By Michael Schiavello, HDNet
Every MMA fan, commentator and reporter has found themselves in a discussion as to who are the best fighters to watch, which is different from a discussion about who are the best fighters period. Being one of the best fighters to watch does not necessarily equate to being one of the best fighters in terms of winning accomplishments.
Take Melvin Manhoef for example. Few would argue that Melvin is one of the best fighters to watch because he always brings the proverbial rage to the ring. His most attractive asset is his raw, explosive, unhindered power with little care for defense ? which, unfortunately, is often his undoing. Melvin will never be classified as one of the best MMA fighters in the world, but he will always be listed as one of the best to watch.
Of course, there are fighters who double up as being the best to watch and also the actual best in skill level and results. Look no further than Fedor Emelianenko as the prime example.
Fedor is largely considered one of the best fighters to watch because he possesses a skill set most of us believe encapsulates the true and complete MMA fighter: he can fight equally well standing or on the ground, on his back or in top position, he finishes fights by both submissions and strikes ? and does so in highlight reel fashion. On top of that, he epitomizes the attributes of humility, focus and discipline that traditional martial arts seeks to ingrain in its students. You get the feeling that the late Mas Oyama, Gichin Funakoshi or even Jigaro Kano would have enjoyed watching Fedor do as he does in the ring and act as he does outside of the ring. (For the record, if you?re wondering who the hell are any of the names I just mentioned, you should Google and really become better versed as to where and by whom the many styles of martial arts were developed. It?s a pet hate of mine that many so-called Mixed Martial Arts reporters do not know much at all of the origins of the various arts beyond a basic knowledge of Helio Gracie, Bruce Lee and old Kung Fu films).
Anderson Silva is another fighter invariably thrown into the mix as being among the best to watch and the best fighter in the sport. Take away his mind-numbingly boring fight in Abu Dhabi and Anderson?s career is littered with superb knockouts, excellent submissions and some of the most sublime displays of speed and footwork ever seen in MMA.
Other names that often arise in these discussions include: Lyoto Machida, Marius Zaromskis, Nick Diaz, Gegard Mousasi, Forrest Griffin, Wanderlei Silva, Vitor Belfort, Joachim Hansen and JZ Cavalcante.
Do you notice something about this list?
None of these fighters have a base in wrestling.
Wrestlers are among the most disciplined, hardest working and diligent athletes in any sport. I marvel at the skill level of world class wrestlers who have transitioned successfully to Mixed Martial Arts, from guys like Mark Coleman and Dan Severn in the early days who developed the prototype for the successful American wrestler in MMA. Their takedowns, top control, ground and pound recipe (I call it TD, TC, GnP) paved the way for the likes of Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and Matt Hughes, right up to the new breed of gun wrestlers like Brock Lesnar, Joe Warren, Mo Lawal, Gray Maynard and Ryan Bader. In fact, with the exception of Semmy Schilt facing you in a K-1 match, I can?t think of a more imposing sight in fight sports than a high level American wrestler standing across the ring from you knowing they are going to take you down, put you on your back, sit in your half guard and beat up on you like a pi?ata.
This game plan, pioneered by the Colemans and Severns remains the basic, successful recipe for American wrestlers in MMA today. The question is: does this recipe make for less exciting spectacles of MMA? Indeed a further question could be: have American wrestlers taken the martial arts out of Mixed Martial Arts? (as a side note, I never actually liked the phrase Mixed Martial Arts. Boxing is not a martial art, nor is wrestling, nor is street fighting, yet we have Mixed ?Martial Artists? competing from these backgrounds. The name MMA was coined by Rick Blume [some say Jeff Blatnick] but I always thought Mixed Fight Sports (MFS) or Mixed Combat Sports (MCS) would be a far more suitable name).
Is watching someone like Shinya Aoki or BJ Penn who constantly looks for submissions ultimately more entertaining than watching Gray Maynard or Matt Hamill who utilize classic TD, TC, GnP games? Are strikers who swing for the knockouts like Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva or Melvin Manhoef more entertaining than those who utilize the American wrestling recipe? What about fighters who successfully merge a superb ground game with excellent striking such as Anderson Silva, Gegard Mousasi and Georges St Pierre?
The most recent example of classic TD, TC, GnP saw King Mo Lawal defeat Gegard Mousasi to win the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight strap. Aesthetically and from an entertainment viewpoint, it wasn?t the most nipple-hardening fight to watch. For practicality, however, King Mo?s game plan worked a treat. He thoroughly deserved to have the strap placed around his waist after five rounds. The same goes for Gilbert Melendez in defeating Shinya Aoki for the Strikeforce Lightweight title.
These two fights in particular had many fans groaning about how American wrestling is taking all the fun out of Mixed Martial Arts. How the TD, TC, GnP approach is killing inventiveness and ingenuity.
Indeed with the dominance of fighters like King Mo, Melendez, Brock Lesnar and let?s not forget Frankie Edgar defeating BJ Penn, there are many who prophesize with Mayan-esque assuredness that wrestlers will stall the growth of MMA, especially as a television spectacle. But the question needs to be asked: is this the wrestlers? fault? Should the finger of blame be pointed at the ?ground and pound wrestlers who just go for takedown after takedown, get top position and play it safe? or at fighters like Aoki and Mousasi for failing to develop good takedown defenses against said wrestlers?
I want to make note here also that there is a marked difference between American MMA and Japanese MMA mostly due to the overwhelming influence of American wrestling. Americans grow up wrestling in high school and college where the American wrestling MMA recipe (TD, TC, GnP) is first developed. Japanese kids, however, grow up with Judo, which incorporates many submission moves you may know by their English names. These include: triangle choke (sankaku-jime); arm bar (ude-hishigi-juji-gatame) and others. This may be the reason why there is a higher output of submission victories in Japanese MMA than there is in American MMA but a higher output of victories from ground and pound in American MMA than in Japanese MMA.
Like any fight sport, MMA goes through cycles and is in a constant state of evolution. As the sport evolves, fighters must be on top of their games to constantly reassess their strategies and realize the changes that are taking place.
If nobody had ever thought to unravel what Jeff Blatnick used to call the ?riddle of the Gracie guard?, then Royce and his brothers and cousins and second cousins and uncle?s son?s third cousins five times removed, would still be dominating the UFC to this day.
If fighters like Maurice Smith had not developed the technique of sprawl-n-brawl, there wouldn?t be such a plethora of strikers taking part in the MMA game. (Some credit Chuck Liddell as the sprawl-n-brawl inventor, but it was Maurice Smith who came in as the world?s (then) greatest ever heavyweight kickboxing champion [9 years undefeated as WKA champion] and a former K-1 fighter and had UFC success by way of sprawl-n-brawl.)
If Mark Coleman and Dan Severn never developed good TD, TC, GnP games, there wouldn?t have been a game outside of either just stand-up or just submissions.
Fighters like Anderson Silva, Georges St Pierre, Gegard Mousasi, Fedor Emelianenko and Lyoto Machida continue to put the martial arts into Mixed Martial Arts and showcase the type of amazing, all-round, multi-skilled and high-level athlete this sport can produce. And more than ever before, it is the likes of Silva, Fedor, Mousasi, and St Pierre who must not rest on their laurels (as perhaps Mousasi did in preparing for King Mo) and need to keep working hard to maintain that edge, knowing that America?s superb and powerful wrestlers are the next wave to hit MMA (just as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was the first wave) and they can either learn how to surf that wave to victory or be drowned beneath its force.