Wrestling. No, not the body slam, squared circle, rope to rope, finishing move, meathead extravaganza so popular with the basement dweller demographic. I’m talking that other wrestling. The kind you made fun of in high school. The singlet-wearing, weight-cutting good ole American high school (folk style) wrestling. For some unknown, unexplainable reason, wrestling is not seen as a martial art. Baffling.
For the unaware, there are three main types of wrestling. Folk style (or what we would consider hight school wrestling), Greco, and Freestyle are contested at the Olympic level. Greco Roman wrestling allows only throws and prohibits any leg attacks or ‘shots’. Folk style and freestyle allow all types of takedowns, with freestyle having a heavier emphasis on leg attacks.
Wrestling fits very neatly in the Mixed Martial Arts sphere – it’s the glue that holds ground fighting and striking together. Why? Well, if someone falls down because you hit them, you typically win the fight, but shy of that its kinda hard to get/keep someone on the ground without training. There are some good takedowns in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and some solid sweep techniques in Muay Thai, but they are really taught as ancillary parts of the art (this is kind of a sore spot for Jiu Jitsu; sure, its ground fighting, but come on, can we focus on how to GET someone there? Please? ) But in wrestling, takedowns are emphasized to the point that they are razor sharp, undeniable. If you ever stumble across a D1 wrestling meet online or on TV, take a few minutes and watch how fluidly they set each other up and subsequently take each other down. It’s poetry. Sure, a wrestler may not be able to hit a nice three punch combo, or nail that triangle from guard. They will, however, be able to hold you down until THEY decide to let you up.
Why though? What characteristics make wrestling so important for MMA?
It’s strange, I know, that first thing in the list is hips. You’ll hear it all the time across athletic activities, ‘quick hips, quick hips’ or ‘heavy hips, get heavy hips’. Wrestling is a sport based on constant explosive sequences of movement. Those series are all generated in the hips. This translates really well into any other MMA discipline. Being able to unconsciously shift your weight quickly makes arm bars much easier. Being able to blast your hips forward with no wind up makes punches much harder. The emphasis in wrestling is on explosive movement. All that explosion is localized in the center of the body. Learning that kind of control and power through years of drilling those explosions? To quote Shakira, your hips simply wont lie.
It’s simple, right? Take someone off their feet – no problem. First, I’ll ask them to stand still so I can do my best Ray Lewis impersonation and full out tackle them. In the event that doesn’t work, I’ll hit them with a brick. If you don’t have any wrestling background, either of those are equally probable. People are surprisingly hard to get off their feet, especially when they don’t want to be. It’s hard to get through hands and even rudimentary sprawls from determined people. Wrestling, specifically folk style, trains people from their first day how to neutralize an opponent’s defense and secure a takedown. There are an almost infinite number of variations on the two main takedowns, the double leg, and the single leg. There’s a blast double, a snatch single, an ankle pick, and a high crotch. They are all variations on a theme – pick a leg or both and use it in such a way that your opponent is no longer standing. There are a lot of nuances, but that’s the gist. There are as many throwing variations as there are leg attacks, single arm throws, body locks, head throws, etc. Wrestling’s initial goal is to get opponents to the ground. Wrestlers are very good at it, even the bad ones.
Getting taken down sucks. It’s a lot of work to get the hell back up after someone removes your legs out from underneath you. Due to the extreme suck factor of getting your butt dumped on the mat, wrestling focuses on takedown defense at the same time that it teaches takedowns. Wrestling teaches people how to maneuver their hips (shocking, right?) out of the way of an opponent’s shot, stuff their head, and move behind ‘em. Super simple in concept, very very very difficult in practice. Wrestlers make it look easy. The myriad of takedown defense tools are almost all used to first disengage the opponent, and, often with almost the same amount of emphasis, cause a lot of pain. Ever been crossfaced by someone any good at it? Like crossfaced so hard you’re pretty sure your face has permanently shifted six inches, or even felt your nose start breaking? Yeah, those suck, and that’s a wrestling fundamental. Getting taken down is awful, so wrestlers have gotten very very good at making sure it doesn’t happen often, and when it does, they’re back on their feet ASAP.
I know, it’s not a technique, it’s not a move. Unless you’ve been through a hard wrestling practice it seems unquantifiable. Let me attempt to describe to you what a wrestling match feels like. Try sprinting for six minutes while someone is trying to maim you. Wrestling is a fighting discipline unlike any other. There aren’t stalling calls in boxing or jiu jitsu. Wrestling requires constant attacks, it rewards relentless offense. There is not room for counter punching or wait and see strategies in wrestling. It’s all go, all the time, and it’s exhausting. Wrestling is the only sport I’ve ever seen that can quantify how much punishment a person can take mentally and physically. If you can push through a season full of red flag practices, rest assured, you may suck at a lot, but better tough and dumb than smart and soft.
I could go on forever about the benefits of wrestling. It fits into an MMA fighter’s tool box very neatly between striking and ground fighting. The emphasis on leg attacks and grueling conditioning forges a mental fortitude absent in most other combat sports. If there are two fighters with similar skill sets and one is a better wrestler? I’m putting my money on that guy.
In the next installment we will look at an often over looked piece of the puzzle. Boxing.