MMA and the Proper Blending of Styles Part 1

4 Nov

      Mixed martial arts has, in recent years, become a sport unto itself with competitors now coming on the scene with no prior experience in other combat sports leading to athletes who have trained exclusively in nothing but MMA. But this is still the exception, rather than the rule. The majority of highly ranked fighters continue to drift into MMA from other fighting arts like wrestling or muay Thai. Some of these fighters are already extremely skilled in their original style but, as we’ve seen, in modern MMA one needs a certain amount of versatility. No longer do we find someone skilled solely in a single aspect of the game, like groundfighting, able to dominate at the top level and win a UFC championship.
      That’s not to say a fighter has to be an expert in all facets of the game to win a major championship (though it can certainly help). A fighter like UFC heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos, though allegedly possessing a very good Brazilian jiu-jitsu ground game, has never really had to fight anyone on the ground through the course of his UFC career. Dos Santos’s combination of high caliber boxing skills and a very good wrestling defense to stop takedowns has allowed him to dominate virtually every opponent by remaining on his feet and pummeling them with punches. If he had never studied groundfighting, other than how to stand up quickly when taken down, he would likely have been just as successful up to this point in his career. This isn’t to say groundfighting has no importance or that Dos Santos might not have recourse to employ it at some future point. It’s merely a recognition that he has struck upon a winning formula that seems to work very well for someone of his skill set. He worked on building a solid wrestling takedown defense to complement his superlative boxing skills. If you fight Junior Dos Santos, he’s probably going to beat you on your feet but he’s also almost impossible to take down, which leaves you with little choice but to fight him on his feet.
      But unlike the UFC heavyweight champion, many fighters who come into the sport already owning a good skill set in one area of fighting fail to understand what other skills can complement and heighten their existing abilities in order to make them MMA champions. This is not that surprising since, traditionally, there is not that much cross over between serious combat sports. Boxers have little reason to mix with wrestlers or Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitors. Those other sports play no part in boxing so it would be a waste of time for boxers to train in them if their goal is to get good at boxing. The same could be said, to some degree, for the other sports. But that means when a boxer or wrestler or groundfighting expert transitions into MMA, he may have no idea what the key components of these other sports are or how they may subtly differ from each other, say in the way a boxer stands versus how a muay Thai fighter might stand. Each one, after all, is a striking style so on the surface they both may look pretty similar to a wrestler.
      However, for a wrestler going into MMA, there is a vast difference in how a boxer sets himself versus how a muay Thai kickboxer sets himself, just as there is a vast difference in what a wrestler does versus what a Brazilian jiu-jitsu stylist does, though both appear to be grappling styles. The key here is that certain styles complement and blend better with certain other styles. For example, boxing and wrestling can make a very potent combination whereas a kickboxing style like muay Thai, when combined with wrestling, can be problematical. Wrestlers are used to taking a wider, more solid stance while kickboxers tend to be more upright. Western style kickboxers will sometimes take a very sideways stance whereas muay Thai kickboxers will often keep all their weight upon their rear leg with very little weight on the front foot. Both of these positions would feel quite uncomfortable for the average wrestler. Too, raising the leg to throw a high kick would be something most wrestlers might find unusual or uncomfortable since it is so foreign to their original training. However, boxers do none of these things. While more upright than a wrestler, still the average boxing stance does not differ to such extremes from the average wrestling stance and a comfortable transition can often be made between the two without a great deal of difficulty. And boxers always keep both feet firmly on the ground concentrating on punches, rather than kicks, something that blends in much better with a wrestler’s style.
      For the boxer, wrestling seems the natural complement. Boxers probably come into MMA with the most limitations of any combat sport athlete having no experience in anything other than punching. For a boxer to start learning not just wrestling but kicks, muay Thai clinch work and a whole arsenal of groundfighting techniques might prove overwhelming. Instead, a boxer might want to concentrate on simply learning wrestling – or, more specifically, wrestling defense – to avoid getting taken down. If he is a high caliber boxer and can keep the fight on his feet, he’ll stand a good chance of winning.
      A muay Thai fighter, on the other hand, takes a more upright stance than a boxer as well as occasionally lifting his leg to throw kicks. Both of these automatically lessen their balance and will prove a hindrance in using wrestling to defend against takedowns. A high level muay Thai fighter will probably always be a little vulnerable to takedowns and, when they do get taken down, will often land on their back. Thus, rather than concentrating their efforts on studying wrestling, the muay Thai fighter may be better served in concentrating the majority of their training in perfecting a ground game, particularly methods of submitting someone from their back. Though this is no easy feat and can take years to develop, such a blending of styles can be tremendously effective. As an example, look no further than the greatest fighter in the history of MMA, Anderson Silva. Silva came into MMA as basically a muay Thai fighter and was submitted earlier in his career. But he worked diligently with top flight jiu-jitsu instructors and became an outstanding ground fighter, particularly from his back. This has left all his opponents with the unpleasant choice of getting battered by his world class stand up skills or going to the ground with him and risking submission.
      For the Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, particularly one who is comfortable fighting off his back, muay Thai often seems the logical compliment for MMA purposes. While they could potentially make boxing work for them, muay Thai is a more versatile and well rounded striking style and the dangers of being taken to the ground are not as much of a concern if they already have a good groundfighting game in place.
      But Brazilian jiu-jitsu is not the only groundfighting style out there, though some competitors coming into MMA often make the mistake of assuming it is the only path to success on the ground. Despite being a highly effective form of groundfighting, BJJ may not always compliment skilled wrestlers all that well. Few high level wrestlers ever get fully comfortable working off their backs in the BJJ guard position and even the most common top positions in BJJ, such as the mount and knee on the stomach, are not as common in wrestling. While many wrestlers, not understanding these distinctions, continue to train in BJJ to develop their groundfighting repertoire for MMA, a better alternative might be styles such as catch wrestling or sambo. Both of these styles seem to emphasize positions that skilled wrestlers might be more comfortable with, such as the side – or crossbody – position, the headlock position and positions where grapplers are grabbing each others legs attempting leg locks. Indeed, the leg locks found in catch wrestling or sambo would seem to blend perfectly with the skill set of a good freestyle wrestler adept in executing leg tackles and controlling his opponent’s legs upon taking him down.
      This is not to say a fighter going into MMA should be too narrow in his outlook and ignore those skills which don’t necessarily blend well with his existing skill set. But rather, they should build upon the base they have initially, working on things that compliment what they can do and then, gradually, adding more skills to broaden that base. Doing this, however, is often easier said than done, as I’ll discuss in my next post.

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