If you ask anyone who is knowledgable about MMA what the best skill set to have as a base is – most would be quick to suggest wrestling. A good wrestler can determine where a fight takes place. If he/she is having a hard time striking, they can take the fight to the ground and if striking is going well, they can assure that the fight stays on its feet.
If you ask the average MMA fan who their least favorite fighter is or who they find to be the most boring, there is also a very good chance that they will name a wrestler. It’s strange that a style so effective is also considered to be the least desirable to watch. “He’s just going to lay on top of him,” “he will only hold him down for three rounds,” “he can’t even strike,” are common mantras against the wrestling style. You will also see mostly wrestlers taking on the roles of “heels” or bad guys.
Many of the sport’s most inflammatory characters have backgrounds in collegiate wrestling. Ben Askren, Colby Covington and of course the original bad guy of the sport, Chael Sonnen are just a few examples of those who have embraced their roles as heels. But why is there such a strong correlation between heels and wrestlers? Also, why is a skill set that many agree is crucial to success in MMA also considered the least entertaining?
I think the answer to both of these questions can be found in the wrestling room. This is a place that breeds toughness, grit and weeds out the weak, but it is also a place that builds a certain character most aren’t used to. Many wrestlers develop a dark and dry sense of humor that most people just can’t relate to. There’s teasing and ball breaking amongst teammates and fellow competitors that is combined with actually competing in a physically demanding sport.
Another explanation is that wrestling comes with facing a brutal honesty that can’t be avoided. The wrestling coach is a person who is admired and hated for many of the same reasons. The coach is like the father you always seek approval from, but never really get. All these things create qualities in a person that come off to most as just a bully when really they’re coping strategies to deal with hardships that are faced on the mat.
This explains why wrestlers are able to take on the heel role fairly easily – they just give brutally honest opinions and stand by them. Chael Sonnen once said about his trash talk “there’s no profanity in there, I’m not throwing bottles, but you say it with an attitude and you say some stuff that’s real that you know he wishes wasn’t out there… it works.” To a wrestler, it never really gets personal – “you suck, I’m better than you and now let’s compete.” To the average person, this blunt attitude is seen as bullying and makes them want to root against the bully.
The actual style of a wrestler in MMA is also seen as bullying in my opinion. Nobody likes to feel helpless. It’s a generally scary feeling. When you have a high-level wrestler putting you on your back over and over and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, that makes you feel helpless. Nobody wants to feel that way. But they are able to dismiss it by saying it’s a boring style or it’s not entertaining. But when a fighter like Georges St. Pierre does it in combination with being a gentleman and a good sportsman, he is praised as being one of the best of all time. There’s something about the style combined with the attitude that creates the perfect recipe for fans to despise.
Here’s a tweet from Ben Askren that kind of sums up the view of wrestlers within the MMA community:
I believe that the reason for this is that people can identify more with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu style fighters. Jiu Jitsu is much more relatable because it’s something that anyone can do. You can walk into a gym and learn basic moves within a couple of weeks and it becomes something attainable. Of course Jiu Jitsu athletes are tough too, but it’s just cultivated differently. There is also the relatable attitude of the BJJ elite – laid back, respectful, martial artists, basically the kind of person most people would want to choose as a role model. Although, with the emergence of personalities like Dillon Danis and Gordon Ryan, we are starting to see those heels develop in Jiu Jitsu as well.
When all is said and done, there doesn’t need to be an explanation for why wrestlers make good bad guys or why people love to root against them even though they have a universally useful skillset. The bottom line is that the sport needs bad guys. We need a villain to create drama and storylines and have the person to cheer against or cheer for while everyone else cheers against them. I think that as long as we have wrestlers, bad guys will never be in short supply. But that’s just one guy’s opinion.
If you want to hear more of my thoughts and opinions on MMA news and current events, check out the latest episode of MMA on the Rocks.