Wrestling: The Perfect Base for a Mixed Martial Artist?

Brandon KesslerCorrespondent INovember 16, 2010


The UFC originally started as a tournament to determine, of all the fighting styles in the world, which was most effective. To do this, the tournament consisted of masters of different fighting styles and matched them against each other.

UFC 1 included Kickboxers, Wrestlers, Jiu Jitsu specialists and even a Sumo Wrestler (who didn’t seem to have a good experience).

Jiu Jitsu appeared to be the dominant style with a young and undersized Royce Gracie crowned champion in three of the first four UFC tournaments before leaving for greener pastures.

Since the reign of Royce, MMA evolved into a sport in which the only way to obtain success is through being a complete and well-rounded fighter.

Although historically, jiu jitsu has proven itself to be the most effective fighting style, that doesn’t necessarily make it the best style for the new world of mixed martial arts. So if not jiu jitsu, which style is the best?

Wrestling has proven itself time and again in this era of American MMA, that it is the perfect base for a future champion. Just take a look at the legends of the sport.

Of the eight UFC Hall of Fame inductees, six are world-class wrestlers. Shamrock, Dan Severn, Couture, Mark Coleman, Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes were all elite wrestlers.

The other two members of the Hall of Fame are Royce Gracie and Mask (not a fighter).

So, of the fighters inducted to the Hall of Fame, only one was not a wrestler. Also, three of the five current champions are wrestlers (Velasquez, GSP, Edgar).

Besides that, the majority of contenders and rising stars are wrestlers including the likes of Shane Carwin, Brock Lesnar, Gray Maynard, Chael Sonnen, Jon Jones and John Fitch to name a few (believe me, the list can go on forever).


Success Story

To begin this argument, let’s first look at Brock Lesnar. Here is a guy who entered into MMA with no background in martial arts besides wrestling. He began training for mixed martial arts at the age of 30 and exploded onto the scene by storm.

Although losing in his second MMA bout to Frank Mir, a top ranked heavyweight, Lesnar showed his dominance in the rematch, not to mention victories over the likes of Randy Couture (UFC legend), Heath Herring and Shane Carwin.

Now let us compare him to the likes of James Toney. Both of these men were the best of the best in their respective sports. Lesnar dominated collegiate wrestling as a two-time NCAA All-American while James Toney conquered boxing winning multiple titles in different weight divisions.

Both of these fighters made two very different impacts on the sport. Although both burst onto the scene with lots of noise and speculation, only one of these fighters followed through.

The wrestler succeeded and eventually became the champion and arguably No. 1 heavyweight in the world while the other, well... you know.

Interestingly enough, Randy Couture fought both of these men as pretty fresh-faced mixed martial artists and experienced much different results with the two.

After losing to the wrestler (Lesnar), he completely manhandled the boxer (Toney). Not to mention, Couture is a wrestler himself, and we all saw what his wrestling ability did to Toney’s boxing.

Which style appears to be more successful, boxing or wrestling? Granted it was Toney’s first fight in the cage and it was against a legend of the sport.

Maybe if it was his fourth fight, like Lesnar’s, the result would have been different. Doubtful, but only time will tell.



But why is it that wrestling has proven itself to be so effective? To put it simply, control and positioning. Wrestlers maintain the ability to control where any fight takes place.

Some wrestlers, such as Gray Maynard and Chael Sonnen, use their wrestling ability to take opponents down and control them on the mat. Other fighters, including Chuck Liddell, use their wrestling pedigree to prevent opponents from taking them down forcing the fight to take place on the feet.

This allowed Chuck to be extremely successful against such great wrestlers as Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture, who are not as gifted in the striking game.

Controlling if a fight takes place standing up or on the ground is half the battle and wrestlers definitely have the upper hand in that aspect of the sport.


The Experts Agree

Bas Rutten openly stated that wrestling is the best place to start for grooming an MMA fighter. Why should we listen to Bas? For one, Bas is a true legend of the sport.

He is an extremely well respected member of the MMA community, won titles in both Pancrase and UFC and is an active martial arts coach and MMA commentator. It’s pretty safe to say that he knows what he’s talking about.

Also, Bas is a kickboxer. Fighters usually defend their preferred style of fighting. If a man known for his kickboxing, and amazing boots, openly admits that his style of fighting is inferior to another, it is probably true.

Not to mention, Bas is Dutch. If anyone with any affiliation to the Netherlands states that wrestling is more effective than their beloved striking, then it must be true.


Does America Favor Wrestling?

The octagonal and hexagonal rings we now see in modern day MMA were not so common before the UFC; in fact they were nonexistent.

In the days of PRIDE, square rings were utilized with ropes enclosing them, similar to those found in boxing.

The UFC implemented a different kind of fighting stage, or cage for that matter (known as “The Octagon”), that is now being utilized throughout most major MMA affiliations including Strikeforce and Dream.

Having the option of leaning on opponents against the cage allows a huge advantage for wrestlers. It gives them new options for taking opponents down that were not offered from rings.

Besides that, while on the ground, it allows wrestlers to lean their opponents into the fence, limiting their movement. This prevents jiu jitsu specialists from maneuvering freely and giving wrestlers a huge advantage.

One particular recent occurrence of this strategy being utilized to perfection was in the match between Gilbert Melendez v. Shinya Aoki (jiu jitsu specialist) at Strikeforce: Nashville.

Melendez utilized wrestling perfectly in smashing Aoki against the cage continuously whenever the fight reached the ground, single-handedly preventing Aoki any shot at submitting the champion.

Could the outcome of the fight have been different in a ring? Maybe, but I doubt it.

What can be certain is that Melendez would have needed a completely different strategy going into that fight.

Also, American rules favor wrestling. Without being able to knee/kick downed opponents to the head, wrestlers can continuously shoot for takedowns without suffering any consequences besides maybe an off-balanced punch or two to the head.

Although I disagree with this rule, along with many other UFC rules, it is utilized in America and definitely ensures safety to wrestlers, allowing them to carelessly and sloppily shoot for takedowns without any repercussions.

Another American rule favoring wrestlers is that massive amounts of points are given to fighters for successful takedowns. This gives another huge advantage to wrestlers since taking opposition down is their specialty.

In contrast, Japanese point systems do not give points to fighters for takedowns, but instead, give points to fighters for what they do with their positional advantage from the takedown.

They do however give points for effective slams that actually cause damage. This appears to be a more fair way of going about scoring points.

Too many times have I seen extremely tight rounds, tough to pick a winner, when right before the bell one fighter shoots for a double-leg and wins the round because of the takedown. The takedown led to nothing as far as damaging the opponent, so why score points?

One possibility of fixing the point system in the UFC, would be to either reduce the amount of emphasis given to takedowns or increase the points given for “stuffing” takedowns or getting back to feet after a takedown.

This would not only help level out the playing field, but would in one fell swoop eliminate the increasingly common “lay and pray” tactic. Until a change is made, the point system in America favors wrestlers tremendously.



Although initially, jiu jitsu reigned supreme as the ultimate fighting style, wrestling has paved the way of modern mixed martial arts and really made it what it is today.

Regardless of any kind of favoritism shown to wrestling in America, it is still the most important style for any mixed martial artist. Controlling where a fight takes place allows for fighters to effectively implement any game plan they choose.

That said, it’s hard to dispute that if you want to be successful in this sport, start by learning how to wrestle.


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