Those of you who watched the epic UFC 198 card this past weekend in Curitiba, Brazil were treated to some spectacular, highlight-reel finishes showcasing the best that MMA has to offer. Technique, power and athleticism were on display as some of the world’s best fighters competed for pride, glory, and a heavyweight championship belt.
However, two fights in particular portrayed a particularly effective style of fighting – the confluence of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or submission grappling, and striking. Two of the best jiu jitsu practitioners to ever compete in mixed martial arts, Demian Maia and Ronaldo Souza, dominated their opponents en route to decisive victories. Let’s take a look at what makes their respective styles so effective in MMA, and what sets them apart from other grappling-based fighters we’ve seen compete inside the UFC octagon.
Adapting Jiu Jitsu for MMA: Maia, Jacare
Demian Maia, who I consider to be the best grappler in the welterweight division, submitted Matt Brown with a rear naked choke (RNC) in the final minute of the third round. It was a vintage performance from Demian Maia, who returned to his roots by using strikes to set up his takedowns. It’s his bread-and-butter: he pumps his jab to close the distance, shoots for a single-leg takedown, and drives his opponent to the cage. When his opponent attempts to get back to his feet, Maia laces one of the legs and secures a hook before seizing the moment to take the back. Once he takes the back, he applies a body triangle and looks to choke his opponent unconscious.
This style served Maia well for a long time, however, it wasn’t until we saw him face Gunnar Nelson (another grappling sensation) that he began to really incorporate strikes to soften up his opponent. Locking up a choke is much more difficult in MMA, largely due to the cumbersome MMA gloves, copious amounts of sweat, five-minute rounds, and perhaps most importantly, the penchant for referees to stand up fighters who stall for more than a few seconds.
Notwithstanding the obstacles facing grapplers, Maia was able to control Matt Brown and thoroughly dominate the fight, finishing him with a one-armed rear naked choke with under a minute remaining in the fight.
The co-main event featured jiu jitsu standout Ronaldo Souza facing off against Vitor Belfort, who despite the honorable grappling credential of a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt under Carlson Gracie, Sr., is nowhere near the level of Jacaré on the ground. Jacaré knew this, and pressured Belfort until he was able to complete a takedown.
Jacaré’s style is different than Maia’s in several pivotal ways. He has developed powerful and dangerous striking to complement his grappling, and unlike Maia, Jacaré has the kind of power to knock anybody out with one shot. This kind of power was on full display in the Yushin Okami fight, and that power translates well to his ground-and-pound, as we saw in his last outing against Yoel Romero (a very controversial split-decision in favor of Romero).
In addition to a nuclear bomb of an overhand right, Jacaré also has exceptional athleticism and explosiveness. Rather than rely on his athleticism, however, Jacaré uses it to fuel his legendary guard passing technique and control. His mastery of proprioception enables Jacaré to maintain perfect hip pressure and positional control, setting up vicious ground-and-pound capable of stopping his opponents all on its own. When he combines that level of ground-and-pound with control, the results speak for themselves.
We rarely see Maia stop opponents with strikes, and although they do hurt his opponents, it’s obvious he’s using strikes to open up submissions. This is often called “softening up” an opponent, effectively using striking as a means to an end. Jacaré can interchange striking and grappling, with the interaction between the two posing a significant stoppage threat all by itself.
The confluence of striking and grappling could be an art all by itself, though it often gets lost in translation – similar to how one might overlook the nuts and bolts holding two large steel beams together in favor of a view of the structure as a whole.
We as analysts, journalists, and commentators can articulate martial arts through the lens of our own perspective of fighting. The techniques or aspects of martial arts can be abstractly categorized as separate fighting paradigms that are amalgamated into one sport that we call MMA.
One might recall Bruce Buffer announcing each fighter as representing a particular style (i.e. “…standing in the blue corner, he is a boxing and jiu jitsu fighter…” or “he is a freestyle fighter”), which then shapes our view of the fighter’s movement and technique through the lens of that ascribed fighting style.
Chael Sonnen once described Kelvin Gastelum as an enigma of MMA, suggesting that Gastelum has not mastered any particular attribute of mixed martial arts by itself, but somehow ties it all together. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s what makes Jacaré’s style of jiu jitsu so dangerous – it doesn’t rely on a certain set of techniques, but rather glues everything together to accentuate his most powerful weapons.
The average jiu jitsu player or MMA fighter may not possess the kind of talent and dedication of Jacaré, but the lessons to be learned are aplenty. Identifying one’s strengths is a product of self-knowledge, something every martial artist can relate to. Martial arts is a vehicle for developing who we are, as human beings, as animals in nature, and as beings of life on this planet. Perhaps, through the understanding of self, we can achieve equilibrium between our strengths and weaknesses, rather than parse out and compartmentalize what we’re good at and what we’re not.
As Bruce Lee famously remarked, “Water can flow and water can crash. Be like water, my friend.”