Catch Wrestling

Learn 3 Grappling Techniques From UFC Star Chael Sonnen

Chael Sonnen isn’t your typical politician. For one, he actually answered our questions. But more important, the All-American wrestler from Oregon taught us some of the best tricks from his playbook.

Despite his reputation as one of the UFC’s loudest stars, he doesn’t have a bad word to say about any martial art or training. We hope you’ll enjoy his interview with Lito Angeles, a Southern California-based police officer, mixed martial artist and author of Fight Night: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Mixed Martial Arts.

—Jon Sattler

Lito Angeles: I read that you started wrestling at a very young age.

Chael Sonnen: I come from a family of wrestlers—my father, my uncles, my cousins were all very good. I begged my dad to get me into wrestling, but he wanted me to do karate or boxing. Finally, he let me wrestle when I was 9.

Angeles: Did you wind up doing any karate or boxing?

Sonnen: I got into boxing later, but not then.

Angeles: And you stayed with wrestling all the way to the collegiate level, right?

Sonnen: Yes. I wrestled through high school and got a scholarship to the University of Oregon. In 2001 I graduated from college and was working out at a gym in the back of a car lot. There was one mat and nothing else, but Randy Couture and Dan Henderson worked out there every day. It was an hour and a half from where I was living, and I made the drive every single day to wrestle with them. We were all trying to make the Olympic team. They let me in, and it was the three of us. After college, I went back to training with them, and they were wearing MMA gloves. I just put on a pair of gloves and continued practicing.

Angeles: Does that mean you recommend wrestling as the best foundation for MMA?

Sonnen: Well, it has to be some kind of grappling. There’s a statistic: 100 percent of fights start standing up, and 80 percent of them end up on the ground. Jiu-jitsu and wrestling have done really well in MMA, but I don’t know that any form of grappling has been proven to be better.

[ti_billboard name=”Chael Sonnen 1″]

The grass always seems greener—I wish I knew more of other disciplines than wrestling, while other fighters probably wish they knew more wrestling. I wish more judo practitioners participated in MMA.

Angeles: Why?

Sonnen: Jiu-jitsu and catch wrestling are well-represented. All three styles of wrestling, from collegiate to Greco-Roman to freestyle, are, too. I know judo is a good, competitive sport. I wish there was more judo in MMA so I could see how it stacks up.

Angeles: After a student develops a grappling base, do you recommend muay Thai or boxing—or something else?

Sonnen: I’d say boxing. Muay Thai is good, bit it’s very hard to practice. There aren’t a lot of muay Thai guys around—it’s not in high schools or colleges or the Olympics—so it’s hard to find guys to practice with. Elbows are effective, but you can’t do them in practice without hurting someone. Same with knees. With boxing, however, you can put on the gear and find a partner, and it seems to do well in MMA.

Angeles: But then you give up kicks. …

Sonnen: Kicks aren’t as effective in fighting. If you land one, great. You can do good things with it. But kickboxing had to put in a rule that you had to kick a guy three times per round or you’d lose a point. The reason was, guys quit kicking. They just boxed because boxing is more effective. With that said, I spend the majority of my time doing kickboxing and muay Thai. But if I was mentoring a young fighter, I’d tell him to spend more time on boxing. That doesn’t mean I would ignore kickboxing—you still need to learn the defenses—but in stand-up, it’s hard to beat good, solid boxing.

Angeles: How is muay Thai boxing different from Western boxing?

Sonnen: The big difference is head movement. In muay Thai, there’s not a ton of head movement. You use your foot to get the guy off-line, then you step out and sweep his leg to off-balance him. In boxing, you just shift out of the way and use that momentum to come right in and attack. Head movement is so important, especially when you’ve got those little 4-ounce gloves on. If you just land one shot, you can break the guy’s nose, open a cut or knock him out.

Angeles: Does knowing wrestling and boxing cover all the bases with respect to technique, or should a person add other arts like karate or sambo?

Sonnen: I would never close the door. …

How to Win a Street Fight Using Self-Defense Techniques, Fight Psychology and Combat Conditioning

There are a few videos floating around the Web of old-time catch-as-catch-can wrestler Billy Robinson. In one of them, he recounts easily handling a famous strongman in the early 1970s. After beating him over and over, Billy Robinson claims the bewildered powerlifter asked him, “What makes you so good?”

Billy Robinson’s response: “It’s not me that’s so good. It’s you that knows nothin’!”

The point of the story was to show that catch wrestling is more about skill and knowledge than it is about strength, but it sums up why any martial artist succeeds or fails in a fight.

How Important Are Self-Defense Techniques?

Lots of factors determine success or failure in combat—your level of fitness, how you handle fear, your skill set and so on—but in a very real way, knowledge precedes and determines all of them.

The obvious example is your skill set. Whether you’re in the ring or in a self-defense situation, you have to know a set of fighting techniques to succeed. If you want odds that are better than a mere chance of winning, knowledge is key. You need to study a collection of self-defense techniques and make sure they fit with the kind of fight you’re preparing for. Then you learn to integrate them into a seamless whole so you know how to set up and transition between different fighting techniques. The better your self-defense techniques are and the better you integrate them, the better you will be at fighting. To many people, this is the kind of knowledge that defines a martial art.

Unfortunately, those same people often fail when they fight. Does it mean their skills are sub-par or that their knowledge is false? Perhaps, but it’s also likely they’ve been defining what they need to know a little too tightly. It’s what they don’t know about fitness or psychology or something else that’s losing fights for them.

The Value of Fight Psychology and Workout Routines

One thing martial artists often dismiss is the value of strength training exercises and conditioning workouts. They’re frequently viewed as superfluous, things that make you look good but don’t affect your skills much. The problem with that attitude is the people who hold it display ignorance about what exercise is and what it does. Any martial artist who takes the time to learn the benefits of weight training and plyometrics is simultaneously learning ways to improve as a martial artist. Real knowledge can help you do everything better, from an aikido wrist throw to a heel-hook submission.

Martial artists can also have a blind spot when it comes to fight psychology. They get accustomed to practicing in the relative safety of the training hall and are surprised by their own fear and paralysis when they actually need to fight. This is as true in sport fighting as it is in self-defense. But plenty of research has been done on how people react to aggression and conflict. Some self-defense experts have made it the basis of whole systems. If a trained martial artist fails in a fight because of paralyzing fear or some other mental glitch, he should blame his lack of knowledge—specifically, he doesn’t understand the automatic responses all humans share and doesn’t know how to handle them, so he can’t perform well under stress.

The main thing that distinguishes a martial artist in a fight is knowledge. It’s knowledge of self-defense techniques, basic exercise science, fight psychology and a host of other things that make him good. And it’s what the other guy doesn’t know that makes him beatable. The question we all have to answer before fight time is, Which one am I? Making sure you know as much as possible is the best way to ensure you’ll come out on top.

(Keith Vargo is a freelance writer and martial arts instructor who lives in Japan. For more of this martial arts musing, check out Philosophy of Fighting: Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior.)