This article was written by former collegiate wrestler, member of Thailand’s national freestyle wrestling team, and current combat sports enthusiast Che Chengsupanimit. He writes about how to improve your takedowns and achieve higher performance both physically and mentally. You can learn more about Che and his work at his blog.
Jiu-jitsu and wrestling have some overlapping traits, but there are noticeable differences as well due to practitioners developing techniques and strategies based on the rule sets and point systems. First, we'll cover the differences between the two disciplines. Then, we'll discuss why it's beneficial to train in both. While there are exceptions and nuances to these rules, I'll try to keep it simple and focus on the big picture in order to prevent from getting bogged down in all the tiny details.
In international wrestling, scoring sequences are based on the two actions:
1: Take your opponent down to the mat to establish control.
2: While controlling your opponent from the top position, look to turn your opponent and pin them to the mat (this is explained in the rulebook as both shoulder blades touching the mat at the same time).
Any type of score in wrestling ultimately accomplishes one of these two objectives. If a wrestler doesn't seem to be able to turn an opponent, the referee blows the whistle in order to call a stalemate and the wrestlers return to the neutral position. Wrestlers are rewarded for pushing an opponent out of bounds (which demonstrates control of the opponent to a lesser extent), taking an opponent down, or exposing an opponent's back either from the neutral or the top position (conceptually, this is because they are "closer" to pinning their opponent, which is the ultimate goal). Nowadays, it's very rare to pin an opponent in international competition especially since wrestlers don't get as much time to work on top as they were given in the past. After five to ten seconds (left up to the referee's discretion), the referee calls stalemate and wrestling begins again in the neutral standing position. Because of this rule change, coaches have put less emphasis on being able to turn and pin an opponent and far more emphasis on being able to take an opponent down or defend an opponent's takedown attempt. Because of this rule set, wrestlers become exceptionally good at taking their opponents down while preventing exposure of their own back (which explains why wrestlers that try jiu-jitsu for the first time tend to feel very uncomfortable in guard or never even think to pull guard in the first place).
In jiu-jitsu, the conventional action sequence for a match is as follows:
1: Bring the fight to the mat (by either taking the opponent down or pulling guard).
2: Pass your opponent's guard (or if you pulled guard, work towards a sweep).
3: Establish a more dominant position of control over your opponent (knee on belly and side mount, for example).
4: Submit your opponent.
Points are given based on these actions. Because the ultimate goal is a submission instead of a pin (and one is not penalized for exposing his or her back to the mat), fighting from your back becomes an acceptable practice. In principle, it's also easier to defend or look for submissions when you're facing your opponent. Since submissions are illegal and aren't scored in wrestling, most of the positional differences are based on this one difference.
SimilaritiesWhile the end results are different, similarities lie in the principle that a takedown will help you establish control so that you can work for a pin or a submission. In both styles, there are also moves that skip straight to the end result. In wrestling, you can throw someone or attempt a pinning combination from the neutral position without establishing control on top first. As for jiu-jitsu, submissions are available from the neutral position as well as the guard position, so the conventional sequences aren’t necessarily followed every single time. Since cross-training benefits both sides, we'll look at what benefits wrestlers can look forward to through cross-training in jiu-jitsu and vice-versa.
A Different (but Complementary) Form of Mat AwarenessJiu-jitsu builds a different kind of mat awareness that wrestlers may not be familiar with. This level of coordination increases a wrestler's ability to learn moves and instinctively find favorable positions in scrambles. Because there is such a wide variety of positions in jiu-jitsu, wrestlers will undoubtedly benefit from exposure to more positions in terms of kinesthetic awareness.
More Opportunities to Compete (and Train)In many cases, wrestling competition is limited, and there are very few open tournaments, so unless you are on a school or university wrestling team, your opportunities to compete are very limited. In some countries, jiu-jitsu is even more accessible than wrestling. Additionally, from the perspective of mixed martial arts, learning submission techniques allow a wrestler to end a fight with a submission instead of just pinning the opponent down on the mat and initiating a ground and pound. This familiarity with submissions allows a wrestler to feel much more comfortable in MMA (if that is in the wrestler's interests).
Embracing the Gentle ArtDepending on the wrestling culture, wrestlers may be unfamiliar with the idea of calm focus and value intensity above all else. While this is certainly admirable in many respects, it does bring up the discussion of working hard vs. working smart. Ultimately, you want to have both, but more competitive wrestlers tend to pay more attention to working hard than working smart. Learning how to exert less force but more positional leverage on a move is a beneficial exercise in energy conservation, and learning how to ebb and flow between intensity and relaxation ultimately allows a wrestler to attack with more force when the occasion does call for such intensity.
Positional Strength or AthleticismThere is a widely accepted myth that people are either born with good hips or without them, and that good hips cannot be developed at all. While some people are in fact blessed with great genetics, I disagree with the notion that good hips cannot be developed, and so does former USA Freestyle Wrestling National Team Coach Zeke Jones. Experienced wrestlers know how to use their hips in order to prevent giving up their favorable position, which transfers over to jiu-jitsu in that it becomes much harder to sweep an opponent with good hips and posture.
Confidence and Quick-Thinking On the FeetTakedowns can get tricky pretty quickly. To reach a high level of takedowns, your takedowns need to be integrated into your subconscious mind in order for you to make split-second decisions on the feet. By training in wrestling, you get introduced to this area while also learning how to hand fight for favorable position. Wrestling, however, won't teach you how to fight for sleeve and lapel grips like in judo. The main focus will most likely be on leg attacks as those tend to be the highest percentage attacks in wrestling. While I don't consider it necessary to compete in wrestling tournaments as a jiu-jitsu practitioner, open tournaments and takedown-only tournaments do exist in various places so that you won't have to learn the top/bottom or parterre aspect of wrestling, which presents a whole new set of techniques and strategies to learn.
Grit and Mental ToughnessWhat happens when physical attributes and skill levels between two opponents are equal? How are matches decided? The answer is in grit and mental toughness, and other sports recognize wrestling as a sport that is exceptionally good at building mental toughness. This is partially the reason why the majority of UFC champions have some background in wrestling. Of course, wrestling isn't the only combat sport that builds mental toughness, but the intense and physically exhausting nature of wrestling lends itself to a high degree of tolerance for suffering. If nothing else, the build-up of your endurance or "gas tank" allows you to maintain a sharper presence of mind for a longer period of time. Assuming you make mistakes when you're tired (as we all do), one solution is to condition yourself to last longer before you reach that exhaustion point in which you begin to make mistakes. This takes both physical conditioning and grit.
Benefits - Fork and Spoon Analogy
Instead of counterproductive arguments as to which discipline is superior, I believe that both are beneficial and complementary to each other. To illustrate this example, consider the relationship between fork and spoon. Both are eating utensils and belong on the same table. Both also serve similar purposes (bringing food to your mouth) but do so in different ways (stabbing vs. scooping). Because of this different methodology, a fork is more effective for certain foods while a spoon is more effective for others. Sure, you can eat a tub of ice cream with a fork, but a spoon seems to be the ideal utensil of choice. Similarly, you could theoretically eat a salad with a spoon, but a fork is more suitable for the situation. To bring this analogy back to jiu-jitsu and wrestling, it's clear that jiu-jitsu is more useful if you're looking to (theoretically) incapacitate your opponent. On the other hand, wrestling may be more useful in dictating where the fight takes place (on the feet or on the ground) while providing a useful skillset to control an opponent in both scenarios. Ultimately, both serve different purposes with some overlap, and reaching a sufficient level in both disciplines is ultimately most beneficial in grappling sports or other combat sports like mixed martial arts. Going back to the eating utensil analogy, having both a fork and spoon allows you to take advantage of both tools while having neither leaves you with an inefficient method of eating (unless you enjoy eating with your bare hands. In that case, I don't judge). To learn an example of one technique that overlaps into both disciplines quite nicely, you can read this free extensive guide to the single-leg here.