The weigh-ins are done. The pre-fight hype is over. And in a little under 12 hours time we'll see the most intriguing and anticipated Heavyweight fight combat sports has seen since Lennox Lewis vs Mike Tyson. Some hardcore purists will no doubt bring up the Pride fights of Fedor Emelianenko vs Antonio Nogueira and Mirko 'Cro Cop' Filopovic but let's be frank: those fights were huge in Japan. Tonight's fight feels more global and thanks to UFC's tenacious international expansion efforts will at least be available pretty much world wide.
What should come as no surprise to anyone with more than a casual interest in MMA is that this fight will come down to wrestling. How the wrestling will be utilised is what's really interesting to an analyst like myself, not only the years of Amateur wrestling up to the highest national levels in the NCAA Division 1 collegiate program, but in the relatively obscure and yet slowly permeating version known as Catch Wrestling.
Catch Wrestling, you see, isn't just another style. It's an archetype. It spawned the American Folkstyle of wrestling found throughout the US school system. It influenced the Judo game of Mitsuyo Maeda when he took part in challenge matches throughout Europe and the Americas before settling in Brazil and teaching the Gracies. It in part helped form the basis of Sambo. And it spawned what we now know as Pro Wrestling in both America and Japan, the latter of which honoured the competitive element of Catch Wrestling through the formation of Shooto, Pancrase, Rings, Pride and so on, while the former moved away from the competitive element and to a more Show Business aspect culminating in World Wrestling Entertainment. Catch Wrestling is the undeniable link between Pro Wrestling and MMA and it's what justifies a site like Cageside Seats in covering both.
Since the UFC 100 fight between Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir we've begun to hear more about Lesnar's utilisation of Catch Wrestling which he used to shut down Frank Mir's half-guard game. In particular it was his utilisation of the Stockade coupled with his years of wrestling experience using weight distribution and leverage to mercilessly Ground 'n' Pound Mir. This comes from his time with Erik Paulson, known on Prime Time as his striking coach but in reality offers a lot more. Paulson was recently interviewed on the excellent Josh Gross SI.com podcast and it's basically his job to help tie the striking, wrestling and submission grappling Lesnar learns together into an effective MMA style. Paulson even described Lesnar on the show as more of a Catch Wrestler when Gross asked him about his evolving submission game. Marty Morgan and Rodrigo 'Comprido' Medeiros train and develop Lesnar, and Paulson helps connect the dots.
So who is Paulson? Well, by his own admission he prefers to keep out of the public spotlight, but he's been a long time coach for Josh Barnett and his CSW gym in Fullerton, Orange County has served as a camp base for such fighters as Cub Swanson, Renato 'Babalu Sobral, James Wilks, Javi Vasquez, Mark Munoz and probably countless others not known about. He has a BJJ blackbelt under Rigan Machado, is a Jeet Kune Do instructor under Guru Dan Inosanto, and a Shooto catch wrestling coach under Yori Nakamura. Paulson and Jake Shields have been the only Americans in history to win a Shooto world title, with Paulson winning his in the early 1990's.
Shooto was formed in 1986 by Nakamura's coach Satoru Sayama, better known as the legendary Tiger Mask in Pro Wrestling circles. Sayama learned his craft under Antonio Inoki and Karl Gotch, who the Japanese revered with the title "God of Pro Wrestling". A brief description of Gotch and his influence on Japanese Pro Wrestling and MMA simply wouldn't do the late legend justice and it's well worth reading up on Gotch for anyone with an interest in both Pro Wrestling and MMA. In short though, Gotch (born Karl Istaz) was a Beligian Olympic Wrestler who learned Catch Wrestling for several years at The Snake Pit, in Wigan, England before rounding out his training with American Catch Wrestlers and settling in Japan to further his career.
So what's the connection to Cain Velasquez? For that answer we have to look at his head coach, "Crazy" Bob Cook. On UFC Prime Time we see Cook as the strategy coach, a position he also has on the current season of The Ultimate Fighter on Josh Koscheck's team. Cook runs the American Kickboxing Academy (founded by Javier Mendez) but is also still fully involved in the training along with Dave Camarillo who mixed Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to form his own style of Guerilla Jiu Jitsu.
Before Cook ran the AKA with Mendez, it was actually run by Frank Shamrock who helped Mendez transform AKA from just a kickboxing school into a fully fledged MMA gym. Bob Cook at this time was a student of Shamrock in his "Shamrock Submission Fighting" style. When Shamrock left, Cook took over his side of the grappling training.
Frank Shamrock needs little in the way of introduction, but what he called Shamrock Submission Fighting is really a form of Catch Wrestling mixed with Kickboxing. Shamrock got his start in submission wrestling from adopted brother Ken, and would also go on to learn from Ken's coach and Japanese MMA legend Masakatsu Funaki who along with Minoru Suzuki (also a catch wrestler and Olympic alternate Freestyle wrestler for Japan) formed Pancrase. Funaki and Suzuki were students of Yoshiaki Fujiwara who is widely regarded as Karl Gotch's best student. Pancrase as a name was thought up by Karl Gotch who remembered the Greek combative wrestling style of Pankration.
As you can see in terms of an MMA family tree, both Lesnar and Velasquez are distant cousins connected to the legend Karl Gotch at the top. With Gotch you can pretty much play an MMA version of the Six Degrees of Seperation game.
The question is though, will Catch Wrestling even play a factor in tonight's fight? It's really difficult to say. Some believe Velasquez will adopt a Frankie Edgar style strategy to win this fight. I don't hold much stock in that opinion, mostly because Edgar vs Penn was a completely different style match up. If a similarity is going to be made, surely it's Edgar vs Maynard with a bigger, stronger, better wrestler going up against a quicker, more well rounded and technical yet significantly smaller opponent. Maynard won their first encounter and that might be indicative of tonight's match.
It also leads me to believe that we will see more Boxing then Kickboxing out of Velasquez to reduce the opportunities of being taken down by Lesnar and that Velasquez will use his wrestling defensively, choosing only to attempt to takedown Lesnar and stay on top if the champion gets stunned from a standing exchange. And if that happens I expect a barrage of punches with little in the way of Catch specific positioning.
Lesnar on the other hand has already shown Catch Wrestling. As well as the aforementioned Stockade, The Arm Triangle choke used against Carwin is a staple of both BJJ and in Wrestling known as a Head & Arm choke. Lesnar's willingness to finish by submission as well as (T)KO is promising. I think he can get Velasquez down but really have no idea if he can keep him down. Frank Mir was comfortable on his back, and Carwin was too gassed to get off of his back. I don't think either will be the case for Velasquez.
Tonight's fight was already intriguing on several levels. With the little known Catch Wrestling connection it's even more so.