The Young, Dynamic Fighters Revolutionizing MMA
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A new generation of fighters is growing up with a wider skill set of disciplines than their predecessors.
By Matt Foley
His fifth professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fight mere moments away, Aaron Pico enters the Bellator octagon with the chilling confidence of a trained assassin. A multiple-time amateur champion in boxing, wrestling and pankration (an ancient discipline that translates to “all force”) before the age of 18, Pico is schooled in the art of dismantling a threat. On this night in September 2018, the 22-year old’s unlucky target is Leandro Higo, a Brazilian veteran whose professional career began before Pico’s 10th birthday.
Within seconds, a flurry of crushing shots from Pico drops Higo to the mat, the Brazilian forced into a defensive guard. Next, Pico the wrestler appears. He takes the veteran’s back before standing him up for another round of uppercuts and kidney shots. Three minutes and eighteen seconds into the first round, it’s finished. Technical knockout. And in the changing world of MMA, hardly a surprise.
Champions who were amateur specialists in one discipline, principally wrestling or jiu-jitsu, have dominated the young history of modern MMA — the UFC, the sport’s premier promotion company is only 26 years old. Now, a new generation of dynamic, versatile young fighters who grew up with the MMA already a lucrative career option is revolutionizing the sport, training in a hybrid of multiple disciplines to challenge tradition and defeat opponents.
Casual fans want to see knockouts and crazy acrobatics in the octagon.
Brendan Schaub, MMA analyst
Rizin Fighting Federation’s Justin Scoggins and ONE Championship’s Sage Northcutt, both former UFC fighters themselves, began with karate as young boys before pivoting to comprehensive interdisciplinary training. Bellator Welterweight World Champion (and former UFC contender) Rory MacDonald, 29, made his MMA debut at age 16 with no traditional martial arts background and reached the UFC at age 20.
Bantamweight knockout artist Sean O’Malley, one of the UFC’s brightest young stars, picked up MMA as a teenager with no prior combat training. He uses his lack of allegiance to any one discipline to his advantage by confusing opponents with his funky grappling, jiu-jitsu and devastatingly athletic strikes. Even the pound-for-pound greatest fighter in the world, Jon Jones, is far from a wrestler’s prototype despite his background as a junior college national champion. Jones, who holds the UFC record for most total wins, and the longest streak of both consecutive wins and successive title defenses in the light heavyweight division, used his wrestling background as a springboard toward Brazilian jiu-jitsu mastery.
This new prototype of the fighter, with unpredictable moves and little fealty to one discipline, is also more entertaining to watch for new fans, say experts, and could help MMA further expand its reach.
“Casual fans want to see knockouts and crazy acrobatics in the octagon,” says Brendan Schaub, host of Showtime’s Below the Belt series and The Fighter and The Kid podcast. “It’s difficult [for casual fans] to pick up on intricate wrestling or jiu-jitsu techniques … That’s why you see strikers and athletes who can do it all becoming the biggest draws.”
For sure, martial artists have been known to test unfamiliar disciplines since the early 1900s. Yet the athletes who have so far made it to the top in MMA have predominantly been champion amateur wrestlers such as Daniel Cormier, Henry Cejudo and Randy Couture, or jiu-jitsu black belts such as Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and one of the most influential MMA practitioners ever, Royce Gracie. These athletes made the switch to the Bellator and the UFC for money once they saw the financials of these young leagues: comparable earning potential in their sport of origin just does not exist.
But for young combat-interested athletes who grew up with the MMA in mind — as opposed to individual disciplines — as a path to fame and fortune (UFC was purchased by WME-IMG for $4 billion in 2017), learning multiple skills early makes more sense. The arrival of multiskilled MMA fighters is not unlike similar transitions in other sports, though for different reasons: take the offensive revolution in football or basketball’s birth of the stretch-four, for instance.
It’s that varied skill set that helped Pico trounce Higo. “There’s a new generation of young fighters coming, and the clock is ticking,” said Pico after the September fight. “He’s never fought a wrestler like me, a guy who can hit as hard as me.” Echoing Pico was Scott Coker, the president of Bellator MMA. “It’s so impressive because of the amount of firepower he has and the skill he has standing up, striking, going down, getting up,” Coker said of Pico.
That a younger generation is taking to MMA like never before is borne out of numbers. According to the 2018 MMA for Fitness Single Sports Participation Report conducted by the Sports & Industry Fitness Association (SIFA), children in the 6-12 age group participating in MMA fitness training went up by 32 percent between 2015 and 2018, from 133,000 to 175,000.
That number is expected to continue to grow, thanks to popularization by broadcast events, social media and a growing emphasis on physical fitness and combating bullying in schools. But MMA still faces competition from the most traditional of physical combat sports. Wrestling remains much more popular at the youth level, largely thanks to school leagues and USA Wrestling’s sanctioning body. In 2017-18, 245,564 boys and 16,562 girls participated in high school wrestling. Meanwhile, children interested in mixed martial arts must join a gym with a less-established path to competition or use another combat sport (like wrestling) as an entry point.
“I feel like it’s a chicken or the egg sort of thing,” says Brantley Hooks, a former collegiate wrestler turned high school coach in South Carolina. “More kids want to train to be MMA fighters today, but to do that they’re probably going to need wrestling or boxing as their core sport.”
There’s no denying wrestling’s influence on MMA. Understanding body control, constant movement and grappling is key for any MMA fighter, and no martial art provides a crash course quite like wrestling. Plus, when all else fails in MMA, the best way to beat a striker is by wrangling him to the ground. The current list of UFC champions — Cormier, Cejudo, Jon Jones, TJ Dillashaw and Khabib Nurmagomedov among them — could pass as an all-star roster of former wrestlers.
But as Pico showed in September, that influence of any one discipline over the sport is slowly waning. And that was no one-off, suggests Schaub. “There’s going to be more young kids wanting to be the next Pico, the next Sean O’Malley,” he says. “And that next generation is going to be even better, even more creative.”