Inspired by Dan Severn's retirement I wanted to look at one of the reasons why some wrestlers have incredible longevity in MMA - clinching ability. It's only a short piece but it's nice to take a break from hyping the next UFC card for a bit!
Hope you don't mind clicking the link and as always all feedback is welcomed.
Something which I have always found to be interesting about wrestlers is the longevity which their art can offer their mixed martial arts careers. Of course there are plenty of examples of great wrestlers who have gone on to become train wrecks, such as Mark Kerr, but the more thought you give it the more you realize that it is the men who can control the action and avoid punishment with their clinches who are able to keep their health throughout lengthier careers than their peers.
Inspired by the retirement of the great Dan Severn at the ripe old age of 54, today I am going to be focusing (rather unusually) on wrestlers. I should clarify that by "wrestler" I don't mean the Kevin Randleman breed of wrestler. Randleman had a vertical jump which looked as if it could be used to escape the octagon, and could shoot a successful double from half way across PRIDE's thirty foot ring but he soon faded. Instead I should substitute the word "clinchers" - for he who controls the clinch controls the match. The man with the better clinching skills and technique in the clinch is able to avoid the punishment that strikes do to a fighter's body and brain.
This rule is universally true in combat sports from MMA to kickboxing to boxing. Even in sports in which it is outlawed to clinch - such as karate and K-1 - it is a useful means to escape a bad situation and will likely be tolerated for a while before the referee does anything about it. Take a quick gander at Floyd Mayweather's clinch heavy performance against Ricky Hatton. Hatton made a career of taking punches to give punches because he hit harder than almost anyone in his division. Every time Mayweather hit Hatton coming in, he was immediately chest to chest and the majority of the time had a good underhook and a good overhook - the classical tie up.
As I said he who controls the clinch controls the fight and Mayweather uses it to pot shot his opponents before immediately getting chest to chest and preventing them from hitting him back. Once the opponent is happy to clinch back, however, Mayweather begins his typical elbow tactics - cross facing his opponent and landing free shots as their hands are in a position of trying to clinch, rather than trying to box. Notice how many times Floyd hits his opponents while he is doing more to wrestle them than boxing.
The first major exponent of Greco-Roman wrestling in MMA, Randy Couture remains one of the few fighters to make full use of opportunities to clinch and the damage which can be done to the opponent from there. Bulldozing in worked on the casual martial artists who were still present in the earlier UFC events - but against Vitor Belfort, Couture showed that the clinch did not have to always be entered offensively - as is the method in wrestling - butcould be entered in defence as it is in boxing but as a means to the wrestler's ends.
Here Couture attacks with a back-handed jab which had little chance of landing or causing any damage - but he immediately moves away from the counter which Belfort swings at him.
As Belfort chases Couture back with strikes (as is his modus operandi) Couture stops retreating and smashes in chest to chest with Belfort, securing an underhook on Belfort's punching left hand.
The genius of Couture's approach was that when a fighter is on the defensive his elbows are tight to his body and there are few good handles to grab a hold of. If an opponent holds this posture Couture can struggle to get a good clinch on them. Against Brandon Vera, Couture kept taking a grip on Vera's neck and being shucked off as he tried to move Vera. If the opponent's elbows can be lured away from his body, Couture can move in and grab at least one underhook with ease.
Here Couture attempts to bait Belfort with a jab again but Belfort throws a left straight without committing and Couture leaves it at that.
Where a good boxer would slip and look to counter punch - Couture's counter is the clinch, where he can tire his opponents out, move them around and throw them. Here's another example of Belfort attempting to punch Couture, then Randy leaning back and parrying before getting the underhooks on Belfort's swinging arms.
Couture got hit a few times in his fights with Belfort because his method in the first was far from a science, more a strategy which he was developing. Later in Couture's career, however, he began to jab into the clinch - but not in the way that most remember when they think of jabbing into the clinch. In a recent piece I observed that UFC heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquezoften jabs his way in with his head bolt upright and can be force fed straights while doing so - as Cheick Kongo managed to and as an exhausted and flustered Junior dos Santos attempted to do.
Couture's method of moving to the clinch has evolved to be based around a dipping jab - taking his head offline to his right and inviting counter punches. Notice that when Randy jabs he dips his head very low to his right side - ducking it down behind his left shoulder. This sort of position invites counter punches but provides much more protection than his leaning back against Belfort did. As soon as the opponent opens up with punches, Couture is chest to chest with them and they have given him an underhook.