Why Wrestling Is So Important In MMA?


From the early beginnings of MMA to the present day, we’ve witnessed many styles dominating over the others in certain periods of time. Since the early 2000s, one style proved its consistency and has come to be the most dominant in recent years. Although Brazilian Jiu-jitsu could be considered the most effective style (especially during the 90s), wrestling stands for the most dominant martial arts in the modern history of MMA.

To prove our point, let’s take a closer look at the official UFC rankings. By analyzing every weight class, we may see the high caliber wrestlers at the top of every division. Almost all successful fighters have elite or some sort of wrestling background.

Heavyweight Division – Stipe Miocic (NCAA Division I), Daniel Cormier (2008 Olympic team member), Curtis Blaydes (NJCAA Wrestling) 
Light Heavyweight – Jon Jones (amateur wrestling), Daniel Cormier (2008 Olympic team member), Corey Anderson (NCAA Division III)
Middleweight – Yoel Romero (Olympic Silver medalist), Kelvin Gastelum (amateur wrestling), Derek Brunson (NCAA Division II)
Welterweight – Kamaru Usman (NCAA Division II), Colby Covington (NCAA Division I), Tyron Woodley (NCAA Division I)
Lightweight – Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson (NCWA Wrestling), Justin Gaethje (NCAA Division I) 
Featherweight – Alexander Volkanovski, Frankie Edgar (NCAA Division I), Zabit Magomedsharipov
Bantamweight – Henry Cejudo (2008 Olympic Gold medalist), Aljamain Sterling (NCAA Division III), Jimmie Rivera
Flyweight – Joseph Benavidez, Jussier Formiga

Wrestlers dominate MMA fighting. UFC top fighters listed above are all wrestlers. Wrestling can neutralize any type of styles by taking the fight to the ground. This fact makes wrestling skills very important in MMA.

Even the elite level strikers such as Conor McGregor or Israel Adesanya had to include this ancient skill to become who they are. If you’re only just beginning the martial arts career and feel confident your kickboxing could stop anything, guess what, soon you will find yourself flying across the octagon upside down, instantly realizing what part of MMA game you are missing. 

Wrestling domination didn’t come over the night. Many elite coaches had identified the potentials of completing the fast and effective transition from wrestling to MMA years ago. Today, training facilities such as American Top Team (ATT) and American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) are built on decorated wrestlers who are leading their teams through this new chapter of modern MMA. 

Intrigued by this trend, we’ve decided to conduct research on what makes wrestlers so special and successful. From the nature of the sport to the techniques and clever tricks that they are using to dominate the world of MMA, we’ve given our best to cover all the elements with this list.

10. Wrestling Enhances BJJ Skills

After transitioning to the MMA, one of the first styles that a wrestler learns is obviously Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. A decorated wrestler who knows how to properly apply submission moves is the scariest combination in modern-day MMA.

The massive advantage lays in the fact that wrestlers can advance to the mat easily and once there, secure any position necessary for submission. Many chokes and moves typically require certain positions on the mat and we perceived many Jiu-jitsu specialists struggling to get them. However, this a wrestler’s world and they can do this without the struggle. 

Any wrestler is exceptional in making fast transitions on the mat, constantly going around the guard and literally picking the position to jump in.

With this advantage, they can easily take the mount from which pulling submission like the Arm Triangle, Monoplata or Kimura is almost perfect. Also, side control proved to be very effective.

Although the position itself is hard to maintain, it enables the wrestler to quickly set up the armbar or go for the crucifix position and finish the fight with the ground and pound as Daniel Cormier did against Volkan Oezdemir.

9. Wrestlers Take BJJ Fighters Out Of Their Elements

What is the deepest fear of any grappler? Yes, being unable to advance on the mat! Although grapplers have decent takedown offense, they are primarily relying on Judo throws/trips and some elements of wrestling.

Logically, this is not enough to win the takedown battle and an enormous problem for every Jiu-Jitsu fighter. Furthermore, wrestlers are considerably stronger during the scrambles and are capable of securing a more prominent position against BJJ fighters.

Once out of their element, Jiu-jitsu fighters are hoping that pulling the submission off the back could save them from the punishment that follows shortly after.

8. Cardiovascular Endurance

Have you ever seen a wrestler with poor conditioning and endurance? We neither. Apart from the insane work ethic, the nature of the wrestling requires the usage of all core muscles in the body which burns up the oxygen faster.

Everything that a wrestler performs is explosive and requires a maximum energy output. Plus, you need to maintain this pace for the entire fight. To maximize endurance and conditioning, wrestlers are doing a lot of hard drilling of wretling moves to improve their endurance. Thus wrestlers are some of the most well conditioned athletes.

This grueling drilling enables them to recover faster and expand the gas tank which gives them a special advantage in MMA.  

7. Wrestler Dictate Where The Fight Takes Place

Every fight begins on the feet and not many fighters feel comfortable being anywhere else unless they are ground fighting specialists. Compared to the other fighting styles, a skilled wrestler can determine where the fight takes place by choosing to fight standup or choosing to go to the ground. This is why wrestling is so effective in MMA.

This astonishing fact naturally makes them highly unpredictable and gives the distinct advantage of neutralizing most of the styles. What’s more, constantly changing the place and position of the fight requires a tremendous amount of energy which typically goes in favor of wrestlers.

6. Wrestlers Get Dominant Position

Even if the wrestler doesn’t possess any specific Jiu-jitsu skills, he is naturally more capable of finishing on top after the scrambles. Once the wrestlers secure the top control, they are using many tricks to stay heavy on the opponents and make them work off their back.

For sure, one of the most popular techniques is to flatten the opponent and apply the shoulder pressure or stay active with the ground and pound. This naturally forces the opposition to start battling for a breath of fresh air, and immediately scrambling to find the way out.

Fighting off the back is extremely difficult and requires a lot of energy. Basically, with every move you make, you’re carrying the weight of the opponent. The pressure that Stipe Miocic had placed on Francis Ngannou at UFC 220 is the perfect example of this type of exhaustion.

5. Wrestlers’ Mental Toughness

If you’re wondering how the pure hell feels like, go to a single wrestling training session. Perhaps, wrestling is the most hardcore martial arts! From the early beginnings, wrestlers are programmed to give it all and always push beyond their capabilities, not just during the official competition, but on the training sessions also.

Wrestlers who had gone through amateur wrestling are some of the toughest people you ever met. This Spartan approach helped them to build unique toughness and give the mental edge to dig deep in the most crucial moments during the fight. 

Succeeding at the world wrestling stage is much harder than becoming the UFC Champion, as the Flyweight and Bantamweight Champion, Henry Cejudo once confirmed:

I hope nobody takes offense to this, but I think (wrestling is) a lot tougher than MMA

UFC Fighter Henry Cejudo

Furthermore, due to insane work ethics, wrestlers are capable of transitioning to MMA faster and adopt other martial arts. Just look at the kickboxing of Daniel Cormier, Muay Thai of Jon Jones and boxing of Tyron Woodley

4. Clinching Against The Cage

Wrestlers are capable of neutralizing any striker’s game with the clinch.  Due to the fact that clinching against the cage could neutralize any other style, we’ve made a decision to put this specific technique separately on this list. 

Many fighters look at the cage as something to stay away from defensively and unload with the strikes or shoot for a takedown offensively. In one of his many interviews, Ben Askren had acknowledged that many fighters are using the cage wrong, and stated: 

“What I think about the cage, is that it is like a third leg. People who are smart use the cage defensively to make it really easy to not get taken down”

Ben Asken

For example, some fighters are feeling comfortable defending the single-leg takedowns with the back against the fence. Experienced wrestlers like Tyron Woodley would willingly let you grab the single leg and enjoy watching his rivals wasting a lot of energy. 

However, for some fighters like Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington, using the fence offensively is bread and butter! They’ve made the careers out of it. Clinching against the cage is the most effective mixed with the Muay Thai or dirty boxing techniques.

Wrestlers are capable of controlling the rivals with underhooks and body locks, constantly forcing the opposition to carry their weight, which is exhausting.

What typically happens when wrestlers possess great boxing skills is best seen in a fight between Daniel Cormier and Frank Mir. A pure fight between wrestler vs. BJJ master. Cormier implemented his exceptional wrestling to limit Mir’s movement, put him against the cage and grind with vicious body-head combinations.

3. Scoring Favors Wrestling In MMA Fights

Considering that we’re focused on why wrestling is the most dominant martial arts, it’s interesting to point out that the wrestling domination already begins before the fight! It’s a bit confusing how this is a myth among the general public, while it is actually factual! 

The MMA scoring system is not perfect by any means and a couple of rules can trigger a lot of debates. One of those rules is that takedowns are scored almost like knockdowns on judges’ cards. In the eyes of the judges, getting the takedown and securing the position is always in favor over the other aspects.

We’ve all seen the following scenario many times: A striker dominates the wrestler on the feet, picking him apart with the vicious combos. Suddenly, in the last 30 seconds, wrestler scores the takedown and stays on top till the end and wins the round on judges score cars.

This is the main source of those MMA “robberies” which force the hardcore fans to lose their minds. 

2. Wrestlers’ Psychological Advantage

Along with the elite skills, wrestler is bringing two very important psychological factors inside the cage: Fear of being taken down and Desperation

During the standup, most wrestlers are relying on the boxing offense which makes them more unpredictable while setting up their entries on a single/double leg. On many occasions, we have seen a wrestler enjoying a lot of success trading punches in the center against a high-level boxer or kickboxer.

How is that possible? The answer is FEAR. The opponent is constantly wondering and thinking if a wrestler will shoot for a takedown and when. This constant anticipation and worrying instantly throw off the opponent’s game plan and skillset off the cliff. If your mind is occupied about the wrestler’s next move, you’re naturally playing their game

Due to the constant fear of being taken down, many fighters are intentionally dropping their hands low, preparing to defend the takedown. We all remember McGregor doing this against Nurmagomedov.

Wrestlers have figured out to capitalize on this tendency by faking the takedown and coming with the looping punches over the top and that’s exactly how Nurmagomedov had scored the famous knockdown. 

When fears finally come true, the second factor kicks in: DESPERATION 

Wrestlers are known as physically strong and their gas tank is huge. That said, they are absolutely enjoying slamming the rivals over and over again, dragging them all across the octagon and demolishing from the top position.

While wrestlers could do this all night, the opponent has just a couple of minutes before getting exhausted. Some wrestlers are actually allowing their opponents to get back on feet just to slam them once again. As mentioned above, fighting your way up and getting there requires a lot of energy.

1. Wrestlers Can Neutralize Any High-Level Strikers

This is something that has marked the last couple of years. Wrestling in MMA is all about the timing, and the strikers recognize this! That’s why it’s very risky for the vicious Muay Thai striker to throw those powerful leg kicks and flying knees without thinking about consequences.

If wrestler could time and catch just a single kick or duck under a single punch, the striker is in all sorts of problems and probably already flying.

In many cases, the wrestlers who are facing heavy-handed rivals prefer initiating the clinch as early as they could. By forcing their powerful strikers against the cage, wrestlers can apply tremendous pressure which will slowly take the power out of the muscles.

The UFC Welterweight fighter, Kamaru Usman is the true master of this technique and the best examples of the effectiveness are his fights against Tyron Woodley and Raphael Dos Anjos.

Final Thought

Wrestling is a special sport and wrestlers are unique types of athletes. Yes, they are enjoying a lot of advantages in MMA but it all came through enormous sacrifice, dedication, and hard work. Mixed martial arts is still evolving and learning, so we couldn’t be exactly sure which martial arts is the best.

At the end of the day, every background is good as long as you are prepared to give it all and be ready to learn new techniques. The beautiful thing about this sport is that it doesn’t allow holes in anyone’s game, and the only successful style is a well-rounded style!

Clay E

Clay E is a MMA/Muay Thai practitioner who was a collegiate wrestler at James Madison University.

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