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Wrestling for MMA: Joseph Benavidez

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Exploring the wrestling techniques and tactics of perennial UFC flyweight contender Joseph Benavidez.

On June 29th, two-time UFC flyweight title challenger and fashion icon Joseph Benavidez is expected to face the division’s number one contender, Jussier Formiga.

The now 34-year-old Benavidez has come a long way since his debut on the world stage for Japan’s DREAM in 2008. Nearly ten years at Sacramento’s Team Alpha Male saw Benavidez develop into an powerful striker and an energetic grappler. Under the tutelage of Duane “Bang” Ludwig, Benavidez refined his approach on the feet and transformed into the craftiest and most complete version of himself yet.

Over three years removed from Benavidez’s departure from Team Alpha Male, he still shows aptitude as a heavy-handed counter puncher, but the signature “Bang Muay Thai” style has clearly faded.

Now living in Las Vegas and training at Xtreme Couture and the UFC Performance Institute, Benavidez has returned to developing his base skill set - wrestling. After a late start in the sport, Benavidez finished his high school career in New Mexico with a state title.

While New Mexico is not known for its competitive wrestling scene, years in a room littered with folkstyle hammers honed Benavidez’s skill as a scrambler, first and foremost.

Ahead of his matchup with flyweight’s most dangerous grappler, examine the wrestling techniques and tactics demonstrated by Joseph Benavidez in his 2019 rematch with Dustin Ortiz.

How Joseph Benavidez adapted his wrestling for MMA

Takedown Entries

When wrestlers first make the transition to MMA, they often find success shooting from space with zero intentional setups. Depending on the style of the wrestler, this approach may actually continue to work for them at a high level. Fighters like Ryan Bader with explosive, driving double legs could start their attacks from the outside and either blow through their opponent, or pin them to the cage and work from there.

But what happens when you meet more adept opponents, or fellow wrestlers around your level? The athletic base provided by a lifetime of wrestling usually lends itself to explosive, powerful movements. Typically, wrestlers develop a rear hand at the very least, and their shot entries become masked by the threat of the overhand, whether intentional or not.

Joseph Benavidez is far past that point. Against another talented high school wrestler in Dustin Ortiz, Benavidez’s process was clear.

A right leg lead as a wrestler, Benavidez made use of frequent stance switching to orthodox to open up the outside low kick against Ortiz, timing him stepping in. From southpaw, Benavidez would change levels and slam hooks and overhands against Ortiz’s entries. Several minutes into the first round, Ortiz was used to this pattern. Benavidez low kicked from orthodox, switched to southpaw, pressured in, but this time when Ortiz started his combination to back Benavidez off, the level change was into a shot.

That entry blends so well with striking because Benavidez is not hitting his knee and shooting a traditional double. Instead, he is lowering and penetrating at the waist, using his rear hand to block the trail leg as he drives forward. Essentially, it’s a knee tap, but Benavidez is pulling with the seatbelt instead of punching through an underhook. This is a much more shallow level change and appears to be very similar to his punching form in the early stages of the motion.

Finishing the Single Leg

Here are all three single attempts from Benavidez against the cage.

There are plenty of rarities in MMA. Fighters consistently targeting the body, moving laterally, pivoting, intentional use of the jab, feinting, checking kicks. But in the wrestling realm, nothing is less consistent than fighters actually finishing single legs off the cage.

Most finishes on the single rely on playing with the balance of your opponent. When they have a sturdy base to lean against, a lot of that goes out the window. For the head inside single, Khabib Nurmagomedov repeatedly demonstrated that he could lift Al Iaquinta and inside trip the remaining leg. That is not a consistently replicable approach for many fighters.

Wrestlers in folk and freestyle have an issue with real estate when it comes to single legs as well. However, most coaches would advise dragging your opponent back to the center to work on their base from there. This is a strategy MMA fighters could pursue, but if you’re struggling to finish, committing both hands to a leg while your opponent has both of theirs free is not ideal. If you don’t believe effective offense can come from a one-legged fighter, watch Cub Swanson vs. Ross Pearson.

Benavidez consistently re-attacks to a single, especially when he and his opponent are scrambling on the cage. He typically goes to his right side, and prefers to raise and shelf the leg, rather than looking to lift his opponent or switch off to a double.

Each time Benavidez got to the leg, he kept inside head position on Ortiz’s face, and brought the leg up against his thigh, at the lowest. On his first attempt, Benavidez kept the grip and looked to drag Ortiz across at an angle, using it set up a low kick.

On his second attempt, Benavidez shelved the leg on his hip and pressed tightly to the cage, keeping the leg trapped in place. This freed up his hands to attack. It was simple enough to get the seatbelt on his right side, all he needed was to fight through Ortiz’s hands on his left and connect his hands for a bodylock. With Ortiz on one leg, it would be easy to drag Ortiz down to the right and take him to his back.

Another advantage of having the leg pinned is that Benavidez could go back and forth between fighting hands with his left hand or using it to stabilize the leg while he kept the seatbelt.

However, Ortiz displayed excellent defense and kept Benavidez away from the bodylock. In response, Benavidez kept the seatbelt, and used his free hand to regrip the single, which was still pinned between his hip and the cage.

In one swift motion, Benavidez dropped to his right knee and dragged Ortiz’s hips down and to the right. On the initial drag, Ortiz was bent over and still on one leg. With Benavidez still holding the seatbelt across Ortiz’s back, he was able to use his knee, still under Ortiz’s attacked foot, to turn off and drag Ortiz to his back. This could have easily failed if Ortiz was able to find footing with his attacked leg on the attempt, but the small detail of Benavidez maintaining a barrier with his right leg made all the difference.

As soon as Ortiz’s butt hit the mat, Benavidez transitioned to the double leg finish and worked to scoot him away from the cage for stability.

On Benavidez’s final single attempt, he looked for another common single leg finish, running the pipe. After standing with the attacked leg, wrestlers will often pinch the leg between their own, and secure a higher grip, straightening out the leg. To finish, you pivot back, to the outside of the attacked leg, “bowing” and angling their hip down to the mat. It is incredibly difficult to resist the motion of your own hip, and if the leg is straight and underneath the attacker’s body, this is a very high percentage finish.

It did appear Benavidez was looking to run the pipe, but from the above description, you can decipher what would have to change for the attempt to succeed. Against the cage, it can be a challenge to straighten out the leg under your body while still pressing forward to keep your man pinned. Stipe Miocic has made great use of this finish throughout his UFC career, but almost always from open space, not against the cage.

The Guillotine and Underhook

Any rational fan who watches Joseph Benavidez vs. Dustin Ortiz 2 should come away with unending respect for the ability and hustle of Dustin Ortiz. He did not deserve to be cut from the UFC, and hopefully one day he will get his own wrestling breakdown, as Ortiz is one of the most entertaining scramblers in MMA.

Near the cage, Ortiz did not have a hard time at all getting to the legs. Benavidez was ultimately concerned with countering a pressuring Ortiz, he likely had enough confidence in his defense and scrambling to prioritize striking. After an initial single leg, Benavidez used the little space he had to turn away and post on Ortiz’s shoulder, looking to push and kick the leg out. Unfortunately, the cage leaves little room for this strategy.

As Ortiz reshot on the attacked leg, Benavidez grabbed the neck, presumably for a guillotine. It is endlessly frustrating the MMA fighters are so committed to the arm-in guillotine as a first-line defense against takedowns. More often than not, it’s a guarantee that you’re going to your back, and the guillotine is typically fruitless.

However, if there is space to lock on to the choke without the arm, that’s a much more effective counter, and you have options to use the choke as a lever to turn your opponent’s back to the cage instead, ultimately controlling the position regardless of the outcome of the attempt.

But Benavidez did not attack with the arm in using an overhook, and he didn’t look to swim his other arm inside to get to the neck. Instead, Benavidez went to an underhook. This may serve many purposes. On its face, the guillotine is a grip on the neck, Benavidez can crank up to keep Ortiz’s head high and off his hip, even if it’s not being used as a choke. The underhook works in the same way, further separating the connecting arm from the leg and forcing Ortiz to stand up straight. Look at how Benavidez stops the shot and uses that same tie up to work Ortiz into front headlock by mixing in strikes.

Later on in the fight, Ortiz counters by turning Benavidez away from the cage and dumping him straight back, but it still puts Benavidez in a position to create space and scramble.

Blending Jiu Jitsu and Folkstyle

With the obscene number of former high school and collegiate wrestlers competing in MMA, it’s upsetting that there aren’t more folkstyle turns being utilized. Most pinning combinations involve a move that will become dangerous if the opponent doesn’t expose their back to the mat in some way. At the very least, these techniques can be effective in keeping a man down, or if you catch them in the right position, finishing a fight. The twister, for example, is a wrestler’s guillotine. The banana split is unquestionably rooted in wrestling, as is the hammerlock.

Rant aside, Joseph Benavidez showed how the near-side cradle can be used effectively in transitions. From front headlock with Ortiz against the cage, Benavidez begins to circle to his right, prompting Ortiz to raise his head up and come up to one knee to stop him.

Benavidez reaches for the posted leg, playing on Ortiz’s instinct to defend against the cradle. Ortiz reaches to fight hands in response. Ortiz’s new posture and vulnerable neck allows Benavidez to attack a guillotine with his fingers clasped.

Realizing the guillotine would be ultimately unsuccessful, Benavidez locked down the position by keeping the left choking hand in front headlock, then attacked the cradle in earnest, locking through the leg and pinching Ortiz’s head toward his knee.

Benavidez didn’t use the cradle to put Ortiz on his back, rather it was a reliable control position that allowed Benavidez to circle off to the right and get his arm behind Ortiz’s back, where he could get back to his single or threaten a bodylock as Ortiz stood up.

Shot Defense

One of the biggest issue areas for wrestlers transitioning to MMA is working off the cage. It is close to being an entirely new skill set conceptually, and not every wrestler adapts quickly, or at all. The best example will always be two-time NCAA Division 1 champion Johny Hendricks struggling immensely to defend takedowns against the cage from Rick Story, an NAIA runner-up.

Benavidez’s grasp on the cage wrestling game has been demonstrated thoroughly so far, but it goes even deeper.

When he has the space and time to react, Benavidez often takes a side on angle, as he did against Ortiz. Whether your opponent is attacking a double or a single, the cage allows you to hide one hip against the cage and stand as wide as possible, making it nearly impossible for them to lock their hands or get a good enough hold to disrupt your base.

But standing wide is just one aspect of cage takedown defense, it’s absolutely essential to fight hands.

In the first instance of this style of defense, Ortiz shoots with his head inside to the right, attacking the left leg. With Ortiz already in on his leg, Benavidez focuses his efforts on what would be the connecting arm, controlling the wrist and keeping it high.

With his other arm, Benavidez has hooked his forearm under the chin, not only creating separation between them, but allowing Benavidez to jack up Ortiz’s posture and stifle the shot, disabling Ortiz from changing levels. When Ortiz let go of the single to re-attack, Benavidez was there to underhook the attacking side and stop him in his tracks.

But fear not, wrestlers, there is still room for traditional wrestling defensive techniques.

In the second instance, Ortiz goes head outside on the single, locking his hands and pulling the leg in. One option we hadn’t discussed for finishing a single against the cage is to move your feet and turn your opponent away from the cage before running the pipe or switching off to a double.

With less control over his legs, Benavidez’s handfight becomes even more important.

One of the first defensive tactics you’ll learn against a single is to push the head away from the attack. The head on the hip is very important for the attacking man, take that away, and their leverage is severely diminished.

With the other hand, Benavidez hits a butt drag. Not to be confused with checking the oil, the butt drag involves using the ridge of your hand against the buttocks as a grip to pull against. Essentially, Benavidez is pushing away from the head on one side, and pulling himself in that same direction with the other hand. This creates plenty of stress on the attacker’s grip, and of course, it’s extremely uncomfortable.

Watch both of those sequences here.

Scrambles

Frankly, there were too many fantastic scrambles in this fight to cover, and many of them blurred the lines between wrestling and jiu jitsu.

One sequence in particular would still have a place in folkstyle, so that is where we’ll focus.

Late in the third round, Benavidez had back control on Ortiz, with one shallow hook on the right leg. His control was largely based on a lock on the waist under both arms. The nature of this position keeps Benavidez lower on Ortiz’s hips, but it also frees up Ortiz to work with both of his arms.

From the bottom, Ortiz had a plan. In folkstyle wrestling, sequences from top and bottom start from “referee’s position,” where the top wrestler places one hand on the elbow, one on the waist, and posts one leg up behind the back. It isn’t enforced in the rules, but it is highly recommended that the top wrestler keep their head on their opponent’s back, for a number of reasons. One is because the bottom wrestler can reach back and grab your head. While headlocking is often considered a “JV” or “middle school” move, getting caught in one, especially from top in referee’s, is far more embarrassing. Depending on how dirty their coach was, some wrestlers may also have been taught that on bottom they can reach back as hard as they want to, pretending to go for the head, but instead elbowing the top wrestler in the face.

Some wrestling analysts have had their nose broken in this fashion and they learned a very valuable lesson about head placement from referee’s position.

Dustin Ortiz checked both boxes from bottom. He began to (legally) elbow Benavidez, reached back once more, and on that final attempt he grabbed the head and whipped Benavidez over to his back.

Coach Tim Flynn would be so proud.

Tim Flynn: Headlocks Are A Way Of Life

There's only one move you ever need to know. A headlock.

Posted by FloWrestling on Sunday, April 1, 2018

This is where Benavidez’s waist lock came into play. Even from his back, as long as Benavidez kept his legs hooked behind Ortiz’s, he could elevate and roll back through.

Nonetheless, the headlock allowed Ortiz to escape back control, he hipped back away from Benavidez, who attacked a single. In response, Ortiz got to a whizzer position on Benavidez’s left side.

With Benavidez’s arm tied up the whizzer, Ortiz brilliantly attacked the post elbow on the opposite side while stepping over the back. Theoretically, this maneuver could have lead to him mounting Benavidez, a surefire pin in wrestling.

A natural scrambler himself, Benavidez recovered his base before Ortiz could knock him off balance, Ortiz floated over the top with his whizzer and ended up square with Benavidez, but now it was Ortiz attacking a single.

With his head inside, Ortiz navigated the whizzer by building up and stepping around the attacked leg, getting a strong enough angle to seatbelt and threaten taking Benavidez’s back. In response, Benavidez worked up to his feet, giving Ortiz space to latch on to a bodylock.

Both wrestlers performed fantastically in this scramble, but ultimately Ortiz escaped a disadvantageous position and got to rear standing against the cage, that’s a win.

At the end of this situation, Benavidez was able to use the guillotine and underhook position to work Ortiz down to front headlock.

From there, Ortiz attempted to reverse position with one of the most aesthetic maneuvers in wrestling, the peek out.

Essentially, the peek out plays off your opponent pressuring straight down. You begin to build your base back up, and when you feel that singular pressure, you clear the arm on one side and slide the trail knee through to that side, literally peeking your head up over their back and whipping your arm around.

Dustin Ortiz executed the peek out near-flawlessly, but Joseph Benavidez showed off his mat savvy by instantaneously limp-arming out and causing Ortiz to slide past, crashing face first onto the canvas.

Joseph Benavidez vs. Jussier Formiga

In reviewing Benavidez vs. Ortiz, there were moments that appeared to be applicable to the matchup with Jussier Formiga.

While the striking matchup is fascinating in its own right, a huge concern for Joseph Benavidez should be stopping Formiga from getting to the bodylock, and subsequently stopping Formiga from getting the angle on his back.

Formiga is both one of the most prolific back takers and back control artists in the history of the sport. In a tight contest, Benavidez cannot afford to lose time fighting with Formiga on his back.

One habit that could potentially spell trouble, is a strength highlighted earlier. Benavidez is quick to get to his sideways stance against the cage to defend shots. This allowed Ortiz to angle off his singles, and doubles when he had space, to circle off to the back.

In general, Benavidez was far too willing to expose his back to Ortiz. It seemed as though Benavidez preferred Ortiz get to rear standing rather than the bodylock. He was more confident in his ability to peel hands and separate, or his ability to reverse position if Ortiz did ground him.

Ortiz did hit mat returns from rear standing, but Benavidez did manage to peel him off on some occasions, and reverse from having his back taken on others.

Take a look at the situations Jussier Formiga would likely exploit.

However, Joseph Benavidez is a veteran athlete with smart coaches behind him. It would come as a shock if he drilled the same responses and preferences against Jussier Formiga as he did against Dustin Ortiz. They are drastically different fighters.

Concerning that matchup, you will have to wonder if Benavidez will look to pressure and aggressively counter the intercepting strikes of Formiga, or if he will sit back and force the Brazilian to overextend himself. If Benavidez does choose to pressure, he should be careful not to become too predictable with wild counter combinations. Formiga hit a beautiful reactive double leg on Deiveson Figueiredo.

No matter where this fight takes place, there are interesting dynamics to consider. If it is a grappling match, we can hope to see more of the crafty wrestling tactics of Joseph Benavidez.