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Technique Talk: Ryan Hall examines the spotty modernization of grappling in MMA

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It's not saying much to note grappling is changing both inside of mixed martial arts (MMA) and out. The key question is, how is grappling evolving? Is it modernizing, regressing or going in unexpected directions?

As it turns out, the answer is messy. ADCC bronze medalist and UFC featherweight - as well as season 22 winner of The Ultimate Fighter - Ryan Hall has a few theories. On the one hand, the overall level of skill is up, but there's a curious homogenization going on inside of the sport.

Outside of MMA, although perhaps related to it, a growing sub-only preference is affecting both how fans perceive jiu-jitsu and what is getting prioritized. Positional control, for example, has given way to a thirst for finishes. Yet, is that really what grappling in MMA or jiu-jitsu needs? Even as the base level of skill gets higher, are these healthy developments?

In this edition of the Technique Talk, we talk with the Felipe Costa black belt about what's happened to grappling, where it might be headed and whether those developments are positive. Partial transcript and full audio below:

I want to start with something a black belt told me, which is, "Mount is a lost art." That's not to say mount is going away or that all black belts have the same opinion. However, I wonder if you agree and if so, why?

I don't disagree with the statement unnamed black belt made. I think that mount has been a lost art for a long time. In competitive jiu-jitsu, it was something only a few people really had a handle on and it being a lost art was almost a common sentiment even 6-8, 10 years back.

As positions have evolved and rules have changed, behaviors change. Speaking personally, I have a great deal of interest in how rules structures and incentive structures affect behavior. When I see Roger Gracie - who is a master of the mounted position - when you look at Rickson Gracie, Demian Maia in mixed martial arts, and he's obviously an incredibly strong positional grappler - there are guys who have these positions really dialed in. I think it's been going away for some period of time and I don't envision it making a comeback, honestly.

It's incredibly valuable and the mounted position is something that I feel is one of my strongest spots. It's something I've spent an incredible amount of time attempting to understand from people that are good at it, and also trying to watch the best people in the world at it - the Roger Gracies, the Rickson Gracies - but even in the process of learning, I had a difficult time tracking down information and insight because even at a high level of jiu-jitsu, it's just not a very common position.

I see it going even further in that direction, particularly with the popularity of submission-only rule sets. You're not incentivized to build that skill. If you have that skill already at a high level, you can use it, but there are easier paths to victory and people, generally speaking, will take those paths. We see the guard in competitive jiu-jitsu growing. It's so much better and dangerous and diverse than it was in the late 90s or mid 2000s, but other things go away. As that has occurred, other things have fallen by the wayside. The mounted position is absolutely one of them. Side control as well. The dominating positions are kind of disappearing and I really hope that is not a trend that continues long term.

Demian Maia is unlike every other grappler including black belts, but it feels like one of his core insight is that while everyone else is not building this skill, he still is. Therefore, there is a skills gap. Why can't his fundamental insight be replicable at scale?

I believe that is replicable on a certain level. Not only does he have that skill developed to a razor's edge, it's also that he's not competing against people that kinda sorta have it or even used to have it. When Demian Maia mounts you for the first time, it's not like being mounted by somebody else. He's dealt with great, high levels of opposition and they haven't.

So, not only are you dealing with the fact that he's very good at it, it's the first time you're experiencing it at this level. It's like fighting a Wonderboy [Stephen Thompson] in striking. It's like, 'Well, I've been in there with other good strikers.' Yeah, but not quite like this guy.

It's funny. I believe these things to be replicable. But you have to go out and find the sources of information and MMA is an interesting thing. It's subject to the same prejudices and traditions that are everywhere. Speaking personally, I build my entire game into the holes that I believe are people's thought processes. Think about five, ten years back, it was 'we know how to fight'. It's wrestling and Muay Thai. Initially it was jiu-jitsu and then it was 'No, it's wrestling and anti-jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai'.

Now people are saying karate is good all of a sudden. If you or I had told people ten years ago that karate is good, we'd have been laughed out of the room. There's skill sets that people become obsessed with and just like any sport, they're cyclical.

People could go through the challenges of learning how to control from the mount, but the reality is they'd have to go through jiu-jitsu in order to learn that skill at a high level because classical jiu-jitsu is guard versus pass. Even now, that's disappearing. When you go sub only, it's no longer guard versus pass because the amount of investment, time and energy that is takes to, one, develop that skill and two, use it in a match, is disproportionate when you consider the return on investment you can get from doing something like a foot lock.

Isn't what underscores the value of sub only the insight that to really put someone away, paying too much attention to guard vs. pass doesn't matter so much?

To a certain extent. When you start adding punches, it matters a lot. In my opinion, it makes it very significant. I don't feel any threat almost from anyone when I'm on the bottom in MMA. Their pass understanding is not strong enough, generally speaking, to get into a position where they can launch a sustained attack in a way that's going to be very damaging. Not saying it couldn't occur, but it's going to be difficult. It's like footwork in striking.

One of the things we have to note about the sub-only matches - not all the sub-only matches, of course, because you get some very high-level people - is it's B-level grapplers competing against other B-level grapplers or B-level grapplers competing against an A-level grappler. You don't see really, truly high-level positional dominance until you get to the A+ level of control. Mistakes are made - technical, strategic, tactical. Sub only has taught us some really valuable lessons in pointing out some holes that always existed, but we have to guard against the possibility of regressing and becoming as dogmatic in our new view that this is the thing as we were initially.

Look how long it took, frankly, most of the Gracie jiu-jitsu types to become traditional martial artists. They were the leading, cutting edge of, 'Hey, this is the new stuff. You guys need to learn it.' Now, they're obsessed with what their path was and saying this and that's not the real jiu-jitsu. It's more of a mentality than anything else that's either growth oriented or not.

What else is going away in jiu-jitsu as it relates to MMA in terms of what we're able to effectively transport?

Certain people's wrestling is better than ever, but in a lot of cases it's worse than ever. Again, as much as you can avoid wrestling under certain circumstances in almost everything other than ADCC, when you compete in jiu-jitsu now in sub only, wrestling has been effectively neutered.

It looks to me like I'd have been borderline impossible to beat in sub only. Not impossible, but just on this side of it. It changes the nature of everything. I'm really glad that I had the losses I did and the frustrations I did because it forced me to learn all sorts of things that I might not have otherwise had to learn if the opponents that I couldn't make play my game at the time were forced to engage me on my terms.

I see that people don't wrestle anymore, people don't have as strong of a base. Again, this is painting with broad strokes. There are obviously fantastic grapplers. A lot of the sub-only cultures has brought in many, many positive things, but positional control and wrestling are just going to fall by the wayside. The reality is, at a low level, submission dangerous is always, always, always more valuable than positional control.

If you're a blue belt, a purple belt, you're not that good. You have not the experience. I wonder if we would've gotten the Marcelo Garcias, we would've gotten the Roger Gracies if the rule set would've encouraged a different type of behavior. Maybe we would, maybe we wouldn't, but what I'm interested to see if people continue to develop guard in a way that is useful and valid in MMA, but does not rely on the rule set and the approach that people have under the rule set of a sub-only context.

This is what baffles me. In pure jiu-jitsu, the guard has exploded in usefulness. In MMA, that's not necessarily the case. Where is the guard?

It's interesting. On the one hand, let's say take a bunch of guys that are elite-level wrestlers. Fantastic athletes, brilliant skill set, but very specific type of grappling. You have these guys fight MMA. Certain things are going to work very well for them because their mentality, their tactics, their techniques and certain things are going to be borderline like, 'Hey, go to the bottom.'

Why would going to the bottom be poor? One, because they're dealing with someone of a really high caliber on top. Two, they lack a significant amount of experience on bottom themselves, only compounding the problem.

What we see a lot of what's happened in MMA is, let's say you grapple with anyone at a high level and then you get to kick them in the head four or five times really, really hard right before grappling them, you're going to have a significantly different experience win, lose or draw in that engagement.

One of the things sub only and the general direction things are going is the obsession with submissions similar to the obsessions with knockouts or power. You always hear the way UFC markets itself is 'So and so has unbelievable knockout power!' I'm like, we have four-ounce gloves on. Everybody can hurt everybody. Some people have a disturbing amount of power like Anthony Johnson will put you six feet under with his right hand, but for the most part, everybody has the capacity to hurt everyone.

But that's actually a very low bar to clear. If I punch Floyd Mayweather in the face, I know I can knock him out. We're the same size. He's not magic. Now, I guarantee if he didn't want me to hit him in the face, I wouldn't come within spitting distance, but it's not this mythical fan-speak 'chin' thing that no matter what people do to you, you don't fall over. Or, not matter what someone does to Marcelo Garcia, he gets out. I think if we look through the course of his matches or Roger Gracie's matches, Floyd Mayweather's fights, we can see the handful of times even against elite opposition that they were placed in true existential danger and that speaks to a specific approach that maybe we could or couldn't have.

Circling back, a lot of the guard stuff has been opportunistic because people are coming to MMA with a little bit less traditional jiu-jitsu experience, which is fine because they're going to get diminishing returns on that investment in most cases. So, they're not going to be as effective and diverse from the bottom as Demian Maia would be, whose wrestling is excellent but is made even more effective by the fact that if he's in trouble, he'll just slide right down to half guard and then come back on up in a way that maybe someone of a higher caliber of wrestling but a different type of grappler would lack that opportunity.

That was a bit all over the place, but there's a lot of room for growth and we're just beginning to scratch the surface and I'm interested to see what comes next.

I wonder what you think of the idea that someone like Khabib Nurmagomedov might be the future. He can pass some and play guard a little, but what he's really good at is intense pressure, takedowns from every conceivable scenario and a thousand different kinds of rides. Is that the future of MMA grappling?

That's certainly a future of MMA grappling. I think Khabib is an absolute savage. He's unbelievable to watch. He reminds of watching Ben Askren. If you watch them both, they are all over you like a cheap freakin' suit. They have such a deep understanding of throws, takedowns, body positioning that they're not trying to force a blast double.

Look at guys like Khabib, guys like Askren, guys Daniel Cormier, obviously they're great athletes, but in addition to that, they're brilliantly skillful. They have a deep understanding of their sport and they know how to take you down 4,000 different ways and they know how to stick with you. That's just a different level of grappling competitor.

I think when we can get those guys involved, whether they come from the jiu-jitsu world, whether they come from the wrestling world, they're able to seamlessly transition between the feet to the ground to the top to the bottom. Of course, they're going to have their strengths and their weaknesses like every art and competitor will, but they are, more or less, a complete profile of grappler. I think that's when you're looking at something pretty special.

I do believe that will be the future. Obviously, everyone can't do it, but then again, maybe everyone can. It's just a matter of maybe we'll adjust our training methods and idea of what's possible.

We look at the way people strike now, how far it's come in such a short period of time. I believe a lot of that has to do with seeing brilliant examples of Wonderboy, guys like that getting involved. How great [Donald] Cerrone is now.

Imagine Saenchai [PKSaenchaimuaythaigym] got into MMA. Whether he ended up being the greatest MMA fighter or not, he would do things that would blow people's minds and would expand our understanding of what's possible, which would make us reach further and reach for more. I believe that's going to continue to happen with each individual art.

I'm not saying this is the defining theory of the present, but we had this theory 10 years ago that the next generation of fighter was going to have MMA as their base. Again, I'm not saying there's no exception, but I think we're seeing a lot of homogenized skill sets without anyone especially progressing. Am I being alarmist?

I don't disagree with you one bit, actually. Of course, individuals will be successful more of less successful for a variety of reasons.

One of the mistakes we have to avoid making is no one can out smart the way the world is. To think that I'm going to come up with "These are my special moves and all I need to do is teach a person X, Y and Z and they're going to be an absolute killer in anything."

Think about learning a language. "With X many hours of practice you'll be fluent." Well, that's not quite realistic and that doesn't mean you won't have a decent level of ability, but to think I can go out there, learn a formula and then just start handling business no matter what is overly optimistic.

One of the things we undervalue is the amount of experience gained from competing at a sport at a high level. Let's say you look at amateur MMA. For the most part, amateur MMA fighters are not very good. That's not a knock. I wasn't any good at MMA. I'm only learning now, but you're going to face much stiffer competition in amateur boxing. Amateur MMA is much more of a real fight than all of these other things, but at the same time, what's the more developed thing?

You're going to face stiffer competition in tennis. You're going to face stiffer competition in tennis than in amateur boxing, probably, but the idea is developing the mental attributes and the ability to compete and get your mind in the right place and these other things that allow for success down the line. Also, realizing that you have to be a little bit different. Everyone's going to find themselves. In my opinion, that's why wrestling is so great.

Everyone says, 'Wrestlers are the best MMA fighters'. I think that's bullshit. I think that the people that compete in a well-developed sport since they were four years old end up being very, very, very good baseline learners at almost anything. You take that guy and you compare him to someone that started doing boxing or jiu-jitsu at age 22 and that second guy is significantly behind the eight ball. It doesn't mean wrestling's not an incredible skill set, but there's never going to be any true formula other than getting out there and getting experience in finding yourself.

One of the guys I train with right now is a guy named Tom Lee and his brother Vin. Tom is someone I met on the show on The Ultimate Fighter. Tom is absolutely an unbelievable striker. An incredible striker, but he came up with a taekwondo background. When I saw him competing on the show we nearly became friends because he was cool as ice, doing his thing. He had the feel of an experienced martial artist even though he only had four fights just like me.

What I find to be interesting is that, the common quality between most of the people that I find are really successful. Look at Stephen Thompson. He came up in karate and kickboxing, but I guarantee he faced tough competition along that circuit and he was able to learn MMA a little more quickly than most. Chris Weidman, fantastic fighter, came up in wrestling and other things.

Maybe amateur MMA will one day be a great path to learn that, but until it's more developed, I think they're always going to be a little bit wanting in certain regards compared to the single sport athletes.

I'd say these days the floor on wrestling skill in MMA is higher than it used to be, but the guys who rely on the wall - not saying using the wall is bad - I just mean someone like Chris Weidman. He uses the wall, but he's got plenty of takedowns right in the middle of the cage. Same with Daniel Cormier. He might use the wall, but he also might lift you off of your feet in the middle of the cage. The guys who can diversify are the better ones, but am I putting too much pressure on the ones who aren't Cormier to do that?

Full disclosure to anyone who might be listening, I'm not a world-class-level takedown guy, but I need to be able to get the fight to the ground on a world-class level. That's the real question.

That circles back to my issue with sub only - and I have issues with the IBJJF former rules. People will, generally speaking, train and prepare to win under a certain rule set. I beat certain people in jiu-jitsu I was nowhere near as good as and I never got beat up by them, but I lost and was edged out by people I would murder if we had a sub-only match or MMA fight at that time or now.

You look at a DC or Askren or Khabib, a Chris Weidman, you're talking about people who've made a commitment to learning the technical side of their sport, not just being successful on the mat. That is one of the downsides of the single sports. It becomes more about winning than learning. Of course, the goal is to fight and win, but at the end of the day, what really matters is are you becoming an effective martial artist, not just playing by the rules?

Speaking personally, there was a time I'd either win by submission or lose by points. That's not the greatest situation in the world for me. I'm glad that I lost those times, but if I'd have been competing at sub only back then, certainly as a blue or purple belt, I don't know realistically if there was anyone I'd have bet on to beat me, when the rules were not designed specifically to hide my flaws.

If took Rafael Mendes and put him in MMA, I think he'd be a killer. If you took Cobrinha and put him in MMA, I think he'd be a killer. Right out the gate? Of course not. Certain people got in way over the head way too early. Jacare got knocked out by Macaco very early in his career. Jacare is a significantly better martial artist than Macaco was even at that time, but he lacked the experience and thank goodness he stayed in it. Now we know him to be the incredible fighter he is.

Sometimes when we take the individual sports, we take people that are very successful and they are successful because of the rules of that sport. The rules hide their flaws. If you don't need the referee to protect yourself from me and we're grappling, you're probably a pretty good grappler.

I remember for the longest time the knock on me was I needed the referee to protect me from other people and they were right. When I realized people saying that were right, I went out of my way to go and learn other things. Plenty of guys will say spider guard, worm guard stuff, that has literally zero relevance to MMA. That person should at least admit to him or herself what it is that they're practicing and what it is that's allowing them to be successful.

Maybe there's some stuff in MMA or BJJ that's going away, but needs to go away. Do you see anything naturally getting weeded out that's a good thing to see off?

There are so many things that I thought were invalid that I believe now to be valid and certain things I was sure that were valid that are a little bit less so.

I was watching Kron Gracie fight in Rizin in Japan. He's a phenomenal grappler, top or bottom, all positions. Brilliant jiu-jitsu. The fact that he has 10-minute round to work with significantly impacts the flow of the fight. I guess I can speak very specifically in the context of UFC or unified rules, I think certain positions like closed guard are going to be a little bit tough.

A lot maybe traditional understanding of what striking is - and this is speculative - the biggest change we're going to see is the operating assumptions of what MMA really is. Where does the guard fit in? What types of guard? What types of situations? Rather than saying the guard is a valid tool, say the guard is a valid tool under X, Y and Z circumstance.

Earmuffs defense you see in boxing is really, really, really ballsy/foolish for MMA. Yet, because people spar with big gloves and try to take each other's head off a lot, you'll still people try to use it. Doesn't mean it's completely ineffective, but maybe a karate-style with movement and a little bit more distance and a little bit more deception is a little bit more useful under many circumstances.

I don't know. I wish I could give you a more concrete answer, but I just believe many of our operating assumptions are going to be considerably changed and we're going to start seeing much more evolved training methods that are going to allow us to make these determinations more quickly and more effectively.

So, what is something, even something small, that you feel like needs to be added as a best practice?

The way that people wrestle on the fence is going to change significantly. I also believe the way that people approach the guard is going to change significantly. I feel very fortunate to have come along in jiu-jitsu at the time I did because I got to watch Demian Maia, BJ Penn, Roger Gracie. I got the benefit of watching them push forward the art and then also struggle and succeed brilliantly in MMA.

We realize how incredible Demian Maia is and he was successful right when he got to the UFC, but then he struggled a little bit. It was that struggle that pushed him forward to the absolutely razor sharp, phenomenal mixed martial artist that he is now.

I believe that one of the things that's going to change significantly is going to be the usage of the guard and how it happens as well as the expectations are from there. The way that most people try to do it from there is very foolish and designed for failure. Of course, it fails and then it becomes a little self fulfilling at that point and then people say, 'Ah, it doesn't work!' when I would say it doesn't work when you do it like that.

I also believe the way people wrestle on the fence is going to change significantly. I'll see if I can have a little hand on that, if possible, but I think people are going to continue to become more indirect. If we look at Wonderboy, he's striking in a way you're not taking a ton of damage. You're not trying to shoehorn other strategies from other sports into this new activity. You're simply taking the lessons learned there and asking, 'how does this apply to this new area?' rather than saying, 'let me tell you how to wrestle'. No, that's how you wrestle in a wrestling match. How do we wrestle in a cage? That's only going to continue and the guard is going to be a significant part of that as people with the proper skill set get in there.