In terms of fight quality, MMA fans were spoiled by the title bouts at UFC 251. Jose Aldo put on an admirable late-career tactical performance against the inevitable Petr Yan, while Max Holloway and Alexander Volkanovski engaged in a back-and-forth battle of adjustments and one-upsmanship. There was plenty of wrestling in both fights, and you can be certain they’ll be covered in this format on a later date.
The main event saw Kamaru Usman shut down the uberpopular veteran Jorge Masvidal. It was not the most exciting fight of the night, but there were plenty of simple – but important lessons to analyze in the wrestling for MMA meta.
The basic dynamic of the fight (which I nailed in my pre-fight article and podcast, I’m bragging) boiled down to one key detail. While Jorge Masvidal could hang in wrestling exchanges with Usman for the most part, it was essential for Masvidal to limit those exchanges and give himself time to produce offense in open space.
In this article, we’ll look at why Masvidal was unable to do so, and what Usman did to ensure those exchanges lasted as long as possible.
Kamaru Usman’s Entries
The ability to get to the legs or establish a tie-up intelligently will always be important for wrestlers in MMA, but especially so against a competent opponent like Jorge Masvidal who can punish you on the way in and disengage.
As Usman stepped into the pocket in order to force Masvidal back toward the fence, he was repeatedly met with counters, looking increasingly sloppy in those situations. Masvidal had his counter combinations drilled in on a hair trigger.
In the center of the cage, Usman did have a specific counter prepared. When Masvidal round kicked, Usman parried the kick across the body, taking a lot of the sting off the shot and putting Masvidal out of position. After one too many consecutive round kicks, Usman changed levels during the parry and passed the foot to his near-side hand. As Masvidal tumbled backward, Usman drove in and covered his hips for the first takedown of the fight.
As Masvidal became more wary of Usman’s reactive takedown counters, he was more selective with his offense, waiting on Usman a bit and conceding ground. This is the crux of the issue – while Masvidal had the tools to respond to everything Usman had to offer, he lacked the craft to stop Usman from making the attempts altogether. Usman pressured in behind his jab, and yes Masvidal had counter offense in response, he planted his feet to do so, ultimately working toward Usman’s goal of putting him on the cage.
Slipping offline and pivoting off the cage and working back to center would have been a major play by Masvidal, considering the work he was able to do in the rare moments he had to work from open space.
After the first few grappling exchanges, Masvidal was already a bit exasperated. The physical fatigue wasn’t that severe, but he was clearly growing impatient and doubled down on his strategy, hunting counter combinations off Usman’s entries.
Usman capitalized with an effective and simple, yet underutilized tactic – he feinted and level changed on his strikes. Usman faked some of his jab entries, showing the body jab and coming back up top, and vice versa. He could strike underneath Masvidal’s counters, as well as draw out his reactions to takedown attempts – striking when Masvidal became vulnerable or faking offense to dip back down and commit to the double or single.
Deeper into the fight, Masvidal’s stance became a bit more static and Usman found him much more easily. This opened up an even easier entry – a reaching snatch single. Usman paired this shot with his rear straight, which he utilized with the same patterns as the jabs.
The beauty of this method was layered. The strikes themselves had utility, as Masvidal’s boxing was all coming at one level and the body was open for simultaneous counters. The motion of the strikes matched the motion of the takedown attempts, giving Usman a built-in disguise. Together, it was far too difficult for Masvidal to accurately and consistently predict Usman’s entries.
Masvidal’s gameplan centered on reacting to Usman’s offense, rather than preventing it. There was some use of linear kicking, which discourages level changing, but Usman’s parries and the threat of the takedown off caught kicks gave Masvidal pause.
Some might have been wondering, “where is the flying knee from Masvidal?” It’s a weapon with which Masvidal has demonstrated fairly dexterous use throughout his career, most notably against Askren. The differences here were that Usman’s entries weren’t so exaggerated or simplistic, Masvidal was on the backfoot – meaning he couldn’t build on Usman and find openings, and even attempting to throw a flying knee would compromise his stance, putting him out of position and risking his chances for striking further.
Case in point – when Masvidal did load up and attempt to cover distance on Usman, he was met with powerful reactive doubles.
Cage Control – Technical Notes
I won’t be breaking down every single exchange between Usman and Masvidal on the cage, but it’s important to point out some of the details that made those exchanges so uneventful.
Usman’s gameplan was to limit striking exchanges, meaning he had to make the most of any time he had in control of Masvidal. If that meant sacrificing meaningful offense just to keep Masvidal’s back on the cage for longer, he accepted it.
Observe what happens when Usman gives up space to throw punches.
Initially, Usman has a left-side underhook and is controlling the bicep on the right side. He’s able to put pressure forward with both of these ties and keep Masvidal tall and his upper body immobile.
However, when Usman frees up that right side to throw, Masvidal immediately digs an underhook, which immediately creates a gap between their hips.
Usman is able to prolong the control position by using his now-overhook to reach across the body and control the wrist of Masvidal on the left-side. It’s a less stable position, but Usman can bear down harder on the left, and when Masvidal does try to work that underhook and push Usman further to that side and create space, Usman can clamp down on the elbow with his overhook and stifle that lever.
It was Masvidal’s excellent grip-fighting, early on, which allowed him to escape. Rolling his wrist free from that cross-body control, Masvidal immediately swims for an elbow, causing Usman to level change and get his hips back to avoid the strike. This gives Masvidal a bit more room to maneuver, leading to a second underhook. He uses this new position to push Usman back, then switches off to the collar tie to get back on his offense.
A similar situation plays out later on. Usman punches and gives up the right-side underhook, but this time Masvidal is urgent in using that space to dig the second underhook, and without the cross-body wrist control Usman is pushed back.
Unfortunately for Masvidal, Usman still had ungodly strength from double overhooks and was able to torque Masvidal back toward the cage.
Prioritizing control paid off for Usman. He was able to wear Masvidal down and tire out his muscles, making it easier to pummel and make more significant moves in the clinch later on.
Wrestling Offense on the Cage
Just as most of Usman’s best striking offense on the cage came during the transitions between clinch positions, Usman’s best wrestling on the cage came off transitions from the initial shot.
After an Usman shot attempt, Masvidal pulled him up using a whizzer on the left side. Usman’s grip was still around the butt of Masvidal, and his other hand was controlling the wrist on the right side.
Still able to manipulate Masvidal’s body, Usman stuck his knee into the cage, inbetween Masvidal’s legs. With his hips tight, he would have more control when he turned to his right and bumped Masvidal forward, switching from the wrist to the far leg during the transition. Masvidal attempted to stabilize by posting his free hand.
By lowering his level, Usman was able to bear down with his left arm and keep Masvidal’s hips low, keeping the right-side leg out of play. Pinning Masvidal’s back to the cage with his upper body, Usman picked the post hand and continued to bump forward, breaking Masvidal down to his knees.
The famed ATT wall-walking came in handy, Masvidal popped right back up and kept his back glued to the fence. As long as his legs weren’t being controlled and his chest was facing Usman, he could pop back up to his feet.
Early in the second round, Usman found himself rising up out of a double into a left-side underhook again, but this time Masvidal had assumed a side-on stance.
As he rose out of the shot into the underhook, he pressed his shoulder up high, stood up straight, and inserted his head underneath Masvidal’s to prop him up even further.
By doing so, he forced Masvidal to stand tall, which compromised his wide side-on stance. Once he was standing square and narrow, Usman had much more success reaching through for the bodylock and bumping him forward.
After bumping Masvidal into the open and sliding into rear-standing with the bodylock, Usman attempted to use the lock to drag Masvidal back, using his legs to block Masvidal’s and knock him over. However, the wily veteran hooked his near leg across and inside the far leg of Usman, pushing it forward.
This prevented Usman from executing the circling footwork required to properly drag him with the bodylock.
Masvidal wasn’t so quick the second time. Additionally, Usman made sure to lift up with the bodylock as he dragged back, ensuring that Masvidal’s base would be as weak as possible.
One last technical beauty from Usman was the double leg “cutback” against the cage. To defend the double, Masvidal was hipping in hard to the left while attempting to work some shallow underhooks. Feeling that momentum, Usman dropped his right knee across to the center, pulling Masvidal across to the left with him.
Still controlling the double, Usman turned the corner and elevated the legs, working back up from his knees. Because Masvidal’s hips were exposed and his body was moving toward Usman, Usman had time to adjust and secure the position before driving back up for the finish.
Stay tuned for shorter, but perhaps more aesthetic wrestling breakdowns from Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway, and later Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo.
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