Wrestling for MMA

No one can deny the importance of wrestling in a competitor’s MMA game. Even if he or she isn’t a great take down artist, not developing good takedown defense is a huge mistake if a person wants to keep the fight standing.  Someone whose strength is on the ground would also benefit from the take down and positioning skills wrestling helps to develop.  

Today I am talking to Bret LeBlanc, the Wrestling Coach at Titans MMA in Halifax, Nova Scotia, about the overall benefit of wrestling in MMA.

Sally: Bret, tell me a little about yourself.

Bret: I was born and raised in Mineville, Nova Scotia. I worked at Nova Scotia Liquor Commission for 11 years and was promoted to a Retail Product Specialist Position. I since left the NSLC to pursue a career as a firefighter with the Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Service

I’m a big movie buff. I’ve seen most of the classics. I have been collecting a lot of Criterion films and midnight cult films. The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa is my favorite film of all time. Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy is a guilty pleasure.

I’ve been involved in sports as long as I can remember; almost any sport you can think of I’ve played. In my grade 11 year in high school, I decided to join the rugby and wrestling teams. I developed an interest in contact sports because I was naturally stronger than most teenagers my age. My main focus was to use wrestling to strengthen my tackling in rugby. It wasn’t until later in the season that my focus switched and wrestling became my main focus; I naturally excelled in the sport.

Because my brother Mike and I were always close in weight I could always depend on having a consistent training partner. We would often choose at the start of the season who would cut down to Light Heavyweight (195lbs) and who would stay at Heavyweight (205lbs). Luckily for me I usually won the coin toss and ate like a king throughout the season.

A decade ago we started coaching wrestling at the junior high/ high school level. The experience taught me a lot of great coaching skills. Just as an athlete you make mistakes in your first year and learn techniques to become a better coach. I eventually transferred over to Titans MMA and currently coach “MMA focused” wrestling while training in grappling in striking myself. It’s been a great experience; the club has a great group of athletes who are eager to learn and I’ve been fortunate to have Peter Martell as my coach; I have learned a lot from him. 

Sally: Let me ask you something that seems irrelevant… Your birthday is on October 5th so did you start your first day of grade 1 when you were 5 or when you were 6?

Bret: I was 6. I was 5 days away from the cut- off.

Sally: So you turned 7 on October 5th in Grade 1?

Bret: Yes, that’s correct

Sally:  The reason I asked about your birthday is because I just read a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which breaks down the reasons why people who seem to be especially talented and successful excel in their chosen fields. In one of the studies, they focused on professional hockey players and discovered that the majority of them were born between January and March. 

Without innate talent they may not have become successful at all but here’s the thing: the cut-off date for youth hockey leagues is December 31. That means if a child is born on December 31, he is the youngest and likely the smallest on the team. On the other hand, if a child is born on January 1, he is the oldest, and likely the biggest, kid on the team as he is 364 days older than the youngest child. So kids who were born between January and March are more developed than their younger team mates and therefore have a natural advantage. He says:

“…so coaches start streaming the best hockey players into elite programs, where they practice more and play more games and get better coaching, as early as 8 or 9. But who tends to be the “best” player at age 8 or 8? The oldest, of course — the kids born nearest the cut-off date, who can be as much as almost a year older than kids born at the other end of the cut-off date. When you are 8 years old, 10 or 11 extra months of maturity means a lot.”

I just found it interesting when you said you were big for your age that you were born 5 days after the cut-off point! I know you’re a big guy but back in school, it’s possible that you weren’t big for your age; you could have just been big for your grade. Obviously you are a natural athlete, so it may not have mattered but it’s an interesting coincidence that I just read that book and then I found someone who seems to prove the theory. 

Bret: Just read the Malcolm Gladwell interview. He brought up some interesting points.

Sally: Yeah, I don’t think he’s trying to lessen anyone’s accomplishments; he’s just pointing out patterns. One of the things I wish people would get past is the idea that being great at sports is something only “natural athletes” can do. It’s the whole genetics argument. But it’s been proven time and again that with hard work, 10,000 hours of practice according to Malcolm Gladwell, anyone can do well; you just have to keep trying.

Sally: What is your history in wrestling regarding competition and training?

Bret: I’m just shy of two decades in the sport of wrestling as an athlete/ coach. I have been successful in the sport winning Provincial, Atlantic titles and several top 6 placings as a heavyweight at Nationals. As a coach my school teams have won Provincial championships and I have coached athletes that have won Nationals.

I am reaching my twilight years as an athlete; at 34 my mind is the sharpest it has ever been in regards to the sport wrestling. However, each year becomes tougher physically. I am well aware that the hour glass is starting to run out of sand as far as my athletic dreams go. A couple years ago I had my second reconstructive knee surgery. The older you get, the better shape you have to be in.

The sport of wrestling/ MMA is not kind to the body; it’s not like pick-up hockey. These are the hardest sports in the world. Wrestling legend Dan Gable once said “once you’ve wrestled, everything in life is simple.” I have goals of competing in MMA. However, I am a very competitive individual and there are lot of skills you need to acquire before you step into the ring. There is no other sport in the world that requires the amount of technical knowledge as MMA. You can’t go at this sport with a 50% effort. It’s 110% or nothing. 

Sally: I know what you’re saying about age. I also want to compete in MMA but I’m 36 and my window is closing fast. Also, I walk around at close to 105lbs and that’s the lightest weight class; so I’m older AND smaller.  But Randy Couture had a great career at an older age so it is possible.

It may be different for a woman competing as it’s just beginning to become popular and more women are starting to train. There aren’t a lot of veterans out there; at least not around here. I can’t find the interview but I remember Forrest Griffin saying that he felt lucky to start fighting before elite athletes started focusing on MMA at a young age because he felt he was just an average guy who liked to brawl like a lot of the other guys in the UFC at the time. He said it was the best point in time for him to be able to have success. I feel like I’m entering that zone when it comes to competing against other women at this point in the game.

A lot of the most well-known fighters such as Chael Sonnen and Josh Koscheck started their training as wrestlers and they’ve become very successful. But you also see guys like Anderson Silva who don’t seem to train much wrestling at all. How important do you feel wrestling is to an athlete’s overall MMA game? 

Bret: It’s extremely important and even with the success of wrestlers in the UFC it seems that the skill is acknowledged but still overlooked. If you analyze the sport is there is a wrestling component to every situation. The important thing is to be able to modify your wrestling technique to make it applicable to MMA. 

You see a better pedigree of wrestlers in MMA today. I am just surprised that we really haven’t seen the best the sport has to offer. Eastern Europe and Russia has produced a majority of the world’s best wrestlers. You look at freestyle wrestlers like Artur Taymazov and Buvaisar Saitiev and you wonder why there aren’t more athletes of that caliber transferring over to the sport of MMA. These guys are super human. However, you’ll never hear those names inside the octagon.

Anderson Silva is an amazing striker; maybe the best in the UFC. However, his wrestling is definitely the weakest part of his game. Chael Sonnen exposed that in their last fight. We saw glimpses of it in the Dan Henderson fight. Almost every other fight since then everybody has got lulled into Silva’s game. If Sonnen doesn’t put him away this weekend I think Mark Munoz will. Then again, I have made some bad predictions over the years. However, I think Sonnen will pull off the W this weekend at UFC 148

Sally: What components of wrestling are the most useful in MMA? Is it the positioning and take downs or is there something else?

Bret: I guess in the broad sense it’s the ability to dictate where the fight goes and not the reverse. If you were to analyze all the components positioning and takedowns are definitely vital in this sport. However, that can all be taught through instruction. It’s the physical components of the athlete that separates a great wrestler from a mediocre wrestler. 

Strength, power, speed, agility, balance and conditioning are all important physical components in wrestling. Some of these physical abilities can be innate but a lot of these abilities are learned or enhanced through years of wrestling. To go back to your question I’d have to say the attribute that will give a wrestler the edge in MMA is his/ her physical power. A wrestler with great explosive power can take their opponent down at will. 

Sally: Wrestling is about control but so is BJJ; how do they differ in their effectiveness regarding MMA?

Bret: There are so many parallels between wrestling and BJJ. If I were to pick out one thing that gives a wrestler the edge over a BJJ technician I would say that physical power would be the biggest asset to the wrestler. However, a great strength and conditioning coach can narrow the deficit; it’s difficult to teach this overnight. Just imagine extensive years of lifting up a training partner close to your own weight over and over again in repetition. You develop tremendous power in your core that would exceed that of any random person off the street. Physically the more powerful athletes in wrestling tend to fair better in MMA than those that don’t possess the same traits.

Sally: Regarding BJJ tournaments, athletes with wrestling backgrounds who are new to BJJ have been successful in BJJ tournaments due to their positioning and take down skills and sometimes win the points game because of that. Do you think this is an advantage primarily against the lower belts, white and blue, or do you think it persists even as those white and blue belt BJJ students catch up in those areas and develop more advanced submission games?

Bret: I think any wrestler will have trouble if they are rolling with a veteran BJJ technician. Wrestling is a great base but showing up to a tournament with one skill is like a carpenter leaving his tools at home. Successful athletes often have the combination of natural physical talents combined with the ability to focus on repetitive techniques. I have seen some athletes that have overcome their physical shortcomings through hours of repetitive technique. We’ve all heard it before; hard work pays off.

Sally: What do you think are the top wrestling moves used in MMA?

Bret: You see a lot of “blast” double leg takedowns because of the traditional fighting stance. The single leg and high crotch are other common takedowns. These techniques are also common in wrestling. There are slight modifications and considerations in the set-ups and finishes of these techniques in MMA. There are also a lot of takedowns from the body lock too. Couture, Henderson and Matt Lindland were all very proficient in this position because of their Greco- Roman background. 

Sally: Last question: Are you glad you don’t have to wear those singlets anymore? 

Bret: I’m secretly wearing one now. Lol…. Seriously, I never really thought about it. Some younger guys/ girls that I’ve coached are uncomfortable before they compete but most people get over it quickly. Some people embrace it and wear it at every practice. There’s always an oddball in every team. There’s a scene in the movie The Ladies Man with Will Ferrell wearing a wrestling singlet that’s worth checking out if you’re looking for some comical relief.

Sally: Fans of MMA have done studies about the correlation between success in wrestling and success in MMA; they suggest that competitors who have wrestled from a young age are more likely to climb the ranks and get a title shot. But really, when basing our studies on athletes who are competing in MMA at a high level today, wrestling is the only sport those athletes have typically trained growing up that is directly related to and effective in MMA.

Since it is offered at school for free, students are more likely to participate; BJJ and Muay Thai don’t have the same exposure in North America at this point so it’s possible that we don’t have a complete picture as to which of the three leads to the most success in MMA, when training is started at an early age. Even strength and conditioning using weights is discouraged as it is believed to hinder growth. Current Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey has proven that training from a young age in Judo also pays off in the Octagon – and it’s much less boring to watch. It will be interesting to see other successful young athletes transition to MMA.

UPDATE July 8, 2012:  See the UFC 148 Post-Fight Press Conference video here (at the 37 minute mark); Anderson Silva said he has been training striking and BJJ since he was 8 years old and he’s the best pound for pound fighter in the world.  He just defended his belt for the 10th time and has never lost in the UFC.  Interesting…

I think as the misconceptions about the dangers of competing in MMA abate and its popularity increases we will see athletes begin training at a younger age in all aspects of the sport and then we will be able to make a more accurate analysis. One of the other people I interviewed, Melyssa Hutchinson, was first exposed to BJJ when her children wanted to participate and now she’s in Brazil training herself! Parents take note! 

New England Patriot Talks Wrestling or Football

In the meantime, I just plan on enjoying watching people fighting in cages. Best of luck in your MMA training, Bret; I look forward to seeing you fight! We’re certainly lucky to have you as our wrestling coach at Titans MMA; I think my favorite move so far has been the single leg defense where you hop forward and then roll backward into the mount. So fun!

Thanks again for taking the time to discuss wrestling with me today and I’ll see you on the mats!

Bret teaches wrestling at Titans MMA located at 3200 Kempt Road, Halifax, NS on Mondays and Wednesdays at 4pm and Titans in Sackville, NS on Saturdays at 1pm so come and join us any time.  

Remember, the first class is always free!

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