Ultimate Fighting Championship

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. …

Judo vs. Boxing: Judo Gene LeBell Defeats Boxer Milo Savage in First MMA Fight

For much of the world, MMA was born on November 12, 1993, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship debuted in Denver. Most martial artists know otherwise, however. They know the date was actually December 2, 1963, the day “Judo” Gene LeBell stepped into the ring to face boxer Milo Savage. Black Belt recently spoke with the renowned judoka to get his take on how the bout went down and how it influenced the fighting arts.

Black Belt: Would you call your match with Milo Savage America’s first MMA bout?
Gene LeBell: It was the first televised MMA match. It was billed as pitting a judo, karate and wrestling guy against the No. 5 light-heavyweight boxer. I was known mostly for judo because I’d won the Nationals a few times, but I’d also done boxing, wrestling, karate, taekwondo and kenpo, mixing them together before it was popular.

Black Belt: Why were you chosen for the match?
Gene LeBell: A fellow who did kenpo karate, Ed Parker, a great teacher and a great human being, came to my school and said a guy named Jim Beck had called us “karate and judo bums” and offered $1,000 to anyone he couldn’t beat. The karate guys were emotional about it, and they had a big meeting. They wanted someone to fight Beck and decided on me. I said, “Why me? I’m not known as a karate or kenpo guy.” They said, “Yeah, but you’re the most sadistic bastard we know.” They said, “If you win, you get $1,000.” I said I’d fight my grandmother for $1,000. But she’d have beaten me.

Black Belt: Did anything out of the ordinary happen before the bout?
Gene LeBell: Well, they did a bait-and-switch. I thought I’d be facing Beck, an amateur fighter, but they put in Milo Savage, a great boxer with a wrestling background.

Black Belt: Did that bother you?
Gene LeBell: Not really. I’m no mental giant, so I viewed it as more of a challenge: The tougher your opponent is, the better you look if you beat him. The only thing that bothered me was what happened later—instead of boxing gloves, he wore what amounted to speed-bag gloves with metal inside.

Black Belt: The fight was held in Salt Lake City. Why not Los Angeles, where you were based?
Gene LeBell: They tried to get it in LA, but the California Athletic Commission said no because it was against the law. They said it would be categorized as a duel. We ended up in Utah.

Black Belt: What was the lead-up to the bout like?
Gene LeBell: The day before, they told me to go to the offices of a big TV network in Salt Lake City to see a guy who did a sports show. The host was obviously for the boxer, who was from Salt Lake City. During the interview, he was articulate and used every two-liner he could to put me down, but I wasn’t sharp enough to say anything. Then he asked, “How are you going to win?” I said, “I’m going to strike him, freeze his body and hammer him into the ground.” Of course, I was showboating. My manager told me to stop fooling around. Then I said, “I’ll leave him in the ground until summer, defrost him and pull him out, then choke him out.”

The host said, “Those chokes don’t work … show me.” I snatched him, choked him out and dropped him on his head. He dropped the mike, and I picked it up and said: “Our commentator went to sleep. I guess he’s quitting. Now it’s the Gene LeBell Show! Come to the arena tomorrow night and watch me annihilate, mutilate and assassinate your local hero because one martial artist can beat any 10 boxers.” The place sold out—they all wanted to see me get killed.

Black Belt: You won in the fourth round, right?
Gene LeBell: Yes. When I choked him out, the ref, who was also the doctor, didn’t know how to resuscitate him with katsu. After he’d been out for 20 minutes, my coach went in and revived the guy. The next morning, the newspaper headlines said, “The Savage Was Tamed.”

Black Belt: Was there a big reaction in the martial arts world?
Gene LeBell: There was because—it sounds like I’m blowing my own horn, and I don’t mean to—I represented all the martial arts. I never said I was doing only judo or karate or kenpo. I never said one art is better than the others. They’re all good. You should learn everything. You’re not a complete martial artist unless you do everything.

Black Belt: Why do you think it took so long for MMA to catch on?
Gene LeBell: Well, it was against the law in many places. Also, the …

What Do MMA, Pro Wrestling and Traditional Martial Arts Have in Common?

I had never seen anyone quite like Ken Shamrock, who at 6 feet 1 inch tall and 217 pounds handily dropped opponent after opponent in World Wrestling Entertainment (then World Wrestling Federation) matches. An Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran, Ken Shamrock brought a unique style to the pro-wrestling milieu in 1997, combining wrestling with martial arts acumen to produce a new kind of gladiator—a combatant whose martial arts agility would launch a mini-revolution in the wrestling world.

This crossbreeding has produced interesting results and a host of new fighting styles. Sure, the outcome of pro-wrestling matches may be fixed in advance, but to parrot an old aphorism, it’s the journey, not the destination. These days, the average mixed martial arts fight looks more like a traditional wrestling match than what you might see in a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick. And in pro-wrestling contests, you’re just as likely to see a spinning back kick as the more tried-and-true suplex and clothesline.

Martial arts and traditional wrestling have more in common than you might guess. In both, the goal is to get your opponent to submit through physical restraint or to knock him to the ground. Both involve grappling and jostling for position to put your foe off-balance. In this way, judo and wrestling could be said to be first cousins.

The relationship between wrestling and martial arts actually reaches back to ancient times. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob grappled with God’s angel; he was renamed “Israel,” Hebrew for he who “wrestles (or strives) with God.” And in antiquity, hand-to-hand combat—both wrestling and formalized martial arts—was popular in the Greek, Etruscan and Roman empires as mass entertainment.

Fast-forward to 19th-century Europe. Boxers regularly clashed against more traditional wrestlers in fierce, no-holds-barred fights. The largely unsanctioned contests were as vicious and brutal as their historical counterparts, with the loser often winding up in the hospital or worse. In England, a style called bartitsu was founded; many consider it the first formalized mixed martial art because it incorporated elements of Japanese and European disciplines.

In America, the first fight between a wrestler and boxer probably occurred in 1887 when heavyweight boxing champ John L. Sullivan was bested by his trainer, William Muldoon, a Greco-Roman wrestler, in less than three minutes. Around the same time in the Far East, MMA contests came to be known as merikan, a Japanese word that loosely translates to “American-style fighting.”

MMA largely faded from view after World War I, with wrestling diverging into two categories—real or “shoot” matches, and “show” contests, the forefather of scripted bouts. It would take four decades, but eventually the divorce of martial arts and wrestling began to crumble. In 1986 WrestleMania 2 saw Rowdy Roddy Piper and Mr. T duke it out in a boxing match in New York. (Rowdy Roddy Piper lost by disqualification.) Later in the ’80s, Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling was founded in Japan to showcase more extreme combat, but in 2002, the organization ran into financial troubles and went bankrupt.

Despite those false starts, MMA returned solidly with the debut of the UFC in 1993. Boxers, martial artists and wrestlers were all tossed into the ring, with no one style or discipline providing a clear advantage. It wasn’t about training but about how that training was applied against each opponent. As Royce Gracie trounced the competition to become the first champ, there was instant recognition that something very new (or very old) was happening.

Since then, MMA has experienced a meteoric rise in the United States, where its popularity often comes close to that of pro wrestling. And for those who favor martial arts over traditional wrestling, take a look at the stats: Wrestlers won five of the first 10 UFCs, while Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters took three. Even former heavyweight champ Randy Couture competed in collegiate and Greco-Roman wrestling before coming into his own in MMA.

As with Ken Shamrock, many MMA fighters eventually leave pro wrestling entirely. Former All-American Brock Lesnar shot to overnight WWE fame and was arguably Vince McMahon’s biggest star for a stretch in 2002 and 2003. After legal battles with the WWE, Brock Lesnar jumped to the UFC. (At the time of this writing, Brock Lesnar was scheduled to fight Randy Couture on November 15, 2008.)

So, as in ancient times, wrestling and the martial arts have once again united. No less an authority than Bruce Lee said, “The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style.” Perhaps that’s why in 2004, UFC President Dana White called Bruce Lee the “father of mixed martial arts.”

(Eric Althoff is a freelance writer with 20 years of martial arts experience. He holds a third-degree black belt in isshin-ryu karate and has studied modern arnis.)

Best UFC Fights From the First 10 Years

November 2003 marked the end of an era for the Ultimate Fighting Championship—and by extension, the mixed martial arts in the United States. Over the course of those 10 years, the sport saw more evolution than Darwin’s notepad. And through it all, despite rumors of banishment, mortality rates, political machinations or simply the laws of attrition, the UFC has stood its ground.

You don’t get this far without being persistent—or dramatic. Unlike the stolid world of boxing or the over-dramatized world of professional wrestling, the UFC found its primal appeal in letting the show takes its own course. Feuds fanned their own flames, favorites rushed to the top and plummeted to the bottom, and underdogs made us believe in the impossible.

Be it through world-class wrestlers or strikers, or the sheer heart of the pioneers, there is no purer evidence to be found of the warrior’s heart than in the stories of the octagon. Let’s open up the gates:

UFC 3: Keith Hackney vs. Emmanuel Yarborough

By the time UFC 3 rolled around, the event was a pay-per-view sensation, creating a spectacle with enough bluster to challenge pro wrestling. The height of such promotion was when 5-foot-11- inch, 215-pound Keith Hackney was paired with 6-foot-8-inch, 600-pound Emmanuel Yarborough. Despite being nearly swallowed in Emmanuel Yarborough’s girth, Keith Hackney managed to unwind with hammer fists to the side of the sumo’s head, resulting in referee intervention. The UFC may never come closer to the fabled gladiatorial spectacles of the Roman Empire. Though many self-important observers were loath to admit it, this was must-see TV.

UFC 6: David “Tank” Abbott vs. John Matua

For five installments of the UFC, it was Royce Gracie’s formidable finesse that drove the fights and the stories. Enter David “Tank” Abbott, the complete antithesis of the martial artist: a street brawler with an ego as big as his belly. David “Tank” Abbott sauntered in and proceeded to decimate John Matua in seconds, sending him to the canvas with such force that the impact induced a seizure. It was an ugly moment for the UFC, but another reality check. Sometimes the graceless slugger got by on pure bad vibes. David “Tank” Abbott would go on to become the first real villain—and antihero—of the promotion.

UFC 10: Mark Coleman vs. Don Fry

Nearly three years old, the UFC had already begun to weed out the weekend warriors whose sensei had drilled in false hopes of athleticism. Dan Severn was the first to arrive wielding a lifetime in wrestling, but it was decade-younger collegiate star Mark Coleman who married ground control with devastating striking. His first tournament bid was a demolition ending in a weary Mark Coleman pounding out an even wearier Don Frye. Submission experts—the former front men—would now have to contend with Olympic-level conditioning and the threat of a powerhouse grappler steamrolling them into the mat.

UFC 14: Maurice Smith vs. Mark Coleman

A cakewalk? Hardly. Just listen to an inebriated Mark Coleman talk about “grounding and f—in’ pounding” kickboxer Maurice Smith in the evening’s main event. Mark Coleman had been an unstoppable wrestler; Maurice Smith was merely an Extreme Fighting vet who had picked up a ground game from Frank Shamrock. The outcome was never in doubt. Good thing no one told Maurice Smith, who weathered an early storm and then picked his shots against an exhausted—and aghast—Mark Coleman. Now strikers who could play a good defense were suddenly dangerous. The sport again insisted on never sitting idle.

UFC 3: Royce Gracie vs. Kimo Leopoldo

After two tournament victories, Royce Gracie was every bit the star as the UFC itself. And again promoters sought a heavily muscled action figure for him to manipulate. Kimo Leopoldo had little formal training, but being tenacious—and heavily tattooed—earned him a slot. For seven minutes, the two nearly abandoned all pretense of sportsmanship and worked each other over. An exhausted Kimo Leopoldo tapped from an arm lock, and an exhausted Royce Gracie dropped out of the show. It was the first time the invincible Brazilian revealed a dent in his armor.

UFC Japan: Frank Shamrock vs. Kevin Jackson

Up until this point, no quintessential mixed martial artist had sprung up—none with the ability, charisma and drive to act as a figurehead for an emerging sport. That all changed in the 15 seconds it took Frank Shamrock to armbar Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson. The adopted younger brother of Ken Shamrock immediately made a name for himself, the action inside the ring had come full circle for the umpteenth time and Shamrock could back up his cross-trained ways with a bravado that the crowd ate up.

UFC 12: Vitor Belfort vs. Scott Ferrozzo

With dismal compensation in relation to boxing, there was little incentive for world-class strikers to test their chin in the …

Boxing vs. MMA: Randy Couture Proves Mixed Martial Arts a Legit Sport Against James Toney

They say no one has invented a time machine, but while watching the UFC 118 in Boston, I was hard-pressed to believe it. I say this because when that old question, “Can a boxer beat a mixed martial artist?” reared its ugly head again courtesy of the co-main event, it felt like I’d traveled into the past by exactly 117 UFCs. After all the hubbub, mixed martial arts legend Randy Couture choked out boxer James Toney in three minutes 19 seconds.

Certainly, UFC president Dana White seemed to be experiencing a bit of temporal distortion. “I thought we answered this question back in 1993,” he said.

It was answered to the satisfaction of everyone except James Toney, who lobbied Dana White for the better part of a year to let him compete. When Dana White relented—despite years of actively resisting the sideshow appeal of the early UFCs—and matched him with former heavyweight champ Randy Couture, James Toney’s pre-fight hype shifted from surly to obnoxious.

Describing the bout as a contest between boxing and MMA, James Toney insisted he’d single-handedly bring boxing back to the forefront of combat sports by easily knocking out Randy Couture.

As the current International Boxing Association heavyweight champ, James Toney did come into the match as the most accomplished boxer to ever set foot inside the octagon. He’s won numerous titles in his 22-year career, but that statistic belies the fact that his best days were nearly 20 years ago when he fought at 160 pounds, not the pudgy 237 pounds he slimmed down to for his MMA debut. Of course, Randy Couture, 47, has likewise seen better days, but such details were lost on the public as James Toney cast himself as the UFCs biggest villain and ignited an interest that took many by surprise.

Sean Smyth of WBZ-FM said the hype surrounding the UFC’s Boston debut, and especially the Couture-Toney bout, caught some at his station flat-footed. When it became apparent that this was a must-see event, they quickly set up a live 90-minute pre-fight broadcast from the arena.

White, a Boston native, said the reception for the UFC in his hometown exceeded all expectations. Besides the Couture-Toney “fight,” he loaded the card with local favorites, including Joe Lauzon, who garnered submission-of-the-night honors by quickly armbarring Gabe Ruediger, and Kenny Florian, who came up short in his bout with Gray Maynard, losing a unanimous decision.

The main event was actually a rematch between lightweight champ Frankie Edgar and former titleholder B.J. Penn. Although Frankie Edgar silenced his critics by winning a lopsided decision and making B.J. Penn look old, the Couture-Toney matchup was what had the sellout crowd of more than 14,000 buzzing.

Randy Couture entered to a standing ovation, and no one sat back down during the fight, which was less a legitimate MMA contest than a chance for a grappler to school an untrained opponent. Immediately, Randy Couture shot in for an easy single-leg takedown and put James Toney on his back, where he was helpless.

“I had to dust off the low single from college,” said the former All-American wrestler, explaining that the more customary double-leg takedown would’ve necessitated a closer approach, putting him inside James Toney’s reach. “I had no illusions about trading punches. You don’t see the low single much in MMA because you have to start from farther away, and a good grappler will just step out of it.”

Fortunately for Randy Couture, James Toney was not a good grappler. Despite claims that he’d trained for months to stifle his opponent’s ground game, once he hit the mat, James Toney resembled nothing so much as those strikers from the first UFCs who’d never been downed before. Randy Couture quickly got a full mount and began pounding James Toney, whose only answer was to swat from the bottom, a strategy that was largely discredited 17 years ago. Couture finally secured a side choke along the fence, prompting James Toney to stall with his beefy arms. “The Natural” hit him a couple of times, then flattened him out on the ground. As the raucous crowd chanted, “UFC!” Couture reapplied the side choke, forcing his foe to submit.

When asked later whether he’d take on James Toney in a boxing match, Randy Couture responded, “I would respectfully decline such an offer.”

Always the gentleman, Randy Couture said that he respected boxing and that a good boxer could make the adjustment to MMA—as he’d done from wrestling—if he put in the time to learn the game. He also pointed out that he’d probably do as well in a boxing match against Toney as Toney had in MMA against him, reiterating that MMA and boxing are two different sports.

So who really is better, a boxer or a mixed martial artist? The answer …

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