As we reach the end of 2014, grappling in MMA is in a strange place. Far fewer fights end with a tapout than they did a decade ago -- 18.8 percent of Ultimate Fighting Championship fights in 2014 and 17 percent in 2013, compared to 25.9 percent between 2004 and 2010 -- and that number does not look to be changing anytime soon. Many factors contribute to this phenomenon, namely the higher overall grappling ability and the drastic increase in wrestling skill that have taken hold in the UFC.
Simply put, it is harder today to get someone down, keep them there and work a successful submission. Counter-wrestling and counter-grappling have advanced much further, much quicker than their offensive counterparts. Grappling-first fighters have been forced to adapt. Rather than the methodical takedown-pass-mount-submit formula of the old days, the present-day MMA game places much more emphasis on latching onto holds in scrambles. Judging generally does not reward patient work from the bottom, so more and more coaches are preaching a “sweep, submit or get up” approach or what Tristar Gym impresario Firas Zahabi calls the 60-second guard.
Still, that evolution is happening, and 2014 produced a fine crop of submission finishes. Luke Rockhold twisted Tim Boetsch into a human pretzel and finished him with a triangle-kimura combination and followed that up with a one-armed guillotine of Michael Bisping; Rousimar Palhares took home a couple of ripped-up legs as trophies; Eduardo Dantas pulled off one of the slickest back takes and rear-naked chokes we have ever seen; and four fighters -- Niklas Backstrom, Yancy Medeiros, Raquel Pennington, and Urijah Faber -- pulled of slick bulldog chokes in the UFC.
No fighter better exemplifies the trend toward lightning-quick submissions in transition and aggressive, non-stop guard work than Charles Oliveira. A borderline-psychotic hunter of necks and limbs, Oliveira never lapses into the kind of inactivity that so often dooms grappling-first fighters, especially from the bottom. He is a blur of feverish motion both on top and on his back, switching rapidly between submission attempts, strikes and passes and initiating the kinds of scrambles in which he is almost certain to end up with a shot at a fight-ending choke.
That is exactly what happened at UFC Fight Night “Te Huna vs. Marquardt” on June 28, when Oliveira took on longtime contending featherweight Hatsu Hioki and finished him with a choke that almost defies description. It was some combination of an anaconda choke, Peruvian necktie and sit-through guillotine, all executed with blinding speed and precision, and it rules the roost as Sherdog.com’s “Submission of the Year” for 2014.
Oliveira entered the UFC at the tender age of 20 with a sparkling 12-0 record; only one of his fights had gone the distance. He was obviously undersized for the lightweight division, but his unreal aggressiveness and skill on the mat, coupled with obvious physical gifts, made him a blue-chip prospect with incredible upside. He submitted his first two opponents in the Octagon, Darren Elkins and “Ultimate Fighter” winner Efrain Escudero, with shocking ease. The hype train left the station and expectations ran high.
A booking with Jim Miller brought every one of Oliveira’s flaws to light. He was in fact undersized, and his trademark aggressiveness walked him right into a kneebar against a much more experienced opponent. Occupancy on the Oliveira hype train dropped, but confidence was still high. An illegal knee against Nik Lentz cost Oliveira a victory, but he was still clearly winning and the unfortunate outcome did nothing to diminish the still-present excitement about his future.
The Brazilian’s next fight, against Donald Cerrone, cleared out the hype train for good. The bigger, stronger, more technical striker pounded Oliveira for three solid minutes, and any remaining shine wore off quickly. Before his 22nd birthday, many had already written off Oliveira as a busted prospect, either through his own failings or the UFC’s willingness to match up an obviously talented but still-developing youngster against top contenders like Miller and Cerrone.
A drop to featherweight did little to convince the doubters. Oliveira submitted Eric Wisely and Jonathan Brookins handily, using a nearly-as-unique calf slicer on Wisely and a modified guillotine on Brookins. The problems, however, showed up in his next two outings, as Cub Swanson pulverized his liver and then knocked him out with an overhand. Frankie Edgar then controlled him from top position and easily handled the Brazilian’s vaunted guard, although Oliveira remained competitive and was never really out of the fight. He got back on track with a late triangle over Andy Ogle, and a booking with once-touted Japanese fighter Hioki was booked for Auckland, New Zealand.
Hioki had been a bit of a disappointment in his own right considering the amount of hype he carried with him into the UFC. He was 3-3 going into the matchup with Oliveira and coming off a win over Ivan Menjivar, with three consecutive -- if close -- losses to Ricardo Lamas, Clay Guida and Elkins behind that. A talented grappler in his own right, Hioki had never been submitted in 36 career bouts, and most saw the matchup with Oliveira as an entertaining, scramble-filled fight that would probably go the distance or be decided on the feet.
For most of the fight, that was exactly what viewers got. Within the first 30 seconds, Hioki had already looked for a flying triangle, and Oliveira responded by attempting to jump to a guillotine in the clinch. The two fighters exchanged takedowns; Oliveira threatened with a brabo choke and a guillotine; Hioki spent some time on the Brazilian’s back; and the transitions came fast and furious. With 40 seconds left in the first round, Oliveira snagged a front headlock, transitioned to an anaconda grip and looked to roll to the mount for the same kind of choke with which he eventually finished the fight. He failed to finish it, and the first round ended with the two fighters exchanging knees and control in the clinch.
The second round opened with an exchange of punches and then a slick ankle pick from Oliveira to get the fight to the ground. The two fighters scrambled and Oliveira attempted a leg lock, and during the scramble that followed, Hioki badly poked the Brazilian in the eye. When the fight began again, Oliveira showed off his clinch game, slamming home knees to the body and sharp elbows to the Japanese fighter’s face. Oliveira attempted a lateral drop, but Hioki ended up on top, and Oliveira worked a number of attempted sweeps and submission attempts off his back and succeeded in bloodying his opponent’s face with an elbow from the bottom.
Oliveira attempted to scramble back to his feet, but Hioki smoothly transitioned to the Brazilian’s back and got close with a rear-naked choke across Oliveira’s chin. Hioki tried to transition to an armbar, and Oliveira took the opportunity to get on top. The Japanese fighter rolled to the turtle, Oliveira grabbed a front headlock and then smoothly transitioned to the anaconda-guillotine-Peruvian necktie, eliciting the tap.
The entire finishing sequence took less than 10 seconds from the moment Oliveira grabbed the front headlock to the tap. Hioki had played with fire in his willingness to hang out on the ground with a grappler as dangerous as Oliveira, and it finally cost him. Hioki had never been submitted, and it speaks to the sheer venom in the Brazilian’s grappling game that he was able to take out such an experienced competitor. No other submission in 2014 had the same combination of slick-as-hell coolness against an opponent with that much skill.
Continue Reading » Pettis vs. Melendez