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Wrestling for MMA: Gregor Gillespie

Reflecting on the rising lightweight contender’s outstanding wrestling career and how his skills have translated to mixed martial arts.

Even relative to the most credentialed folkstyle wrestlers in modern UFC history like Johny Hendricks and Ben Askren, Gregor Gillespie’s college career deserves to be held in the highest esteem.

It’s not that it’s unheard of to see a four-time NCAA Division 1 All-American and one-time national champion in MMA. Another Edinboro wrestler (shout out to Coach Tim Flynn) Josh Koscheck won a title his junior year and never placed lower than fourth, while Phil Davis went 7th, 2nd, and 5th in his first three seasons, winning a national championship for Penn State as a senior.

Placing top eight in the country is a monumental achievement in itself, but not all brackets are created equally. For context, let’s take a look at Gillespie’s four NCAA championship runs.

NCAA Photos Archive

Gregor Gillespie’s Significant NCAA Results

2006 - 149 Pounds

After a standout freshman campaign, Gillespie qualified for the NCAA Championships, earning the #7 seed.

Gillespie’s run on the front side was ended fairly early.

Ty Eustice (Iowa) def. Gregor Gillespie 5-3

A four-time NCAA qualifier and three-time All-American, Eustice was the returning 5th place finisher at 149 pounds. After defeating Gillespie, he knocked off three-time All-American and returning national champion Zack Esposito before losing in the finals.

After wrestling through the “blood round” and earning All-American status, Gillespie was bumped to the bottom of the medal matches.

Jon Masa (Hofstra) def. Gregor Gillespie 11-4

Masa earned All-American honors for the second time that year. In freestyle, he would go on to represent Puerto Rico at the World Championships.

Despite some tough losses, Gillespie ended his tournament strong and took 7th, wrestling to seed.

Gregor Gillespie def. Mark DiSalvo (Central Michigan) (FALL) 6:22

Mark DiSalvo took 8th at the 2005 NCAA Championships, and a late pin by Gillespie saw him repeat that result.

2007 - 149 Pounds

Steadily improving, Gillespie performed well enough in-season to be seeded 5th heading into his second national tournament.

Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) def. Dan Vallimont (Penn State) 10-2

This win aged well, Vallimont would become an All-American in 2008 then fought his way to the finals in 2010. Vallimont made his presence known as a mainstay in the domestic freestyle circuit through the Penn RTC.

Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) def. Jordan Leen (Cornell) 6-2

The #4 seed, Jordan Leen and Gregor Gillespie had not clashed for the last time when they met in the NCAA quarterfinals. The upper body chops and absurdly tough leg riding of Leen gave the scrappy Gillespie fits early on.

Showing off phenomenal mat wrestling and scrambling of his own, Gillespie capitalized on an overzealous crossface turk attempt by Leen to reverse and pick up near-fall points. Putting on an impressive, physical ride of his own, Gillespie outmaneuvered Leen for a 6-2 win.

By the end of his career, Leen would be a three-time All-American and a national champion. This year, he placed 8th.

Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) def. Dustin Schlatter (Minnesota) 3-2

The returning national champion and one of the most “defensive” wrestlers of the era, Dustin Schlatter was tailor-made to shut down the all-action mat wrestling style of Gillespie.

For some time, those stylistic principles held true, Gillespie struggled to pass the hands of Schlatter and his shot attempts were stifled in front headlock. Holding impeccable position, Schlatter repeatedly pressured the sophomore out of bounds.

But the frantic fakes and motion of Gillespie were starting to concern Schlatter, he became more aggressive in his forward pressure and Gillespie took full advantage. Planting his feet, Gillespie shucked off the reaching arms of Schlatter and blew through the national champion with a stubborn double leg.

Playing the edge of the mat, Gillespie survived the onslaught of Schlatter to hold on for a trip to the national finals. Schlatter finished his career as a three-time All-American and a one-time NCAA champion.

Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) def. Josh Churella (Michigan) 3-1 OT

I can’t find the video, I’m so sorry. I have no idea what happened in this match.

Knowing Gillespie, an overtime match doesn’t necessarily mean the regulation time was lacking in action. Let’s pretend it was an epic scrambling showdown and Gillespie won a crucial exchange in sudden victory to seize the 2007 149-pound title.

Josh Churella was a three-time All-American in college, he went on to have a distinguished freestyle career, making three national teams.

Fun fact, Jordan Burroughs went down early in this tournament, while Lance Palmer took 4th.

2008 - 157 Pounds

Up in weight and returning as the #1 seed, Gregor Gillespie had to defend his crown against a challenging field.

Far too early in the tournament, Gillespie was faced with his toughest matchup once again - Jordan Leen.

Jordan Leen (Cornell) def. Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) 8-6

Despite his attempts to slow the match down from front headlock, Gillespie had his half-shot countered by Leen, who exploded across to his trail leg with a single.

The leg riding of Leen was consequential once again. Flattened out, Gillespie could barely resist as Leen trapped the bent-leg turk and secured a lever under his chin. Leen was able to drive across to the remaining base leg and exposed Gillespie’s back to the mat. The bow-and-arrow of Leen not only led to near-fall points, it actually had Gillespie attempting to tap out, likely due to the choking arm.

Once the next period began, Gillespie was tenacious on top, following every granby attempt of Leen with ease (basing on his head!). Responding to frequent sit out and granby attempts, Gillespie favored putting one boot in, or switching to a crab ride after rolling escape attempts by Leen.

Ultimately it was the crab ride that doomed Gillespie, as Leen was able to get height, pull up on one of Gillespie’s hooking legs and turn in to face him. Gillespie tried to salvage the ride by putting in double boots, but the ride was too high and Leen stood, Gillespie fell off and Leen attacked the retreating leg to complete the reversal.

Leen went on to control Gillespie on top in the third period, then win an NCAA title.

Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) def. Matt Kocher (Pittsburgh) 1-0

In an all-PA school battle, Gillespie barely edged Matt Kocher, one of the best one-time All-Americans in NCAA Division 1 wrestling. A four-time NCAA qualifier, Kocher only placed in 2007 despite holding 151 career wins, the second most in Pitt history.

Kocher went on to be an excellent coach, and by all accounts a wonderful man.

Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) def. Cyler Sanderson (Iowa State) FALL (0:40)

Yes, brother of Cael Sanderson! Wrestling for Iowa State, Sanderson would take 7th after losing to Gillespie, then transferring to wrestle under his brother at Penn State University. As a Nittany Lion, Sanderson took 5th his senior season.

Another match I wish I had a video for.

Dan Vallimont (Penn State) def. Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) 2-1

Dan Vallimont takes revenge. After losing wide to Gillespie just one year before, Vallimont not only narrowed the gap, he turned the tables on the returning national champion.

Despite entering as the top seed, Gillespie could do no better than 5th.

Ever the workman, he went out and got it.

Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) def. Josh Zupancic (Stanford) TF 15-0

All business. Putting on an absolute clinic on the mat, Gillespie disposed of the returning 7th place finisher to claim his third All-American finish.

2009 - 157 Pounds

Gillespie’s string of brutal brackets never ended.

One year before he took 7th at 157 pounds, Justin Gaethje went 0-2 when faced with this field.

The #4 seed, Gillespie met the challenge bravely.

Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) def. Jason Welch (Northwestern) 3-2

A California high school legend, Jason Welch’s pedigree translated well to the college scene. A three-time All-American (6th, 4th, 2nd), this would be the one year Welch failed to place at NCAAs.

Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) def. J.P. O’Connor (Harvard) 1-0

J.P. O’Connor failing to place at the 2009 NCAA tournament is a testament to the brutality of the bracket, as he became an undefeated national champion in 2010. A three-time All-American, losses to Gillespie and Chase Pami kept him from becoming a four-time All-American and one-time national champion like Gillespie.

The two would meet again in freestyle, where Gillespie would repeat his performance, winning two close matches over the Ivy League man.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this next wrestler who knocked Gillespie out of the championship bracket.

Jordan Burroughs (Nebraska) def. Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) 13-4

Yikes. After notching his first All-American finish in 2008, Jordan Burroughs became the man he was meant to be in 2009, going undefeated all season on his way to his first national title. Of course, he would redshirt due to an injury, then repeat his undefeated championship performance in 2011 at 165 pounds. That summer, Burroughs won a senior World title, the next year? Olympic gold.

Today, Burroughs stands as a five-time World and Olympic champion, winning medals in eight out of nine appearances on the World stage. Interested? Check out this breakdown of the matches that put Burroughs on his ninth World or Olympic team.

Ultimately, Gillespie found himself at a disadvantage in speed, power, and finesse on the feet. Burroughs capitalized on the comparatively less refined shot entries of Gillespie and blew through the Edinboro wrestler when he came out of position.

Rough draw.

On the backside, we’ll see another familiar name.

Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) def. Michael Chandler (Missouri) 10-2

The iron workhorse himself. A four-time NCAA qualifier, Michael Chandler improved steadily across his career, and this was by far his best year. After losing to Gillespie, Chandler would fight back for 5th.

In some time, he would become a pretty solid MMA fighter as well. If you’re unfamiliar, here is some of his best work in his rematch with Eddie Alvarez.

Gillespie had managed to wrestle back to the true consolation finals, a battle for third place.

Who else should he meet to end his college career, but Jordan GD Leen.

Jordan Leen (Cornell) def. Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) 4-0

Perhaps a bit anticlimactic, considering the drama of their previous NCAA matches. The future coaching talent Jordan Leen cemented himself as a stylistic nightmare for Gillespie, using his top mat wrestling skills to neutralize the scrappy New Yorker.

While he may have fallen to the upper crust of the NCAA wrestling world on a few occasions, Gregor Gillespie was consistently among the best and fought hard against a myriad of wrestling archetypes, in years of extreme parity to boot.

7th, 1st, 5th and 3rd is a hell of a career.

UFC Fight Night: Gillespie v Medeiros Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Wrestling for MMA: Gregor Gillespie

Gillespie didn’t see much of a future in freestyle, considering Jordan Burroughs was already king at 74 kg by the time he got any momentum on the senior circuit. Luckily, we’ve been able to see Gillespie’s hard-nosed style and savvy mat wrestling expressed in mixed martial arts.

An interesting note, while I’m going to highlight a few specific techniques Gillespie leans on in MMA, he’s an extremely versatile wrestler. It’s rare for any lifelong wrestler that reaches the highest levels of folkstyle to have a limited arsenal. If you watched a full season of footage, you’d lose count of how many different attacks Gillespie hit successfully. But at NCAAs, Gillespie, and every other competitor, have to stick to their absolute best tactics and techniques to score on the top dogs.

There’s a similar paring down of options when a wrestler transitions to MMA. The way they learn striking, and perhaps even their personality, will lend to different sorts of opportunities in wrestling. For example, I’m sure Khabib Nurmagomedov has an excellent double leg from space off pressure, but his defensive striking style (upright, leaning back) does not make a reactive double a great option for him.

For now, Gillespie’s game from neutral is pretty muted, compared to the ways he’s been able to incorporate his riding game and mat wrestling in MMA.

Entries

More often than not, wrestling entries in MMA are directly tied to striking. The baseline skill-set of most fighters (in decent divisions, at least) affords solid enough takedown defense to deny straight-on shot attempts with no real setup.

While Gillespie’s style on the feet offers plenty of motion (Goldberg and Rogan would likely have called it “herky jerky”) he had a hard time offering credible offense in his UFC debut vs. Glaico Franca.

Gregor Gillespie shot entries vs. Glaico Franca (2016)

Pumping his jab and swiftly level changing, Gillespie could not fool Franca. Dropping levels himself, Franca was able to kick his hips back and whizzer on the attacking arm of Gillespie.

Next, hoping for more of a reactive takedown, Gillespie sprung forward as Franca walked him into the cage. Once again Franca had no reason to take his eyes off the ball, catching the shot with double underhooks and standing Gillespie back up.

It wasn’t until Gillespie got Franca’s attention with his striking, landing his jab and flashing stiff right hands, that Franca planted his feet and looked to throw back. Double jabbing, Gillespie feinted his right hand and followed the motion to shoot a head-inside single, driving in and lifting the leg.

While Gillespie hadn’t yet shown the craft to get the fight to the cage with his striking alone, these types of exchanges put Franca close enough to the fence that Gillespie could pin him against it with driving doubles.

The fight opened up from there. Gillespie knocked Franca out of position with a rear straight, then looked to double up on it, instead changing levels and driving on a spear double - leading the charge headfirst (shades of his double on Dustin Schlatter!)

Unfortunately for Gillespie, some of the shot entries were a matter of necessity, anything to stop Franca from finishing him off after badly stunning him. By the end of the fight, it was clear Gillespie’s best work was coming off the threat and motion of his right hand.

Gregor Gillespie shot entries vs. Jason Gonzalez and Jordan Rinaldi (2017-2018)

Jason Gonzalez gave Gillespie far more opportunities to shoot reactively, rather than creating his own wrestling situations. Doing his best Carlos Condit impression, Gonzales marched forward with lead uppercuts, making level changing a treacherous game. Despite this, Gillespie had no problem eating those intercepting punches and shooting through the hands.

To make things a little less complicated, Gonzalez stood tall and kept his base narrow, making double legs a viable attack for Gillespie, even with zero setup. I said most fighters have a baseline wrestling skill-set to deal with straight-on shots, not all. Jason Gonzalez had to keep his Condit cosplay consistent, I reckon.

Gillespie’s best look of the fight was when he hung in for an extended pocket exchange with Gonzalez, biding his time to level change off the motion of his punches at the end of a long combination. It was his cleanest entry yet.

Things were a bit dicier against Jordan Rinaldi, a decent enough wrestler in his own right. I wrote about Rinaldi before his fight with Arnold Allen, then he made me look very stupid.

Leading with a step-in knee like a prime Jose Aldo (I’m so sorry), Rinaldi knocked Gillespie upside the head, but the stone-dome of Gillespie held up, allowing him to catch the leg and attack a head-outside single. RinAldo whizzered and recovered his base, used both hands to post on the head, turned and kicked out.

In another sequence, noticing that Rinaldi was firing in response to his jab, Gillespie jabbed in and shot in again under the winging straight of Rinaldi.

Something new we saw in terms of Gregor Gillespie’s entries vs. Vinc Pichel (2018) was incorporating offense off the clinch against the cage. As usual, when Gillespie was triggering striking exchanges by leading, Pichel was vulnerable for leg attacks. When he shot from the outside, he had issues. While Gillespie had some difficulty keeping Pichel planted, he was able to break from grappling situations against the cage, fire off strikes to get Pichel to cover up, then shoot back in for a cleaner entry.

In his most recent fight against Yancy Medeiros in early 2019, Gillespie abandoned his naked shots altogether, feeling enough confidence in his boxing to shoot in more favorable situations.

UFC Fight Night: Rinaldi v Gillespie Photo by Jared C. Tilton /Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Shot Finishes and Mat Wrestling

He certainly takes his time, but it’s fair to say Gillespie has a system for finishing takedowns on the cage, in addition to his pure wrestling finishes from space.

If he has a strong enough bite on the hips, Gillespie tries to steer his opponent away from the cage, driving and turning the corner on his finish, but that’s typically not enough to do the trick.

In on a shot against the cage, Gillespie loves to hop to his right and hook the defending leg of his opponent. Pulling the leg out with this hook, Gillespie can angle his opponent’s back away from the cage. Even if they recover quickly, it gives Gillespie an opportunity to adjust his shot and get in deeper, or use the newfound space to work his way behind his opponent.

Gregor Gillespie’s finishes vs. Glaico Franca (2016)

If he chooses to readjust on the double, he can lift and plant his opponent’s butt on the mat, or hit a shorter, easier lift just to turn them, then driving through for the finish. I haven’t seen this very often from other elite MMA wrestlers, it’s a great look from Gillespie.

It’s a bit less effective for singles, unless Gillespie is low on the leg when he starts the attack and can straighten it out before he runs the pipe. Finishing on a bent leg usually requires getting height on it and knocking out the base leg, and with the cage nearby, that’s not typically viable without lifting your opponent off their feet. Gillespie’s double series is much more efficient.

Another great look is Gillespie’s ability to hit shrugs to the back off his single attempts when his opponent is giving him too much space on the head side. We’ll see that again against Medeiros.

Another important position for Gillespie is rear-standing near the cage. Most MMA wrestlers are going to have to reckon with this situation, as scooting back to the cage and side-on wall walking is the premium getup strategy these days. Gillespie tries his hand at standard mat returns, as well as working from a bodylock, but his best move is straight out of his college wrestling playbook- the crab ride.

It’s essentially not much different than a standard jiu jitsu back take, off the tight-waist, you drag backward while hooking inside your opponent’s legs to break their base. Unlike many wrestlers in MMA, Gillespie is perfectly comfortable putting in hooks from the back, given that he was a nasty leg rider in college. These rear standing positions become far more consequential if fighters are willing and capable of entering more traditional jiu jitsu positions off their wrestling sequences.

Getting back to the outside hook finish against the cage, Gillespie showed off what he can do against a lankier, less physically threatening opponent.

Gregor Gillespie finishes vs. Jason Gonzalez and Jordan Rinaldi (2017-2018)

Not only did the leg hook take Gonzalez off the cage briefly, it allowed Gillespie to collapse the legs together, making the double leg finish a near guarantee.

Some additional details involve the superb guard passing of Gillespie. He does an excellent job of collecting both legs on the mat, getting height, and stepping off to side control. Gillespie’s aptitude for transitioning to side control, and from there to mount, partially explains his tendency to attack and finish arm triangles.

Gregor Gillespie finishes vs. Vinc Pichel (2018)

Against both Pichel and Medeiros, Gillespie was repeatedly challenged to return his opponents to the mat from rear standing after his initial takedown sequences.

Stepping in front of his opponents and dropping all his weight, Gillespie is able to consistently break his opponents to their knees, even if just for a second or two.

Gregor Gillespie working from rear-standing vs. Yancy Medeiros (2019)

As mentioned before, Gillespie’s experience and instincts as a leg rider give him the initiative to put “double boots” in without fail. Even when Pichel and Medeiros worked up to a tripod or quad pod in the transition, Gillespie is able to maintain position by gripping hard under the armpits, then transition to cross wrist rides and push with his hips to extend and break them down flat.

Gregor Gillespie finishes vs. Yancy Medeiros (2019)

UFC Fight Night: Gillespie v Medeiros Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Rides and Miscellaneous Tactics

It was so fun to see the same rides Gillespie used in college find their way into his MMA game.

Gillespie didn’t always favor double boots, in fact his first instict more often was to throw in one leg and sag to that same side, crushing with a tight-waist. Gillespie was confident enough in his scrambling and top control that even if he ends up partially exposed when his opponent finally touche down, he could end up on top.

Gregor Gillespie rides vs. Yancy Medeiros (2019)

Here you can see Gillespie getting Medeiros’s hips to the mat off the sag with one leg in.

I thought a cool adaptation by Gillespie was off the standing ride attempt, Gillespie took the boot out and used the same leg to throw a knee to his doubled over opponent, then quickly putting the hook back in.

Remember Gillespie’s matches with Jordan Leen? If Yancy Medeiros had seen those, he’d know trying to granby roll out from Gregor Gillespie is easier said than done. Feeling the weight of Medeiros trending to one side, Gillespie hopped toward the attempt and rolled across his shoulder to follow Medeiros precisely, getting back to the crab ride as Medeiros sat up.

Credit to Medeiros, when Gillespie tried to ride by crunching the supporting arm with an overhook, Medeiros hit the granby to that side, leaving Gillespie only his own head to support him, giving Medeiros room to scramble and briefly end up on top.

One thing I forgot to mention is Gillespie’s strength and hustle from front headlock. This was on full display against Vinc Pichel.

Not quite secure in his top game at this point, Gillespie had to deal with Pichel basing out from under him and getting to his knees. Aside from his guillotine-D’Arce game, Gillespie has tremendous pressure from front headlock that allows him to maintain control until they get back to the cage, or to create motion and hit go-behinds on his opponents.

Gregor Gillespie works from front headlock vs. Vinc Pichel (2018)

That motion can come from Gillespie debasing his opponents with choke attempts, faking go-behinds in either direction, horsing his opponent in either direction with underhooks, or even chasing the back by hitting butt drags.

No matter what, Gillespie tends to keep his legs back, hips low, staying on his toes to make sure he can put as much weight on the back and neck of his opponent as possible. When Gillespie does work from his knees, it’s to prepare for more explosive motions, from what I can tell.

UFC 244 Masvidal v Diaz: Ultimate Media Day Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Parting Thoughts and UFC 244 Bout with Kevin Lee

I was a bit cautious on Gillespie as a prospect before starting this article, but I’ve truly grown to appreciate how he’s approached wrestling in MMA.

His mat wrestling far exceeds his work on the feet, but his entries and the way his striking works with his wrestling are promising. If the spectrum is from Chad Mendes, one of the best ever from neutral in MMA but a lacking top player, and Khabib Nurmagomedov, a sometimes spotty takedown artist from the open but absolutely dominating top player, Gillespie likely slightly center-right.

With all this being said, how should his UFC 244 fight with another wrestler in Kevin Lee play out?

The good news is, I wrote a similar breakdown of Lee’s wrestling before his fight with Rafael dos Anjos.

The bad news is, I forget everything I wrote and have no insights into this matchup.

Off the top of my head, Lee looks enormous next to Gillespie, and is probably the better striker at this point. Both excel against the cage, but Gillespie is far more likely to pressure in order to get to that situation for himself. Judging by Lee’s pre-fight interviews, he’s planning on outfighting and shutting down takedowns.

I honestly don’t know how this will go down, but if there are wrestling exchanges, I promise to break it down early next week!