Home Science Education A Case-Study of MMA Wrestling: How was an Olympic Silver Medalist Out...

A Case-Study of MMA Wrestling: How was an Olympic Silver Medalist Out Wrestled?

Photo via Groundandpound.de

This breakdown is a collaboration between Lawrence Kenshin (SciFighting’s Striking Analyst) and Steve Sohanaki (SciFighting’s Wrestling Analyst). Throughout the bout, we heard Kenny Florian mention Yoel Romero as the most accomplished wrestler to compete in MMA. Minutes later, we saw Derek Brunson display why MMA wrestling is a totally different range.

In writing this article, we hope to dissect why in MMA, wrestling and striking doesn’t exist in a vacuum. To do so, we asked ourselves a few questions: 1. If it did exist in a vacuum, what difficulties would it encounter? 2. How does striking (punching) co-exist with grappling (takedowns) in MMA?

Hand positioning

Lawrence Kenshin: Despite the disparity in the two fighter’s height (Romero: 5’10 ; Brunson 6’1), the image below displays Brunson keeping his hands lower and more relaxed. Throughout the bout, Brunson would adjust his hand positioning and Romero would keep it high (at times even higher).

This is neglecting the importance of combining striking defence with defensive wrestling — a consistently stiff high-guard is problematic in MMA for this very reason. Brunson would employ high guard only momentarily when necessary, where as Romero would employ high-lead and rear-hand guard consistently (while still eating shots).

Having the hands placed high means increasing the timeframe for underhooks as well as increasing the distance to reach for takedowns. If one were to look at any wrestling clip, it’d be easy to spot that this is not a natural stance for any wrestler.

Scramble 1: GIF of Takedown Setup

Lawrence Kenshin: in the GIF above, you can see that Brunson went for a long range 1-2 which made him back up with a high guard. Romero loses balance momentarily and then tries to regain position while attempting to regain a higher-guard. Seeing this, Brunson changes levels and shoots for the hips. 

Steve Sohanaki: Despite it being a very long range shot, the takedown was very well timed. Shooting from far out has its risks. But if timed correctly, it can be very effective.

Steve Sohanaki: As you can see in the photo above, after Brunson’s 1-2 combo, Romero is off-balanced and without a proper stance. While he backed away from Brunson’s punches, Romero abandons his stance, leaving his hips open to be shot on.

To make things worse for Romero, he’s almost backed up against the cage, leaving very little room for him to maneuver.

Lawrence Kenshin: Notice the hand-positioning of both fighters in the images above and below. In the image below, Romero is still expecting punches

Steve Sohanaki: Now, Romero has chosen to circle away from Brunson by moving to his right. During his movement, Romero hips are open. Brunson on the other hand is already changing levels to blast Romero with his double leg. With the back too close to the cage, maneuverability is reduced, and he became very vulnerable to be shot on for a takedown.

Lawrence Kenshin: With Romero’s stance being compromised by strikes moments before, he felt the need to regain hand defence for blocking — the primary defensive boxing that Romero employs.

Steve Sohanaki: By this frame, Brunson is in deep on Romero’s hips and legs with his shot. Romero didn’t sprawl because he was both out of position and not expecting a takedown. All of his defenses have been breached: no sprawl, no underhooks, he’s lacking balance, bending over Brunson, and not applying any pressure with his hips to try to stop his shot. 

Steve Sohanaki: Here, Romero is trying to kick his legs back and sprawl, but he’s having trouble because there’s no space behind him to extend his legs. He’s already backed up into the cage. He tries to defend the shot with a crossface and an overhook to loosen Brunson’s hold on him, but Brunson is already in very deep on that double leg.

Steve Sohanaki: Here, it’s evident that Romero’s last attempts to defend the take down are too little, too late. Romero’s sprawl failed, and Brunson is pulling his hips close to his body so he can lift him up for a slam.

Steve Sohanaki: By this point, Romero’s feet are off the ground and Brunson is in complete control. The scramble has reached the point where the takedown is inevitable.

Scramble 2

Our next scramble of the the first round begins when Brunson knocks Romero down and then tries to get behind him.

Steve Sohanaki: Romero has just been knocked down.

Screen Shot 2014-01-17 at 7.11.53 PM

Steve Sohanaki: Romero has based out and Brunson is trying to jump behind him to get back control.

Steve Sohanaki: In reaction to Brunson trying to take his back, Romero immediately stands up. Brunson tries to control him by locking his hands around his waist.

Steve Sohanaki: Anytime somebody gets behind you and locks both hands around your waist, you should immediately start fighting the hands. That’s exactly what Romero does, but he forgets to do something else. Instead of pushing his hips out to increase the distance between his hips and Brunson’s, he keeps his hips in which allows Brunson to maintain control over his body and bully him against the cage.

Steve Sohanaki: Here, Brunson has managed to push Romero up against the cage.

Steve Sohanaki: Romero goes for a standing kimura, but fails to break Brunson’s grip, leaving him vulnerable to being picked up and slammed.

Elbow Off a Level Change: [GIF]

Lawrence Kenshin: In this gif, you see Romero threaten the level change. But without setting up successful strikes to make Brunson stand tall, Brunson knew that the level change meant a takedown attempt. So when Romero changed levels, Brunson places his lead-hand on the shoulder of Romero for control, and unleashed a rear-elbow.

Scramble 3:

Steve Sohanaki: Brunson sets up a double leg by throwing a hard jab forcing Romero to put his hands up to block. This leaves his hips wide open. Brunson immediately level changes after throwing the punch.

Steve Sohanaki: Brunson attempts his double leg but Romero quickly sprawls his hips and legs back. He’s also controlling Brunson’s head by pushing it down with his hands and putting his weight on him.

Lawrence Kenshin: By this point, Brunson was breathing heavy and noticeably slowing down. Romero was showcasing his world class conditioning and picking up the pace. From here, Romero started to land a variety of shots: flying knee, hooks, and body shots.

Takedown Setup [GIF]: 

Lawrence Kenshin: Throwing the rear-hand (and landing) is a great way to setup a takedown. As highlighted by Jack Slack, this is coined the “punch and clutch”. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it — it’s one of Jack’s best pieces.

In addition to the points Jack made, it’s worth noting that straight punches force the opponent to stand taller. Upon impact, the head is pushed back and an extra time-frame will be made available for the takedown. This is a part of why GSP has been so successful in creating takedowns: his jabs make his opponents stand taller and forces them to adjust their center-of-gravity.

Off the rear-hand, there’s some advantages too — such as having both hands closer to the opponent. The mechanics of a one-way rear-hand strike (cross) allows one to lower the lead-hand so that it’s made ready to grab the legs. Notice Brunson’s lead-hand positioning as he throws the left-straight [GIF].

Steve Sohanaki: Romero offered no defense against Brunson’s double leg: no underhooks, no sprawl, and no hip pressure. Therefore, he was easily taken down.

Takedown Off a Slip

Steve Sohanaki: Finally, Romero attempts a double leg. Brunson throws a heavy jab and Romero beautifully ducks under it and level changes.

Lawrence Kenshin: Successful grappling (even in kickboxing and boxing) is engaged through competent punch defence. A lot of clinch engagements are done off the slip, and it’s no coincidence that many takedowns are also setup off a slip.

This is yet another reason why the “Sweet Science” is paramount to the success of a wrestler. It’s not a coincidence that GSP strongly values the sweet science, has the best jab, and knows very well how to deal with straight strikes defensively. Here’s a youtube highlight of his takedowns, with many of his setups.


The rest of the bout demonstrates why the gas tank is so important. Romero was able to keep walking forward until Brunson ran out of steam. This was the ending [GIF]. A high hand-positioning is a line-of-defence, but how the fight ended will tell you that proper feet-positioning is even more important.

Above all though, the main point we’d like to make is that the “Sweet Science”, in MMA, is integral and practically synonymous with successful grappling on the feet.


Thank you for reading. If you liked this breakdown, please let us know so that we may consistently collaborate. To stay updated on future articles, simply us on Twitter or add us on Facebook: the links are located below.