A match-up of styles which is classic in MMA is that of the striker vs the wrestler.
The striker is quick on the feet having lighting combinations. Their goal is quite simple to either knock out your opponent or out-point them. You have some strikers such as Conor Mcgregor who look to take your head off. You have some like Stephen Thompson who looks to outclass you on the feet.
When it comes to the wrestler their goal is also quite simple to get a hold of you and drag you to the canvas. Whether they plan to submit you, “smash” you or to simply just tire you out their plan is always very clear. You have grapplers like Colby Covington who look to overwhelm you with his wrestling and to tire you out.
You then have someone like Islam Makhachev who takes you down and tries to end the fight with a submission. The likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Khamzat Chimaev utilise the ground and pound to beat you into submission.
In years gone by it has usually been very obvious what happens when a high-level striker meets a high-level wrestler. Whether the striker comes from boxing, kickboxing or Muay Thai they have traditionally struggled when put against a high-level wrestler. The reason is that the wrestler dictates where the fight takes place.
If a wrestler wants to take you down the dynamic of trying to defend a takedown against a high-level wrestler in an octagon is a lost cause. This is different to blocking a punch or checking a kick where there is a way to prevent this.
Take Khabib vs Mcgregor. In the first round, Khabib shoots for the takedown in the middle of the octagon. Mcgregor initially defended the takedown keeping his balance. The Irishman kept a hold of Khabib’s body so that he couldn’t advance his position. At one point he even ends up in the top position.
Khabib still has a hold of his opponent’s leg and with both men standing up Mcgregor does his best to stay on his feet. The Irishman attempts to spin in order to shake Khabib off but in the end, the Russian drives McGregor to the fence with both feet and completes the takedown.
It was like watching a shark slowly getting to its prey and this is the case for so many strikers.
However, in recent times it seems as if there has been a shift in momentum between this stylistic matchup. Wrestlers have always had the advantage over the strikers but it seems as MMA has evolved so has the matchups. Now strikers are finding a lot more success against wrestlers. This has been proven in a lot of high-profile UFC title fights.
Edwards vs Usman 3
In March of this year, Leon Edwards defended his Welterweight title against former champ Kamaru Usman. This came off the back of one of the most sensational KOs in UFC history in which Edwards knocked out Usman in the last minute of the last round. Stylistically Edwards is seen as the superior striker and Usman is seen as the superior wrestler.
The story of the second fight was how dominant Usman was with his wrestling and how lost Edwards looked. Coming into the third fight despite Edwards pulling off an incredible knockout it was thought that victory was clear for Usman. All the former champ had to do was impose his wrestling on Edwards as he had done before but this time pay attention in the last round.
However, this time around Edwards was able to comfortably deal with Usman’s wrestling. Usman was only able to take down Edwards 4 out of 15 times. Edwards did an excellent job of fighting the wrists of Usman and keeping his balance in the fight.
The Jamaican-born Edwards was able to keep his balance and stuffed Usman’s takedowns with ease. In the end, the champions retained his belt via a decision and picked Usman apart.
The improvement in Edwards wrestling was evident and it was enough to beat an accomplished wrestler.
The narrative that all Usman had to do was wrestle was made to look foolish with the well-rounded Leon Edward taking home the gold.
Makachev vs Volkanovski
A fight that may surprise you considering the wrestler in Islam Makachev won the fight but there was a lot more going on in this fight. Makachev was seen as the heir to Khabib and recently beat Charles Oliveira to claim the belt.
Volkanovski was seen as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world but he was still coming up a weight class. With Makachev, fans were expecting a title defence similar to those that Khabib had. Many thought this would be a somewhat easy defence for the Russian but it turned out to be anything but.
From the first round, it seemed that Volkanowski had a clear speed advantage over Makachev on the feet. However. Makachev was only able to takedown Volk once in the round. As the fight went on it was clear that the Russian was struggling to get the Australian down to the ground. It seemed that Volkanovski’s small frame and stocky build were a nightmare for the lightweight champion.
In the last round Makachev looked to be fatiguing and it even looked as if he got dropped by Volkanovski. Makachev registered seven minutes and 37 seconds of control time but this was in long periods. Altogether Mackachev was able to keep Volk down for a long period of time twice. A lot of the takedowns thrown by the Russian were thwarted by the featherweight champion.
In the end, Makachev did get the victory despite a real back-and-forth fight. This was not down to his wrestling but instead down to his precise striking. This has now led to many thinking that there could be a blueprint to beating the lightweight champion. One thing is for sure for the first time in a while Islam Makachev was unable to establish his wrestling over his opponent.
Sterling vs O’Malley
Then we have our latest example. Going into this title fight the plan seemed simple for Champion Aljamain Sterling. Take O’Malley to the ground and keep him there. Coming into the fight Sterling had come off two title defences against legends such as TJ Dillashaw and Henry Cejudo.
Whereas Sean O’Malley who was seen as the superior striker had come off a close fight with Petr Yan. Many saw Sterling as the overwhelming favourite with his wrestling being the deciding factor. In the first round, the fight was mainly on the feet with Sterling out landing O’Malley. There was one takedown attempt at the end of the first which the Suga show stuffed.
In the second round, O’Malley slipped off a kick and Sterling attempted to take the challenger down but this was stuffed. The champion then lunged forward which O’Malley contered with a straight right which put Sterling down. The Suga show then subsequently finished Sterling and became the new Bantamweight champion. Despite the former champion being the superior wrestler in the end the superior striker Sean O’Malley walked away with the win and the belt.
Three high-profile title fights where the wrestler was expected to dominate the striker but in the end, the striker impressed. In two of these fights, the striker came out on top despite the wrestler coming in as the favourite. It remains to be seen whether this trend continues but it now seems that strikers seem to have found a way to negate the wrestling.
Fighters have begun learning MMA from the ground up rather than coming from a specific martial arts background. This now means that they have learnt wrestling from an early point in their career. This could mean a shift in the stylistic matchup of a striker and a wrestler. The fight now goes from being 60/40 in favour of the wrestler to being 50/50 from the opening bell.