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The Dynamics of the Striker-Grappler Matchup

By on May 5, 2010

paul daleyThe trash talk between English kickboxing specialist Paul Daley and former NCAA wrestling champion Josh Koscheck has brought to light a very popular trend in the lead-up to striker-grappler matchups.  It used to be that grapplers would make no apologies in planting strikers on their backs and taking advantage of their lessened skills on the mat.  Royce Gracie made that quite clear with his dismantling of the grappling-deficient opposition in the first few UFC events years ago.

However, while the sport has evolved, the way that both strikers and grapplers look at their disciplines has changed greatly.  If you need proof, look no further than Koscheck.  More than most of his fellow wrestlers, he has worked tirelessly to add a stand-up component to his game that approaches his wrestling in terms of skill.  Of course, he has a long way to go in that regard, which says more about his wrestling credentials than about his stand-up, which has come along nicely.

Still, one has to wonder why grapplers are often almost ashamed of their wrestling backgrounds.  You do not see this so much with jiu-jitsu players, although you will get a Jorge Gurgel every now and then who is content to have “stand-up wars” while letting their black belts collect dust.  However, it is clearly the negative stigma against wrestlers and their supposed “lay and pray” tactics that may partially fuel fighters like Koscheck to keep fights out of their most effective realm.

While fans clearly are not appreciative of the famous “butt-scoot” that jiu-jitsu based fighters use when they have no luck taking down opposing fighters, one-dimensional fighters with kickboxing or jiu-jitsu backgrounds are not subjected to the kind of scorn that wrestlers are.  One pretty good reason for this is that both stand-up fighters and jiu-jitsu players come into the sport with skills that can lead directly to finishing a fight.  With the exception of the possibility of ground and pound stoppages, wrestlers can’t use the techniques that they have acquired to end fights, but rather just to control them.  Thus, it makes sense in a way that fans are not as enamored with fighters who come into the sport with “just” wrestling.

Still, at what point did fighters with wrestling backgrounds begin to “believe the hype” and start to feel somewhat ashamed of the way that they compete?  You see it all the time- Rashad Evans apologized for his win over Thiago Silva not too long ago, and Koscheck got himself knocked out by Paulo Thiago because he fell in love with kickboxing instead of using his wrestling to control the bout.  Even fighters without excellent wrestling pedigrees get into the act.  Who can forget the build-up to the fight between Marcus Davis and Chris Lytle, when Davis joked that whoever took the fight to the ground first was a “pussy”?

With that last example and many others, though, you can’t overlook another reason why grapplers fall in love with the stand-up portion of MMA: it’s fun.  Wrestlers who worked for most of their lives on one set of skills suddenly get to learn a new craft, and one that involves punching and kicking opponents in the face, at that.  All it takes is a look at Koscheck or Evans after their devastating knockouts of opponents Yoshiyuki Yoshida and Sean Salmon to see which wins are more appreciated by the fighters themselves.  You definitely don’t get that kind of reaction from a dominant decision victory.

Whatever the reasons are for the occasional anti-wrestling sentiment in MMA, what is interesting is how this has all actually affected the outcomes of bouts themselves.  When fighters are visibly worried about how their fights are being perceived by fans and media, to the point of even apologizing for wins where they don’t finish the fight or “make it exciting for the fans”, you can see what is going to happen.  Wrestlers start trying out their new stand-up skills, like Koscheck did with Thiago.  The problem is that even good strikers get caught, and there is always the chance of that happening in an MMA fight were the competitors are content to stand and trade strikes with one another.

This all brings us back to Daley-Koscheck.  Daley has taken to saying that Koscheck is “not a fighter”, but instead that he is an athlete.  This has become a popular low blow for striking specialists to hit fighters with elite wrestling with before the bout; we’ve seen it used against Georges St. Pierre in the past, as well.  Does Daley really, truly believe that Koscheck is not a fighter?  I would hope not.  The guy punches people in the face for a living inside a cage- I don’t know what other qualifications there could be.

What Daley really means, though, whether he’s saying it or not, is that Koscheck is not really a man.  After all, a man stands toe-to-toe and trades strikes, right?  What else is a takedown than an act of fear that is used to put the more dangerous fighter on his back where he can’t hurt you, right?

This is what Daley would have Koscheck, you, and I believe.  Again, does he really believe what he’s saying?  I don’t know whether he does or not.  Either way, he is saying these things for a reason.  And that reason, of course, is that he wants Koscheck to take the bait and stand up with him, rather than planting him on his back repeatedly over fifteen minutes.

It’s a smart strategy that Koscheck must be able to avoid giving into.  Daley is certainly well aware that the sport that he competes in is mixed martial arts, not kickboxing.  There is no reason why Koscheck should have to prove that he is better than Daley at his specialty.  If Koscheck were to start criticizing Daley’s wrestling, saying things like, “there’s no way that Daley will try to take me down, he’s too scared,” we would all want him to be tested for hallucinogens.  Yet, somehow, wrestlers get tricked into standing with dangerous opponents instead of using their skills to put the fight where they have an advantage on a regular basis.

If Koscheck really wants to get to where St. Pierre is at, he’s going to have to do what St. Pierre does: ignore the attempts of opponents to pull his “man card” with ridiculous assessments of his fighting spirit, and stick to what he does best.  He will have to do what Evans should have done after his fight with Silva- flip the tables on him.  Say that if he wanted to stand up, he should have worked on his takedown defense.  All the while, he must not be ashamed of the skills that got him to where he is.  He will have a choice to make this weekend, and throughout the rest of his career.  Does he want to be a champion, or just a crowd-pleasing slugger?

E-Mail Jon Hartley

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