In part one of this article, I explained the basic errors in the current stand-up training of the vast majority of MMA strikers. In part two I will cover how it is a direct result of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Olympic wrestling. It’s no news to anyone that the first four American MMA events, UFCs 1-4, were basically an advertisement for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Royce Gracie (14-3-3) faced a group of hand picked opponents, many of whom had no business being in the ring at all. The result was Royce winning several fights by submission, fights that couldn’t be stopped by the referee until UFC 3. Starting with Kimo Leopoldo (10-7-1) in UFC 3, “The Giant Killer” Keith Hackney (2-2) and “The Beast” Dan Severn (95-16-7) in UFC 4 and finally “The Worlds Most Dangerous Man” Ken Shamrock (27-14-2) in UFC 5, the way to defeat Gracie Jiu-Jitsu became apparent. Either keep it standing as Hackney and Kimo tried (Kimo tried to stand out of the guard the entire bout but Royce kept a death grip on his hair to prevent it) or smother it with solid top game and game and small ground ‘n’ pound as Severn and Shamrock (successfully) tried. It is also important to note that though Royce defeated Kimo, Keith, and Dan, he failed to finish any of them quickly enough to avoid the end of a round in the modern rules. UFC 5 started the reign of the wrestler in full as Dan Severn dominated the entire field and Ken Shamrock shut Gracie down a beat him to a pulp for 36 minutes. Over the next several tournaments, we saw it continue as strong collegiate wrestlers like “The Predator” Don Frye (20-8-1), “The Hammer” Mark Coleman (16-10), and “The Smashing Machine” Mark Kerr (15-11). Successful skilled strikers like “Mo” Maurice Smith (13-13) and “The King of the Streets” Marco Ruas (9-4-1) got lost in the mix, with the only credit for being a dangerous striker being given to one punch brawlers like “Tank” David Abbot (10-14) and “The Polar Bear” Paul Varelans (10-9) neither of whom managed to win a title in any organization or put together winning streaks of more than two fights in their careers. Let’s explore why this happened. According to the Ultimate Gracie documentary on Spike TV (which was more of a fluff piece than a documentary), the UFC came about when Art Davie saw the underground videos of the Gracie family taking on all comers in their gym. They paired with SEG to launch the first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 in Denver, Colorado in what would essentially be a massive advertisement for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. In fact lets quickly run down the UFC 1 field. Gerard Gordeau (2-2) was billed as a Savate champion and bare knuckle champion, none of his accomplishments can be verified and he has, in fact, made several claims to titles and other achievements of which there is no record. Kevin Rosier was a retired super-heavyweight kick boxer who had only three weeks notice to get back in shape. Zane Frazier was a local Kempo black belt who earned his spot by beating con artist Frank Dux in a dojo fight. Teila Tuli, a sumo who failed to even make the professional sumo ranks. “One Glove” Art Jimmerson was a boxer who admitted that he showed up only to collect a $15,000 pay check and finally, the only two men with any business being there were Ken Shamrock and Sabaki Challenge champion Patrick Smith (18-14). The larger and more dangerous strikers were kept on the bracket opposite Gracie, ensuring they would sustain heavy damage before making the finals.
Unfortunately, very little of this was known or even easily discoverable in the days of very limited Internet resources of the early 1990s. The result was Royce Gracie defeating the “Worlds Best” with his mythical Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Everybody wanted to learn this ultimate style. Terms like “the riddle of the guard” were thrown about by the commentators who were more accurately dubbed Gracie cheerleaders. Even when Kimo Leopoldo was raining blows into Royce’s face with reckless abandon the commentary team spoke of it as if getting beaten into the mat was all part of the Gracie plan and the crowd ate it up. By UFC 5, everyone wanted to learn jiu-jitsu. Who needed to learn punches and kicks? After all, these kicks, punches, knees, and elbows that had been developed for centuries by every nation on earth were obviously useless against and inferior to the magic of the Gracie guard. Just look how these great martial arts masters no one had ever heard of were falling to them. The myth of Gracie invincibility lasted even through the years after he had left the UFC. Everyone trained jiu-jitsu, even the fighters that won in other ways did so only because they knew enough jiu-jitsu to not get submitted. Then came the wrestlers.
The first example of just how efficiently wrestling nullified jiu-jitsu is one of the most overlooked fights in UFC history: Kieth Hackney vs Royce Gracie. For five and a half minutes Hackney did what we now call sprawl and brawl. When Gracie was finally forced to pull guard in order to stop the beating he was taking, Hackney used good top control to stifle Gracie’s submission attempts until Royce finally managed to get an arm bar locked at 5:43…almost a minute longer than a modern round would have ended. This was overshadowed by the next fight with Dan Severn, who’s wrestling was good enough to render Gracie Jiu-Jitsu useless for over 15 minutes…longer than a modern bout. The only reason Gracie managed to survive long enough to secure his triangle choke was the fact that Dan had no real way to finish him. He didn’t know how to throw a damaging punch. Then came Ken Shamrock. He turned his super fight with Gracie into a 36 minute wrestling clinic and had the punching technique to stop Gracie from doing anything but defend. In the end, Gracie looked like the elephant man due to the facial swelling. Knowing he would lose against the next wrestler he faced, Royce left the UFC.
From Spring 1995 to Summer 1996, the UFC held 7 events that, while still biased toward the ground style fighters were in a bit of a limbo state when it came to which style or training was best. The big names no longer fought often in the tournaments and those who did were more practitioners of a hodgepodge of styles with no real mastery or even expertise in any one area. The end came in July 1996 when “The Hammer” Mark Coleman stepped in the cage for UFC 10. This was the last UFC to see major Pay-Per-View broadcast and as a result, it set the dominance of Mark Coleman’s wrestling in the minds of fans and aspiring fighters alike. Again striking was overlooked by trainers. Kicks and punches? Combination? You can’t throw more than one or two punches or kicks, you’ll get taken down! Very few fans actually got to see Maurice Smith sprawl and brawl his way to a win over Coleman, or Pete Williams blast him with a head kick in overtime.
To finally get to my point, The failings of striking in MMA are a direct result of its roots. The early UFC was a commercial for jiu-jitsu from a family whose entire philosophy was that strikes were unnecessary when you had submissions. It’s the same family that did everything they could to ensure their chosen fighter wouldn’t have to face a truly devastating striker in his prime to prove it. Then came the wrestlers who saw the Gracie style and knew they had the base to stop its submissions. Wrestling is safe, you can take a man down and as long as you don’t open any holes by attacking, you can lay on a man all day and grab a decision. The strikers that took the spotlight as KO artists were all frequently extolled for their wrestling abilities (i.e. “The Ice Man” Chuck Liddell (21-8) who “uses his phenomenal wrestling to keep the fight standing where he can land that big right hand”). The few exceptions are treated as “Phenoms” or “prodigies.” Now that MMA has reached a point where your popularity with the casual, KO craving fan, is more important than your record, we see that fighters are being force to stand-up for at least some of the fight in order to move up the title ladder. The result is a wealth of BJJ and wrestling gyms teaching fighters how to throw a jab, a cross, a hook, and a leg kick in one or two strike groupings with no foot work or high level strategy at all. For evidence you need look no further than Vitor Belfort, Lyoto Machida, and Anderson Silva, three strikers that use refined basic stand-up to destroy opponents that are little more than wrestlers with a good left hook. They are called unorthodox or unusual, but when you play their video next to a video of almost any K-1 fighter, you see a striking similarity (pun intended). When “Cro Cop” Mirko Filipovik (27-8-2) destroys an opponent they talk about how he is a legend who brought high level kickboxing into MMA, remember that Marco Ruas and Maurice Smith used the very same style of striking before Mirko ever stepped in PRIDE’s ring. Its not new, its not unorthodox, they aren’t “odd angles”, its just the very basic fundamentals of striking that MMA forgot and MMA’s fans were trained to ignore and the first MMA camp that remembers what was forgotten will become the new Lion’s Den or Jackson’s Submission Fighting as they unleash a horde of fighters that Joe Rogan will undoubtedly say “train in the use of such odd angles and unusual movements and foot work that other fighters just can’t figure out.”