To many observers, a strong wrestling game is the most important aspect of succeeding in mixed martial arts (MMA). In the modern age of the sport, there seems to be a growing level of evidence pointing towards this being more than just a platitude. So, is wrestling dominating the sport, or is it just a sign of the times?
When we look at the most successful fighters in MMA – according to their core disciplines – wrestlers have been enjoying considerable success over the past couple of years. Is this a recent phenomenon? Far from it. When we look at a high number of the champions of the major MMA promotions across the world, wrestlers do seem to be dominating. However, if we scratch the surface a little, we can get a better idea of what is truly at play.
The Majority Of Today’s UFC Champions Are Wrestlers
One of the first arguments for wrestling dominating MMA is the fact that most of the UFC’s champions are wrestlers. This certainly does pique the interest, especially for those with a desire to see wrestling declared the strongest discipline in MMA, but is this actually true?
Current UFC Mens Champions:
Heavyweight & Light Heavyweight Champion: Daniel Cormier
Middleweight Champion: Robert Whittaker
Welterweight Champion: Kamaru Usman
Lightweight Champion: Khabib Nurmagomedov
Featherweight Champion: Max Holloway
Bantamweight Champion: Henry Cejudo
Flyweight Champion: Henry Cejudo
The names above tend to work well with the opinion that wrestlers are currently bossing the UFC. All of the men above – other than Max Holloway – are known to have a strong wrestling game. Robert Whittaker, who started competing in amateur wrestling competitions and was set to represent Australia at the Commonwealth Games, had no experience of wrestling before his MMA career.
It is striking to see so many names of wrestlers on the list of UFC champions, but is this enough evidence that wrestlers are performing better than those without a wrestling base? Henry Cejudo is an elite wrestler and the most recently crowned male champion in the UFC.
Outside Of The UFC
Ben Askren, the unbeaten former ONE Championship and Bellator welterweight titleholder, is now officially on the UFC roster. While fighting at the two of the other big three of MMA promotions, Askren used his incredible wrestling ability to forge out a very successful career. In other words, he dominated all put before him and is seen as a fighter who could do the same in the UFC.
Askren is one of the biggest arguments in favor of wrestling in MMA being the most important discipline. “Funky” won the Dan Hodge trophy twice, is a four-time All-American at the University of Missouri, won the 2008 USA Senior Freestyle National Championship and has enough wrestling awards and achievements to prove a major point.
In ONE Championship, strikers certainly have the monopoly. In Bellator, wrestling is certainly not dominating either. Collegiate wrestler Ryan Bader has the light heavyweight and heavyweight crown and Ed Ruth looks as though his superior wrestling might see him join them as a title holder in the near future. The rest of the champions’ spots over at Scott Coker’s stable are far from occupied by wrestlers, however.
Is This The Age Of Wrestling In The UFC?
It appears that wrestlers in the UFC are certainly enjoying a spell of dominance, that is for sure. In 2016, however, things looked completely different. Just three years ago, the majority of UFC champions were strikers. There could have easily been many conversations to suggest that wrestling was not as important as it had once been, and no one would have batted an eyelid.
For perspective, let’s take a look at the champions in each of the men’s weight classes of the UFC, as of December 2016:
Heavyweight: Stipe Miocic
Light Heavyweight Champion: Daniel Cormier
Middleweight Champion: Michael Bisping
Welterweight Champion: Tyron Woodley
Lightweight Champion: Conor McGregor
Featherweight Champion: Jose Aldo
Bantamweight Champion: Dominick Cruz
Flyweight Champion: Demetrious Johnson
As you can see, Demetrious Johnson, Daniel Cormier, and Tyron Woodley were the only real wrestlers on the list. Miocic, who was a Division 1 collegiate wrestler, can arguably be discounted as we rarely see his wrestling play a part in his MMA game. Aldo, Cruz, McGregor, and Bisping were all primarily known for their striking abilities.
As we have seen in the past, one style can dominate at certain periods of time. Think back to the days when Georges St-Pierre, Randy Couture, and Matt Serra spent periods of time with the UFC gold around their waists. If anything, it seems that there is an abundance of strong wrestlers in the period, and their success can arguably come down to two important – but overlooked – circumstances.
Do MMA Rules Favor Wrestlers?
You may be wondering what those two important things are. One thing that is often overlooked is that American MMA fighters have the added benefit of competing in wrestling at school and college. In many other countries around the world, wrestling is non-existent. There are some who believe that the champions who have enjoyed great success in MMA have reaped the benefits of this, although this is purely speculative.
The second interesting point for wrestling being so important in MMA is that rules favor wrestlers. For example, many argue that rules regarding strikes to the back of the head, or for defending fighters who can’t hold the cage (yet wrestlers can push opponents against it), give them added advantages. Wrestlers who take fighters down – and do nothing but keep them down – are also criticized as they can win rounds this way.
So, Is Wrestling Dominating MMA?
Wrestlers are enjoying a period of success in the UFC, but this hasn’t been the first time that this has happened. However, if we look at ONE Championship – where most fighters come from Asia – wrestlers are being out-struck by strikers (pun intended). The Californian-based Bellator MMA is also not being dominated by wrestlers. Does this mean that wrestling is not important in MMA? Absolutely not. MMA wrestling is an integral part of the game.
As we saw in 2016, the majority of champions in the UFC were strikers. In the 25+ years of the UFC, these trends have happened a lot more than many think. This is a young sport, that is in a constant state of evolution, so there will be times when one discipline appears to hold the upper hand.