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Striking vs. Grappling: Which Style Wins Fights?

It was 1993 when all playground debates finally came to an end. Thanks to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, we now know what would happen if a boxer and a Kung Fu fighter duked it out to the death.

Well, maybe not to the death, but under a sanctioned fight where there were no rules. Where headbutts and hair pulling were allowed. Where it was basically premeditated murder disguised as a new-age form of prizefighting.

Some matches were pretty easy to predict. Take this one between Gerard Gordeau (Savate, a.k.a French kickboxing) and Teila Tuli (Sumo).

If you put your judgmental blinders on for a few minutes, you’d already know what’ll happen next. Then you’d be going “I knew it” after it was all over.

But when Royce Gracie stepped up to face Art Jimmerson, no one knew what to expect. There were some questions. How will the guy in pajamas pull it off? Isn’t he a bit too… shrimpy?

If you’re a student of the game, you already know how this ended. But again, this happened at a time when the rest of the world outside of Brazil knew nothing about Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.

Nowadays, the playing field’s gone through a massive overhaul. What worked 28 years ago may get someone seriously hurt in 2021.

But even with the streamlining of mixed martial arts (emphasis on the MIXED), there remains to be an argument about which of the two primary styles fares better in a fight. Can a striking or grappling purist achieve the same success that their forefathers did?

I’m a grappler by nature so these examples are a bit biased. But hear me out.

Exhibit A: Kron Gracie

Since we’re on the topic of purists, we don’t have to look any further than Kron Gracie. The last name alone should give you a clue about what he brings to the table.

Kron is as old school as it gets. He still uses that pawing baby kick passed on to him by his uncle and father. Here it is working effectively as a setup for the body lock.

Kron is so much of a purist that as an opponent, it’s a lot easier to telegraph his next move. He will swarm you until he closes the distance. Then he will start to work you. It’s the same song and dance every single time.

Alex Caceres, the veteran that he is, played right into Kron’s game. He allowed himself to be backed up towards the fence and threw very few shots to ward off his opponent.

But I think his most fatal mistake was the lack of lateral movement. Caceres failed to create some misdirection and made himself more predictable.

Kron was able to walk him down and even land a nice counter left hand.

When you’re fighting a guy like Kron Gracie, whose sole objective is to tie up with you, you’ve got to break the rhythm by moving side to side. If you follow his lead while allowing yourself to be pressured, he’ll eventually catch up to you.

That wasn’t the case when Kron fought Cub Swanson. Cub’s another respected veteran, but unlike Caceres, he did his homework better.

Apart from keeping the distance, he didn’t leave himself vulnerable for the tie-up by utilizing that lateral movement I was talking about. And if you have 30 feet of space to work with, why not make the most out of it, right?

Kron is very straightforward in his approach, and that could work for and against him. The good thing about being a specialist is obvious. In this case, it’s pretty much Kron’s fight to win once the action gets to the mat.

The downside is it makes him one-dimensional. He’s not using his strikes to set up takedowns or close the distance. And he’s so hellbent on clinching, that his fundamentals got thrown right out the window.

Head lunged forward, comes in awkwardly with that little shin kick as if he was prodding a sleeping bear with a stick. It’s a recipe for disaster.

But I feel for Kron here. This reminded me of a sparring session I had as I was preparing for my very first amateur fight three years ago. It was against one of my coaches; a talented enough semi-pro boxer who focused more on training students than getting in there himself.

To get pieced up by a much more talented striker can be utterly frustrating. It’s pain that cuts deep into the ego. You begin questioning yourself in the middle of the chaos as the punishment piles up. You’re in quicksand before even realizing it. It’s never a good feeling.

Kron obviously needs to get back to the drawing board and sharpen his skills. But not all purists in this day and age of MMA get their asses handed to them.

Exhibit B: Khabib Nurmagomedov

One of the main driving forces to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s unparalleled success is his ability to mix everything up.

Sure, you can bet the farm that he will wrestle at least twice on fight night. But even with that in mind, he will have his way with you like it was your first day on the mat. That can be pretty demoralizing.

Right here, Khabib throws a three-punch combination. As Dustin was about to launch his attack, the champ shoots on him.

Your brain can only process so many things in a few seconds. Even if he wanted to, Poirier can’t switch from striking to wrestling defense in a snap. It overloaded his software a little bit.

This right here was genius. As Dustin shifted his focus to his corner for a brief moment, Khabib trips him and completes the takedown.

Now, I mentioned the importance of lateral movement when you’re going against a guy who wants to take you down. Poirier failed to employ that strategy but Justin Gaethje did.

Gaethje moved around so effectively that the action remained at a snail’s pace for nearly a minute and a half. He was moving left to right, throwing feints. He didn’t leave anything obvious for Khabib to capitalize on.

If you watch that fight again, you’ll see how Khabib wasn’t really able to secure a takedown until the final 43 seconds of round one. He was also absorbing a lot of Gaethje’s power shots.

But whether or not he was doing it intentionally, Khabib was giving Justin a false sense of security. It’s as if he was saying, ‘Okay, we’re striking now.’ Gaethje wasn’t seeing any indicators of a takedown at that point until it finally came.

One of the things that fascinated me about this fight is that Khabib used Gaethje’s best weapon against him.

Justin threw all of his patented leg kicks with the illest of intentions. But what does Khabib do? He takes everything like a champ and uses one of them as a jump-off to get to a dominant position.

They say teaching a big man some jiu-jitsu would be like giving wings to a serpent. Well, teaching a prolific wrestler and killer like Khabib how to strike and mix it up, you get the most dominant 155-pounder in the world.

Exhibit C: Israel Adesanya

Let’s switch gears for a bit. If we’re talking about elite-level strikers in 2021, it would be utter ignorance not to include Israel Adesanya’s name in the conversation.

They don’t call him “The Last Stylebender” for nothing. It’s easy to perceive him as the quintessential kickboxer. But as opponents have found out the hard way, playing the rhythmic punch-and-kick game with him isn’t a wise decision to make.

Adesanya is all about the feints and traps, and that’s what makes him so dangerous. When he fought Paulo Costa last September, his initial layer of attacks consisted of lead leg kicks.

Borrachinha’s left leg was so battered, it looked like it’d been repeatedly whacked by a fraternity paddle.

Costa remained tentative throughout the fight, overly cautious about throwing flurries. And when he decided to engage, Adesanya unveiled the second layer of his attacks to eventually get the job done.

But since we’re talking about the striker vs. grappler scenario, here’s Izzy against three-time D2 All-American Derek Brunson. It was a fight that became the litmus test to see how Adesanya’s wrestling would fare against someone of Brunson’s caliber.

I’d say he passed with flying colors. See, you don’t need to be an All-American wrestler yourself to stand a chance against Brunson. But you need to have your basics on point along with the right strategy to ward off the takedown attempts.

Heavy hips, wrist control, PERFECT TIMING

Brunson went 0-3 in his attempts in the two and a half minutes he kept trying. He eventually became frustrated and began shooting haphazardly. By doing that, he opened himself up to the ultimate anti-wrestler attack.

Brunson was reeking of desperation and paid the price

After his recent purple belt promotion, Izzy is now planning to tap people out and score his very first submission win. But I’ll go out on a limb and say a bulk of his success will still come from lighting people up on the feet.

Striking vs. Grappling: Which Style Wins Fights?

Gone are the days of the style vs. style fights where people aren’t educated and trained under certain disciplines. And the section right above should give you an answer.

When it comes to MMA, it’s way more than just mixing it up effectively. It’s also about knowing which tools to use at the perfect time. You may have the sharpest sword in the shed, but it’ll be equally useless if you don’t know when to wield it.

If you’re still in doubt, go and watch Khabib Nurmagomedov, the last man at the elite level with a 0 in his record. That should provide some valuable insight.

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