Case Study: The Best Wrestlers In MMA

Wrestling is arguably the most valuable skill in mixed martial arts.

Those who have mastered the art of the takedown can change the pace of the fight and take an opponent down to the mat. Likewise, exceptional takedown defense means that a fighter can keep the fight standing and continue to showcase his striking ability.

Without the ability to defend or execute takedowns, you are going to have a hard time controlling the contest.

Some of the very best mixed martial artists in the world come from extensive wrestling backgrounds. For example, Ben Askren heavily relied on his experience as a folkstyle wrestler to navigate his way to an undefeated career. Others might not have shaken the world as a wrestler, but managed to create, adapt, and evolve a systematic wrestling strategy that applies to mixed martial arts. Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones, and Khabib Nurmagomedov are all fantastic grapplers, but they wrestle in distinctive ways.

Today, Evolve Vacation will look at the best wrestlers in MMA and evaluate each of their particular traits and abilities.


Ben Askren

Let’s begin by saying that although Ben Askren ‘semi-retired,’ he still makes the list of best current MMA wrestlers because there are still talks about him competing in the future.

Regardless, he deserves praise as one of the most revolutionary wrestlers to have ever competed in MMA.

Many wrestlers enter major promotions and then begin to focus on their striking so that they can hang in there with the best of the best. For the most part, it works. Great wrestlers like Tyron Woodley and Cody Garbrandt do most of their work while standing. However, sometimes, these wrestlers find themselves drifting away from their primary competitive advantage (see Johny Hendricks).

Askren stuck to his strengths. He isn’t interested in standing upright and attempting to outstrike his opponent. Instead, his primary focus is on getting the fight to the mat.

Now, it is while the fight is on the mat where Askren does his best work. While many athletes will use their BJJ knowledge and experience to control their opponents, Askren differentiates from the pack in that he does not look to take these BJJ-focused positions. Instead, Askren uses wrestling positions and techniques to control his opponent and maintain a dominant position for opportunities to ground and pound.

For example, Askren is usually presented with opportunities to take the back, slide into full mount, or secure side control – all techniques which are rewarded in BJJ – yet he never takes these positions in MMA because they do not enable effective striking. So instead, Askren will use rides, wrist control, and mat returns to ensure he is in a position to smother his opponent with a relentless barrage of fists.

But even then, to get someone to the mat and start using his technical advantages he needs to execute the takedown. When it comes to MMA, Askren relies heavily on the double-leg takedown. This is vastly different from the techniques used in collegiate wrestling, and Askren suggests that the single leg is much more challenging in mixed martial arts because there is nothing to grip. While participating in the sport of wrestling, athletes wear shoes, and therefore the wrestlers can secure single leg takedowns because the foot does not slide out during the attempt.

If there is anything to learn from Ben Askren when it comes to wrestling in mixed martial arts is that you should focus on double-leg takedown attempts and practice rides, wrist control, and mat returns rather than focusing entirely on BJJ for MMA.


Tyron Woodley

Tyron Woodley does not do anything particularly revolutionary when it comes to wrestling in mixed martial arts, but he does the basics so very well.

How well? Let’s say that he defended all 24 takedowns from Demian Maia when they collided at UFC 214 in July 2017. Maia himself is quite a decent chain wrestler and usually strings attacks together to get someone down to the mat and submit them. When Maia met Woodley, though, he met a wrestler who strategically evaded all takedown attempts.

In particular, it was Woodley’s ability to defend against single leg takedowns that helped him secure a victory at UFC 214. As stated above, the single leg is not sufficient in MMA. Woodley repeatedly ‘limp legged’ out of the attack and removed his foot and leg from the grasp of Maia. When Maia swapped it up and attempted to secure a takedown in the middle of the Octagon, Woodley used his powerful hips to push forward and prevent Maia from shooting underneath him. Against the cage, Woodley also used the boundary to form a tripod and completely remove any possibility of a single leg takedown.

This, of course, was just one example of Woodley’s wrestling prowess.

What can we learn from Tyron Woodley’s wrestling? If you can master stopping the single leg takedown, it is all the more difficult for someone to get you to the mat. Also, being against the cage is not a disadvantage. Use it as an opportunity to improve your balance – just don’t let an opponent secure a body lock.


How are the best wrestlers in MMA so successful?

Let’s break down the techniques of these exceptional wrestlers.

When it comes to setting up takedowns, there is a multitude of ways to do so. Khabib Nurmagomedov and Johny Hendricks prioritize rushing their opponent back to the cage so that they can execute a takedown from there. They will back their opponent up by throwing all kinds of wild strikes, forcing them to retreat and stay out of danger. When they do, it is a perfect opportunity to secure the double leg takedown and begin controlling them.

Takedowns in the center of the cage are much more challenging, but many can do it well. In particular, Georges St-Pierre, Demian Maia, Jon Jones, and Daniel Cormier are just some who use a variety of techniques to take their opponent down while in space. GSP and Maia have similar strategies, actually. They will reach out with their jab and try to encourage their opponent to counter punch or react to the feint. If the opponent reaches out with his arm, it is an almost guaranteed takedown if you get in underneath the punch and shoot for the double leg. These two have mastered the timing and enjoy tremendous success with these techniques. However, many have worked out Maia’s game plan and now don’t react to the feints. Alternatively, if the opponent blocks high with their forearms, you can then shoot in for a double leg takedown as well. Askren also used this to great effect for his entire career.

When it comes to wrestling in MMA, it’s all about creating and managing a style that best works for you. Play to your strengths. Control the action by feinting and distracting your opponent. Master the ground techniques that Askren and Nurmagomedov have displayed.


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