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This is how it was explained to me years ago by a practitioner of the various arts emphasized in MMA.

Essentially, in Judo competitions, it’s not as easy to take the opponent to the ground b/c there is more room to back up and circle, and judoka can go out of bounds.

In MMA cage fighting, matches seem to pivot on one competitor being forced against the cage, with typically results in the fight moving to the ground, and decided by definitive locks or holds.

While it's true that real world fight situations can often take place indoors, lack of rules in those contexts also open up use of objects as weapons, and techniques illegal in sport such as gouges and strikes to soft tissue, including the throat.

Good footwork can make it difficult for an opponent to take a defender to the ground, where space is not restricted.

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    When you refer to grappling in this question, are you specifically refering to grappling on the ground? Is there a reason you are specifically contrasting with judo? – mattm Oct 15 at 3:11
  • @mattm BJJ seemed to be the biggest early influence the modern sport, and my understanding is that BJJ was heavily influenced by Judo. The "conversation" between Judo and Jujitsu in the Japanese arts, and the range of applications outside of sport, is also a subject of interest. But, yes, here "grappling" in the context of MMA refers to groundwork. Also inspired by Kayla Harrison's recent matches, the submission victories in particular. – DukeZhou Oct 15 at 21:40
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Grappling is not predominant in modern MMA, and hasn't been for a decade or two, so the "matches seem to pivot on one competitor being forced against the cage...moving to the ground, and decided by definitive locks or holds" premise of the question is invalid. MMA matches are overwhelmingly striking contests.

Professional competitors in the modern era, particularly at the elite level, rely less on grappling than striking. Just look at the current champions and challengers, almost all pure strikers: Israel Adesanya, Paulo Costa, Dustin Poirier, Marlon Moraes, Amanda Nunes, Zhang Weili, Stipe Miocic...it's true of the last generation too: Anderson Silva, Mighty Mouse, Jose Aldo, Conor McGregor, Alexander Gustafson...the list goes on. Even incredible and decorated wrestlers like Daniel Cormier, Jon Jones, Yoel Romero, Henry Cejudo, and Justin Gaethje almost always use their wrestling solely to buttress their striking. Fighters like Khabib and Usman who prioritize wrestling are the exception, not the rule.

Closing the distance in order to grapple is one valid tactic of many, as we see with Aljamain Sterling's recent victory over Corey Sandhagen, or with the beat-you-anywhere versatility of fighters like Chris Weidman, Rose Namajunas, or GSP. But grappling is more commonly used as one tool of many, rather than as a primary strategy.

Good footwork can make it difficult for an opponent to take a defender to the ground

This is absolutely a major strategy used effectively at all levels of MMA. It works just fine in a cage, though it is true that a smaller cage makes it more difficult. But unless you expect to fight on a football field, fighting in an enclosed space is more analogous to self-defense than not. I note that in judo, it is a penalty to avoid engagement or to play over-defensively (called "negative judo"), as is stepping outside the contest area without immediately attacking or stepping back in.

In fact, the comparison with judo is instructive in a different way: it is easier to retreat than to engage. In this you are correct: if a competitor knows proper footwork and defensive grappling, then on an equal playing field, it is easier to avoid fighting (especially grappling) than to fight. That is why wrestling, BJJ, judo, sumo, boxing, kickboxing, MMA, and all other grappling and fighting sports have systems to force competitors to engage. In MMA, this imperative to engage doesn't much encourage grappling, since a fighter can choose a Robbie Lawler-style strategy to only strike, and if a shot is made or clinch occurs, to respond with defensive wrestling. You are right that against such an unwilling opponent, takedowns in the open are more difficult than against a cage.

Just like defensive footwork is a valid strategy, grappling itself is a valid strategy. It works because clinching up is a natural consequence of fighting, and because grappling is a major element of fighting. Relying on eye gouges and so on to defend against grappling is indicative that someone has decided they don't want to train grappling, and so invented reasons not to get good at it. It is a cultural or aesthetic choice, not a practical or strategic one. I also remind people making such claims that the superior grappler will also have those options available to them, and will be better able to apply or defend against such tactics. This is proven repeatedly when a newcomer takes an illegal grip on a skilled jiujitsiero, wrestler, or judoka -- in my experience, most will throw or pin you before or instead of calling out the rules violation.

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    Yep, especially on the last paragraph. "But I could hit/eye-gouge/pressure point you now" - "And so could I, from a superior position/situation". Having a grip on clothing makes it exceedingly difficult to strike for the opponent if one knows how to use it. IMHO, it's being bare-chested that diminishes the importance of grappling in MMA most. – Philip Klöcking Oct 15 at 11:13
  • I always figured the best defense against a grappler was to tap out and then start punching him when he reflexively releases the grapple. :-D – Macaco Branco Oct 15 at 17:01
  • @MacacoBranco Jokes aside, if they try to submit you from a position where they cannot punch you way easier than you can possibly punch them, they deserve being pummeled. ;) When you tap while I'm not even trying to submit, there is certainly going to be this "seriously?" glance coupled with me happily taking the invitation :P – Philip Klöcking Oct 15 at 20:45
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    Good answer. No longer predominant: espn.com/mma/story/_/id/22277062/… (One comment is that a piece of broken glass is even more effective than gouges. Most systems include some groundwork, but there is very strong indication that going to the ground in many real world situations, those involving multiple attackers, is not good strategy. I was advised by my own teacher to "hit them in the head with a brick" as optimal in real world situations—a euphemism, but sound strategy, as most people who train are not professonals:) – DukeZhou Oct 15 at 21:07
  • I think we also have to make a distinction between world class competitors who devote their entire lives to training, like Kayla Harrison, and the average practitioner. The latter are far less of a threat. – DukeZhou Oct 15 at 21:10
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For a contrary opinion on "real world fight situations", those often aren't one-on-one. They often devolve into one person grappling the other, and then his friends joining in to beat on their opponent whilst he's held down.

Historically that's the purpose of grappling as an unarmed battlefield technique too. If you've lost your weapon (and swords and spears do break), you may find it hard to get a killing blow in, especially if your opponent is wearing armour. Unarmed striking is 100% ineffective against an armoured opponent, and hanging around in range of their weapon trying to punch or kick is just going to get you stabbed. But if you can get past their weapon and grapple them, their weapon becomes (mostly) ineffective, and they may need to let go of it to counter whatever you're doing to them. And whether you both stay on your feet or go to the floor, one of your friends can then stab them while you've got them occupied.

It's not very Marquess of Queensbury, but it's how real world fights tend to go, unfortunately.

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    Good answer. I was going to suggest that going to the ground where there are multiple attackers is suicide (kicked and stomped to unconsciousness, if not worse.) My sense is that a Jujitsu expert could still prevail against multiple attackers, but it would involve joint locks and breaks, not going to the ground. – DukeZhou Oct 15 at 20:59
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    @DukeZhou One is certainly more comfortable and capable to remain control, asses the situation, and act accordingly on the ground as a trained grappler compared to a pure striker who a) cannot really cope with being grabbed and moved around violently in the first place and b) is even more lost when being on the ground. It is not about voluntarily going to the ground (like sport BJJ butt-shoving), it is about being able to cope with situations and remain control. And yes, a grappler does strike, throw and break in multiple-attacker scenarios as much as possible, even if ending up on the ground. – Philip Klöcking Oct 16 at 9:58
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BJJ and MMA have relatively more groundwork than judo because of rule differences unrelated to the combat area size and cage.

  1. In judo, throws are nominally scored with four criteria: speed, force, control, and back exposure. If all of these criteria are met, the thrower is declared the winner so there is no continuation into groundwork.
  2. Judo groundwork is time-limited by a fuzzy rule where groundwork continues only until the referee determines neither player is making progress, which may only be a few seconds.

If you change these rules, the sport changes dramatically and becomes more like BJJ. After you throw, you continue, and if kicking/stomping is forbidden, then the continuation is groundwork. If the referee does not intervene, this groundwork may continue for a long time.

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  • Thanks for this answer! (Am I correct in recalling that after the first Gracie/Yoshida match, there was renewed focus in BJJ on strengthening some of the judo techniques?) – DukeZhou Oct 21 at 22:12
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The Ali/Innoki debacle might provide some insight.

In this match, held in a traditional boxing ring, Innoki was unable to keep Ali on the ground and engage him in a wrestling match. And, b/c Innoki stayed on the ground the entire fight, Ali was able to, at one point, jump up on the ropes to avoid the kicks to his legs.

I’ve been doing a little research and found an argument that the cage is merely for safety, since players can get thrown out of a boxing ring, which is dangerous, and boxing mats are too bouncy. But this doesn’t hold up—MMA could take place on mats like in the old days, when Gracie took on Kimura. (In that match the opponents had essentially agreed to engage—the would have been no question of either fighter seeking a draw.)

I'm not claiming to be an MMA expert but it surely seems that a great deal of ground fighting in MMA is facilitated by the cage, in that a lot of it takes place up against the cage.

  • It seems a not unreasonable assumption that the introduction of the cage creates a condition where, if a striker or grappler is unwilling to engage, there is a greater chance they can be taken to the ground—the aggressor can rush them and there is no going out of bounds.

For grapplers forced to face a striker, they likewise have a greater chance to get inside and take the fight to the ground, gaining advantage.

The cage also seems to facilitate certain grappling techniques, such as chokes, where the aggressor can use the wall as leverage.

By the same token, an octagon has no sharp corners, so it’s more difficult to trap an opponent in the corner, which is a strategy of boxers.

  • It’s difficult to imagine that the modern octagon is merely a random aesthetic choice or utilized primarily for safety.
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  • I don't understand your argument about safety and the cage. How are you proposing the contestants be prevented from moving ever backwards? You need a wall-like barrier of some sort, otherwise you get people running/falling out of (and into!) the fighting area. – Dave Liepmann Nov 8 at 15:35
  • @DaveLiepmann That's exactly my point—there is no out of bounds that can stop a match fought in a cage. (The safety argument for the cage I came across in doing a little googling, where someone on Quora suggested the cage is purely for safety.) But my original question arose from the assertion of a master of the various arts utilized in MMA that the cage facilitates grappling. Possibly I didn't ask the question well, and it more reflected the early days, before strikers were training against takedowns. I appreciate your comment and answer. – DukeZhou Nov 11 at 0:14

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