Recent NCAA champions Ben Askren and Cole Konrad have taken the Bellator Fighting Championships by storm, easily defeating all the opponents put in front of them to capture the championship in their respective divisions. With little more mixed martial arts skill than explosive takedowns and tenacious top control, these relative newcomers were able to successfully transition to more than prospect level fighters with their wrestling alone. But wrestling has become the most controversial style in MMA due to fighters like Askren, Konrad, Nik Lentz and John Fitch who have styles that lend themselves to eeking out decisions based upon takedowns, top control, and gameplanning to not overextend. This style has been affectionately coined as "Lay n Pray." But what happens when wrestling is not enough?
Shane Roller, the three time All-American wrestler from Oklahoma State University, went into his fight with Anthony Pettis as a -180 favorite due to his elite wrestling and three fight win streak over notable fighters Marcus Hicks, Danny Castillo and Anthony Njokuani. Roller started the fight strong, but Roller's wrestling was soon nullified by Pettis' superb take down defense and eventually Pettis got a take down on Roller which lead to a triangle choke submission late in the fight. For Roller, wrestling was not enough and it cost him the fight.
Mark Munoz, a two time All-American at Oklahoma State University and the 2001 National Champion at 197 pounds, went into his recent fight with Yushin Okami as the underdog at +185, but many pundits believed that this fight would be Munoz's coming out party after Okami had been easily taken down by Chael Sonnen, who grinded Okami for three rounds on his way to a unanimous decision. It seems the oddsmaker were right as Okami nullified Munoz's take-downs and relegated Munoz to diving for single leg's as he was being systematically destroyed by Okami when they traded punches. This fight also brought up greater questions as to how judges are partial towards wrestling as Munoz somehow convinced one of the judges that he actually won two of the three rounds in this very one-sided affair that ended up a split decision. For Munoz wrestling was not enough and it cost him the fight.
Cain Velasquez, current UFC Heavyweight Champion and former junior college national champion and two-time All-American from Arizona State University, was the underdog going into his fight with Brock Lesnar, and many (including myself) had Lesnar using his size, strength and overwhelming wrestling credentials to impose his will on "Brown Pride" and repeat his finishes of Frank Mir and Shane Carwin. While Lesnar was able to secure take-downs against Velasquez, Cain was able to get back up to his feet rather easily and eventually score a takedown of his own which lead to vicious ground and pound that forced referee Herb Dean to step in and stop the fight in the first round. For Lesnar, wrestling was not enough and it cost him the fight. For Velasquez, wrestling was not enough, but it didn't matter. He proved that technique and speed will trump size and strength. But that is not all he proved.
Joe Rogan, once again, questioned if we were entering a new era, the Cain Velasquez Era. While this may be shortsighted with Junior Dos Santos waiting in the wings for Cain, I believe that Rogan is correct that we are entering a new era in mixed martial arts. We are entering the era of true mixed martial artists. Too many times I have heard that wrestlers such as Lentz and Fitch are ruining the sport with Lay n Pray, but I continue to think of the shining examples of the fights listed above, where the better fighter won the fight. To compete at the highest level of the sport, a fighter can no longer rely on any one discipline to succeed, but must be well-versed in every discipline, as evidenced by champions such as Georges St. Pierre, Eddie Alvarez and Frankie Edgar combining elite wrestling with superb stand-up to dominate their last opponents. Cain Velasquez proved many people wrong at UFC 121, and the most important item he proved was that mixed martial arts trumps wrestling every day of the week. As fans, this is a lesson we should all learn from.