When you try to take on the daunting task that is learning takedowns, you may be overwhelmed by all of the available options. Which ones should you be aware of? How many should you master? The answers may surprise you.
The best takedown artists from the various grappling disciplines have something in common: Despite knowing exactly which attacks they are going to use, their opponents are still unable to stop them. How do they do it? I’ve studied the freestyle wrestling world champions from the past several years and these seem to be the main overlying factors in their success:
Depth Over Breadth
Just about every high level performer chooses depth over breadth, and the same is true for submissions. For example, Marcelo Garcia has his guillotine while John Danaher preaches his leg-lock system.
Great takedown artists are the same – they eventually gravitate towards certain takedowns and positions that they like and learn them in such depth that their opponents’ knowledge in defending such an attack is shallow by comparison. This is because they already have extensive knowledge of the potential counters the opponent may try to apply and know how to thwart them or attack through the defensive maneuver. Ultimately, this establishes dominance in the attacker’s best positions. On the surface, this depth of knowledge creates a seemingly unstoppable force. If you look closely, however, the very small details make these combinations extremely effective.
Between One to Three Attacks
in general, you need to be exceptional at only 2-3 exceptional attacks and have some familiarity of a handful of others. Most high level wrestlers only have a handful of moves that they are exceptional at. Some have only 1! They may several more moves in addition to their best attacks, but they often don’t rely on them, and especially not late in a match. These ‘secondary’ moves aren’t as deeply integrated into their subconscious and usually cannot be performed reflexively, but are available if the opportunity presents itself.
Furthermore, these attacks tend to target the legs. This is because leg attacks, when executed properly, favor the attacker in terms of positional leverage. Every single freestyle wrestler at the world championships has at least exceptional knowledge in one leg attack variation with other takedowns that complement those attacks. This is why I believe wrestling is a better takedown art to learn for jiu jitsu than judo is. It is illegal to shoot low for the opponent’s legs in judo, but in jiu jitsu this is allowed and presents many attacking options.
Variation of High/Middle/Low
The best offensive wrestlers also tend to have some combination of high, middle, and low attacks. High attacks target anywhere above the waist and include upper-body throws, body locks, shrugs, arm drags, and go-behinds. Middle attacks consist of leg attacks above the knee, while low attacks consist of leg attacks below the knee. Let’s look at this in action in a few case studies:
Case Study 1: Brent Metcalf
Throughout the past two Olympic cycles, multiple-time US national champion and world team member Brent Metcalf was notorious for his left-handed high-c or head outside single-leg. It’s by far his most used shot but he also has a sweep single-leg to his opponent’s right leg. During his collegiate wrestling days, most of his offensive points came from his front headlock. His opponents would overcompensate in defending for the front headlock which left them open for leg attacks to either side with Metcalf’s preference being the opponent’s left leg.
Case Study 2: Mavlet Batirov
Two-time Olympic champion from Russia Mavlet Batirov also attacks his opponent’s left leg but uses a cross-handed single leg with the head on the inside. He has two attacks that put him into this single leg position and also has an almost mystical ability to pull his opponent’s left leg in place right as he reaches for an attack. Batirov is also known for his front headlock, right-handed underhook series, and unbelievable defense.
Case Study 3: John Smith
Early on in his career, John Smith’s opponents became well aware of his lightning quick head outside single-leg attack to their right leg. As an adjustment, Smith eventually invented low leg attacks to his opponents’ left legs which are now used throughout the world. Since low-level attacks were relatively new at the time, Smith’s mastery of the low single leg to either one of the opponent’s ankles made him virtually unstoppable. While Smith was competent with high attacks and counters, he wrestled with such a low stance that opponents were unable to fire off leg attacks of their own because Smith’s head position would prevent the attack or the position in the first place.
Beyond the Takedown: Leveraging Your Style
These three wrestlers each have distinctly different wrestling styles and used it to their advantage.
Brent Metcalf was known for wrestling from tie ups and pulling them down to the mat in order to wear his opponent down to the point of mentally and physically breaking them. Because of this, he benefited from an “in your face” style of wrestling where his opponents would feel some form of pressure for the entire match, which inevitably would result in breaking them breaking position and leaving themselves vulnerable to an attack.
Mavlet Batirov’s attack rate was significantly lower than Metcalf’s. His defense was so good that he could pick and choose his attacks without putting himself out of position. In fact, it could be argued that his defense was so good it overshadowed his world-class attacks. When necessary, however, Batirov could wrestle explosively to score some fantastic offensive takedowns. In general, his strengths benefited a patient and conservative style of wrestling to the point where he would almost look lazy (and yet dominant in position) at times.
John Smith benefited from a “volume-shooter” approach with his attacks. In principle, this is the same approach used by Brent Metcalf as Smith also had an crazy cardio. However, he relied less on power moves such as throws or explosive leg attacks. A technical wizard of his time, Smith’s low singles were quick and precise. Smith was also unbelievably quick and benefitted from wrestling more in the open while spending minimal time in tie-ups. He achieved this by doing his jab fakes on his opponents, where they would be forced to react. If they didn’t react, Smith would have been able to attack at such speed that they couldn’t see the move and counter at the same time. Opponents had no choice but to react to the fakes. When opponents tried to make contact, Smith would immediately attack with his head outside single, which made him a huge problem to his contemporaries.
Of course, these exceptional attacks weren’t mastered overnight and were drilled thousands of times in the practice room. The key point in the above three examples is that none of these world-class wrestlers used more than a handful of moves to compete and win at the highest level. But they knew those moves extremely well and could execute them flawlessly.
Knowing what you know now, which takedowns or throws are your favorite and how can you develop them in-depth to make them truly dangerous?
Che Chengsupanimit is a former collegiate wrestler, member of Thailand’s national freestyle wrestling team, and current combat sport enthusiast. He writes about how to achieve higher physical and mental performance while being on a budget or a busy schedule. You can learn more about Che and his work at his blog.