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The evolution of ground and pound from Coleman to Khabib

The evolution of ground and pound from Coleman to Khabib

Khabib Nurmagomedov ground and pound vs. Edson Barboza

“Ground and pound” as it was originally conceived referred to a specific strategy in an MMA fight: take an opponent to the mat, pound him with strikes once he’s there. Colloquially, though, ground and pound means any sort of striking on the ground from a top position. And just like the phrase is a unique creation resulting from the mixing of martial arts, so too is the technique of ground striking. With the exception of combat Sambo (which isn’t significantly older than MMA), no singular martial art devotes as much attention to ground strikes as MMA.

Because it’s essentially unique to MMA, we’ve been able to witness the development of ground strikes as a technique alongside strategic approaches to ground and pound as a whole. The sport evolves as techniques evolve, with new techniques and answers to those techniques (and answers to those techniques) introduced regularly. Ground and pound is no different.

Below is a list of torchbearers of certain stages of development of ground striking. These fighters are not the sole creators of those specific tactical approaches (Mark Coleman didn’t invent the idea of hitting a person on the ground), nor are they the only fighters or even the first or best fighters to employ those approaches. They’re not necessarily the most creative technicians (a look at Kazushi Sakuraba’s soccer kick strategy is another article). They are, however, examples of ground and pound specialists that signal the evolution of tactics.

With each fighter comes an exemplar fight — a shining template for that particular approach to ground and pound.

Mark Coleman

“The Godfather of Ground and Pound” is a nickname that Coleman rightfully earned. Sure, there were talented wrestlers like Dan Severn before him, but Coleman was the first successful fighter in the early history of the sport to make ground and pound his sole approach. Severn found success with the grounding, not so much with the pounding. Coleman, on the other hand, explicitly made ground and pound his “style.” (Coleman is credited with originating the phrase ground and pound, when he said it during a UFC 14 pre-fight interview).

Coleman made his MMA debut in 1996 at UFC 10, TKO-ing three fighters, each by using his wrestling to ground them before punching and headbutting them senseless. He would use that same approach to great success at UFC 11, where he defeated two more fighters, and UFC 12 where he beat Severn.

Coleman’s biggest contribution to the technique of ground and pound is that he made it a viable (and dominant) strategic approach in MMA. At a time when styles were the strongest differentiator of fighters, Coleman was the first torchbearer for the “style” of ground and pound. Wrestling was Coleman’s base, but ground and pound was his fundamental approach to fighting.

In terms of technique, Coleman’s approach reflected his wrestling roots. With his trained inclination to pin the shoulders and control the head, Coleman’s preferred position on the mat was inside his opponent’s guard, driving his weight forward and into his opponent’s head. Coleman’s ground approach emphasized bearing his weight down onto his opponent, and forcefully so. With his opponent’s head pinned, Coleman could punch the body, pepper his opponent’s temples with strikes, headbutt, or flurry with punches before returning to this pinning position.

May 1, 2000 – Mark Coleman vs. Igor Vovchanchyn – Pride Grand Prix 2000 Finals

In what was probably the biggest win of his career, Coleman put on a 23-minute display of the power of ground and pound, defeating Igor Vovchanchyn to win the Pride Openweight Grand Prix. The fight also serves as a prime example of Coleman’s approach to ground and pound — an approach that was dominant throughout the 90s.

Early in the fight, Coleman hit an easy double leg takedown, landing in Vovchancyn’s guard before immediately standing and driving his weight forward into Vovchancyn’s head. This was, essentially, home base for Coleman.

Without the ability to use headbutts or elbows, and with no cage to pin his opponent’s head, and in a no time limit fight, Coleman had a challenge in from of him. Intelligently, though, Coleman drove Vovchancyn’s head to the corner, where the ring turnbuckle did half the work for him, immobilizing Vovchanchyn’s head.

When he wasn’t in the corner, Coleman would use one arm to pin Vovchancyn’s head, while the other would strike to the body and occasionally the head.

Notably, Coleman seemed to understand the limitations of his style. He threw strikes sparingly to avoid fatigue and occasionally passed Vovchanchyn’s guard, where he could more efficiently drop his weight. When the second 20-minute round started, Coleman still had energy, and Vovchanchyn was battered and bruised.

Coleman quickly cornered Vovchanchyn and put him on the mat, immediately returning to his home base position in Vovchanchyn’s guard. After a couple minutes, Coleman passed to north-south position where he hammered Vovchanchyn’s head with knees before giving fans one of the most iconic celebrations in the history of the sport.

Coleman, of course, wasn’t the only fighter to use this approach to ground and pound. Coleman’s Hammer House teammates Mark Kerr and Kevin Randleman found success with the wrestling-oriented ground striking attack. To that end, those fighters suffered from the same weaknesses that Coleman did.

There were obvious disadvantages to the Coleman method of ground and pound. Against even minimally competent guards, Coleman would become exhausted from constantly driving his weight forward into his opponent. Coleman lost three fights in a row in the UFC, all against men that weren’t particularly threatening from their backs, but knew how to defend themselves well enough to stay safe or even fight from their backs.

Later in Coleman’s career, as the sport continued to evolve, Coleman’s willingness to extend himself in his opponent’s guard left him susceptible to submissions — twice against Fedor Emelianenko and once against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Coleman had introduced the idea of ground and pound as the dominant approach to MMA, and in response, MMA developed answers.

Tito Ortiz

A star of the UFC’s “Dark Ages,” Tito Ortiz represents the next iteration of the evolution of ground and pound.

For an MMA fighter, Ortiz was a relatively accomplished submission grappler. He had performed well at the 2000 ADCC submission grappling tournament, showing an aptitude for grappling beyond just wrestling. In fact, while he was a very good takedown artist for his time, Ortiz was a much less accomplished wrestler than Coleman. His approach to ground and pound, though, signaled an advancement in the sport.

What Ortiz seemed to understand that Coleman didn’t was that the key to staying safe inside the guard was the ability to control the guard player’s hips, rather than his head and shoulders. Coleman’s home base position — butt in the air, head driving into opponent’s head — was certainly uncomfortable for the man on bottom, but it left his hips free to move and space for him to insert butterfly hooks to create more space. All of this would happen while the top man is exerting more energy than the bottom man.

This was a lesson Ortiz learned both through his experience with elite grapplers and in MMA fights. At UFC 22, Ortiz exhausted himself from working inside Frank Shamrock’s guard for over 19 minutes before succumbing to fatigue and Shamrock’s strikes. That night Ortiz was taught an important lesson beyond the idea that he needed better conditioning (which would, for some reason, become a consistent Joe Rogan talking point for years to come). He learned (whether consciously or not), the importance of following and locking down his opponent’s hips while inside the guard.

Ortiz’s early game evolved to allow him to work for an extended period of time from inside his opponent’s guard. Rather than driving forward, as Coleman had, Ortiz’s “rest” position on top was locked down on his opponent’s hips. Ortiz understood that for the bottom man to launch basically any attack, he must first move his hips. And if his opponent did move his hips, Ortiz would follow with his own hips. This way, Ortiz was able to smother any attacks from the bottom, all while conserving his energy and draining his opponents.

Like Coleman, Ortiz still rested his weight relatively far forward in the guard, with his head and shoulder above his opponent’s head and shoulders. However, instead of lifting his butt in the air to drive down onto his opponent, Ortiz would position his legs on either side of his opponent’s hips, all while capturing his opponent’s torso, effectively keeping his opponent’s hips stuffed under his own. For the bottom man to attack, he needed to create space with his hips, and Ortiz’s go-to position killed that space.

From this position, Ortiz employed a ground striking approach that suited the ruleset he was fighting under while maintaining steady top control. With his shoulders so far forward in the guard, elbow or forearm strikes were naturally effective weapons for Ortiz. Those weapons were doubly effective when Ortiz was able to pin his opponent’s head on cage, freeing both of his arms to strike.

While Ortiz’s ground and pound could certainly do some damage (more on that below), his approach was, above all else, control based. The focus, for Ortiz and other ground and pound fighters of his era, was maintaining top position. He would pass the guard if the opportunity was there, but only if he was sure he’d still be able to hold top position. He would open up for ground strikes (often at the end of rounds), only when he knew he could stay on top. With a better understanding of the guard, Ortiz’s approach to ground and pound was slightly more nuanced than that of Coleman.

June 29, 2001 – Tito Ortiz vs. Elvis Sinosic – UFC 32

Elvis Sinosic wasn’t one of Ortiz’s most formidable opponents. But with his active guard and willingness to play there, Sinosic was the perfect foil for Ortiz — then in the middle of his championship prime — to showcase the full potential of his ground and pound. In his last fight before meeting Ortiz, Sinosic had submitted grappling specialist Jeremy Horn from his back. On paper, at least, Sinosic posed problems for Ortiz’s approach.

Early in the fight, Ortiz took Sinosic to the mat with a simple takedown from the clinch, landing in Sinosic’s guard. Immediately and purposely, Ortiz moved Sinosic’s head against the fence and settled down into his guard.

Ortiz briefly passed to half guard, where he landed heavy strikes, but was happy to put himself back into Sinosic’s full guard. Importantly, Ortiz was less concerned about the specific positional arrangement — half guard or full guard — than he was about keeping his hips directly over Sinosic’s hips. Top control is paramount.

With Sinosic’s upper body trapped and immobilized against the cage, Ortiz was able to crush Sinosic’s hips with his own, killing any movement from the bottom. The much more powerful fighter, Ortiz unloaded with strikes to quickly earn the finish.

Ortiz’s control-minded approach to ground and pound was typical of this era. For the most part, guards weren’t advanced enough to threaten the top man, referee stand-ups were few and far between, and judges nearly always awarded the round to the fighter on top by default. Obviously, the top man could dole out damage, but there wasn’t a strong incentive to be particularly active in top position, so long as that fighter could avoid submissions.

Understandably, this was the favored approach of wrestlers transitioning to MMA at the time. Another wrestler-turned-UFC-champion that competed at the 2000 ADCC tournament, Matt Hughes, employed a similar method of control-based ground and pound throughout much of his UFC career.

There were, of course, drawbacks. Unless he was able to physically dominate his opponent (like he did against Sinosic), Ortiz struggled to cause tons of damage from top position. As his career progressed and guards advanced, it became less worthwhile for Ortiz to expend the effort on a takedown because his opponents were able to return to their feet after taking little damage. Ortiz struggled in fights against Forest Griffin, who he was able to takedown but unable to hurt beyond cuts.

Fedor Emelianenko

With Ortiz’s approach to ground and pound control based, the next wave of ground striking specialists emphasized creating space to land the most powerful strikes possible. First Coleman introduced the idea of ground and pound, next the Ortiz era of fighters sharpened grappling technique to stay safe in the guard, and then Fedor Emelianenko and his contemporaries ushered in an era of ground and pound that avoided the guard and focused on big offense.

Emelianenko’s approach to ground and pound corrected the shortcomings of Ortiz’s. Rather than sinking into his opponent’s guard, and rather than using his weight to smother his opponent’s attacks, Emelianenko nullified the guard by backing out of it entirely. Emelianenko’s home base position for ground and pound was standing all the way up, completely unthreatened by his opponent’s guard. So long as his opponent continued to lay on his back (as many did at the time), Emelianenko could effectively “hold” top position by simply standing there. This approach was, obviously, much more efficient than the Coleman and Ortiz approach that relied on applying their weight.

And even when Emelianenko found himself inside the guard, resting on his knees, his approach was still to create space, posture, and always be ready to back out of the guard at the first hint of trouble.

In contrast to many before him, Emelianenko’s ground and pound developed around strikes, rather than control. Instead of throwing short punches at short range, Emelianenko preferred to throw big punches, often lunging in from a standing position. Rarely would Emelianenko drive his weight forward and down onto his opponent.  With a background in Sambo instead of freestyle wrestling, the preference for Emelianenko was always to create space and strike.

The Emelianenko approach was a product of the Pride ruleset and judging. Elbows were prohibited, but soccer kicks and stomps to the head were permitted, incentivizing standing to create the opportunity for longer-range weapons. Moreover, Pride referees were quick to penalize fighters for inactivity, and fights were judged on damage and effort to finish the fight, so Emelianenko’s approach was naturally focused on offense, on creating opportunities to finish the fight.

Importantly, Emelianenko changed the idea of what type of fighter could be a ground and pound specialist. His space creating, strike-heavy attack was better suited for lighter, speedier fighters with punching power, rather than physically imposing wrestlers. Lightweight legend Takanori Gomi — himself a naturally gifted puncher and wrestler — found great success bombing away with punches to a downed opponent from his feet. Even in modern MMA, Emelianenko’s approach to ground and pound endures. Another speed-based heavyweight, Cain Velasquez, used a rinse-and-repeat method of standing over his downed opponent, landing a handful of strikes, letting his opponent return to his feet, and repeating the process all over again.

March 16, 2003 – Fedor Emelianenko vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira – Pride 25

Emelianenko won the Pride heavyweight championship with one of the most iconic displays of ground and pound in the history of the sport, and he did it against one of the most dangerous guards in the history of the sport.

At the time, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s guard was quite the puzzle, and in terms of MMA grappling, he was light years ahead of most of his contemporaries. Beyond just a basic closed guard, Nogueira used an open guard with his shins on his opponent’s biceps to both defend strikes and create openings for submissions. Unfortunately for Nogueira, though, that approach gave Emelianenko just the space he preferred to land big punches.

To start the fight, Emelianenko quickly shoved Nogueira to the mat and was initially cautious in Nogueira’s open guard. Emelianenko created space, but Nogueira, wanting to attack from his back, quickly swallowed up the space that Emelianenko created. This sequence demonstrates a key dynamic of this fight; Nogueira wanted to swallow up space and Emelianenko wanted to create it.

Moments later, Emelianenko launched his first serious salvo of ground strikes, a series of leaping punches landing to Nogueira’s face. Notice Emelianenko doesn’t settle his weight; he’s more interested in landing strikes than solidifying position.

Emelianenko gradually moved Nogueira to the corner of the ring where he landed his most powerful offense of the fight. In one movement, Emelianenko exploded up and back down with strikes. Again, instead of controlling first then striking, Emelianenko is relinquishing control and creating space to find a better opportunity to strike. This is fundamental to Emelianenko’s game.

Emelianenko would dominate the rest of the fight with a steady diet of ground and pound, following this same strike-heavy approach. Of course, Emelianenko didn’t spend every moment of every minute creating space; he would happily rest his weight on Nogueira, but only as a way to rest, not control. Those moments of rest were interrupted with violent bursts of ground strikes that solidified Emelianenko as the most dangerous ground and pound fighter in the world.

Two years after winning the title from Nogueira, Emelianenko defeated Mirko Cro Cop in one of the biggest fights in MMA history, again using ground and pound. Although Cro Cop’s grappling wasn’t remotely as threatening as Nogueira’s, that was, in some ways, a more difficult fight for Emelianenko because Cro Cop did not want to be on his back.

This reveals an inherent weakness in Emelianenko’s approach to ground and pound: it gives the bottom man more opportunities to return to his feet. As the sport evolved, strikers developed ground games that were built not around submissions, but rather returning to the feet. For opponents dedicated to creating a stand-up fight, Emelianenko couldn’t afford to constantly create space.

Another weakness of Emelianenko’s approach came to bear in 2010 when he finally suffered the first real loss of his career. With such aggressive striking inside the guard, Emelianenko necessarily extended himself. Landing punches the way Emelianenko did goes against every jiu-jitsu fundamental. His arm is fully extended. His weight is forward, unbalanced. Fabricio Werdum — the only heavyweight with a better guard than Nogueira — took advantage of Emelianenko’s aggressiveness inside the guard, slapping on a triangle as Emelianenko waded into danger, guns blazing.

Georges St-Pierre

Georges St-Pierre’s approach to ground and pound signaled an understanding of the power of the positional hierarchy on the ground. He understood that in order to land more effective strikes more easily, he needed to invest some energy in advancing position and passing the guard. His approach also wed this understanding of position with the ability to strike. Unlike the ground and pound legends before him, St-Pierre was positionally focused, and he used strikes to set up his positional advances. St-Pierre wasn’t just happy to be on top; he wanted to pass the guard and he often used strikes to do so.

Matt Hughes, the fighter that St-Pierre initially beat to win the title, may have been one of the first major champions to understand the value of positional advancement to create better opportunities for strikes, but it was St-Pierre that made guard passing and ground striking a fundamental focus of his game. More than just jiu-jitsu and more than just ground striking, St-Pierre blended the two.

St-Pierre’s ground and pound was the logical midpoint between that of Ortiz and Emelianenko. Rather than focusing his efforts on maintaining top control (Ortiz) or on striking (Emelianenko), St-Pierre did a little of both. Whereas Ortiz would put himself back in the guard to keep top control, St-Pierre would look to pass and strike. And whereas Emelianenko’s highest priority was landing strikes, St-Pierre would seek to control his opponent and establish position first.

Even when St-Pierre was instructed not to pass the guard, as he was against Dan Hardy at UFC 111, St-Pierre’s approach represented a marriage of methods. St-Pierre’s home base position for striking from inside the guard was standing over Hardy, but in a manner that crushed Hardy’s hips and mobility. This way, St-Pierre created space to land powerful punches, but did so without giving Hardy the space to return to his feet.

Passing the guard helped St-Pierre’s ground and pound in two ways. One, he would then have more openings to land undefended strikes and two, he could expend less energy holding top position while his opponent expended more energy to recompose guard.

January 31, 2009 – Georges St-Pierre vs. BJ Penn 2 – UFC 94

After winning a controversial split decision win over BJ Penn at UFC 58, St-Pierre would rematch with Penn three years later at UFC 94, dominating Penn for 20 minutes with a steady stream guard passing and ground and pound. It remains one of St-Pierre’s most memorable and masterful performances.

In Penn, St-Pierre had an opponent that would attack from his back, but if given enough space would happily return to his feet where he may have held a striking advantage. It’s worth noting that following the fight, Penn would accuse St-Pierre of greasing. Whether St-Pierre did or not is beyond the scope of this article, but the accusation alone demonstrates a key component of St-Pierre’s top game: he never allowed Penn to control his posture in the guard, thereby creating opportunities to both strike and pass.

After spending much of the first round hunting the takedown, St-Pierre finally put Penn on his back early in the second round. After landing several strikes from inside Penn’s closed guard, St-Pierre went to his A-game: standing and stacking his weight on top of Penn’s hips and throwing strikes to allow him to pass the guard.

Notice that the strikes St-Pierre lands from his feet pause Penn enough to allow the pass to half guard, and the strikes from half guard occupy Penn’s arms, creating an opportunity for the pass to side control.

Penn eventually recomposed guard, but St-Pierre again passed Penn’s guard using the same exact approach again. He stood, punched, and used the punch to pass the guard. He’d repeat that process for much of the third round, as well, battering Penn with strikes as he continually threatened and completed guard passes.

In the fourth round, St-Pierre showed the value of investing energy in guard passing. From side control, St-Pierre moved to a crucifix position, where he landed undefended strikes for nearly 30 seconds.

After that, St-Pierre didn’t need to land strikes to help him pass an exhausted Penn’s guard. He spent the remainder of the round striking and passing, passing and striking. If Penn defended his head, St-Pierre passed, and if Penn used an arm to frame to prevent the pass or recompose guard, St-Pierre would strike.

Penn’s corner intelligently threw in the towel in between the fourth and the fifth round.

There’s nothing particularly antiquated about St-Pierre’s method of ground and pound. Fellow all-time greats Demetrious Johnson used and continues to use a top game that focuses on positional advancement and the use of strikes to achieve that goal.

Following UFC 94, St-Pierre would win his next eight fights all the way into retirement, so it’s hard to pinpoint a loss where his approach to ground and pound faltered. However, as with other styles, the bottom game in MMA continued to evolve to catch up with advances in the top game. Fighters like Carlos Condit and Michael Bisping recognized that they couldn’t out-grapple St-Pierre from the bottom position, but they were effective in throwing strikes from their backs. A downside to St-Pierre’s approach was that he was wading into the fire, exposing himself to strikes.

Additionally, MMA’s bottom game continued to develop more ways to return to the feet. Counterintuitively, passing the guard would create openings for the fighter on bottom to explode to his feet because it freed his hips to move; this was a concept Ortiz understood well.

Khabib Nurmagomedov

Current UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov represents the newest iteration in the evolution of ground and pound. If St-Pierre specialized in using strikes to establish a better position, Nurmagomedov does the inverse; he uses position to establish his strikes. The distinction is an important one, and reflects a tactical response to the bottom game’s focus on returning to the feet.

Nurmagomedov is a crushing top-control grappler, certainly one of the best the sport has ever seen. Part of what makes his grappling so effective — and his biggest contribution to today’s technical and tactical approach to ground and pound — is his ability to bind an opponent in such a way that strikes are incredibly difficult to defend. Nurmagomedov is constantly looking to trap his opponent’s arm, looking to step on wrists, and constantly setting up his ground strikes. Rarely does he throw pitter-patter ground strikes or spam wild punches on the ground. Like Emelianenko, the focus is landing ground strikes, but unlike Emelianenko, the approach starts with specific positional control.

By controlling his opponent’s limbs, not only is Nurmagomedov creating striking opportunities, he’s also limiting his opponent’s ability to strike from the bottom position — a problem that troubled St-Pierre late in his career.

Two of Nurmagomedov’s favored techniques are a direct response to modern fighters using the cage to return to their feet. First, the leg mount. With his opponent sitting with his back on the cage, Nurmagomedov likes to wrap his opponent’s legs with his own, thereby preventing his opponent from using his legs to push against the cage and back to his feet. This is by no means a new technique exclusive to Nurmagomedov, but no fighter before him has made it such a focal point of his approach.

With both of his hands free, Nurmagomedov is able to use this position to land ground strikes. The focus is not on positional advancement to land strikes, but rather creating a position where strikes are available.

Second, Nurmagomedov does some of his best work in a position that’s come to be known as the “Dagestani Handcuffs.” As his opponent is against the cage, Nurmagomedov reaches around his opponent’s back to trap the far arm. From there, his opponent can either post on his free arm, leaving his face entirely undefended from strikes, or use it to block strikes and accept that Nurmagomedov will drive him to the mat. It is one of the most effective and clever technical developments in recent memory (more on this below).

November 12, 2016 – Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Michael Johnson – UFC 205

The champion has been in much more high-profile fights, but his domination of Michael Johnson was a showcase of the full array of Nurmagomedov’s ground and pound weapons. He finished Johnson in the third round with a submission, but the fight was won with his ground strikes.

Two minutes into the first round, Nurmagomedov dragged Johnson to the mat and we immediately saw Nurmagomedov’s tactical approach to ground and pound in action, as he moved directly to a crucifix. Johnson escaped to half guard moments later, but Nurmagomedov continued to look to trap arms to land strikes, quickly finding success and setting the tone for the rest of the fight.

Johnson worked his way to the cage, but Nurmagomedov put on the Dagestani Handcuffs, battering Johnson for nearly a full minute.

In the second round, Nurmagomedov again took Johnson down, passed his guard, and moved to a crucifix. From the crucifix Nurmagomedov played around with a particularly brutal knee-on-jaw position, continually landing strikes.

Nurmagomedov continued to punish Johnson for the remainder of the round and did the same in the third before securing a kimura. What made this ground and pound so remarkable was Nurmagomedov’s singular focus on trapping and controlling arms to create openings for strikes.

Beyond the specific positions Nurmagomedov uses to create opportunities to strike, his overall approach to ground and pound is not uncommon among today’s best ground strikers. Current UFC heavyweight Curtis Blaydes, for example, has a ground and pound attack, like Nurmagomedov, that is based on controlling his opponent’s limbs in particular ways that create openings for ground strikes.

Nurmagomedov hasn’t lost a fight in his career, nor has he ever found himself in much trouble on the ground, so it’s difficult to pinpoint any glaring weaknesses. That said, history repeats itself and the sport will continue to evolve to develop technical and tactical responses to Nurmagomedov’s approach. More than just defending Nurmagomedov’s takedowns, fighters will adapt their bottom game to address his approach to ground and pound.

Ground and pound, like any other technique, tactic or strategy, evolves. Throughout MMA’s short history, responses to ground and pound popped up, and fighters adapted their approach to those responses, and so on. From Coleman to Nurmagomedov, the destination remains the same — damage the opponent with strikes from top position. The route to that destination, though, has and will continue to be in a constant state of change.

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