The sport of mixed martial arts is often misunderstood by fans of other sports, even other combat sports. When fights hit the ground, casual viewers often complain that the action is hard to decipher, or that the fight becomes boring as the athletes neutralize each other and try to gain better positions. Others may point out that the striking is not as crisp or technical as it is in boxing. I’m guessing there’s not too many of these complaints from the current audience, but it has often been derided as too bloody or barbaric. Let’s tackle each of these ideas, starting with some common misconceptions about ground fighting.
Stand up striking features more open space and movement, and it is simply easier to tell what’s going on between the fighters. There’s more chances for a sensational knockout, a favorite fan ending in any combat sport. However, even casual fans are appreciating the submission victory as well. It does take some education and awareness to appreciate ground fighting. It may depend on your own fighting preferences, a striker will probably appreciate the knockout more than a grappler. With the lack of space between fighters, the movements of the fighters are more subtle. Each fighter is able to feel what is going on and make adjustments more readily to their opponent. When I saw the first UFC event, I knew wrestling, and some joint locks, throws and chokes from Chinese boxing, but in that tournament my eyes were opened to jiu-jitsu. I was immediately struck by the stark differences between Royce Gracie and the other fighters. Obviously he was smaller than everyone, but his approach was also very different. When he was able to repeatedly submit much larger and stronger opponents, I realised that he was applying more than just crazy looking techniques. He was applying one the most basic tenets of the martial arts, which is to use superior technique and mental fortitude over simple aggression and power to make your opponent want to quit. He was also able to avoid major injury to himself and his opponent. It takes time and education to appreciate the subtleties of the work being done from those positions, and that is part of the beauty of grappling and groundfighting.
Mma groundfighting relates very well to close quarter combat. Chokes, elbow and shoulder locks, sweeps, and ground striking are all elements that could be used in street fights, self defense scenarios, or armed combat. The major difference is that a close quarters combatant does not want to spend much time on the ground, and certainly does not ever want to be on the bottom However if that does happen, defenses against groundfighting attacks are very useful, such as sweeps, reversals and other methods of escaping. Knowing how to manipulate joints and use leverage to control an opponent is useful in any close quarters battle, even if it just for a moment while you gain control over a weapon or create an opening to escape. Most people simply don’t like feeling physically constrained or tangled up with an opponent, and groundfighting skills will make you more comfortable dealing with uncomfortable situations such as being bearhugged, headlocked, or arm locked.
While filming for a video blog on martial arts (coming soon to an url near you), our crew has interviewed dozens of fans at professional mma events. We’ve been pleased to hear how educated the casual fans have become since the early days of mma. Many of the fans we speak to don’t train themselves yet they are often appreciative of the nuances of groundfighting. We’ll ask fans if they prefer “knockout or tapout?” and it has been a pretty even split. The justifications for the answers have been amusing as well as convincing. A common argument against knockouts and for tapouts is this: Anybody can get caught with a punch and get knocked out, but when someone gets submitted, they know that they lost by getting outmaneuvered and having to give up. Some of it will always come down to personal preference, but the next time you’re watching mma and the fight goes to the ground, perhaps you can watch with a greater appreciation of the skills and the relevance of the techniques on display.