Mixed Martial Arts — also known as MMA — combines multiple fighting disciplines. Originally it was created to pit different styles against one another to determine which one prevails. It’s also no secret to MMA fans that those who transition from wrestling to MMA tend to experience tremendous success. So, why are wrestlers so good at MMA?
Wrestlers are so good at MMA because the rules and judging criteria favor their offensive grappling approach. Wrestlers decide whether a fight remains standing or goes to the ground, and it adapts well to all styles. Wrestlers also come from very competitive backgrounds and are great at weight cuts.
This article will cover everything you need to know about wrestlers and MMA. I’ll discuss why wrestlers tend to be so good at MMA, the potential cons of relying on your wrestling foundation, and other martial arts forms that compliment a wrestler’s skillset.
Factors That Make Wrestlers Good at MMA
MMA is a sport that’s evolved immensely over the past 30 plus years. Along with this natural evolution, several disciplines have enjoyed their place at the “top.”
In the very first UFC event, the legendary Royce Gracie shocked the world by defeating men far larger and physically stronger than himself to become the champion. He did this by using Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a ground-based grappling system that few had ever seen before.
However, those entering the MMA world were soon experts in other disciplines; mastering one approach no longer guaranteed success. Fast forward to the current era — wrestlers have come to dominate the MMA arena.
Looking through the list of the current top-ranked Mixed Martial Artists in the world will attest to this fact. Most have NCAA wrestling backgrounds and accolades, and some even hold Olympic and Pan-American titles.
So, what is it that makes wrestlers nearly unstoppable in MMA?
The Rules of MMA Are Advantageous for Wrestlers
For starters, the rules of MMA heavily favor wrestlers. This perk isn’t by design, but it just so happens that MMA rules perfectly mesh with a wrestling strategy.MMA matches can be fought and won in several ways. For example, MMA fights can end with a knockout or technical knockout, submission, or judging decision.
Because of their ability to take their opponent down and keep them there, wrestlers can dominate the match and secure a decision on the judge’s scorecards fairly easily.
One such case is the legendary MMA champion, Georges St Pierre. Early in his career, GSP displayed impressive striking skills with a karate style, but as he progressed, he found that he could instead take his opponents down and control them. This was a much safer strategy, as he could avoid taking damage from punches and kicks and retain more control over the fight.
Wrestlers exhaust their opponents and break their will through a constant onslaught of overwhelming control. Judges look favorably on wrestlers because wrestlers are almost always in positions of dominance during the fight.
In the more current era think about the dominance of wrestlers like Khabib Nurmagomedov. He has dominated his competition because of his relentless ability to control and smash ( or smesh as he calls it) his opponents. He is able to do this because of his world-class wrestling and grappling skills.
Note: Wrestling also scores quite a bit of points in MMA competitions. Takedowns, ground control, and strikes from an advantageous position grant points which ultimately determine the winner of the fight. Since wrestlers are used to taking people down and controlling the fight on the ground, they’re more likely to score points.
The Versatility of Wrestling Makes Them Good At MMA
The next reason why wrestling is so effective in MMA is its universal applicability and versatility.
Other forms of martial arts have to consider their opponent’s style and discipline and how these two might mesh together. An example of this is a boxer taking on a Muay-Thai fighter. The boxer will likely want to stay outside and avoid the clinch, whereas the Muay-Thai specialist will aim to get inside and land knees and elbows at close range.
Wrestlers differ in this regard because, for the most part, they’re much less concerned with what their opponent brings to the table stylistically. Wrestlers are neutralizers. Whatever you want to do, their job is to smother you and stop you.
Of course, a wrestler will have to be careful when fighting someone very good at throwing up submissions off their back, but overall the wrestler’s game plan remains the same.
You can almost say that a wrestler transcends the whole game of stylistic matchmaking and simply stops their opponent’s offense in its tracks.
When an MMA fight goes to the ground with other fighting styles, such as Jiu-Jitsu, they’re not in as much danger as someone who prefers stand-up fights. If a Jiu-Jitsu specialist grapples with a boxer, they’ll almost always win the bout.
However, wrestlers will have a fair chance against any combat style on the ground once they learn how to avoid putting themselves into vulnerable positions.
Wrestlers Get To Control Where The Fight Goes
This sort of plays back into the first point about the rules of MMA being tailor-made for wrestlers, but there’s also another way to look at it. Wrestlers determine where the fight takes place. This is probably the biggest reason wrestlers are so good at MMA.
If a wrestler decides they want the fight to remain standing on their feet, they can simply block any grappling attempts made by their opponent and force the fight to be a striking affair. If they decide that they want the fight to take place on the ground, they can take it there.
A wrestler can essentially decide which type of fight is fought. On the other hand, many fighting styles prefer to stay standing. If a wrestler senses their opponent is uncomfortable on the ground, they can take them down and control the whole fight.
On the other hand, if a wrestler is fighting a world-class BJJ expert who has poor stand-up, the wrestler can decide to keep the fight standing. After all, the jiu-jitsu fighter can execute his game plan if the fight does not go to the ground. Since wrestlers are better takedown artists the jiu-jitsu fighter is going to have a very hard time getting the wrestler to the ground.
Again, complete control can win the fight via the judges’ scoring cards. Even if the wrestler doesn’t submit, TKO, or KO the opponent, they can win based on pure domination. Wrestlers are often much stronger on the ground, allowing them to easily navigate the fight and influence their opponents.
One example again is Khabib Nurmagomedov. He’s a former wrestler for the UFC who dominated the Lightweight division for many years through ground-and-pound. According to Sport’s Manor, Khabib’s wrestling skills and unparalleled ground control have made it so he’s never bled in the octagon.
Wrestlers Are Good At MMA Because of Thier Competitive Background
Wrestling is an incredibly competitive sport, even at the high school level. Wrestler’s training routines are so grueling that and competitive which makes the transition into MMA much easier. After all, they have already been conditioning for competition for many years.
Wrestling training forces athletes to lift weights, run sprints/hills, repeat technical drills, perform constant conditioning and strength training, and push their bodies and minds to the limit.
In wrestling, you don’t have a moment to relax. It’s constantly offensive, as opposed to Jiu-Jitsu or judo, which can take on a more defensive style (counters are the name of the game). Wrestlers, on the other hand, never leave the offense.
Their opponents can seldom get a second to breathe; they pursue dominance from start to finish. Wrestlers use their hardened cardio and calloused determination to overwhelm their opponents in MMA. Whether it takes one round or five, a top-notch wrestler is always a formidable opponent.
By the time a wrestler has reached the NCAA level, their mindset is so tough, and their aggressiveness so honed that it’s almost impossible to present a challenge to them.
Wrestlers Are Already Good At Weight-Cutting
Weight-cutting is a practice where athletes shed bodyweight quickly to qualify for lower weight classes. Then, they quickly put the weight back on before the contest to gain a size advantage over their opponent.
This has become more and more of a factor in MMA success. Many of the top MMA competitors in the world cut incredible amounts of weight before a competition, and by fight time, they often tower over their opponents. A person who fights at 170 pounds (77.11 kg) can rehydrate and bulk up to 185 pounds (83.91 kg) on the night of the fight.
This practice is also very common in wrestling. This is yet another reason why wrestlers are so good in MMA. Their background in weight-cutting leaves them feeling energized and ready to fight where other disciplines might feel weak. Every pound counts when a wrestler’s sole intention is to handle their opponent however they see fit.
Many of these fighters have been cutting weight since they were in a high-school wrestling program. So naturally, they are used to cutting weight and have become quite good at it by the time they start MMA.
The Cons of Wrestling in MMA
While there are no cons to being good at wrestling for MMA, there can be some cons for only being good at wrestling for MMA. Even if you are a great wrestler you will still need to adopt some other styles into your game. If you don’t learn jiu-jitsu then you will likely make the mistake of taking someone down only to call straight into a guillotine choke.
It’s no secret what a wrestler wants to do in the fight. When the opening bell sounds, a wrestler will come forward, close the distance, and put you on your back. It’s not so much a matter of what they’re trying to do, but more like they’re daring you to stop them.
As a match goes on, this approach may become predictable, and the opponent may adjust and come up with ways to time and counter the inevitable takedown attempt. If the wrestler becomes too easy to read, they may find themselves met with a knee or an uppercut on the way in.
Wrestlers also have the burden of having to aggress. They don’t typically have the luxury of playing the counter-fighting game. In today’s world, wrestlers still dominate MMA, however, all of them have had to incorporate the skills of striking and submissions to stay at the top of the game.
In other words, an Olympic gold medalist wrestler can’t just jump into the octagon and start dominating. You can be a specialist in wrestling but you will need to learn striking and other forms of grappling as well.
How To Defeat a Wrestler in MMA
While a wrestling base is arguably the best style in MMA, it’s by no means unbeatable. Many current and former champions have relied on a striking background and successfully dismantled world-class wrestlers.
However, always keep in mind that the fight is the wrestler’s fight to lose. In other words, the wrestler wins by default unless you present them with a counter-strategy.
If you’re planning to fight a wrestler in an MMA match, here’s how to defeat them:
If your game plan is to remain standing and use striking techniques to win the fight, it’s on you to avoid being taken down.
One of the most common strategies strikers use to defeat wrestlers is sometimes referred to as the “sprawl and brawl” method. Sprawl and brawl mean that you focus all of your efforts on becoming good at blocking takedowns so that you can stay on your feet and land strikes.
However, this is easier said than done, as having a good sprawl already assumes you’re good on the defensive. This is sometimes also referred to as “wrestling in reverse.” A striker without a good sprawl will always be vulnerable to takedowns when pitted against a wrestler.
Range and Distance
Another way to defeat a wrestler is to be hyper-aware of range and distance. Footwork drills will teach you how to evade a wrestler’s shot and takedown attempts quickly. You won’t want to get too close to a wrestler unless you’re ready and prepared to deliver an effective strike.
While wrestlers dictate whether the fight stays standing or goes to the ground, you can get one over on them by dictating the range and keeping them away from you.
BJJ Proficiency When Fighting Off Your Back
This last point is one for the realists. Regardless of how explosive your sprawl is, the reality is that if you’re going up against a skilled wrestler, you’ll likely be on your back at some point. This is when your will to win will truly be put to the test.
There are only three options when you get put on your back by a wrestler:
- Get back up
- Find a way to lock in a choke or submission hold
- Lay there and succumb to your defeat
Since losing should never be an option, you need to learn how to become aggressive from your back. Wrestlers are trained to stay very close when on top, so you have to learn how to create space and opportunities.
BJJ fighters with a very active guard may embrace being on the bottom, as it’s possible to still threaten with attacks off your back if you have the know-how.
As you prepare for the bout, spend a lot of time drilling sweeps and submissions off your back.
Disciplines That Compliment a Wrestler’s Arsenal In MMA
Even though wrestling is a great base in MMA, it’s not enough to rely on wrestling alone. Athletes in the sport today have evolved to be competent in almost every discipline. They may just specialize in one more than the others.
For example, even the best wrestlers in MMA know the fundamentals of boxing, and even the greatest Jiu-Jitsu practitioners know how to fight in the clinch.
There have been many instances of wrestlers transitioning to MMA but failing because they were so hyper-specialized in wrestling that they never became efficient at the other elements of MMA. It is called mixed martial arts after all.
The key here is to build a well-rounded skill set. Wrestling in MMA is primarily known for its takedowns and ground and pound, whereas much of MMA takes place standing. If a wrestler wants a fighter’s chance in the ring or octagon, they have to hone their stand-up game.
This leads us to the question: what are the best disciplines to complement a wrestler’s skill set when transitioning to MMA?
Dirty boxing is a boxing technique where a fighter closes the distance and boxes at a close range. Wrestlers in MMA have historically done extremely well with dirty boxing because it allows them to apply their wrestling intuition to the striking department very nicely.
When dirty boxing, the aggressor will use one hand on the back of their opponent’s head for control while keeping the other hand free to deliver uppercuts, body punches, hooks, and elbows.
Examples of former UFC champions who were successful using dirty boxing are Daniel Cormier (NCAA D1), Randy Couture (NCAA D1 and Olympic alternate), and Brock Lesnar (NCAA D1 champion).
The great thing about dirty boxing is that you can do it while pressing your opponents back against the cage/ropes to gain even more control and leverage.
If you’re unfamiliar with dirty boxing and wish to learn more about it, see this article by Evolve MMA on the science behind it.
If you’re looking for resources on transitioning from wrestling to MMA, I recommend Randy Couture’s book, Wrestling For Fighting: The Natural Way. In it, you’ll find the best tips and tricks for wrestling in MMA from one of the greatest Hall of Famers in history.
Note: Some wrestlers incorporate muay thai into their training routine because it lets them get close to their opponents. Muay thai makes use of elbows and knees to wreak havoc on nearby combatants. Since wrestling is always up close and personal, these fighters will find it easy to toss a couple of damaging elbows at other fighters.
BJJ and Catch Wrestling
Hey if you are already great at taking people to the ground then why not learn how to be a world-class submission specialist as well. Grappling styles such as BJJ and Catch wrestling are loaded with submissions that a wrestler can use to their advantage.
Though you are probably familiar with BJJ you might not be as familiar with catch wrestling. Catch wrestling is what most of the popular wrestling styles today such as folkstyle and freestyle wrestling are based on.
Unlike these styles, however, catch wrestling is loaded with submissions such as neck cranks and leg locks. Believe it or not two of the most popular wrestling styles today evolved from a style with submissions.
However, to make wrestling a more accepted sport they removed the submissions and added a points system to make it safer and more accepted by the public. After all many parents would want their kids doing neck cranks at school.
A great example of a catch wrestler in MMA would be Josh Barnett. He used his wrestling and submissions to become a UFC champion. A great resource to learn more about catch wrestling would be Scientificwrestling.com.
Now, you should have a pretty good idea about the following:
- Why wrestlers are so good at MMA.
- Wrestlers dominate the sport of MMA, and it is no coincidence.
- The judging criteria favor offense and control, and therefore wrestlers are always looked upon favorably by the judges.
- Wrestlers are also very good at cutting weight for competitions, so they usually possess a size advantage over their opponents.
- Wrestling is versatile and meshes well against any style.
- Wrestlers also have the luxury of determining whether the fight stays standing or goes to the ground.