Why We Suck at Wrestling
And it's not because we don't know double legs.
Today I have a guest post from William Watts.
William is a black belt under Jose Portillo and trains out of Paragon BJJ in Austin, Texas. I recently connected with him on Twitter.
On his blog, William writes in-depth technical articles on BJJ techniques and trends. I was particularly impressed by this analysis of New Wave Jiu-Jitsu—I highly recommend you check it out.
After the recent ADCC Worlds in Vegas, William wrote up a wrestling analysis for me which you all can read below.
If you like Jiu-Jitsu and learning concepts with visual aids, you’re going to love this one.
I teach no-gi jiu-jitsu but I really love wrestling. Wrestling’s violence and dynamism are beautiful. If jiu-jitsu is murder yoga then wrestling is combative gymnastics. While I love watching wrestling, wrestling in jiu-jitsu matches makes me cringe.
Generally, when you watch two inexperienced wrestlers go at it you see a menagerie of clubbing, pushing, and single shots followed by backing up fearfully. It’s kind of like watching two electrons floating through an electron cloud. Whenever the two objects get close to one another they repel almost instantly. Watching bad wrestlers go at is messy, chaotic, boring, and it seems like the participants are afraid of the very exchanges they’re involved in.
Contrast that with high-level freestyle wrestling. High-level wrestlers are constantly grabbing legs, pulling arms, and regularly trading positions before they fall to the floor. These ‘combative gymnastics’ are nothing short of spectacular.
It’s not like jiu-jitsu athletes are incapable of engaging. When the match hits the floor they look like wrestlers do on the feet. With that in mind, we’re left wondering, why can’t jiu-jitsu players use that same energy on the feet?
Rules are Rules
The activities of specific sports are shaped by their rules. Freestyle wrestling has specific rules and penalties to push athletes together and create action on their feet. High-level submission grappling has different rules depending on where you’re competing, but, it’s fair to say you aren’t severely penalized for relative inactivity on the feet. However, judging and point systems can make it difficult to score and win a match after you are taken down in gi and no gi jiu-jitsu alike. The combination of those conditions creates a world of jiu-jitsu competitors who are incentivized to avoid being taken down to the point of sitting to their butt to start a match. Once the match hits the floor it’s an entirely different story.
Wrestlers are severely penalized for showing their back to the floor. They will literally lose if their shoulders are held to the mat for a few seconds. Conversely, jiu-jitsu players score by starting on their back and reversing positions. They aren’t penalized for staying on their back for minutes at a time and they can literally end the match by using submission holds off of their back.
It’s kind of remarkable really. We have two different sports that can use the same equipment and playing field, but the scoring has created completely different meta games. Here is where we need to take a step back.
A common critique of jiu-jitsu athletes is that their stand-up wrestling sucks - I literally did that a few minutes ago up there. I would revise my critique to that say that wrestling in jiu-jitsu sucks because it is not adapted to the rules of the sport.
Jiu-jitsu schools teach wrestling in a rote, turn-based manner. You shoot a single, turn the corner, and finish with a double-leg takedown. They shoot a takedown, you sprawl, and then you go behind them to take their back. What about the space in between?
What if shoot, they sprawl, and I go lower on the leg to shelf it and finish the takedown? Or, what if I don’t want to go behind and take their back? What if I want to use a headlock to counter their takedown attempt? Better yet, what if I’m slow, my back hurts from playing guard, I have pinched nerves in my neck, and I don’t want to stand up to finish the single leg after I grab it? What’s stopping me from grabbing a single leg and sitting back into a leg entanglement? Nothing, and the fact that we aren’t acknowledging that more and adapting our techniques is why most jiu-jitsu athletes suck at wrestling.
New Sport, New Rules
I think the reason I like wrestling so much is because I like playing guard.
That’s not a typo, let me explain.
I started training mixed martial arts a bit more than a decade ago. Among other things, my back is pretty messed up which means I don’t shoot much. I’m fine not shooting though, I’m kind of slow anyway so I really don’t want to shoot a lot. I have a pinched nerve in my neck anyway so if I shoot and get sprawled on the wrong way I’ll be out for at least a round. With all of the wear and tear on my body, I’m required to like wrestling because I need to determine when and how I engage with people in jiu-jitsu.
If I simply sit to guard I’m at the mercy of someone potentially dropping all of their weight on me. If I start on the feet, slow the pace, and dictate what shots are available for my opponent, at worst I end up underneath them on my terms. I can use the momentum from their takedown to create a quick sweep. I can turn my opponent’s takedowns into sacrifice throws. Or, at best, I end up countering my opponent’s takedown and end up on top. This philosophy has practical competition applications as well.
If you listen to John Danaher discuss training he’ll often use the term scrimmage wrestling. I have no fucking clue where he got that from and I kinda think it sounds pretentious. But, I know immediately what they’re talking about so the word has immense value.
When Danaher talks about scrimmage wrestling he’s discussing wrestling for no-gi grappling with different rules. He’s discussing wrestling by ADCC rules. This ruleset is distinct from freestyle and collegiate wrestling because you only get points when you put an athlete’s hip to the mat for a few seconds. If an athlete turns to turtle no points are awarded. Contrast that with freestyle wrestling where taking someone to turtle does give you points.
This begs the question, how can we shift our training to adapt to this ruleset? How can we be good wrestlers even if we suck at shooting?
Climb to control the spine
Here’s PJ Barch is trying to take Tommy Langaker down:
Barch uses an ankle pick to start a takedown exchange and climb to a rear waist lock. Barch uses the waist lock to slow the action down and control the scramble. Barch finally was awarded points when he got a second hook in on the back. If Barch had stayed low on the leg he would have lost control of the position and never received points.
In general, it’s hard to control positions in no gi because we lack the grips that the gi affords. When possible safely climb limbs until you can control both sides of an opponent’s spine, whether you’re on the feet or the floor.
Keep your hips high and scramble longer
As mentioned earlier, the ADCC World Championships doesn’t award points to people whose opponents turtle when they get taken down. That means you have a relatively safe route to escape every time your opponent takes you down.
Here we see Diego Oliveria prevent a takedown from being scored by going to turtle, fighting hands, and standing up:
The easiest time to score in grappling is in transition. You can score sweeps, passes, and takedowns when someone is worried about the threat of a submission. The opposite is true as well.
Sit into follow-up action aggressively
You aren’t penalized for showing your back to the floor. There’s no reason why you can’t grab a leg, sit to single leg X, and sweep or submit immediately. Here is Garry Tonon doing just that in an MMA fight.
You can use that same transition from shooting a single leg to single leg X to set up sweeps and wrestle-ups as well. Here Lachlan Giles uses single leg X to push his opponent away, stand-up, and reverse positions. As long as his hips weren’t grounded for a few second he didn’t get scored on.
Here we see another variation of guard pulling directly into getting on top. Nick “Chewy” Albin pushes into his opponent, gets them to push back, pulls his opponent on top of him, and uses the momentum to hit an easy butterfly sweep and get on top.
Gi or no gi, the principle is the same.
Let’s get back to the title of this article and ask a question, why do jiu-jitsu athletes suck at wrestling? Because they’re not actually wrestling for jiu-jitsu. The practice room never adopts rules and scoring that make sense for jiu-jitsu people and they get stuck with shitty middle school level single and double leg takedowns.
Next time you train wrestling, don’t stop when your hips hit the floor. Engage more, scramble longer, and don’t be afraid to pull your opponent into sweeps and submissions. Just make sure everyone knows the rules that actually matter.
Thanks for reading!
If you guys enjoyed this article, make sure to check out William’s blog.
In addition to blogging, William creates digital products that help you learn, teach, and be better at Jiu-Jitsu.
If you’re a coach, be sure to check out the “Jiu-Jitsu Coach Operating System”—you won’t regret it. I spent some time today digging through and I’m going to start using it to plan my own training and my curriculum for my classes starting this week.
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