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Takedown breakdown: How Cael Sanderson ankle picked Daniel Cormier

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Breaking down the signature move of the greatest collegiate wrestler of all time

NCAA Photos Archive

The 2001 NCAA Championship bracket at 184 pounds was a bit of a minefield.

At the time, Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson returned as the two-time defending national champion, undefeated since taking a loss to Paul Jenn during his redshirt campaign. He held the #1 seed. To make the finals, he’d have to take out two-time All-American Viktor Sveda of Indiana. Future two-time NCAA champion Damion Hahn looked to be a threat as the 5 seed, but he was bumped out of the championship bracket early in a first-round upset. Sanderson won by technical fall, pin, technical fall, and 14-point major decision to reach the finals.

On the opposite side of the bracket, #2 seed and Big Ten champion Nate Patrick seemed to be the man to watch, but he would be upset by Michigan’s All-American and future Olympian, the 7 seed Andy Hrovat. This set up a semifinal match between Hrovat and Oklahoma State’s Daniel Cormier. Cormier, a two-time JUCO champion, had reached the round of 12 in his first Division 1 campaign, falling one win shy of All-American status. This year he was on a tear, earning bonus points in every match on his way to the semis.

The tight match between Hrovat and Cormier ended in dramatic fashion. After a failed shot entry, Hrovat continued to press in with his underhook. The Cowboy transfer countered Hrovat’s forward pressure with a beautiful lateral drop, sticking him on his back for the fall in the third period.

After failing to place in his first attempt, Daniel Cormier was in the NCAA finals. Unfortunately, his opponent was the most accomplished folkstyle wrestler to ever live.

The Snap-Ankle Pick System

The most important lesson to take away when studying an athlete who excels with one “move”, is that proficiency with that particular technique is only half the battle.

Five-time World and Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs is known for his double leg, but that doesn’t mean he just fires it off whenever he pleases. He has a system of wrestling that is designed to lead to openings for his best attacks. Beyond that, he has advanced tactics in his back pocket to adjust to opponents looking to counter him.

On the subject of ankle picks, the technique itself is straightforward. You’re dropping to at least one knee to pick the ankle, driving forward to force your opponent’s weight onto their base leg. If they entry is strong enough, your opponent will be stepping backward, allowing the attacking wrestler to continue driving through and collect the other leg to double off and finish. If they hold their ground, you’ll see the best ankle pickers using their free hand to drive the head across the body, toward the ankle pick side.

In terms of systems, it’s all about snapdowns. If you’re a wrestler who wants to make a living off straight-on leg attacks like double legs and ankle picks, the key is to manipulate level changes.

To see that in action today, look no further than some of Sanderson’s proteges - Bo Nickal and David Taylor. There are a handful of Penn State wrestlers with killer snaps, but the lanky wizards Nickal and Taylor have the most defined snap-leg attack system.

The idea is layered. The first-line goal of persistent snapping is to actually break the base and drag your opponent to their hands and knees. If you can get them to that vulnerable position, it opens up both go-behinds and front headlock offense.

The ankle pick is especially effective when this dynamic is present, it’s much easier to clothesline finish the ankle pick when there’s a shorter distance between the head and the legs. On top of that, the level changing motion for the ankle pick is built into the snap. It’s possible to snap and ankle pick in one fluid motion.

Yoel Romero scored most of his points in freestyle with this snap-go-behind-ankle pick system.

More often, wrestlers are resisting these snaps, so the attacking wrestler is attempting to lower their opponent’s level, and their opponent, eventually, will reactively straighten back up into their stance.

Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep strong posture against these attacks, and the defending wrestler may start to get a little lazier in their stance, standing taller, or straightening up momentarily to relieve the strain on their supporting muscles. When you add in level feints from the outside, it’s likely that the defending wrestler will have to play your game.

As we’ve seen in most double leg breakdowns, as your opponent rises back into their stance, that’s the best opportunity for a straight-on leg attack entry.

With these threats together, you have a system where you can be constantly snapping, working toward the goals of hitting go-behinds and your preferred straight leg attack. Another lovely byproduct of this snapdown pressure style is it fills your opponent with a sense of urgency - they need to produce their own offense to stop the attritional process. Those attacks are usually forced, and it opens up the opportunity for reattacks and counters.

Check out this match from Bo Nickal at the 2019 U23 World Championships to see this type of system in action.

Investing in a process is wrestling with a long-term plan in mind. Although Nickal trailed for the majority of the match, he was working toward his eventual goal of scoring clean with low leg attacks. In freestyle you can see just how important a clean attack can be - Nickal is able to transition directly into his leg lace and blow the match wide open.

Now, back to Sanderson and Cormier.

Cael Sanderson ankle picks Daniel Cormier

The two had met several times throughout the season. Sanderson began the series by dominating, with Cormier closing the gap each time. Now, in the post-season, Daniel Cormier was no sitting duck.

Although Sanderson applied heavy pressure with his collar ties right out of the gate, Cormier was game, matching his level changes and threatening with short offense and physical handfighting of his own. Cormier’s own snaps, while less consistent, were clearly powerful and a huge weapon for Sanderson to navigate.

Sanderson was a leech. He gets to his collar tie and hangs on the head, timing his snaps for his leg attack entries. You’re not seeing as many of the explosive snaps as you would from Bo Nickal, but it’s constant pressure. At the 184-pound class, that’s a highly effective tactic.

Outside of its attritional effects, that constant collar tie allows Sanderson to play with timing - his opponents have a harder time predicting when it’s just another pull, or if Sanderson is about to commit to an attack.

Cormier was also lulled into a false sense of security. Sanderson was gradually lowering their levels off the collar ties, putting himself in position to drop straight into the ankle pick off the head.

Sanderson resets to collar and wrist control, Cormier matches with his own collar and an over tie.

Holding the wrist does limit your opponent’s options, but it’s much easier to free up a wrist than to break free of a deep underhook or overhook. It’s a relatively “free” position.

Utilizing a broken rhythm, Sanderson plants and hits a slight level change while pulling on the head, waits a beat to see if Cormier matches, then rolls his wrist free and attacks the ankle on the left side.

The beauty of this entry is that if Cormier straightened up, the attack would still be there, and when he stayed put, Sanderson was even closer to his target.

Dropping to his knee on the ankle pick side, Sanderson completes the penetration shot by sliding his rear leg forward to drive in. This momentum is aided by the collar tie, which Sanderson uses to push off before attacking the free leg with that hand.

The great Dan Gable provided commentary over this match, and at one point he breaks down this style of ankle picking as a “new method” of scoring. Gable remarks that this marks a philosophical shift in creating motion and using the leg attack to cover up, rather than getting to the leg attack and working to move your opponent from there.

The key to Sanderson’s attack here is not that he’s pulling the ankle up toward him and collecting that leg, he’s using the ankle pick as a block, the motion of the entry itself and the drive thereafter is the real attack.