MMA Fighters

Learn UFC Champ Georges St-Pierre’s MMA Training Tactics

What Martial Artists Can Learn From Georges St. Pierre.Even if you’re not a fan of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, by now you’ve probably heard about the ease with which Georges St-Pierre systematically dismantled opponents such as B.J. Penn at the UFC 94. That victory was just part of a five-bout winning streak for the recently retired Canadian karateka and MMA fighter.

Georges St-Pierre won the UFC welterweight championship twice — once in 2006 and again in 2008, as well as the interim title in 2007. In December 2013, St-Pierre vacated the title and decided to take some time off from the sport, though he left the door open for a return.

In case you don’t have enough time to dissect his whole record and go through each fight, we thought we’d give you a breakdown of how he does it and how you can apply the lessons the champ has learned the hard way.

Georges St-Pierre’s Athleticism

Observation: “Georges St-Pierre is a gifted athlete,” says Lito Angeles, author of Fight Night! The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Mixed Martial Arts. “He was blessed with exceptional athleticism.”

Explanation: That includes balance and an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers, Lito Angeles says. “You see his superior balance in the way he’s able to thwart takedowns. In his fight with Josh Koscheck, Koscheck tried to take him down. Georges St-Pierre did a cat-like movement and managed to land on his feet. It was spectacular. No matter who he’s fighting, he’s always in a good position to do what he wants, whether he’s standing, in a clinch, doing a takedown, neutralizing a takedown or getting to side control. “Fast-twitch muscle fibers give him the capacity for explosive movements.”

Action: “For the most part, you’re born with a certain amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers, but you can enhance what you have to some degree,” Lito Angeles says. “It’s the same for balance: You’re born with it, but it can be honed through hard training in the various disciplines that cover stand-up fighting, the clinch and the ground.”

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GSP’s Work Ethic

Observation: “GSP has a work ethic that’s second to none,” Lito Angeles says. “He trains hard in a number of fighting disciplines with world-class people, and he doesn’t mind if he gets his butt kicked. Then he takes techniques from those disciplines and fits them into the MMA framework.”

Explanation: Everybody he trains with is better than he is at that particular martial art, Lito Angeles says. “For example, he works out with Otis Grant, who’s a world boxing champion. If Georges St-Pierre fought Otis Grant in a boxing match, he’d lose, but if he fought Otis Grant or any of his other training partners in MMA, Georges St-Pierre would win because he combines the skills better.”

Action: Don’t limit your training partners to just people you can beat. Spar with students who have a good chance of beating you, and when they do, learn from them. It’s the only way to get better.

Georges St-Pierre’s Deadly Hands

Observation: Georges St-Pierre has deadly hands.

Explanation: “He trains in boxing, but he doesn’t use conventional boxing in the octagon,” Lito Angeles says. “He modifies it so his stance is a little wider, which enables him to counter takedowns better. And his distancing is a little farther away, which means his opponent doesn’t know if he’s going to punch or kick.”

Action: If you’re into MMA, study conventional boxing but don’t plan on using it as is in competition because you’ll be taken down, Lito Angeles says. “The best place to learn MMA-modified boxing is in an MMA gym. It’s not a bad thing to study conventional boxing because it will teach you the mechanics needed to throw hard punches.

“If you’re more into self-defense than MMA and you had to pick one established system to learn, it should be boxing. I’d modify it to use the palms instead of the fists because the palms have more structural integrity. Anything you can do with your fists, you can do with your palms.”

GSP’s Kicking Techniques

Observation: Georges St-Pierre can kick like a mule.

Explanation: “He has great kicking skills because of his karate background,” Lito Angeles says. “His lead-leg round kick shows a kyokushin and muay Thai influence, but it’s not pure kyokushin or pure muay Thai. He makes his kicks fast and snappy. He doesn’t try to put full power into each one and blast his opponent to death. He uses mostly round kicks, often delivered from the lead leg. They’re very effective even though they were considered worthless in the early days of MMA. In his second fight with Matt Hughes, he TKO’d him with …

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.

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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. …

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.)

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 …

B.J. Penn’s First Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Lesson

B.J. Penn is a friend of mine. I gave him his very first Brazilian jiu-jitsu lessons, and for a year we trained together two to three days a week. Whenever B.J. Penn tells the story of how he got started in the martial arts, he’s always kind enough to mention me, which is great. The only problem is he doesn’t tell the story right. His version is close, but it’s not perfect.

So, I’m here to set the record straight.

After moving to Hilo, Hawaii, so my girlfriend could attend college, we found a house to rent and moved in. Knowing that nobody was doing Brazilian ji-jitsu there, I visited all the local gyms and put up a sign before even unpacking my gi: “Training Partners Wanted. Looking for Wrestlers or Judo Players to Train With.”

Here’s where my story differs from B.J.’s.

The next day I received my first call at our new home. Even though I knew almost no one in Hilo, I recognized the voice. It was B.J.’s father, Jay Dee Penn, my new landlord. He said, “My boys are interested in your grappling class and all this jiu-jitsu stuff. When does it start?” I laughed and told him the details, and he responded that his boys would come over and meet me for a workout.

I think they missed our first planned workout, which would explain why B.J. recalls me bugging his dad to get them to come. B.J. eventually showed up with his brother Reagan. Even though they didn’t know how to defend themselves, they were interested, strong, willing and tough, so they became my new and steadfast training partners.

I told the Penns that while I only knew a little Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I had been a martial artist and teacher for most of my adult life. First, I would teach them what I knew, and then we would work on mastering the techniques. Because I could tap them out with ease, they thought I was really good, but I remember telling them, “Wait until you roll with some blue belts. They’re like gods!”

After a few workouts, B.J.’s friends started showing up to train. Once, B.J.’s older brother Jay Dee came by, and I couldn’t tap him out. Despite his ever-present smile, he was one strong guy. One of B.J.’s friends, Cabbage, started training with us and eventually became a professional fighter. Cabbage was a nice kid who had really long hair, a big belly, and sweated twice as much as most people. When you rolled with Cabbage, you were going to get wet.

The truth is I never had to bug B.J. to work out because the guy never missed a training session. He could go as long and as hard as I could and then some. Also, he was as fast a learner as I had ever encountered.

One day, about four or five months into our training, I made the mistake of telling the boys that we were going to do some light stand-up sparring. I told B.J., “So let’s just, you know, sort of slap-box a little.” I was an above-average fighter with decent hand speed, and I wasn’t a stranger to sparring. Before I could throw a decent backfist, he slapped me about five times in the face. I was surprised, to say the least, and I think I chased him around for another 30 seconds or so, giving him the opportunity to slap me a few more times. That was the last time I sparred with B.J.

After testing for my 5th-degree black belt with Master Ernie Reyes, Sr., my training dropped off a bit because I was suffering from a lot of hip pain (which, a couple of years later, had to be replaced). However, B.J. and his friends kept on training, and I would show up when I could.

When Mr. Reyes celebrated his birthday, I told B.J.’s father that his son should accompany me, and while there I would introduce him to Ralph Gracie. Well, Ralph, David Camerillo, Renato “Charuto” Verissimo, and B.J. were about to make history. B.J. moved to California, and every time I saw him in the coming years he would be better, trickier and tougher.

You can teach an entire lifetime and never have a B.J. Penn come out of your school. I feel lucky to know him and his brothers and parents, because they’re as kind and gracious as anyone you could meet.

When I lived in Hilo, B.J.’s father built an addition on my house, free of charge, so some of my black belts could stay with me during the summer. He gave me a beautiful building rent free for an entire year.

And worthy of note, even B.J.’s mother, Lorraine Shin, was a tough grappler. My wife and …