striking vs grappling has defined MMA since the early days. In recent years, however, it begins to look like one side is winning out over the other. This may have been partially evinced by Ronda Rousey getting destroyed for the second time by a striker

UFC 207 is in the books, and Ronda Rousey got absolutely blown away again. It wasn't terribly unpredictable, as it went one of the only two ways which the fight was likely to go. That being said, Rousey didn't simply look defensively lacklustre, or mentally frozen... she looked outdated, much as she did against Holm. And that got me thinking about the broader trends which have dictated the path of the sport, and what being outdated actually means.

Fluffy analysis, and a disclaimer

This article is the first I've been thinking about doing for a while, namely a slightly different kind of analysis. In terms of reading fights, my basic competencies are less in the superb technical and historical analytical ability which someone like Connor brings to the table, and are instead in... weird stuff. Tangents, half-baked theories, and armchair psychology. But write to your strengths! Also I just feel like putting down my thoughts into some kind of rough structure.

Thus, instead of focusing on the "harder" elements of MMA I I thought I'd take a look at the fluffier and more hypothetical side, and use the quiescent So Meta series to take a shot at some of the underlying trends (as I see them anyhow).

In no way to I claim anything in the following to be any kind of concrete facts or testable hypotheses. Logical inconsistencies and dumb flights of fancy will be woven throughout these articles. However, I've always found an appeal in oddball theories which manage to tell a compelling story (for example, some of my favourite non-related MMA ones: is obesity caused by air conditioning? Alternatively, is obesity caused by global warming? I don't know if I believe them, but they're tremendously entertaining!).

So hopefully if the takeaways from some of these articles aren't something that you necessarily agree with, they should at least be mildly interesting.

The never-ending battle

If there's a match-up which defines MMA, it's striker vs grappler. The power dynamics have shifted between the broad style archetypes over time, and there are some obvious questions which can be asked. The main one is "what's more effective?" and there's multiple ways to answer it. Mixed martial arts is just that, so the question of what is more effective is blurry. It's also a sport made of individuals, with different key competencies and basic aptitudes.

However, at the most abstract "does one get more play than the other" level I think there is an answer.... and it's striking. Grappling still wins fights and is still a vital skillset, but striking is more effective, and increasingly decides the majority of high-level fights. Daniel Cormier is likely the most pure wrestler to hold a belt at the moment, but was largely stalled out into kickboxing with both Jon Jones and Gustafsson. Grappling played a minimal effective role in both Dominic Cruz' win over Dillashaw and his loss to Garbrandt. Strikers-with-some-grappling are far more effective and populous in the UFC than wrestlers-with-some-striking. Successful near-pure grapplers like Maia and Nurmagomedov are notable for how much they stick out of the mass of other UFC fighters.

The next question is whether this is simply a kind of back and forth switch in the metagame or something deeper. Is striking here to stay, or will wrestlers and grapplers rise back to prominence again? Are the Nurmagomedovs and Maias (and Usmans and Covingtons) the start of a new wave of a grapplers?

Personally, for a number of reasons, I think the broad stylistic dominance of strikers will stay where it is.

Anomalies

In the list of UFC champions, there used to be a couple of anomalies in terms of style and approach. They were Cain and Rousey, and they were the grapplers. They were two fighters who were considered to have solid chances at being the greatest fighters ever in their respective weight classes. Then, Cain was tapped by Fabricio Werdum, and Rousey got kicked in the head by Holly Holm. Not only did they lose, and get stopped, but the people who beat them were also stopped in their first defenses. Then Ronda went on to get stopped again.

What distinguished Velasquez and Rousey from other champions was their ceaseless aggression and the way that they were almost entirely focused on their grappling and clinch games. When they won fights it tended be violent and one-sided. What also ties them together was how badly they lost. The last notable element is that they were also the champions of the weakest divisions in the UFC. At least until women's featherweight gets implemented.

It’s tempting to write that Rousey in particular won her earlier fights so fast because her competition wasn’t up to par, but even against the weakest competition, she still would have been winning ridiculously quickly. Aggression, fearlessness and the eventual one-sided loss are all linked- the way Rousey destroyed all of her prior opponents is an artefact of her style. It meant that when her approach failed, it was almost always going to go something like the way it did. If you’re consistently winning in one or two minutes, you’re taking a lot of risks, and as we saw, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Nodes and bottlenecks

Greg Jackson talked about how MMA can be seen as a series of nodes, and this can (not surprisingly) be a great way of looking at what's going on. Both Rousey and Cain’s primary approaches come off a jab which they use as a range-finder and in order to cover entries. Cain’s jab involves dipping down, and then coming up with hooks, the cross, or entering into the clinch. Ronda tends to come in more bolt-upright. In part this is due to the relative postures of their primary skillsets (Cain’s ducking posture lending to double legs and attacking the hips, Rousey’s upright stance leading to attacking the head and arms), in part because Rousey is really not good at defense.

In terms of nodes of attack, a Rousey fight might have looked something like this.

Obviously this is heavily simplified but the key thing to note is that the positions are the bottom are those where Rousey does her best work, and all lead to lots and lots more options. Extending this, there’s an idea put about that Rousey is somehow a limited or “one-trick” fighter, but as is immediately obvious this is not true: her game is as deep and complex as any in the sport: she doesn’t have one armbar, for example, she has a lot of them.

The problem is rather than both Rousey and Cain work (or perhaps worked in the case of Cain) an approach which functions as a relatively simplistic “A” game which leads to a far more developed “B” game. Holm and Werdum were able to attack them, by and large, before it could get there, and exploit the bottleneck caused by their approach.

Once again, there’s a risk in oversimplification here- why not just stop every fighter from getting going? A lot of them open their offense with a jab... but the key is that for most a jab is not just a jab. It can be soft or hard, body or head, feinted or committed, and coming from differing angles. What made Rousey’s and Velasquez’s jabs exploitable was that they were almost always the same in terms of target, commitment and, crucially, in follow-up. Thus, Holm caught Rousey’s jab like she was using a focus mitt and stepped out to the right or the left, countering with the straight and the check hook respectively; Werdum relied on a combination of his own superb chin, and differentials in power and commitment, and threw upward or downward strikes hard into where he knew Cain’s head would be dipping.

Probabilities

Nodes offer another way of thinking about how this whole thing works, and that’s through the lens of probability. So, let's take the hypothetical: if a fighter goes through the nodes of A to B, they have a limited chance of being successful.

What corresponds a “node” in an MMA fight is nominally subjective, but let's say that, like in the above case, it's a jab, and that we live in a kind of weird Star Wars universe where we can put numerical probabilities of success on it. Let's say someone has a great jab, and has a 70% chance of landing it. Pretty good.

Compare this to someone with an insanely great takedown game. Let's say they have a 80% chance of successfully landing a takedown. They're a brilliant grappler, and they have an 80% chance of passing to half guard. Then they have an 80% chance of passing to side control, and a 90% chance to submit once they get there.

All good. But, if you chain together lots of things, even ones which are likely in their own right, then the chances of success inevitably drop. In this case, the chance of getting all those things right in a sequence is:

0.8 * 0.8 * 0.8 * 0.9 = 0.4608%

Which... isn't... so good? Obviously there's other things to think about - a submission finishes the fight and a jab doesn't! The grappler has many more options which aren't mentioned! Top position is a far, far "safer" position than being on the feet for landing offense! - but I think the salient point just about holds. It's:

things which take a lot of steps to accomplish are much easier to disrupt than things which take only a few

Grappling, by its nature, takes a lot of steps. Thus the sport as a whole has tended to drift somewhat towards the top of the nodal stack. Grappling is still there, but it is increasingly a secondary or specialized skillset. I think it's notable that one of the grappling techniques which has shown increasing utility in recent years is the guillotine (Mr Grant's great breakdown series here) which is one of the quickest and most immediately applicable submissions.

The clinch is an inevitability

Bottlenecking an approach is one thing (and an obvious one to boot) but it works against something which we also know, which is that the clinch is something which happens in almost every single fight. Whether boxing, kickboxing or any other form of hard-sparring combat sports, people inevitably close in and grab hold. Rousey and Cain both relied on the fact that the clinch was somewhere that would always happen, and where they were the best.

This was true, but you don’t need to be able to beat a fighter at their best area or have to completely checkmate them. You simply need to be able to contest them there. Holm and Werdum focused on the primary levers which dictated the inside games of their opponents: Werdum caught a grip on the crown of Velasquez’s head which he uses to hold opponents against the cage and concentrated on wresting it aside. Holm focused on keeping her own elbow pinned so that Rousey didn’t have a direct physical connection through to Holm’s hips or an opportunity to go for an armbar.

Rousey and Cain weren’t checkmated, or even beaten in the clinch, but what this did was send them back to the top of their approach, and they’d have to negotiate down through the nodal stack once again, going through the weaker areas of their approach like it was a minefield.

The Rousey-Holm fight in particular was an example of the kind of probabilistic issues in the prior section, because Rousey had success! She got the clinch, she broke many of Holm's defences in the tie ups, she even got Holm down. However, she couldn't put together the complete chain at any point.

Thus, Rousey and Cain both picked up a lot of damage. As mentioned before the idea that Holm would be “outpointing” Rousey for five rounds was probably inaccurate, because Rousey was so aggressive and so purely focused on aggression that she’d be soaking up damage like a sponge, even against someone as notoriously pillow-fisted as Holm. Even then, I was shocked in just how much of a beating she took. We all were, I think. This was only exaggerated against Nunes- a more accurate and powerful puncher who simply blasted Rousey before she even managed to initiate much of a step-in or lock up in any phase.

Her massive defensive flaws exacerbated the issue, but even a more skilled defensive fighter still would have had to put together an uninterrupted run of success, which is becoming increasingly hard to do.

Retrospective analysis

The fall in perception of Rousey's abilities since the Holm fight has been enormous, and if she was overrated then, then she risked being underrated before the Nunes fight, and this is at least partially because grappling represents an all-in strategy. Rousey was pretty close to being able to finish Holm, but "pretty close" looked like getting blown out of the water. Similarly, when she would win she was destroying her opponents, bulling her way down the stack, which led to what I think is a somewhat dangerous catch-all assumption ("all she has to do is get her hands on the opponent"), one which I think we can still see around fighters like Nurmagomedov.

This kind of thing makes it extra tricky to predict what's going to happen. Something close to a pure grappler style is going to look incredibly dominant if successful, and utterly impotent if not. This makes it very difficult to tell how effective an individual fighter actually is. Even the most competitive and back and forth fight between a grappler and someone who wants to keep it on the feet generally looks... not very back and forth. For example, the most competitive high-level example I can think of was between Demian Maia and Rory MacDonald, and from Maia's perspective, the graph of success over time looked a bit like this:

Instead of a more wiggly and organic line, there were broad spaces of winning dominantly (getting down into the deeper parts of the stack) and losing badly (getting stranded at the top). I think that this in and of itself, makes pure grappling a tough sell.

It remains a wonderful tool when integrated into the rest of a skillset, but as MMA has developed it's become, in a strange kind of way, increasingly more granular. The margins for error have decreased, from footwork to striking accuracy to things like distance perception, and it is simply easier to build up effective structural strategies with moves which are effective right away (like jabs and hooks!) to work around strategic problems. Grappling has shrunk in effectiveness as a primary strategy for similar basic reasons that reliance on big single strikes a la Hendo has- it's simply a bit too easy to work around and choke off, and is hard to effectively work back into an approach.

Rousey's losses to Nunes and Holm are useful for illustrative examples, but they obviously don't tell the whole story- Rousey didn't lose "because she was a grappler", any more than she lost because "she fell in love with her striking" in the Holm fight. The major reasons why she lost was because she has no defense and combines that with reacting incredibly poorly to getting hit, and bad footwork. She's simply the biggest and most public example of a much broader and widespread stylistic shift, one where pure grapplers are fighting an insurgent rearguard action against the strikers and the more blended fighters, a trend which I think continues into the foreseeable future.

Stuff for next time:

There are obviously many, many more things to say about grappling in MMA. An almost infinite amount, for that matter. However, there are still some questions which I'd like to cover, namely:

  • Where does grappling "fit" in a modern game? If it's not about just smashing your way down the stack, what is the best way of putting a grappling game into effect? Also: attempting to address the fairly sizeable questions of movement and relative commitment which everyone will notice are missing from this article.
  • If it can never be "the best" again, does the pure grappler style still have a place in the modern meta (Spoiler: Yes) and if so... where?
  • If this is the trend, then should fighters just become strikers with good first-layer takedown defense? (Spoiler: No)