It is no secret, the elite of the cage fighting community tends to be riddled with world beating folkstyle and greco-roman wrestlers converted into fighters. As of February 2014, five out of the seven male UFC titles are held by former NCAA D-1 wrestlers. So what is it that makes this martial sport so effective among UFC fighters.
Wrestling is the Art of Control: At wrestling’s most basic level, it is, in essence, the art of controlling your opponent. In Mixed Martial Arts, wrestlers are effective because the superior wrestler has the privilege of deciding where the fight goes. Perhaps the wrestler knows his opponent is a jiu jitsu master, he might decide to do what Cain Velasquez did against Junior Dos Santos by putting his opponents back against the cage while working elbows. But what if the wrestler is going up a devastating striker? The wrestler can then decide to take his opponent down like Chris Weidman did against Anderson Silva, twice. The point is, that the better wrestler can dictate the storyline of the fight and decide whether the fight is going to be a jiu jitsu match, a muay thai kickboxing match, or anything in between.
It is Hard to Replicate the Intensity of a High School Wrestling Team in MMA: Let’s face it, you’re busy. Even if you are something of a gym rat, you’ve probably got a full-time job and limited time to develop your MMA skills. Folkstyle wrestlers didn’t have this problem. A high school wrestling room, is typically a room full of competing egos, where no one has a full time job so instead they devote all their time to being the best. For some that means the beating the best in their weight class to make varsity, for others to captain their team, win state, national or Olympic titles. The more the wrestler succeeds, the further and faster he goes. The same is not necessarily true amongst martial artists, in particular those who picked it up as an adult.
Wrestling coaches famously drive their athletes into the ground through hours of wrestling and aerobic/plyometric conditioning. MMA gym owners often don’t drive their athletes quite as hard, as this type of push is often bad for business.
This type of high intensity, top caliber, highly competitive environment is hard to replicate in an MMA gym, and for most gym owners, bad for business. Most MMA gyms are sprinkled with a couple experts spread thin amongst the beginners. The gym crowd are businessman, fathers, lawyers, foremen, police officers and everything in between.
Wrestling Resembles Fighting: I tell everyone who asks, “I saw blood more often in high school wrestling than I ever have in MMA”. Granted, most of this blood came from simple nose-bleeds or minor lip lacerations, the point is, wrestling is vicious. The crossface series is basically a punch across a mans face, while just about every leg ride pinning combination can be converted into a submission.
Wrestlers are comfortable controlling someone from their back: The point of wrestling is to put someones back on the mat. This means that wrestlers belly down when they are taken down, therefore the top wrestler spends a great amount of time controlling their opponent from behind. This type of control is rarely emulated in an MMA gym. Most good jiu jitsu practitioners will pull guard in practice, and therefore the top grappler does not get exposed to controlling his opponent from behind. However, being able to control someone from behind is probably the most offensive position in MMA, with a wide array of submissions to boot.
Wrestlers pick up Jiu Jitsu Quickly Because of Similar Fundamentals: Control is an essential part of MMA, not just on ones feet, but also on the ground. Being able to pass someones guard without being rolled is a key concept that is shared with wrestling. Being able to know how to shift your hips is critical to being able to control your position so that you ensure superior position for longer, allowing you to land more devastating strikes from side control/mount and looking good for the judges.
Wrestlers Have Competitive Experience: In many parts of the United States, wrestling is still very popular. These states are often breeding grounds for high level fighters. The typical state champion wrestler probably competes 35-45 times per year and will continue at this pace through their college tenure. By the time these wrestlers make the switch to MMA, the elite wrestlers will have completed at least 300 matches in their careers, and this doesn’t take into the off-season greco and freestyle seasons as well as childhood wrestling tournaments, where they can get as many as 40 extra matches a year. This experience proves invaluable in a wrestler’s ability to control his emotions, deliver in high pressure situations at a pace that is only seen at a competition level.