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UFC 239 - Wrestling for MMA: Jorge Masvidal

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Exploring Jorge Masvidal’s defensive wrestling aptitude and shortcomings before his UFC 239 fight against Ben Askren.

MMA: UFC 211-Maia vs Masvidal Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

On a card featuring Ben Askren and Jon Jones, you might think it a bit strange to choose Jorge Masvidal to highlight in a wrestling breakdown.

These articles aim to provide helpful insights into how wrestling technique is adapted for mixed martial arts. They also present potentially predictive patterns from one fighter in a compelling matchup.

The book is out on Askren. Scores of talented analysts have covered the folkstyle legend’s style in depth. BJJ Scout took a particularly thorough look at Askren’s wrestling and grappling approach in MMA.

As for Jones, his wrestling approach has become progressively less active. It was nice to see him using outside doubles to set up his clinch entries in the Alexander Gustafsson rematch, but those aesthetic upper body takedowns have largely disappeared. While Jones’ wrestling should still be a major factor in his fight with Thiago Santos, it’s not a particularly competitive matchup on paper.

That leaves us with the next most interesting wrestler on the card, Jorge Masvidal.

Jorge Masvidal’s defensive wrestling for MMA

While the veteran Masvidal is often thought of as a striker, the long-time American Top Team product has surprising depth in his grappling and wrestling approach.

Masvidal’s fights with Benson Henderson and Demian Maia illustrate the exact tactics that will come in handy against Ben Askren. The Maia fight in particular will also highlight why Masvidal may be in for a long night, despite his defensive wrestling capabilities.

Reactive shot defense

Jorge Masvidal has received some criticism in the past for an almost lackadaisical style at times. While I believe that to be largely a myth, Masvidal’s proficiency defensively and on the counter does sometimes lead to him waiting on an opponent.

Against a more active striker in Benson Henderson, Masvidal had a ton of success in layered exchanges, but was surprised by Henderson’s entries a number of times. Masvidal’s taller stance and reliance on reactive defense as a first line allowed Henderson to get to the legs fairly easily on almost every attempt.

However, Demian Maia presented little to no striking threat. Masvidal was able to sit back and strike from the outside, only anticipating Maia’s shots.

Overall, Masvidal has quick hips and strong instincts to downblock and separate.

After a grueling two rounds of grappling with Maia, Masvidal’s feet were a bit more planted, allowing Maia a reliable entry. As his energy waned, Masvidal’s ability and coordination to turn and kick out was also undermined.

Ben Askren is much closer to Maia than Henderson when it comes to takedown entries. Unlike Maia, he won’t stand at range and fake level changes or play with lead straights, he’ll either be shooting straight on, or walking forward and reaching for wrists.

The wrist fight

If you’re a Masvidal fan, this is the aspect of his game that should give you the most confidence in this matchup.

Masvidal’s savvy and offense from the wrist ties make him one of the stronger clinch fighters in the UFC. Petr Yan is the organization’s reigning king from this range, while Jon Jones has had strong performances off the wrist in the past. Like Yan, Masvidal does not only go to the wrist fight off his opponent’s shot and clinch attempts, often mixing it in intermittently.

Benson Henderson did his best to hold Masvidal against the cage for extended periods of time. Eventually Masvidal found his way to a right side underhook, and got control of the wrist with his free hand. While over-under is a great position for leverage, after you’ve reversed position, your opponent still has an underhook. The underhook and wrist can be awkward, but it gives you the ability to turn your opponent back to the cage, dig your head into theirs and free the underhooking arm to disengage.

While Masvidal has questionable urgency at times, he is quick to free himself and attack with fury in these situations. Masvidal is excellent at striking in tight spaces without compromising his position relative to the cage.

Ben Askren isn’t known for his quick finishes on shots. The former two-time Hodge Trophy winner typically has such a profound mat wrestling advantage, he’ll work with a shallow entry every time if it means less time on the feet against dangerous opponents. If the entries aren’t coming, or if he’s getting chewed up, Askren will rush forward, head first, to control wrists and get to the clinch.

Shallow entries usually mean extended single leg sequences.

In the early going, Masvidal is once again fantastic at dealing with wrists, constantly peeling them off and manipulating his opponent’s arms to shut down the attempt. Just as he does when defending the clinch against the cage, Masvidal unloads off these ties, sometimes even going back to the wrist between strikes to extend the exchange.

Because of the relative simplicity of Askren’s approach at turning fights into grappling matches, there are several situations which are near-guarantees.

One is that Askren will be looking to tie up Masvidal’s wrists.

Another is that Askren will get to a leg and work from underneath Masvidal.

Fatal strengths

An upcoming theme in this article is that Jorge Masvidal’s well rounded skill set can often be his biggest weakness.

He can often get ahead of himself. Off many of Benson Henderson’s single legs, Masvidal was near-perfect defensively.

Henderson caught a Masvidal kick and lifted the leg bent, keeping Masvidal close enough to get to the base leg. Masvidal times the trip, jumps, pushes off on the head and creates space to kick out and turn back in before they hit the cage. As he turns in, he’s immediately crossfacing and securing a whizzer to raise the attacking arm. Athletic and savvy defense.

Off Henderson’s attempted head inside single, Masvidal crossfaces well and knows to chase the side-on angle while balancing. When Henderson squares up with him and goes to the head outside single, Masvidal switches both hands to the guillotine. He didn’t finish the submission, but it allowed him to get to the guillotine and underhook position with his back to the cage, a solid defensive wrestling tactic in MMA utilized by Joseph Benavidez.

Masvidal was able to switch effectively from defending the shot to attacking a submission. However, it may be the case that this is more of a habit than a tactical decision.

Take a look at the opening sequence of his fight against Demian Maia.

Maia shoots for his lead leg, Masvidal pivots brilliantly away from the cage, but Maia sneaks an arm through for an underhook. Maia is incredibly effective at scooting and chasing the near leg from even the most shallow underhook, in a way he’s like Askren in that sense.

Masvidal continues to fight the wrist that would allow Maia to get back to the single leg while he pivots, but Maia has decent enough position with the underhook that he can move him to the cage. He’s not out of the woods, but this is great adaptive defense from Masvidal thus far.

Masvidal works hard to keep Maia away from the seatbelt, and Maia drops back to the leg off a trip attempt. It’s quite a poor shot, Maia is on his knees with his head down. So why does it work?

Masvidal takes his hand off the wrist and tries to attack an arm-in guillotine.

On Demian Maia.

The obvious thought is that Masvidal is not going to submit Demian Maia. Masvidal does, however, use the guillotine to reverse position fairly often. He had great success with this against Benson Henderson.

The problem is that he’s going arm-in, crunched down over top of Maia’s back. He’s effectively giving Maia more control of his body than he had any right getting. It was fairly simple for Maia to crack down on the single with Masvidal basically attached to him.

Masvidal also loves the D’Arce choke off an opponent attempting to crawl for a leg or underhook off front headlock. While he did not attempt to submit Demian Maia in this fashion, he did begin to loop his arm through deeper off the hip block, one of his preferred setups. Masvidal switched between the whizzer and blocking the hip with a straight arm throughout the Maia fight.

Ben Askren is going to be underneath Jorge Masvidal. Masvidal may well have perfect opportunities to attack chokes. More than likely, he will do just that. While Masvidal is a more than capable submission threat, and it would not be completely absurd to see him tap Askren, Askren’s goal is to extend grappling sequences as long as possible.

Ideally, a fighter should look to deny their opponent of the fight that they want.

Unfortunately, Masvidal does have a tendency to hang out too long where he should not.

Strategic concerns

In the first half of that opening sequence against Demian Maia, Masvidal was on point with his defensive wrestling tactics, before the ill-advised guillotine.

In the second half, Masvidal’s attributes were still there, but his decision-making was questionable.

While standing and defending a head inside single, Masvidal punches with one hand while doing no productive work with his free hand. If anything, Masvidal is pushing Maia’s head further inside, closer to the leg he’s attacking.

Demian Maia is fairly skilled at keeping a leg shelved and debasing his opponents while forcing them to move their feet. Even so, Masvidal shows off his excellent balance by posting and springing right back up, then gets back to the overhook and wrist while circling away from the cage.

Once again, Masvidal does not commit enough to this idea, reaching clear across with the overhook to Maia’s neck, allowing the superior grappler to sit through and hook a leg. Masvidal blocks the hip with the overhooking hand, but again chooses to punch with his free hand instead of crossfacing or framing, giving Maia room to build up.

The idea that you need to punish the grappler is entirely understandable. However, Demian Maia has shown many times that if you stop him enough, the attempts get sloppier, and your opportunities to attack become more clear. Maia has also shown many times that he is most effective early on. That was not the time to attack for Masvidal.

We see this again later on, as Masvidal sprawls beautifully, then commits to striking with Maia underneath him. On another occasion, Masvidal chooses to look to flatten Maia out and abandons his whizzer, allowing the Brazilian to get to his underhook and reverse.

On the bright side, Masvidal is an athlete who learns his lessons mid-fight.

After finally shaking Maia off in the first round, Masvidal went to work. As Maia sat back up into him, Masvidal stuck to the whizzer and framed on the face to keep Maia away.

Jorge Masvidal vs. Ben Askren (UFC 239)

Masvidal is incredibly frustrating to evaluate as a wrestler.

His first layer of defense is usually excellent, and when he is entirely focused on defending a shot, he can be persistent in fighting hands and disengaging intelligently.

When he focused on the wrists and prioritized neutralizing the seatbelt against Maia, he excelled. Masvidal even has the ability to force his opponents off balance on their shot attempts by pivoting on one leg, à la Yianni Diakomihalis.

However, his aptitude often opens up opportunities to attack, and he ends up losing exchanges by switching back to offense far too soon.

This is not to say that on a perfect night, there are not still holes in Masvidal’s wrestling defense that favor Askren.

Benson Henderson had success pummeling into the bodylock against Masvidal, one of Askren’s best positions in MMA. Masvidal did, however, show great awareness in defending subsequent attacks off the lock.

Masvidal also over-threw several times with his right hand and gave up a deep underhook to Henderson. Askren will surely be looking for any opportunity to get inside in that fashion, and will likely be more effective in pummeling than Henderson was.

It’s difficult to say when is the right time for Masvidal to be offensive. He is absolutely going to have to work offensively with his wrists tied up against Askren. That is one place where Masvidal would be wise to punish Askren rather than solely disengaging.

More likely than not, Jorge Masvidal is going to look for chokes against Ben Askren. While that may not be ideal, deep attacks may end up giving Masvidal favorable positions, or at the very least force Askren to back off his attempts.

It would not come as a surprise at all to see this bout look eerily similar to the Maia fight. While Askren is reasonably a more effective wrestler in MMA than Maia, since then Masvidal has had even more time with coach Steve Mocco and training partner Colby Covington to further sharpen his skills. That should keep him out of grappling exchanges long enough to work the legs and body of Askren, who has one of the greatest chins in MMA history, both literally and figuratively.