The Case For Grappling

Rapid stand-ups the wrong direction for MMA to take

It’s sadly ironic to me that one of the few criticisms to emerge from the UFC’s return to Brazil are the quick and questionable stand-ups initiated by referees Mario Yamasaki and Marc Goodard on Saturday night.

In the birthplace of one of the most influential martial arts in the sport and the style that defined the early UFCs, it seemed like grappling was put on a timer and called to a stop the second the natives got restless or the timer ran out, whichever came first. It was as if the refs were counting Mississippis, and if the fighter on the offensive hadn’t reached a certain position by the time they got to three, the fight was stood up.

This trend away from grappling — or at the very least, towards changing the way grappling occurs in the cage — has been gathering momentum as the sport has been gaining followers. As the audiences continue to grow and increasing numbers remain unaware of what is happening on the ground, the time allotted for fighting there continues to decrease.

One Mississippi.

Ground fighters are at a disadvantage the second they step into the cage against a striker. Their opponent begins each fight and every subsequent round where they are most comfortable — standing — an opportunity never afforded to a wrestler or jiu-jitsu player.

Two Mississippi.

What makes matters worse — and will make the sport weaker as it continues to happen — is that grapplers are now being given even less time to ply their trade on the ground after they succeed in bringing the fight into their comfort zone.

Three Mississippi.

There is a vast difference between lay-and-pray and play jiu-jitsu or working to advance a position, but unfortunately, the definition of “keeping busy” is becoming increasing blurry as the boos get louder and referees warn of stand-ups quicker and quicker.

BREAK – stand up!

I’m a huge fan of jiu-jitsu; I think the intricacies of the sport are incredible and the way skilled jiu-jitsu players can set up moves and string together submissions is a thing of beauty. The takedown Demain Maia hit on Chael Sonnen where he landed primed to apply a triangle is still one of my favorite highlights ever. While I know that places me in the minority, I worry that the expedited process of standing up fights and pressuring grapplers to work more quickly is going to be detrimental for the sport in the long run.

Grappling is about position and technique, gaining ground inch-by-inch until you’ve taken a mile. More often than naught, advancing to a dominant position or securing a submission isn’t a quick event; it takes time, planning, and the ability to put in work on the ground.

That time is increasingly being taken away from grapplers because the audience is disinterested in watching the action on the ground or uneducated as to what is taking place. Ground fighters are forced to work under duress, constantly implored to keep busy even though they’re clearly active, the threat of losing the position they’ve worked hard to achieve hovering above them the second they reach the canvas.

Strikers never have to worry about being taken off their feet by the referee, put on their back because they’re not landing enough punches or kicks or failing to press the action at a suitable, but unspoken pace.

Additionally, why is it the grappler’s responsibility to advance the position or attempt a submission in a timely fashion or be penalized with a stand-up? Instead of putting the onus on the man on the offensive to work quicker than they would like, shouldn’t the responsibility fall to the person on their back?

The trend of standing up fighters with increasing quickness makes learning more than basic jiu-jitsu or wrestling optional. While you’ll always need to develop some semblance of takedown defense, the current pattern suggests that instead of learning how to execute a sweep to reverse your position or muster some form of offense off your back, fighters simply need to know how to tie their opponent up and keep them at bay temporarily before they’ll be returned to a more comfortable position.

Again, when does the inverse occur for a jiu-jitsu fighter or wrestler? Both those stylists need to learn how to strike to succeed at the highest levels today, but a striker has the choice to learn the ground game or not without in-fight penalties being of any real concern.

The problem is that most fans want the pay-off but don’t want to sit through the setup. They want to see the submission finish, but can’t be bothered to pay attention to the series of moves that makes it all possible.

What’s curious — perhaps only to me — is that jiu-jitsu was the first art to force an evolution in this sport, but now it feels like there is a movement to minimize its effectiveness and use.

Peoples lack of knowledge and understanding of Gracie jiu-jitsu in the early UFC sent pioneers like Ken Shamrock to the gym to learn. There were no stand-ups back then; you either fought your way to your feet or got submitted, take your pick. It forced them to evolve or be left behind.

Today, we give strikers a third option, a helping hand that has nothing to do with training or technique. Get taken down and don’t know how to get yourself back to your feet? Just clutch and grab as best you can and we’ll stand you back up so you can start again where you’re most comfortable.

I’m acutely aware of the entertainment aspect of the sport and that a majority of fans find an ugly brawl more enjoyable than a technical grappling match.

I also know that infinitely more people paid to see Shia LeBoeuf in a series of Michael Bay movies filled with explosions than have heard of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, but that doesn’t mean that both don’t have their place in my DVD library.

Not every film can be about robots in disguise, and not every fight can be primarily a stand-up battle. You need plot-driven vehicles as much as vehicles that turn into fighting machines, just as you need the occasional bout of grappling artistry to offset the sloppy slugfests of Leonard Garcia.

The onus shouldn’t be on ground fighters to work more quickly or take more risks to deliver the pay-off to the impatient masses; it should be to educate the masses to what they’re seeing so that the playing field remains as even as possible.

It’s never going to be perfectly level — strikers will always have a slight edge — but we’re currently skewing even more in their favor and that will only stifle the growth of the sport, the education of the audience, and the development of the fighters.

We should be promoting the acquisition of more skills, not making it easier to get by without certain elements.