Ronda Rousey v Sara Mcmann Preview Part 1: Grappling and Skill Trees


Olympians Clash at UFC 170

On 22 Feb 2014 fans will finally get to see if Ronda Rousey’s judo works against someone with an elite wrestling background. Sara Mcmann, a 2004 Olympic silver medalist, has all the tools and athleticism to take it to Ronda in the takedown department and many questions should be answered as to whether judo is a viable skill set in modern day MMA.

Winning the Takedown Battle doesn’t mean Winning the War

The takedown match up will be examined in Part 2 but for now the question really is, even if Mcmann can take Ronda down, what can she do with it? Many seem to have the impression that being an olympic wrestler Mcmann will have the ground game to hold her own against Ronda’s armbar but does that wrestling background really translate to MMA grappling?

Imho, Mcmann appears to still be in the early stages of developing her BJJ skillset and she seems to lack many fundamentals that are critical to both defence and offence in BJJ. Rather than just make a bare assertion on this though, I thought video analysis would be an interesting way to also highlight how “basics” are important before one can master the higher/advanced skills in BJJ. A small diversion into “skill trees” in BJJ first though.

Drilling Moves all over a Skill Tree Doesn’t Always Work

One thing beginners often do is chase moves all over the BJJ map – 50/50 leg locks, berimbolos, baseball bat chokes etc. There is this temptation to correlate mimicking the “moves” done by top level players as the path to advancing in BJJ. It sort of makes sense – like Roger? Learn to the cross choke from mount. Like the Miyaos? Berimbolo it is. However, focusing on drilling random moves without a well thought out overall strategy seldom makes sense.

SKILL TREE 1(*thanks to Matt Corley for helping me with these mind maps, check out more of his work at

Some people get a bit better and start drilling moves along a particular branch of a skill tree. Like half guard? Start drilling the armdrag, the kimura etc etc. However running down a drill list of moves like a robot doesn’t always work out well either.


My take on it is that this focus on “moves” (even related ones) can often blind side a BJJ player to the idea that the “links” between “moves” also contain critical skills/details to be mastered and not overlooked.


An example of the critical “link” in closed guard passing

Getting stuck in closed guard is an issue everyone encounters at all belt levels. In MMA, this is a probably the most important guard one has to learn to deal with. There are various ways to deal with the closed guard, for example a skill tree to pass the closed might look like:


While one can stay on their knees to pass if in the closed, you will often find many advanced BJJ players like (Jacare, GSP, BJ Penn etc etc), constantly look to stand to pass. So it makes sense to train/drill both passes on and off the knees. However one thing many over look is that even if you know 50 passes combined on your knees and on your feet,  that’s not very useful if you have no way to flow from one move to the next. Key to making that transition between kneeling and standing is to always be (or be ready to be) on your toes.


BJJ is a constant flow and as your opponent moves, you must always be ready to transition from position to position as smoothly as possible. Toe activation is critical in this regard and without mastering how to move/transition off your toes, guard passing will be a hurdle. Watch Rafael Mendes illustrating this concept in his recent ADCC semi-final against Joao Miyao’s tricky guard. Mendes stays on his toes to match Miyao’s hip movement, looking to step sideways for drags or to return to a crouch when smashing in seems possible.


This small detail of toe activation is often ignored by many and runs counter to initial advice beginners get when they encounter closed guard for the first time – 1) have a heavy base 2) keep your arms in 3)keep your posture up. The reality is though, as you get more advanced, your base must be “active” and not “dead” and your arms and posture must be dynamic, ready to extend (arms) or break forward (posture) as the legs/hips of the guarder move.

Mcmann has very little toe activation and this limits her offensively and defensively

This was supposed to be(and still is) an entry on the Rousey v Mcmann match up. But it’s a lead into my point that while Mcmann has all the tools to be a skilled grappler, she seems to be lacking a very fundamental detail (the use of toes) that will allow her to capitalize on top position which she always gets off her takedowns. Very often you will see her get stalled out or simply kicked away when the closed guard opens. More serious, she is going to be very prone to submissions if this issue is not addressed. The video says it all, so check it out. Guard passing is a very difficult thing to change in a short period of time so to me the big question coming in is has Mcmann had the time to make the changes to fend of the most dangerous armbar in WMMA? In the meantime, enjoy.

(It’s a rather longish video and an experiment to mix BJJ “concepts” in an MMA breakdown video, so forgive the roughness of it.)

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