Wrestling for Grappling - A Comprehensive (and Ultimately Biased) Guide


Part I: Styles, Tie-Ups, and Hand Fighting

I. Introduction

Wrestling and jiujitsu, what do they have in common? An ancient style of hand-to-hand combat which has evolved into a recreational sport featuring some of the world’s most elite athletes, intricate systems and various schools, incredible manipulations of finesse and leverage, and a depth of technical skill that overshadows almost any other. And also jiujitsu. The truth is, as a grappling art, jiujitsu has much to learn from the discipline(s) of wrestling. Despite advancements and emphases placed on wrestling training by grapplers in recent years, we still haven’t even touched the surface. 

In this article, I look to expand upon basic principles and fundamentals from wrestling which should be prioritized by grapplers, and methods by which one might incorporate them into their training so as to improve their overall grappling acumen. My goal is to eradicate habitual guard pullers (somewhat joking). In order to do this, we’ll first begin with an overview of the stylistic differences between wrestling and wrestling for grappling, before moving on to our more specific sections. If this sounds interesting to you, or if you simply don’t want to get made fun of for sitting guard, read on!

II. Stylistic Differences

(image credit: Sweet Science of Fighting)

Obviously, one can’t hope to compete in high level grappling tournaments with just wrestling. Even the most adept mat wrestlers aren’t prepared for lengthy guard engagements, primarily due to the fact that any conventional guard-playing situation would be a fall/pin in wrestling and lead to the culmination of a match. That is to say, the specific aims and goals of wrestling are significantly different from the aims and objectives of submission grappling. Therefore, the fundamental concepts and principles which comprise the most baseline technical, mechanical, and strategic building blocks of “form” and “style” will be geared towards different aims. That being said, the crossovers are equally apparent, and worth further discussion.

While the arguments of hybrid cross-style matches are altogether silly, there are still obvious parallels and shortcomings which affect either discipline when contrasted with the other. However, in order to implement better wrestling to jiujitsu, compromises must be made and the reasoning for such necessitates discussion. For example, we’ll analyze the dichotomies in stance.

It’s no secret that grapplers tend to maintain a much more upright posture than traditional wrestlers will. In part, due to the inherent risks associated with an exposed neck. However, this upright stance comes at the sacrifice of easy level changes and traditional shots. Abandoning the 3-point stance of old and maintaining rigid posture is a natural development for a sport that emphasizes chokes and running around to backs, but perhaps neglects the most important facet of grappling, actually getting your opponent down!

Posture is everything, right?

While it’s true that posture is of paramount importance, and the Wu Tang Clan warned us to “Protect Ya Neck”, it’s important to understand that these are compromises and not sacrifices. This distinction is largely where grapplers fall short. The ignorance and complacency displayed on the feet by the vast majority of grapplers is a massive shortcoming of the sport as a whole, and one which this writer believes will be heavily addressed in coming years. Ignoring the differences in scoring criteria, I believe it’s still valid to point out the differences in aims, objectives, and stance between wrestling and jiujitsu. Each style of wrestling has a different scoring criteria, from folkstyle to freestyle to Senegalese laamb wrestling, but the principles are largely the same. These principles (or at least the ones we’ll be discussing) are those of posture, base, and leverage, with later sections discussing pace, drive, off-balancing, and misdirection.

III. Stand-Up


Acknowledging the common differences in stance, another natural development of this separation is a difference in the quality of footwork and movement on the feet. More often than not grapplers will be plodding and flatfooted on the feet, haphazardly walking in the direction of one another. Wrestlers, on the other hand, are typically much lighter on their feet and actively engaging the balls of their feet for more optimal movement. Back to stylistic differences, this is likely due to the importance of boundaries in wrestling that don’t necessarily exist in grappling. In wrestling, an athlete can score by forcing their opponent out of bounds. Naturally then, the importance of push-out points will result in better lateral movement. Whereas under most grappling rulesets, stepping out of bounds simply results in a reset.

Footwork, however, is much more than just avoiding boundaries. Footwork is also the most reliable entry to superior angles. Angles are one of the primary means by which to make your grappling easier and more effective. This article doesn’t dare expand significantly upon the concepts of angles and footwork in combat sports (it would never end), but they’re important considerations and foundational skills for grapplers to develop further.

Tie-Ups and Hand Fighting

Tie-ups are one of the most important aspects of grappling. They’re the unsung heroes that precede almost any conventional wrestling offense. More importantly, they’re versatile and variable. Rather than an empty set of “moves” (collar tie, elbow tie, underhook, inside tie, overtie, etc.), tie-ups are fluid and adaptable as principles. And for the most part we, as grapplers, absolutely suck at them! Jiujitsu guys know how to slap on a collar tie, sure. But then what? With matches devolving into minutes at a time of collar ties and heavy breathing, it’s fair to say that the vast majority of grapplers need to work on their ability to convert their ties into anything meaningful.

There is nothing I hate more than grapplers interlocking fingers. Very rarely will you see high level wrestlers accepting neutral engagements, such as interlocking fingers. Good wrestlers know the importance of fighting hands and denying ties. Why? Because your tie-ups are the basis for your offense with the added benefit of built-in defense. Ties are contact, contact begets control. Offensively for example, a grappler can initiate a collar tie as a means of attacking the posture of his opponent, and giving themselves some measure of leverage over their movement. This tie has multiple permutations: conversions to different ties, defensive framing, and it opens up the opportunity for snapdowns, duck-unders, etc. (depending on whatever the opponent is giving back). Equally, another built-in utility of contact is the ability to gauge and manage distance.

In jiujitsu it’s not uncommon to see athletes shooting from far out of range. Attempting to cover excessive distance inevitably opens one up to risk and disadvantage. This is typically where you’ll see grapplers shooting into chokes or finding themselves stuffed under the hips of their sprawling opponent, devoid of posture and base with which to be offensively potent. An athlete is mechanically at their weakest when extended beyond their base and core. In grappling, where the overall level of defensive wrestling is almost as weak as its offensive counterpart, the majority of these situations can be actively avoided with an educated understanding of the utilities and principles associated with tie-ups. This brings us to hand fighting.

Acknowledging the importance of tie-ups, denying an opponent’s ties and beating their defenses to your own is paramount. This incredibly important aspect of wrestling is almost entirely underdeveloped in grappling. If the tie-ups are the entry for conventional wrestling offense, hand fighting is the entry to the tie-ups. Watch any collegiate wrestling match and you’ll see the importance of and insistence on hand fighting. Watch even the most high level jiujitsu match and you’ll see an almost complete absence of it. As we know, inside position is critically important in grappling, so what happens then when two equally skilled competitors are looking for that crucial inside positioning? That’s right, hand fighting! Essentially, if you’re competing against skilled opposition and you can’t hand fight effectively, you’ve lost some of the most important positional battles almost immediately. In terms of resources to supplement your knowledge and training, Olympic wrestler, world champion, and four-time All American (two-time NCAA Division I champion) Cary Kolat has a fantastic series specifically devoted to hand fighting on his website, which this writer highly recommends. The culmination of this section will be focused on how a grappler might implement these principles into their training and arsenal.

IV. Conclusion

Incorporating Your Wrestling: Movement, Tie-Ups, and Hand Fighting (credit: BJJ Heroes)

This will be the most difficult part for the average hobbyist. In terms of gym culture, many of us who train jiujitsu recreationally struggle to divert from what we’re good at. However, in the aims of improving and getting better we must be willing to take risks, step out of our comfort zones, and acknowledge that it’s perfectly ok to “lose” in training. Wrestling is hard and complex, nobody will be good at it right away, but  taking those steps in training and allowing oneself to be “bad” at something is the only way to overcome it. The advice of this writer, an average and almost somewhat decent wrestler, is to watch, study, and attempt for yourself. In this section, I will go over some tools from wrestling which I believe can be easily incorporated into a grappler’s arsenal with great efficacy. On a side note, I recommend when studying and watching wrestling to approach it with an eye on fundamental concepts and principles, rather than specific “moves” or techniques. Techniques are built off principles, not the other way around.

In assessing movement and stance, a great starting point is getting comfortable in a modified wrestling stance with good base and posture. Play around with it, find where you’re most comfortable and feel the strongest, then one can work on their level changes and penetration steps. Once you’ve found a comfortable stance, move around in it. Focus on linear and lateral movement, and then incorporate offensive motions until your movement feels fluid and comfortable. This can be done without a partner, and then once you feel stronger and more confident, you can begin testing out your newfound footwork and stance in live training. Again, it likely won’t be amazing at first, but with enough trial and error, you’ll likely begin to see results! Now, I know for myself and many others, grappling comes at a cost of knee and back injuries. You might find that these nagging pains hamper your ability to maintain a more mobile stance, but that is why I’ve emphasized finding what is most comfortable and efficient for you!

On to tie-ups, hand fighting, and “moves”. Some easy starting points for grapple-wrestling are simple collar ties, which I’m sure every reader is already familiar with. The collar tie can be incredibly versatile and opens up a number of offensive and defensive opportunities for those aspiring to incorporate wrestling into their grappling game more effectively. For example, starting in neutral positions with a partner, you can prioritize hand fighting into your collar tie. Remember, these are dog fights, you don’t want to concede tie-ups to your training partner, nor do you want to lose inside positioning if at all possible. Complacency is death, and hand fighting is your means for survival. Viewing the collar tie as “home base”, developing a series of attacks from there is simple. Work on snapdowns to a front headlock series. It’s effective wrestling offense without having to shoot for takedowns, and the front headlock position lends itself to a variety of jiujitsu offense as well. You can attack d’arces, anacondas, guillotines, back takes, cement mixers, or your offense on the turtle position all off the front headlock. And the snapdown itself is almost entirely predicated on your ties. 

Another option off the collar tie, given the opponent is looking for their own collar tie as a response, is the duck under (or boot scoot if you’re feeling brave). The duck under in grappling doesn’t have to be a full level change and penetration, catching an elbow or tricep grip on your partner’s collar tying arm, all you really need to do is elevate the elbow enough to duck your head under their armpit (keeping your head/ear tight to their body) and come up on their back. This variation on the duck under is very simple and significantly easier on the body than that which requires a full level change and shot, while also serving the objectives of submission grappling. If you can achieve a successful duck under, you’ve come up on your opponent’s back with their arm in between your body and their own neck (if you’re maintaining your collar tie as you should), into a sort of “claw” position. Your offensive options from here are plentiful and should be immediately apparent. Again, simple and effective wrestling to augment your grappling while still serving the objectives and aims of jiujitsu. 

Yet another option off of matching collar ties is the slide by. Whether from an overtie or with neutral collar ties, the slide by is an attack off of your opponent’s collar tie. Logan Stieber and Daton Fix, amongst many others, have found great success with the slide by and it incorporates a principle we’ll be discussing further later in this series, and that is off-balancing/misdirection. Given your opponent has a collar tie, you can attack a slide by while your opponent is pushing into you, one way to do this is by having your own collar tie and wrapping your other arm over top of theirs. Once they’re pushing in, you’ll shrug your shoulders, catch the tie-up, step outside their leg, and rotate your hips/shoulders until their collar tie has popped off and you’re in a similar claw position as the modified duck under. Again, relatively low risk wrestling offense modified for jiujitsu, and in a way that isn’t too hard on the body.

This section is not intended to substitute for your own development, and is by no means a hard-and-fast set of rules for wrestling for jiujitsu, but rather a series of examples and ideas which effectively combine tenets of traditional wrestling with the aims and objectives of grappling. There is obviously much more to wrestling for grappling than the aforementioned attacks, but I believe these are relatively simple adaptations which almost any grappler can incorporate into their stand-up game without having to shoot for takedowns. As building blocks, you might find these options to be incredibly useful, or you may not, it depends entirely on your style and level of comfort. However, I believe these attacks are simple and effective means of wrestling for jiujitsu with a low bar for entry in terms of athleticism and physicality, while also being low risk and with significantly less physical impact than traditional shots.

In the next segment of Wrestling for Grappling, I aim to cover the principles of drive, off-balancing, and misdirection while also discussing mat wrestling for grappling, pinning mechanics, and the concept of riding as a means for control. Hopefully, these starting points can kill your desire to pull guard and inspire a willingness to wrestle, or at least study wrestling further! The takeaways from this section should be a focus on concepts and principles, further understanding the value of fundamental wrestling, and a more robust framework for analyzing the often overlooked importance of tie-ups and hand fighting in a submission grappling context. Any questions or comments regarding this article can be addressed to @JDillaThaKilla on Twitter, where I’ll be happy to expand on any points, answer any questions, or provide resources for any of the aforementioned concepts covered in this segment! Don’t be afraid to wrestle and remember, every time you pull guard a puppy dies. As always, Oss!