The reigning Greco-Roman World champion is crossing over into mixed martial arts this New Year’s Eve. Japan’s Shinobu Ota is fresh off a gold medal performance in Kazakhstan, where he dominated the 63 kg weight class. It marked Ota’s first medal at that level since the 2016 Olympic Games, where he made a run to the finals at 59 kg.
Although the Tokyo Olympics are around the corner, it’s possible that Ota is making the transition to MMA full-time, given his placement on the national ladder. 63 kg is not an Olympic weight class, and the next closest class of 60 kg is manned by two-time World champion Kenchiro Fumita, who defeated Ota in 2018.
Greco-Roman wrestling is a relatively restrictive grappling art, and it’s fair to question its utility in MMA in comparison to other forms of wrestling. However, Shinobu Ota’s aggressive and athletic style, both on the feet and on the mat, could make him one of the most promising wrestling crossover prospects in recent memory.
He will face off with MMA veteran grappler Hideo Tokoro at 135 pounds. Although Tokoro is 43 years old and has not fought since 2017, it is a dangerous matchup given each man’s area of strength. Of course Ota could take him down, but is his ground game developed enough to avoid the relentless and dynamic submission offense of Tokoro? Does he have the tools on the feet to win a striking battle? Ota’s team is confident, to say the least, to have accepted this matchup.
An article by Yahoo Japan laid out his current training situation.
“Although he is a freelance affiliation, the current practice environment is under the coach of Issei Tamura of KRAZY BEE, grappling is Shinya Aoki, and batting is also studied under a boxing coach, Ota practices at a high level in each field.”
Even if he doesn’t pull off the debut win, Shinobu Ota’s future in MMA is bright. Take a look at some of his skills and attributes that should immediately translate to the sport.
Duck-Unders and Head Pinches: The Attacking Style of Shinobu Ota
In modern Greco-Roman wrestling at the highest level, action on the feet is often hard to come by. There is a ton of risk involved in attacking, the majority of techniques leave the opportunity for the attacking wrestler to pull their opponent on top of them. Some attempted throws are ruled as “slips” and points are not awarded to your opponent, but that rule is not enough insurance to incentivize taking initiative.
More often, both wrestlers control ties and the center of the mat, hoping to force enough caution calls against their opponent to earn “forced par terre.” In that case, the referee orders the cautious wrestler to start belly down on the mat, giving their opponent the chance to work gut wrenches, reverse lifts, or other exposing techniques.
It makes sense to play toward this sort of outcome, it’s much lower risk and wrestlers can specialize and focus on their par terre offense and defense in training. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see Greco-Roman wrestlers who consistently push for attacks from neutral and put on a show. Men like Cuba’s Ismael Borrero and Shinobu Ota are fantastic examples of how exciting Greco can be at the World level. Of course you’ll find more action as you start to zoom in on the domestic or age-group competitions, just watch the US national team members obliterate their challengers year after year.
So what makes someone like Ota different? It’s not that he’s just flat “better” and can lock up in over-unders and toss anyone in the world. He has a select few entries he prefers on the feet, and an absolutely brutal head pinch series from par terre that often allows him to finish off matches without taking a second attack.
Ota’s highest percentage entry is his duck-under.
This is mainly achieved off pressure in the hand-fight. Ota is able to pull the near-arm of his opponent in and up, while level changing to roll under the elbow after creating a window. The beauty of this technique is that it is built to end the match. One arm is being moved up to duck under, but the other arm is being pulled down and across. When Ota hits his penetrating entry, he’s able to cinch around the body straight on – trapping his opponent’s far-side arm against their own body.
This trap-arm bodylock allows Ota to immediately transition into a gut wrench, the most common exposing turn in Greco. If his opponent cannot free that arm, Ota will continue to roll though until the match ends by technical fall.
Another great feature of the trap-arm is that it takes away a post. In the above clip you can see Ota is able to control the descent of his opponent and plant them on their back with minimal resistance. His opponent has no way to break their fall or fight grips. Another wrestling prospect Mo Miller recently won a fight via slam KO with a trap-arm rear waist-cinch.
Ota’s duck-under bodylock entries can also be used to counter attempts to reach for the head, which comes in handy quite often in Greco-Roman wrestling. Overall, Ota is great at creating and reading momentum on the feet, using the “push-pull” dynamics of a match to time explosive and precise entries.
The other half of Shinobu Ota’s game is his head pinch. If he doesn’t land on the mat with the trap-arm, Ota loves to immediately transition off to front headlock and begin working a grip that may look similar to an arm-in guillotine. The entry itself is very similar to the “pocket guillotine” we’ve seen from UFC fighters Pedro Munhoz, Jack Hermansson, and more recently Ilia Topuria.
Not only is Ota extremely powerful from this position, he winds up his hips and rips the head pinches in an explosive and violent manner. You do not want to let this man anywhere near your neck. Ota can continuously reset and keep torqueing that grip to create exposures, ragdolling his opponent all over the mat. Most think of Greco as an upper-body only sport, but footwork and overall body positioning are absolutely essential to pulling these techniques off effectively.
Ota’s duck-under and head pinch play into each other as well. If Ota looks to duck and his opponent matches his level to avoid it, Ota can get height over them and latch onto the front headlock, snap them down and get right to his head pinch series without even scoring a takedown.
How might Shinobu Ota’s game translate to MMA?
When evaluating a wrestling prospect for MMA, one of the most important things to look for is athletic type. Shinobu Ota is the complete package – explosive, agile, strong, poised, graceful. The degree of precision required to pull of the techniques he does is hard to understand for those outside the sport. There is far more margin for error when leg attacking in freestyle or folkstyle, for instance.
Shinobu Ota’s preferred attacks are well-optimized for MMA as well. Duck-unders and bodylocks can be incorporated into a boxing game fairly smoothly, just look at how Petr Yan leverages his head movement to get to his own duck-under entries. Of course these straight-on level changing attacks do seem to open up opportunities for counter guillotines, but adjustments like turning the corner or even the trap-arm can effectively navigate that danger.
On the mat, Ota is already in a good position to learn a front headlock choke series. His head pinch series is incredibly similar, and we’ve even seen him sit back and work what looks like a traditional standing arm-in guillotine in the past. If he can avoid playing in his opponents’ guards in his first few fights and keep the fight controlled in transitional positions, he should be safe.
Working with the Krazy Bee team, and a dedicated boxing coach for his striking is a great sign, but we can be even more greatly encouraged by his grappling work with Shinya Aoki. Hideo Tokoro is a pretty tough matchup for a debuting fighter with no prior MMA experience, but it’s absolutely possible that Shinobu Ota is already good enough to beat that caliber of opponent.
Of course we have no way of knowing how long he’s been training or how seriously he’s taken it. We’ll find out at RIZIN 26 on New Years Eve.
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