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Technique Talk: Chael Sonnen on the simplicity of successful MMA wrestling

Let’s start with a basic question: what constitutes good MMA wrestling? An elite amateur wrestler’s background is no guarantee of success in MMA, yet best practices for those learning wrestling through MMA are historically more helpful now than ever and widely disseminated. In other words, those that should succeed often do not even while their skills are in high demand. Is there a particular background or style that portends success in MMA? How much of pure wrestling is valuable in MMA? For those with no wrestling background in MMA, how can we best evaluate the strength of their wrestling talent? Chael Sonnen, UFC middleweight turned light heavyweight as well as an NCAA All-American in wrestling, goes in-depth in this interview to explain why some elite wrestlers find difficulty transferring their skills, what the current state of wrestling in MMA looks like, which camps are the best at converting elite wrestlers into MMA fighters, which style of wrestling best translates into actual fights, why a simple but highly effective wrestling game is really all anyone needs and so much more. Full audio and partial transcript below: Why is there a loose connection between the level of wrestling somebody comes from, and their level of achievement with the use of their Wrestling in MMA? So for example, you’ll see some guys who are Olympians or Olympic alternates whose MMA wrestling is ‘ehh’, and then you’ll see some of these guys who come from D-II programs and they’ll beat the brakes off of you. What is your sense about why that happens? There’s a tremendous misunderstanding amongst exclusive MMA fans as to what wrestling is. One element of wrestling that I know, what I grew up with we put a lot of emphasis towards was the takedown. But, you could win an Olympic championship and never score a takedown, and I don’t know if MMA fans are even aware of that. You could win a NCAA championship and never score a takedown, and that’s actually quite common; to literally never score one is possible, to literally never score one doesn’t happen all that often, but to not put an emphasis on it is very common. So the point that I’m getting at is, a guy can be a fantastic wrestler on the wrestling mat and come in with a lot of credentials. In fact, there’s a Cuban fighter right now named Yoel Romero, who for my time is as good as any wrestler that ever lived during that generation – during the Cael Sanderson/Les Gutches/Yoel Romero phase – but he didn’t score a lot of points with takedowns. He scored his points with tilts and turns, and defensive techniques on top. So when he gets into an MMA situation, it doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to get on top, and that’s really misunderstood by a lot of people. That leads to my second question, which is basically about ‘What is valuable in MMA’? If you listen to Roger Gracie, he’ll tell you a lot of this BJJ stuff – sport BJJ – it’s kind of worthless. Like for a true Spider Guard, you need to be able to grip the gi; there goes that. For X-Guard, you’re going to get pounded on by anybody whose got good balance and is on top. So how much of wrestling – pure wrestling – is worthless for MMA contexts? I would say you could only use a couple of the techniques. I would say it’s as few as two. Now there’s variations off of that, but those become MMA. Here’s what you want to do, in any (combat) sport: you want to find out what’s illegal, and whatever is illegal is what you want to do in MMA. A perfect example would be dirty boxing; the reason you can’t grab a guy around the collar of his neck and start punching with your free hand in a boxing match is because it’s so effective that they had to make it illegal. Wrestling is the same way a lot of our locks, there’s times in wrestling we’re not allowed to lock our hands together. The reason is if we locked our hands the other guy would never get away, and it would just be a battle of who could ever get to that lock first would win. So you want to find out what is illegal and you quickly want to start implementing them if they are legal in a sanctioned MMA fight, because it’s what’s most effective. In Greco-Roman wrestling which is what I did, we’re not allowed to block with our head. If the gentleman was to put his head on you, it shuts down all of your offense, and they just made it illegal to do. I know I fought a guy named Michael Bisping, couldn’t wrestle a lick, but he put that head where I grew up my entire life that being illegal to do, and it completely shut me down for an entire round until I could figure it out. I hope I’m answering your question.You bring up Roger Gracie’s comment, and yeah he’s probably the most fantastic and intimidating submission guy in the UFC right now, but if I could take two more elements away it would shut him down completely. He loves to get on a guy’s back and he’ll choke you out. If you took that away, it would really limit him. But the great fighters are only good at one or two things. So what is hugely v…

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