It would be hard for even the most uneducated of viewers of the clash between Michael Bisping and Chael Sonnen to have not noted that Bisping was having a remarkable amount of success in the clinch against the cage and that the work done there seemed to have a significant impact on the fight. Most of us more ‘educated’ fans that were trying to predict how the fight might pan out certainly weren’t expecting this, the general perceived wisdom was that in all ‘wrestling’ areas Sonnen would have a major advantage and would probably dominate. So how exactly did the kick boxer manage to out wrestle the wrestler? (I don’t actually consider either fighter to be anything other than ‘MMA’ in reality but for this article it’s interesting to note their backgrounds)
From my personal point of view the key was Bisping’s work with the head in the clinch when the two combatants were on the fence. If you watch Bisping’s actions in the clinch in these areas you can see that we is constantly pressuring with the head, to the extent where there are clearly times when Sonnen is hugely bothered by it. He doesn’t just simply pressure with the head either, he constantly attempts to place his head on the same side as his primary control point – so if he has an underhook on the right side then he goes out of his way to ensure the head is pressuring on the right side also. This is very smart, it’s a core concept that we use in PRO MAI MMA, it’s something that we continually emphasise the importance of throughout our instruction and it’s something that will continuously feature throughout our video tuition pieces. I wasn’t surprised that Bisping was able to have success with this tactic but I was surprised by the extent of his success and that Sonnen seemed to struggle to deal with it.
This got me thinking about wrestling in MMA and the generally accepted notion that a great wrestler will dominate someone without a wrestling background when the fight hits the clinch. It’s certainly safe to say that a seasoned wrestler will likely take to this area like a duck to water and that many of their core skills will transfer to this area very well. Because of this it’s easy to forget that actually wrestling up against a vertical wall in this way is not something that wrestlers are familiar with, in fact it’s one of the few core MMA skills that’s actually pretty unique to MMA. This is even more true once you add strikes – are wrestlers familiar with wrestling against a wall whilst giving and receiving strikes? It would be hard to argue that this would be one of their core competencies out of the box, regardless of how quickly they might adapt once training MMA.
So how does this relate to the Bisping Vs Sonnen fight? Well my natural reaction to the fight was to say ‘wow, I can’t believe Bisping was out wrestling Sonnen in large parts of the fight’ but on reflection he wasn’t. He was dominating the parts of the fight that are MMA specific – the techniques and tactics that are unique to the caged environment. When they were away from the cage and back into more open wrestling territory then Sonnen was able to have far more success.
Can a fighter with a kick boxing background out wrestle a seasoned wrestler? Probably not. Can an ex kick boxer learn to dominate the clinch against the cage and become more effective at this MMA skill than a wrestler? On the strength of Bisping’s performance on Saturday night – absolutely.