(Originally published at Fightland)
Which is a better background for MMA, freestyle wrestling or Greco-Roman wrestling? It seems to be a nearly unanimous opinion that wrestling, particularly at the collegiate and international levels, is the best background for professional MMA; but what about the specific wrestling styles? Which is a better background to have, Greco-Roman, collegiate or freestyle? For the purposes of this article, collegiate wrestling, also known as scholastic or folk, will be lumped in with freestyle on the grounds that although the two styles have different rules, freestyle and collegiate, share enough similarity so as to not really constitute two different styles, when compared with Greco-Roman wrestling.
Greco-Roman wrestling is more popular in continental Europe than it is in the USA. The main thing that distinguishes Greco-Roman from both freestyle and collegiate wrestling is that Greco-Roman forbids wrestlers from grabbing below the waist i.e. the legs and forbids them from attacking with the legs to trip, grapevine (getting hooks in) etc. In the name of oversimplification, Greco-Roman wrestling can be described, for lack of better descriptors, as a form of No-Gi Judo, minus the submissions and foot sweeps. Greco-Roman wrestling emphasizes throwing, slamming, lifting and pinning. UFC fighters with backgrounds in international level Greco-Roman wrestling include but are not limited to: Dan Severn, Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen and Matt Lindland.
Freestyle and collegiate, on the other hand, allow for attacks against and using the lower extremities. Collegiate and freestyle are separated by different rules; for example, collegiate wrestlers aren’t allowed to lock hands under an opponent that is not standing on their feet; slamming is also illegal. In some sense, collegiate wrestling is a safer, student friendly, form of freestyle wrestling, though by no means less grueling or competitive. Freestyle wrestling, for lack of better descriptors, can be likened to No-Gi Brazilian jiu-jitsu, minus the guard and the submissions, focusing on shooting for the legs, grape vining and pinning. Freestyle and collegiate wrestlers in the UFC include but are not limited to: Mark Coleman, Mark Kerr, Kevin Randleman, Brock Lesnar, Tito Ortiz, Rashad Evans, Matt Hughes, Chris Weidman, Johny Hendricks, Cain Velasquez and Uriah Faber. In truth, everyone in the Greco-Roman list could also be added to the freestyle or collegiate list on the grounds that they came up wrestling collegiate and freestyle in both high school and college.
On the face of it, it would seem that freestyle and collegiate wrestling have the greatest transferability to MMA. As I have noted elsewhere, in MMA, slightly more than half of all takedowns are done with the double leg and single leg takedowns; compare that to the NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Finals, where from 2012-2014, 50% of successful takedowns were single leg and double leg takedowns. The most successful takedowns in collegiate wrestling are the most successful takedowns in MMA. The transferability of these more complete wrestling styles is indisputable. Theoretically, experts in Greco-Roman wrestling might be better at fighting in the clinch and slamming. For example, Randy Couture slammed both Chuck Liddell and Gabriel Gonzaga and he managed to successfully take Tim Sylvia down repeatedly, from the clinch. However, this is all anecdotal and does not a scientific inquiry make.
The nature of the question in the opening paragraph deserves a serious study though a superficial look seems to point to freestyle wrestling. When GSP became the best wrestler in the UFC, despite lacking college or even high school wrestling experience, he did so with single leg and double leg takedowns, not the suplex or “jap whizzer”. However, perhaps a better question might be: do Greco-Roman wrestlers fight in ways that mirror Greco-Roman wrestling? Do Greco-Roman wrestlers slam more? Are they more dangerous in the clinch? The only real way to answer that question is by studying the fights of fighters like Chael Sonnen, Randy Couture, Matt Lindland and Dan Henderson then seeing if they really do lift their opponents of their feet more than the likes of Matt Hughes, Cain Velasquez, Johny Hendricks or Tito Ortiz. I suspect that they don’t but Dan Severn did have an awesome suplex. The fact of the matter is freestyle wrestlers in the Olympics shoot and defend shots at the Olympic level while Olympic Greco-Roman wrestlers can’t say the same thing. So when Daniel Cormier fought Dan Henderson, we got what we got. Though Greco-Roman wrestlers have better double and single leg takedowns than their non-wrestling counter parts, largely based on life times of collegiate wrestling, they don’t have better takedowns than their freestyle counterparts who have competed at the same levels. Which is a better background for MMA, freestyle wrestling or Greco-Roman wrestling? Tentative answer: freestyle wrestling.