While UFC 175 might be billed somewhat as a United States versus Brazil matchup, what the Chris Weidman and Lyoto Machida UFC middleweight title bout will really feature is a stark contrast in styles.
Machida is one of the UFC’s deadliest strikers, but middleweight champion Weidman (11-0) has fashioned himself into a very capable striker and skilled jiu-jitsu artist under the careful tutelage of renowned trainer Ray Longo and former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra. As we’ve seen in his past three fights, Weidman’s striking does not lag behind the competition.
Having said that, Weidman’s base discipline remains wrestling. It is the bedrock on which the rest of his game is built.
An All-American wrestler at Hofstra University, Weidman has relied on his ability to take his opponents down. Once down, the ability to control the fight’s pace and direction is a game-changer. Opponents must plan against that, especially those with less experience in wrestling and grappling.
It is little wonder why six of the nine UFC champions can claim wrestling as their base discipline. Demetrious Johnson (flyweight), TJ Dillashaw (bantamweight), Johny Hendricks (welterweight), Weidman (middleweight), Jon Jones (light heavyweight) and Cain Velasquez (heavyweight) were all accomplished wrestlers before joining the UFC.
Has the reign of wrestlers arrived? It most certainly looks like it. This is not to say the aforementioned champions are one-trick ponies. Indeed, as champions, they are the most skilled and well-rounded fighters, possessing complete striking repertoires along with their grappling games. They’ve earned their belts mainly with a clenched fist, not an ankle lock.
That wrestling background offers all sorts of technical advantages, says Weidman; many of the other martial arts do not including leverage, body-weight positioning.
“In other martial arts there are similar things, but none of them are as brutal as wrestling,” he said.
Wrestlers also can often dictate where the fight goes.
“If you have a wrestling advantage in a fight, you have the clear option of keeping the fight on the feet or taking it down to the ground. There’s a lot of control in that,” Weidman said. “That is huge.”
But more than that, he believes this reign of wrestlers starts with the psychological advantages. The mental toughness and work ethic that accompany years of wrestling is unparalleled in mixed martial arts, he said.
“I think the commitment and the discipline you need to have to succeed in wrestling is in close measure second to none,” Weidman said. “It’s a whole other planet. So now that I’m training all MMA techniques, when I get to my wrestling training sometimes I can’t believe I wrestled for as long as I did because it actually hurts -- and you have to have that mindset of pushing past the pain. The grind of wrestling is like no other martial art, especially at the Division I level.”
Indeed, Weidman says that many fellow MMA fighters who did not train in wrestling almost always wish they did.
“No question. Every guy I talk to in MMA who didn’t wrestle growing up always says to me, ‘I wish I wrestled in high school,' " he said. “It really should be the base for every MMA fighter’s game. There’s a certain mentality with wrestling. You want to mentally and physically break your opponent.”
If you do that -- as the UFC’s current champion monarchy attests -- you win.
“I’d bet any guy in the UFC who didn’t wrestle wishes he did. It’s just one of those things that if you do it from an early age, that brutal mentality gets ingrained in you, to be relentless and apply constant pressure. Most guys who don’t have that background come to wrestlers for help.”
That includes training in how to effectively cut weight.
“I think most guys that come in from other backgrounds ask wrestlers to help them with this,” Weidman said. “I help guys cut weight all the time because I’ve had so much experience with it.”
Weidman’s wrestling skill, however, doesn’t mean he can take it for granted. The UFC landscape is littered with fighters who forsook their base discipline in order to improve in another. They reduce the time they devote to it, sometimes not practicing it at all for the sake of polishing other skills. Weidman makes it mandatory to practice wrestling at least two or three times a week.
“I think a lot of people in the UFC past have made that mistake, thinking ‘OK, I’m already a good wrestler, I’m going to just really focus on the other aspects of mixed martial arts.' But we’ve seen in the history of the UFC how that can really take away from what they started with -- their wrestling," he said. "And you don’t want to repeat the same mistakes other people have made.”
Among the collegiate and high school wrestlers he has come into contact with over the years, Weidman believes there is a healthy pipeline of wrestlers heading into mixed martial arts. But just as wrestling offers many advantages within MMA, not every wrestler is cut out to be an MMA fighter.
“Yeah, wrestling might be the best foundation for an MMA fighter, but I know so many guys who tried MMA and it doesn’t work out for them," he said. "You might watch the kid and think he’d be perfect for it, and it turns out he doesn’t like getting hit in the face.
“But most importantly, I think anyone who wants to be an MMA fighter has to be open-minded. I’ve seen guys who are amazing wrestlers, but they come into the sport thinking, ‘I know wrestling, so I’m just going to take everybody down' until they meet a guy who can stop the takedown . . . and you’re in trouble.
"You have to be open-minded -- that’s what MMA is all about -- mixing all the disciplines together. From day one, I started with that mentality, which is the main reason for my success in MMA.”