So I was reading the thread about Dan Hardy complaining about wrestling in the UFC, and every time I tried to write a response I had to delete it because it had too much bile in it. I also just read that Kenny Florian has hired a wrestling coach after his loss to Gray Maynard. Does that mean he didn't have a wrestling coach all this time? Imagine the peals of laughter if an aspiring MMA fighter asked his mates, "Do I really need to start working with a jiu-jitsu coach? Can't I just figure that out as I go?"
I have to wonder if the MMA fighters who don't have wrestling backgrounds even know what top-level wrestling is like. Honestly, it's possible that some of them really don't, and that's no knock on them. A little while ago, the English MMA commentator on ESPN said that British MMA fighters need to take a "wrestling sabbatical in the [United] States." In his estimation, British fighters don't merely need to work on their wrestling, they need to leave the UK
to do it. I'm reminded of Marcus Jones' comments during TUF, when he said that until he started training for MMA, he thought NFL workouts were grueling.
In many cases, the skill of top-level athletes is almost beyond the comprehension of "average Joes", people who played the sport for fun, or at a low level of organized competition. In "Fever Pitch", Nick Hornby mentioned a school-mate who was in his estimation "a [soccer] god", who subsequently progressed as far as the bench of a 4th-division professional team. When I was 19 or so, I saw the Seattle Mariners' Erik Hanson warming up his curveball in the bullpen - at Fenway Park, you can stand about 10 feet from where they throw - and its break and velocity were simply shocking. Having played baseball since I was 6, having watched countless games on television and a few dozen live at the ballpark, I still didn't understand what a major-league curveball was until I saw one up close.
Jiu-jitsu has a handy guide for roughly evaluating a student's progress and the level of skill they've achieved; the belt system, and it seems like a BJJ Purple Belt is sort of a minimum level of skill for a UFC-caliber MMA fighter (not all UFC grapplers - Matt Hughes, for example - actually have a belt though), and if BJJ is your primary discipline, you basically need a Black Belt to hang in the UFC.
How long does it take to earn a "legit" Purple Belt in BJJ? Four years, is my understanding (I don't study BJJ). Why should wrestling be any different? That would mean that a UFC fighter who wrestled competitively - say, on their high school varsity team - for three or four years has a Purple Belt in wrestling. That is, he's got a minimal
level of wrestling skill, and if he's got some game in one of the other disciplines, he can get by.
Being a member of a Div-I or -II varsity team means you have a Brown Belt in wrestling, and guys like Chael Sonnen, Gray Maynard, Josh Koscheck and Brock Lesnar have Black Belts. Rashad Evans is a double-Black Belt, having recently been awarded his BJJ Black by one of the Gracies.
And let's not even talk about the Olympics and other international competitions, where Dan Henderson in his prime was nothing more than proficient, and Chael Sonnen, Randy Couture and Georges St. Pierre didn't even make the cut.
Many of the MMA fighters who are commonly regarded as "wrestlers" would probably get eaten alive in international competition. If you're ever considering startin' some [stuff] with an Olympic-caliber wrestler, you'd probably be better off fighting an alligator.*
Hardy and others make some good points about the North American "scoring system" for MMA**, but to say that they need to work on their wrestling might be an understatement of colossal proportions. I can't help but wonder how many of them have ever studied wrestling in the same way that they've studied Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai or boxing. I think it's not uncommon for guys to travel to - surprise! - Thailand to study Muay Thai. To think that you could compete with the wrestlers I named above, that you could just pick up some wrestling through osmosis, is just as ridiculous as thinking that you can figure out jiu-jitsu by yourself. Yeah, maybe in ten years you could, if you're some kind of savant.
If you want to become a competent UFC wrestler in, say, two years, you need to go to Russia, Turkey, or the United States and find yourself a coach who has a "black belt." Kenny Florian hired an assistant coach from Boston University, a Div-I program where the guys are "Brown Belts in wrestling", and plans to take 5 months off from fighting to get worked on the mat. Since he's already a skilled grappler and a professional athlete, he can probably have his "wrestling Purple Belt" in a year. Paul Daley probably needs two years of work with an American college team (or an equivalent Eastern European or Scandinavian team) just to avoid being humiliated by Jake Shields or Josh Koscheck again.
* Actually, I think it would be totally awesome to get on the mat with a high-level wrestler, like that episode of "Pros vs. Joes" that Randy was in. When I was in high school, a local television show had a "sports dream sweepstakes" contest, and the winner was given an afternoon with a local athlete. You could play some one-on-one with one of the Celtics, have a Bruin or a Patriot teach you some moves, or whatever. I wanted to take a few at-bats against Roger Clemens.
** I put that in quotes because even calling it a scoring system is giving it too much credit, in my opinion.