Royce Gracie meets Ken Shamrock on Friday night in the main event of Bellator 149, and this blast of nostalgia has left me to consider the current state of BJJ in MMA. When Royce Gracie erupted onto the scene at UFC 1 it was immediately apparent that jiu-jitsu was king, but since then so much has changed; the sport has grown exponentially and the age of the well-rounded super athlete is truly upon us. In recent years we have seen the rise of the wrestler, the birth of neo-footwork and, in a sense, the death of the aggressive grappler. Has time moved on? Are the days of a world champion grappler dominating in MMA over?
There has been much discussion about the emergence of MMA-specific strikers. Our very own Connor Ruebusch has lead the discourse surrounding the evolution of striking alongside his Heavy Hands co-host Patrick Wyman. While I feel striking in MMA has made massive strides, grappling has actually deteriorated. Over the past decade we have seen all-time grappling greats like Marcelo Garcia and Joao Assis have lukewarm MMA careers and other world champions never quite put it together. Has time passed Jiu Jitsu by?
On Sunday night, Augusto "Tanquinho" Mendes, a multiple time black belt world champion makes his UFC debut against against Cody Garbrandt. As a fan of BJJ I should be excited about Tanquinho's debut, but I'm fearful, from the footage I have seen. Mendes seems to have developed a fondness for striking, which is the BJJ player's kryptonite. On this week's MMA Hour, Demian Maia explained it best when he stated that he feels that focusing on his striking made him a worse fighter and I agree. While this may sound counter-intuitive, hear me out.
When you think the most successful submission grapplers in MMA there are two distinct archetypes: the first is the opportunist, think Ronda Rousey, Nate Diaz, and Joe Lauzon. The opportunist, as the name suggests, strikes at opportune moments like in scrambles and when their foes make fatal mistakes (see Guillard vs. Diaz). Fundamentally, the opportunist is adept on the feet and slick on the ground and while (s)he can have success on the mat, (s)he doesn't live or die by taking the fight to the floor. In recent years this style has proved successful for highly competent, yet non-elite grapplers, but it has its flaws.
The versatility of an opportunist is certainly useful, but often you find that an opportunist is too comfortable to fight to an opponent's strength and through this negating their own advantages, key examples of this are Diaz vs. Thomson and Rousey vs. Holm. While Holly Holm fought truly masterfully, Rousey stood willingly with a world champion boxer from the opening bell. By falling in love with striking, Rousey lost the edge that made her a champion. Grappling is and always will be Rousey's bread and butter, but she suffered the same fate many great grapplers before her have. By falling in love with striking, grapplers dilute their once elite ground skills and usually become mediocre strikers, though Jacare Souza is one notable exception to this.
The predator is the grappler who knows where his advantage lies and his main goal is to take the fight to his domain. To be a predator you do not necessarily need to be a great overall grappler, but you need to have some sequences down to an art. One less obvious example of the predator is Marcin Held. Over the last few years, Held has made a career out of a few simple sequences that he has mastered. Instead of risking it on the feet, Held almost always immediately looks to take the fight to the ground by using strikes to get just close enough to shoot or to pull guard. Instead of taking his chances on the feet, like an opportunist would, Held immediately looks to put the odds in his favour by taking the fight to the ground.
Another obvious example of this archetype is Rousimar Palhares, who only ever uses striking to close the distance and as soon as he does, like Held, he shoots, grabs a hold of his opponents legs and drops back for a leglock. While the two athletes I have mentioned so far are primarily leglock guys, this style of fighting suits all elite grapplers. Demian Maia told Ariel Helwani that he only drills a few basic combos to get close enough to take the fight to the ground and this truly is the best way for an elite-BJJ fighter to go. Ryan Hall too showed efficacy of this style throughout TUF and more recently when he dominated Artem Lobov.
Over the years we have seen a who's who of world grapplers transition to MMA and get too comfortable on the feet. Instead of taking the fight to the ground, these fighters stand and test their new-found skills, often to terrible results, and I find this quite perplexing. When we see elite strikers transition to MMA do we see them look to test their grappling skills? Do we see Stephen Thompson look to grapple with grapplers? Is Michael Page pulling guard? Absolutely not. So why do we see BJJ world champions stand and throw spinning backfists and flying knees? It is truly bewildering.
This rant may sound like it has been sponsored by Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, but honestly I feel that grapplers need to focus on grappling to be successful. I am not saying that these guys shouldn't learn the fundamentals of striking (they absolutely should), but striking needs to be a transitional tool, a tool to take the fight to their strength, striking should be used to close the distance and initiate the clinch or the takedown.
We need more grappling and less sloppy kickboxing, because I sure as hell do not want to watch another BJJ world champion get knocked out.
When Royce Gracie fights Ken Shamrock on Friday night we will see grappling in its purest form, Royce will almost certainly take Shamrock down in seconds, take his back and choke him out in the most basic-yet-beautiful way possible. Jiu-jitsu fighters need to take the Gracie approach to the next level and focus on taking the fight to where they are most skilled, I am not saying this is a foolproof strategy, but this is a lot better than the alternative.
In 2016, we will have Garry Tonon, Mackenzie Dern and Rodolfo Vieira debuting in the cage, let's hope that these great grapplers can showcase just how effective jiu-jitsu can be in MMA.