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Wrestling breakdown: How Gregor Gillespie outscrambled Carlos Diego Ferreira

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Solid positioning saw Gregor Gillespie outlast the dangerous grappler Carlos Diego Ferreira.

For fans in the know, Gregor Gillespie vs. Carlos Diego Ferreira was the most anticipated fight of the night in last weekend’s UFC Vegas 26 Fight Night event. Sometimes when two strong grapplers match-up, they prefer to keep the fight standing. But when the four-time All-American and one-time NCAA champion collided with a BJJ black belt, fans were treated to all the grappling they could handle.

There are a few central themes that allowed Gregor Gillespie to prevail over the dangerous and well-rounded veteran. For a more in-depth look at Gillespie’s wrestling background and the way he applies it in MMA, check out my breakdown on the subject. The first theme was arguably the most important - takedown entries. Gregor Gillespie was consistently able to initiate their grappling exchanges by hitting his head-inside single leg.

Anti-Wrestling vs. Defensive Wrestling

When it comes to avoiding being wrestled in MMA, positioning in the cage and strike selection can be just as, if not more important than the actual process of defending a takedown. Covering the space necessary to shoot on a fighter and take them down is very difficult, it’s obviously very different than a wrestling match. So, without the proper striking tools, a skilled wrestler can fail to take down and consistently control an opponent who is inferior, on paper.

The defending fighter can do a lot to mitigate their opponent’s wrestling threat. Their approach will change depending on the specifics of the wrestler’s style, but some consistent basic ideas are - using footwork to avoid getting put near the cage, using level intercepting strikes to punish potential takedown attempts, and using level changing strikes of their own to match their opponent and build in takedown defense to their striking. Gregor Gillespie has had most of his best wrestling moments near the cage, so that first point should have been a huge point of emphasis for Carlos Diego Ferreira.

However, instead Ferreira showed little urgency when it came to his positioning in the cage. Normally a committed pressure fighter, he showed Gillespie a ton of respect and gave him space when the wrestler chose to lead with his own strikes. This is a common mistake - fighters who want to avoid being wrestled sometimes feel that they have to avoid collisions altogether, and become hyperfocused on creating space between them. An excellent, recent example would be Justin Gaethje vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov. Despite doing well when they clinched up and when Nurmagomedov tried to get to his legs in the open, Gaethje frantically pushed for distance and lined himself up against the cage.

VIDEO CLIP: Gregor Gillespie repeatedly shoots on Carlos Diego Ferreira

This is a valid critique, but Gregor Gillespie showed tools that would have made it difficult to avoid wrestling with him no matter what. The “snatch” head-inside single is an amazing weapon being utilized by successful MMA wrestlers in the past like Chris Weidman, and in the present by welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. Not only are its mechanics similar to a body strike or committed rear hand strike up top, but it doesn’t require a full level change to the knees. It’s a very convenient takedown. Of course, the “post and limp leg” defense is perfect for getting out of these attempts, so fighters need to be urgent in building to a more stable position or using the shot to push their opponent to the cage.

Feeding the leg to his other hand and getting height with the leg, Gregor Gillespie immediately built toward his finishes every time he got in on that single. He typically looked to lift the leg high and trip out the base leg, the most common finish, but also showed off some more advanced looks like swimming to the seatbelt position and switching to a bodylock from rear-standing.

VIDEO CLIP: Gregor Gillespie’s shot finishes on Carlos Diego Ferreira

The fact that this shot was so easily accessible for Gillespie was a huge part of his success in this fight. His cardio system may not have been endless in a full-blown MMA fight, but when it comes to wrestling and scrambling - he could go all day. Thus, it didn’t matter how many times Carlos Diego Ferreira stopped his takedowns, he could just get right to the next attempt, repeating this process until Ferreira began to run out of steam.

Ferreira’s defensive wrestling looked decent - he knew the limp leg defense and generally did a good job building back up to his base. However, his anti-wrestling - his ability to stop those exchanges from occurring in the first place, was lacking. Not only that, Ferreira often jumped on counters, hunting for submissions and sweeps, rather than going through the process of takedown defense to kill the exchanges entirely. It was an attractive option, considering his grappling skill and pedigree, but ultimately a strategic mistake.

Let’s take a look at how Gregor Gillespie navigated those scrambles.

Stay High and Stay Moving

Carlos Diego Ferreira gave Gregor Gillespie some tricky looks, attempting to scramble through Gillespie’s shot finishes and either create space or attack submissions. Fortunately for Gillespie, many of these situations are very familiar for a wrestler who rides with legs in for folkstyle.

VIDEO CLIP: Gillespie survives CDF’s kneebar\funk roll

Early in the first round, Gillespie wrestled to rear-standing off his single leg finish. To avoid being planted and create motion off of Gillespie’s mat return, Ferreira rolled across his shoulders and underhooked the leg, something you might call a “funk roll” in wrestling. In this leg entanglement situation, Ferreira could both attack a submission and put Gillespie out of position to sweep or get up.

To stay stable, Gillespie maintained control of Ferreira’s hips with his left hand, and posted with his right hand. The post allowed him to retain height, which was extremely important in making sure his leg stayed bent. If he was knocked over to his hip, Ferreira would have room to straighten out the leg. As soon as Ferreira attempted to belly down and straighten the leg underneath himself, Gillespie used that additional space. He stepped behind the right side of Ferreira’s hips and stuck tight to Ferreira’s back, giving him the stability to continue to progress across to gain a more traditional back control position. Patience is one of Gillespie’s key, and more underrated attributes. It’s what prevents him from making any major mistakes, and pressures his opponents into taking risks themselves. He knows which positions require urgency, and which require more opportunistic timing.

Soon after, the two fighters engaged in a scramble that demonstrated the importance of urgency and constant positional improvements. With Gillespie hanging off to the side in rear-standing, balancing on one leg, Ferreira pulled Gillespie forward and stepped behind the base leg of Gillespie. He cut back to his right to force Gillespie’s hips to the mat and attempted to cover. In this situation, fighters on bottom typically turtle up and try to stand against the cage.

Gregor Gillespie Carlos Diego Ferreira scrambles
Every high school wrestling coach in the country was screaming, “Don’t reach back!”

Gillespie, however, fought to free his hips and get to front headlock. He swiveled his upper body to grip outside of the hips on his right side, and used his left hand to support his weight as he scooted himself out the open side. Sure enough, he freed his lower body and found the safe front headlock position. Part of this was that Ferreira made the mistake of reaching back for the head, instead of sticking to the legs and hips to flow through the position.

VIDEO CLIP: Gillespie survives the crucifix and omoplata attacks

As the exchanges piled up, Carlos Diego Ferreira became impatient and began to attack counters more often than he looked for traditional defense. Off of Gillespie’s single leg attempt against the cage, Ferreira went cross body over top and locked up the crucifix position across Gillespie’s back. This was another situation where constant motion was key - Gillespie continue to build to his base and force Ferreira to adjust, until he had the right opportunity to pull in the arm being controlled by Ferreira’s legs. Once he did, he was able to lock his hands and pull the legs to his chest and turn in, killing the position and covering the hips.

Gregor Gillespie Carlos Diego Ferreira scrambles
Another instance of CDF being over-eager.

The key detail that allowed this to occur was Ferreira opting to strike with his free hand rather than to continue to control the arms with the crucifix position until he was in a more stable place.

Ferreira did well to extent the exchange, immediately swiveling his hips and attacking an omoplata on Gillespie’s right shoulder. Gillespie looked to back-step over Ferreira’s body and get on the opposite side of the omoplata, but Ferreira did well to underhook the left leg and lock his hands through the crotch. Gillespie simply back-stepped again, back to the other side, prompting Ferreira to sit up into him. Through all of these exchanges, Gillespie made sure to be the man with the higher hips. Not only does this ensure lower body mobility, it gives that wrestler the opportunity to cover positions when they present themselves. As soon as Ferreira was unstable and balanced on his hip, Gillespie turned in to face him and planted him on his back with his free hand. Ferreria did well to sit up into him again and fish for a single, but Gillespie was able to whizzer and circle to stalemate the position.

In the second round, Ferreira was fading and looking to put Gillespie in serious danger to either finish him or dissuade him from continuing to grapple. Off of Gillespie’s single leg, he went for a high elbow guillotine as Gillespie shelved the leg and C-stepped away. Right away this put Gillespie outside of Ferreira’s guard, making the guillotine fairly ineffective.

VIDEO CLIP: Gillespie outhustles CDF and beats the Kimura-back-take attempt

As Gillespie looked to cover on top, Ferreira sat up and poked his head through the back door, a modification off the deep half guard position. Ferreira built to his knees and bumped Gillespie forward, knocking him off top position and off to the side. This was probably one of the most vulnerable positions Gillespie was in for the entire fight. He was sat on his butt, and his legs were straight. However, Ferreira hesitated before turning in, and that was all Gillespie needed. Pushing off his left hand post, Gillespie threw his right arm across to gain momentum and swiveled his hips over to the left. He didn’t completely sit through to his base, but it was enough to improve - he was now sitting up in more of a half guard situation, and he still had that left hand post. Now he could generate a little more force, he pushed off that post again and this time covered the outside of Ferreira’s hips with his right arms as he sat through, making it back to his knees. Ferreira looked to step behind to take the back but Gillespie moved first, circling away from the back take and attacking the single through the legs.

Gregor Gillespie Carlos Diego Ferreira scrambles
CDF didn’t have the instincts to make his adjustments quickly enough, for Gillespie it was all second nature.

This brings us to the kimura trap attempt. When Gillespie built up to his feet and worked the single against the cage, Ferreira established wrist control with his left hand and weaved over the arm with his right hand to lock up the kimura grip. Dropping to his butt, Ferreira yanked the kimura up and to his right, looking to sweep Gillespie. He continued to swim his hips toward Gillespie, looking to keep his body close to the kimura so he didn’t lose control. Once again Gillespie utilized the back-step across Ferreira’s body. The cage helped him out a ton, as he was able to use it to stop himself from rolling completely through and pushed off it with his feet to get back to his knees with his hips down.

Gillespie pushed off on the kimura grip as he regained his base, but Ferreira had already moved on to using the grip for a back take. He attempted to step across Gillespie’s back cross-body, but Gillespie caught the attacking foot and stepped up with his left leg, elevating his hips and making it more difficult for Ferreira to get his weight across. As Ferreira fell slightly forward, Gillespie let go of the foot and attacked the head of Ferreira, pulling it down as he turned into his guard. The decision making is logical and basic, but Gillespie’s timing is unreal.

In the final scramble of the fight, Ferreira made one last effort to get his granby going from Gillespie’s rear-standing position. Ferreira attempted to control the leg with an outside grip and sit up with it as he rolled through, but he was fairly inactive with the position and allowed Gillespie to hip down and cover after they landed. He went for that deep half position again later on, but Gillespie kept his posts and back-stepped to front headlock, hitting an effortless go-behind on the exhausted Ferreira.

Carlos Diego Ferreira had a lot of good ideas in this fight and seemed to have improved as a wrestler, but he was fighting a losing battle. However, it was incredibly entertaining and I’m glad he pursued this strategy! Hopefully both men will compete again before too long.