A Quick (and Unqualified) Reaction to UFC 280 and Makhachev vs Oliveira

The following is a quick ‘hot take’ (ugh, I hate that term and loathe myself for even typing it…) on the championship bout between Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev that concluded just a few hours ago, as of this typing. I was keenly interested in this match since it pitted two fighters whose primary fighting styles are cognate with my own martial arts journey–Oliveira is a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt, and Makhachev–though listed as a sambo expert–should be considered a hybrid grappler, or maybe even something more akin to a catch wrestler (in fact, sambo has some pretty cool links to catch, which we’ll likely explore in a future post!). I moved away from practicing ‘pure’ jiu jitsu a few years back when I became completely disillusioned with gi training and what I considered to be too much emphasis on the bjj guard (i.e., fighting while on your back), while simultaneously becoming enamored with folkstyle wrestling, and then eventually catch-as-catch-can (which is the forefather of folkstyle wrestling, which again, will be fodder for discussion in a future post!)

So we have Oliveira, who regularly trains in the gi and whose guard is so formidable that people (including Oliveira himself) claimed he could start the fight against Makhachev on his back and win, while Makhachev is known for his superb wrestling, top pressure, and nearly breaking the arm of a past opponent with a double wristlock, which happens to be a quintessential catch technique. Although both are good strikers and well-rounded athletes, in my mind at least, this was a match-up between a jiu jitsu ace and a dominant catch wrestler. I have a previous post about what I believe to be catch’s four distinct advantages when compared to Brazilian jiu jitsu, but here they are bulleted, as a synopsis:

  1. Catch wrestlers don’t train in the gi/kimono/hakama
  2. Catch wrestling emphasizes stand-up grappling and takedowns during training
  3. Matches are won with pins and submissions
  4. No point on the body is off-limits to submissions

So, sample size of one–and no additional pressure intended toward Makhachev!–but would the outcome of today’s championship force me to rethink my direction in training philosophy and coaching??? Well…

That’s Makhachev on top, moments before ending the fight with a head and arm strangle (i.e., submission), during the second round. In my opinion, what really set up this victory–other than an excellent straight right landed prior to this picture being taken–was the punishment Oliveira took while on his back, playing guard, and Makhachev’s ability to take him down and stay on top. I truly believe the guard’s seductive nature–all of the cool submissions one has at his or her disposal–will be jiu jitsu’s eventual undoing in reality-based combat. Please note that the person who just typed that sentence has a decade-plus worth of experience in BJJ, and loves trying to use his guard to leg lock opponents! K-guard and backside 50/50 with a heel hook finish are my unrequited grappling loves…

The guard will continue to have a monolithic place in sport jiu jitsu competitions, but its utility without gi grips and/or against an opponent who knows submissions and refuses to play jiu jitsu with you has been almost completely debunked in a world of MMA, and if you believe this type of fighting as a proxy for the street, the guard should hold less sway in self-defense, as well. An overreaction from this catch enthusiast? I’ve definitely been guilty of this before! But please consider Sakuraba’s success against the Gracie family nearly two decades ago, or Craig Jones–a world-class BJJ practitioner and the grappling coach of the UFC’s current pound-for-pound best fighter–promulgating just two weeks ago that we should not be training fighters in pure jiu jitsu. Or this graphic, if you’re an armchair empiricist like me.

I don’t see today’s result as validation per see, nor am I gloating. I sincerely love jiu jitsu–it’s a big chunk of my hybrid grappling approach–and if you enjoy BJJ, please never, ever quit training. Seriously. Makhachev vs Oliveira, for me, is stronger motivation to convince more people to integrate wrestling into their approach, and, for once and for all, do away with the gi. More thoughts on that latter point in an upcoming blog post. Until then, I truly hope you keep coming back to mats and working hard, no matter your stylistic preference!!!

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