When writing this article I had to be very selective with the fighters. Wrestling is one of the most essential elements of MMA and arguably the best base for the sport. However, there is a big difference between and great wrestler in MMA and a great wrestler who’s competed in MMA.
Being a great wrestler isn’t enough to take you to the pinnacle of the sport. Ben Askren is a prime example of someone who relied far too heavily on his grappling and eventually, his lack of striking found him on the end of a flying knee. So in this article, we’ll be breaking down the fighters who were able to incorporate their wrestling/grappling into MMA the most effectively.
Coming from a combat Sambo and freestyle wrestling background, Khabib was always going to be effective in MMA. However, no one could’ve predicted his sheer dominance. Khabib’s style was predominantly based on pressure, he would pin his opponents up against the cage before slamming them to the floor and smashing their faces with ground and pound. He would often finish fights via submission or TKO.
While Khabib’s striking wasn’t the cleanest initially, he greatly improved this facet of his game throughout the years and eventually developed into a very well-rounded fighter with great wrestling, boxing, and pressure. Khabib is one of very few to finish his career undefeated with a perfect record of 29-0.
Jon Jones is the best MMA fighter in history. The records he holds and the names he’s beaten speak for themselves. While Jon often used his slick striking to dominate the 205 division, he had an incredibly strong background in greco-roman wrestling and was a well-rounded fighter from a young age. In fact, his wrestling is arguably the best part of his game as he was able to take down DC who is an Olympic Champion wrestler on multiple occasions.
However, Jones was able to incorporate his wrestling into MMA very effectively. This meant that even wrestlers weren’t much of a threat to him and he could keep the fight standing quite easily, allowing him to be incredibly dominant against both strikers and grapplers. His most recent outing against Cyril Gane displayed the importance of having a strong grappling background in MMA.
Daniel Cormier has one of the most decorated wrestling backgrounds in MMA. As a former Olympian, he was always going to be trouble for any fighter on the ground. However, combined with the surprisingly strong striking, DC ended up being one of the best fighters of all time and one of the very few to hold two world championships simultaneously.
DC’s short stocky frame meant that his fighting style was all about pressure and strength. He was able to pick up, throw, and maul fighters much larger than himself with relative ease. It was also nearly impossible to take him or even try to submit him due to his strength and compact frame. Daniel even joked about this himself, saying no one could choke him out because they wouldn’t even be able to secure their arms around his neck since it was practically non-existent.
Wrestling does have a slight cliche in MMA of being a bit boring at times, especially when fighters use it to halt the action. However, Khamzat Chimaev does wrestling very differently. His wrestling is incredibly exciting to watch due to its pace and his explosive style. Khamzat is a speedy starter and wastes no time, often shooting for a takedown within the opening moments of the fight. He’ll then slam his opponent onto the ground before using his weight and grappling skills to smash or submit them.
However, as he showed in his fight against Gilbert Burns, Khamzat isn’t just a wrestler, he can also strike very well. Providing that he can maintain a cool head and follow his game plan, he will continue to be successful in his MMA career and will likely become champion in the 170 or 185lb division.
Islam Makhachev is the current UFC lightweight champion. As Khabib’s lifelong friend and Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov’s protege, Makhachev was always going to be trouble for the 155lb division. He has a very similar style to Khabib as they both were trained by Khabib’s father and have the same background in Sambo. However, Islam uses slightly less pressure than Khabib, he’s definitely front-footed and aggressive but Khabib’s pace is seemingly unmatchable.
Islam has shown to have the superior striking out of the two as he displayed against Charles Olivera and Alexander Volkanovksi. Islam’s punches and kicks and crisp with great form which perfectly complement his wrestling. While Khabib often relied more on his grappling during the early stages of his career where his striking was quite sloppy, however, it significantly improved towards the end.
Usman was already a very well-decorated wrestler when he joined MMA. As an NCAA Division II wrestler, Kamaru used his immense strength and great understanding of control to dominate his fights making him one of the greatest welterweights of all time. Kamaru likes to do a lot of his wrestling work up against the fence, looking to trips and takedowns while holding favourable positions and accumulating control time.
As a pure wrestler, he’s effectively flawless but the only slight shortcoming in his overall grappling ability is his submissions. Kamaru doesn’t seem to have great BBJ despite being to ragdoll his opponents with his wrestling he sometimes struggles to find submissions often looking to TKO victories and Unanimous Decisions.
Colby Covington is a two-time Pac-10 Wrestling champion and a phenomenal grappler generally speaking. Like Kamaru Usman he uses immense pressure and pace to exhaust his opponents to either look for a TKO or UD. Colby doesn’t really look for submissions and he lost twice to Usman hence his position on the list. However, there is no denying he is an elite wrestler and an elite welterweight in the UFC.
The other thing Colby does particularly well is mixing his grappling with his striking. He’ll often use hard pressure and solid kickboxing to drive his opponents to the fence once they run out of steam. He’ll then shoot for a takedown and either control them on the ground or maul them with elbows and punches.
George St Piere
Alongside Jon Jones, I think GSP has to be the greatest MMA fighter of all time. He was well beyond his time and truly embodied what it means to be a mixed martial artist. GSP was very well-rounded with great kickboxing, BJJ, and wrestling. But it was his wrestling that really allowed him to control fights and set up TKOs and submissions. So while GSP isn’t nearly as high level as someone like Henry Cejudo in pure wrestling, he outshines them simply because of how well he was able to blend his wrestling together with other martial arts and how effectively he used it in MMA.
As a two-weight world champion, Cejudo belongs to an elite group of fighters and he’s displayed greatness in multiple sports on multiple occasions. Henry is actually a gold medalist in wrestling and his grappling skills have definitely served him well throughout his career. He is an incredible freestyle wrestler and I have no doubt that he is by far the best grappler in his division.
However, in a division that is so stacked and full of talent, Henry wasn’t always able to use his wrestling to dominate his opponents. Most notably losing to DJ in their first bout and recently losing to Aljamain Sterling. While there is no denying his wrestling prowess, Henry doesn’t possess the same dominance when it is all put together in MMA as some of the other fighters on this list.
Truth be told, Yoel should be much higher on this list as he is an incredibly decorated wrestler and Olympian. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, we’d be rating the fighters based on how effectively they were able to use their wrestling skills in the cage. Not that it much mattered for Yoel but the level of wrestler that the is didn’t particularly show during his MMA career. Many fans often found themselves frustrated with Yoel as he could’ve easily won so many more fights if he used all of his skills.
However, in the true spirit of fighting, I think Yoel wanted to prove a point and put on a spectacle. Not to mention his fight with Israel Adesanya! But in all seriousness, Yoel’s wrestling is formidable and he has shown glimpses of what he knows in the cage but unfortunately, wrestling was often part of his game plan hence why he isn’t higher on this list.