MMA Fan’s Guide to Grappling: American Folk Style/Freestyle Wrestling

This article is the start of a new series inspired by some suggestions from readers on Reddit. A fan wanted to know what skills…

By: T.P. Grant | 10 years ago
MMA Fan’s Guide to Grappling: American Folk Style/Freestyle Wrestling
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

This article is the start of a new series inspired by some suggestions from readers on Reddit. A fan wanted to know what skills the different backgrounds of grappling arm a fighter with, and a series explaining just that seemed a natural idea.

So, to start with we will look at possibly the largest source of talent for MMA currently: American Folk style (NCAA) wrestling. Along with that we will look at international Freestyle as it is very similar to American Folk and there are actually very few pure Freestyle wrestlers in MMA currently so we will kill two birds with one stone.

Brief History: Wrestling is possibly the most international sport there is as almost every culture has a wrestling tradition with their own techniques and rules. International freestyle was an attempt to create a very open competition forum for wrestling. It originated in Great Britain and the United States, made its Olympic debut in 1904, and its predominant style was heavily influenced by two forms of submission wrestling, English Catch-as-Catch-Can and Irish Collar-and-Elbow.

American Folk Style is a combination of Native American wrestling traditions with the imported English Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestling and Irish Collar-and-Elbow, both of which became very popular in the US. This style then combined with the emerging sport of Freestyle Wrestling after the Civil War. In 1903, the first intercollegiate match between squads from Yale and Columbia was held, and in 1927, the first NCAA Team Championship took place at Iowa State. The sport would grow from there to become widespread in both universities and high schools across the United States.

Summary of Rules: Both styles are fairly open ended when it comes to takedowns; there are not a great deal of rules that govern what takedowns are legal and illegal, and both sports award points for takedowns and put a great deal of focus on them. Both are jacket-less grappling (no gi) and matches can be won by pin, referred to as a “fall,” or by points.

A key difference between the two styles is that American Folk-style puts less emphasis on throwing techniques and more focus on controlling an opponent and rewards the wrestler who spent the most time in top position, referred to as “riding time.” International freestyle puts more emphasis on “exposure” points, where a wrestler’s shoulders are exposed to the mat, and he is in danger of being pinned, even if just for an instance. American Folk-style does give points for near pins, but the top wrestler needs to demonstrate control of his opponent to gain the points.

Strengths: Both styles bring strong and diverse takedowns to the table, and the more open rules concerning takedowns makes wrestlers from these backgrounds some of the strongest takedown artists in MMA. Often the most successful are the wrestlers who specialize in the explosive double leg takedown, known as the blast or power double. (Gif)

But as MMA evolved, fighters have become increasing more effective at preventing double leg takedowns, but American Folk and Freestyle wrestlers are also armed with an array of single leg takedowns, throws, and trips. (Gif) (Gif) (Gif) (Gif)

It also works in reverse as wrestlers who gain skills in striking can use their wrestling background to fight off takedowns. As a result, freestyle and American Folk Style wrestlers are some of the most difficult fighters in MMA to actually take down and then control. (Gif)

Ground work is a mixed bag in wrestling. It really depends on the individual athlete. But the emphasis on control and riding time in American Folk Style transfers very well to MMA, as the turtle position is becoming far more common in MMA as fighters willingly give up their backs to avoid ending up in side control or mounted. As a result, the ability to control that position is already ingrained in the wrestler and learning to strike from them comes naturally. (Gif) Wrestlers also tend to be strong in the scramble, those moments when fighters are grappling, but have the freedom of movement, and wrestlers are often instinctive and experienced scramblers. (Gif)

While the vast majority submissions are illegal in wrestling, the “twister” submission originated in wrestling. (Gif) Also, some submissions come naturally to wrestlers, such as front headlock attacks, like the guillotine choke. (Gif)

Weaknesses: One of the toughest parts of the transition to MMA for a Freestyle or NCAA wrestler is the change in stance. Going from a bent over wrestling stance to an upright striking posture changes a lot of the entries into takedowns. Also, wrestlers often lead with their strong hand in wrestling, but that is reversed in striking arts so wrestlers are often faced with the choice of either having to relearn their footwork or have their weak hand as their power hand.

While wrestling does have ground work, the inclusion of pins means that wrestlers are not skilled at grappling while on their back and tend to get to their knees instinctively and thus give up their backs at times. There also is not positional or submission grappling in either wrestling,so to really compete in MMA they have to learn at least the basics concerning positions and submissions, but to excel they need to really devote a significant amount of time learning submission grappling. Pure freestyle wrestlers can struggle more on the ground than American Folk-style wrestlers because freestyle ground work has less to do with control and constant pressure than with scoring points with instant back exposure.

It depends on the wrestler, though, because some used limited ground work even in wrestling and struggle to ever really pick up MMA ground grappling, in the same way some wrestlers struggle to transition their takedown games to MMA but are very tricky once on the ground.

Notable Practitioners both in and out of MMA (Click for Highlights): Cain Veslasquez, Chris Weidman, Ben Askren, Jordan Burroughs, Daniel Cormier, Cael Sanderson, Vladimir Matyuskenko, John Smith, Dan Hodge

2012 NCAA Wrestling Highlights National Championships -St. Louis

Russian Freestyle Wrestling Nationals Highlights

To share thoughts go to the comment line below or reach out to T.P. Grant on Twitter or Facebook. And thanks to BE’s very own wrestling coach, Mike Riordan for his help in this as well.

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