So Meta: Cain Velasquez’s MMA Wrestling Blueprint

The mix of skills, strategy, and training have changed an astonishing amount since the grappling/vale tudo/jiu-jitsu dominated 1990s. Wrestlers have been some of the…

By: T.P. Grant | 8 years ago
So Meta: Cain Velasquez’s MMA Wrestling Blueprint
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

The mix of skills, strategy, and training have changed an astonishing amount since the grappling/vale tudo/jiu-jitsu dominated 1990s. Wrestlers have been some of the biggest driving forces in this progressive change of how MMA fighters fight. When most MMA fans hear the word ‘wrestling’ they think of takedowns, but wreslters have contributed greatly to the development of all aspects of the sport.

The first serious contribution of wrestlers to MMA was the debut of “ground-and-pound” by Mark Coleman and an underrated role by Dan Severn, who really showed the destructive capabilities of a wrestler in his run to win the UFC 5 tournament. Tito Ortiz pushed the game further with his use of elbows inside the guard, revolutionizing the top game. Then at Team Quest a group of high level U.S. Greco-Roman Wrestlers in Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, and Matt Lindland took it a step further. Together they revolutionized cage wrestling, clinch fighting, under the armpit punches from the ride, and the use of the half guard as the “beatdown” position. The evolution of MMA mat wrestling has continued and the name Cain Velasquez will undoubtedly be remembered as one of those athletes that pushed the game forward.

The traditional MMA mat wrestling game, much like the traditional vale tudo jiu-jitsu top game, is predicated around control. Conceptually they are very similar. They both are predicated on taking an opponent down and attaining a position of control and then forcing the opponent to give up a more vulnerable position. Both can overwhelmed less skilled opponents and slowly breakdown more skilled ones. The differences come out in the details, MMA matwork tends to favor the half guard over the traditional jiu-jitsu “dominant positions” and when their opponents turn their back rather than take the back mount position they prefer to use the wrestling ride.

Velasquez works a very interesting mash-up of these two styles. His gym, the American Kickboxing Academy, has been home to many high level MMA wrestlers who have spent years under top notch jiu-jitsu coaches in Dan Camarillo and Leandro Vieira. The mats of AKA have served as a laboratory as the wrestling of the likes of Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Daniel Cormier and Velasquez met with the jiu-jitsu and Olympic level Judo of the Camarillo brothers, and then the cutting edge sport jiu-jitsu of Vieira and his Checkmat team. All of this melded together towards the creation of functional MMA grappling games.

The UFC Heavyweight champion’s ground game is at its core a wrestling matwork game, but with clear influences from his time with high level submission grappling coaches. The primary goal is offensive output, both striking and positional advancement, with the endgame being a stoppage victory. It is an attritive and pressure style that is very much based around Velasquez’s innate aggressiveness and nearly endless cardiovascular endurance.

Velasquez’s single leg takedown chain is one of the best in all of MMA and he uses it exceptionally well to take even elite wrestlers to the mat. Once there, he doesn’t necessarily prioritize control the way many wrestlers do. Instead, he prefers to attack an open guard standing much like a modern sport jiu-jitsu player rather than suffocate the hips from inside the closed guard.

Velasquez rarely sits in half guard, the fist fight with Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva being the exception, instead he prefers to pass the guard to positions that allow him to be much more dynamic such as side control, knee on belly, and the wrestling ride.

At the highest levels of any grappling art the concepts of “flow” and “transition” are key. MMA is no exception. One phenomenal example of an MMA transitional attack is the under the armpit punch which has been used very well by someone like Dan Henderson. While Henderson is well known for that strike and was one of the fighters to pioneer that technique, he really didn’t build his game around creating those openings, he just had the instincts to exploit them. Velasquez has built his ground game around creating and exploiting those openings with positional grappling to deliver as many strikes as possible.

In his early career Velasquez made use of the more traditional jiu-jitsu position, such as the TKO victory he earned over Jake O’Brien with strikes from a top side crucifix. As he began to face higher level competition, such as Cheick Kongo and Ben Rothwell, Velasquez had to lean on his wrestling positions and transition game. In both the Kongo fight and the Rothwell fight, Velasquez had opponents well schooled in standing back up out of takedowns and with enough size and athletic ability to execute against a wrestler the level of Cain. At every turn on the mat Velasquez forced movement from his opponents, and as they moved taking their hands away from defensive positions he landed hard, accurate punches.

The downside of this emphasis of control is that Velasquez’s opponents can escape to their feet, especially early in a fight when they are still fresh. But Velasquez maintains contact as they escape and follows it up with immediate takedowns. It is a frenetic fighting style and the process of takedown, damage, stand up and then takedown again is repeated until the opponent is too exhausted, physically, or mentally broken to continue fighting.

As the UFC Heavyweight champion’s striking and clinch game has continued to evolve, it has resulted in a near perfect pressure attack in which an opponent is never able to rest. It is a reinvention of the wrestler grinder approach; a more aggressive, meaner, and more damaging version. This is very much the cutting edge of the MMA grappling metagame and hopefully we will get to see how it interacts with a truly elite guard player like Fabricio Werdum. Equally interesting will be to see how it continues to evolve, namely in Velasquez’s AKA teammate Khabib Nurmagomedov, who seems to be running with this “rinse-and-repeat” style and is set to take it to an even higher level.

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