Almost 20 years ago, Royce Gracie showed up at UFC 1 and dominated the competition with his top-notch Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu game and little else. Despite being one of the smaller men in the tournament that night, Gracie proved that the grappling art that later became synonymous with his family’s name can be one of the most dangerous in combat sports, and in the process made BJJ one of the most essential disciplines an aspiring mixed martial artist could learn.

Fast forward to 2013, and the game has completely changed. Although jiu-jitsu is still one of the most important skills in a fighter’s repertoire, it’s been years since a competitor that primarily uses the grappling art has become a champion in the UFC, a statistic that rising light heavyweight Vinny Magalhaes is looking to overcome as he works his way up the UFC ladder.

Magalhaes is one of the most skilled grapplers in the world, let alone the UFC, and his three medals in the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) grappling tournament prove that he is one of the most lethal fighters in the Octagon when the bout hits the floor. However, despite all of his success on the jiu-jitsu mat and in other MMA promotions (Magalhaes was the M-1 Global light heavyweight champion), a big win in the UFC has eluded Magalhaes so far in his MMA career. The 28-year-old Brazilian has a chance to earn the biggest win of his career this weekend when he takes on top-10 light heavyweight and standout wrestler Phil Davis at UFC 159, and if he plans to do so, he’ll need to find a way to use his jiu-jitsu skills against an opponent that could very easily shut him down on the mat.

Few fights that take place inside the Octagon are as intriguing as match-ups between a high-level wrestler and a true jiu-jitsu expert. If the fight between Davis and Magalhaes hits the mat at any point in their upcoming bout, we could be treated to a serious chess match in the grappling department.

Davis is one of the strongest wrestlers in the UFC’s light heavyweight division. As decorated as Magalhaes is on the grappling circuit, Davis may be just as decorated as a wrestler. “Mr. Wonderful” has one of the most impressive wrestling resumes in all of MMA, with four straight years as a NCAA Division I All-American and one national championship win under his belt during his time at Penn State. The success on the mat has largely transferred over into the Octagon for Davis, who has used his superior wrestling to earn wins over respectable fighters like Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Tim Boetsch during his current run in the light heavyweight division. To top it off, “Mr. Wonderful’s” striking has greatly improved during this stretch as well.

The striking battle between Davis and Magalhaes could end up being the difference in their upcoming bout, and if it is, it will likely be because Davis elected to keep the fight on the feet. As good as Magalhaes is on the mat, even a wrestler with outstanding top control like Davis is going to be in constant danger if the fight hits floor. Davis may be better off using his wrestling in reverse in order to keep the bout standing. And unfortunately for Magalhaes, this fight isn’t likely going to hit the ground unless Davis wants it to.

There’s no doubt that Magalhaes has improved both his striking and wrestling dramatically since he made his UFC debut on The Ultimate Fighter 8 over four years ago, but he hasn’t been able to showcase just how much better he’s gotten, due to a lackluster run of opponents outside of the Octagon. After losing his first two fights in the UFC following his time on the reality show, Magalhaes made his way over to the M-1 Global promotion in order to get his career back on track, and he eventually captured the promotion’s title. He was dominant during his time in M-1, particularly towards the end of his stint when he took out both Viktor Nemkov and Mikhail Zayats in title bouts, but Magalhaes didn’t take out any major names during his time outside of the UFC and may have grown a bit overconfident in his abilities while fighting lesser competition. Still, the BJJ expert posted an impressive 7-1 record after he was released by the UFC and won by stoppage in five straight fights in order to earn a ticket back to the big show.

Now that he’s coming off a brilliantly executed armbar win over Igor Pokrajac in his Octagon return at UFC 152, Magalhaes’ confidence is at an all-time high, and he has a chance to prove not only that he belongs among the elite in the 205-pound division, but that jiu-jitsu can still lead a fighter towards championship contention if used correctly.

Unless Magalhaes’ striking has become as deadly as his grappling skills, his best chance at winning this bout is likely going to come down to his ability to drag the fight to the ground and lock in a submission at some point against Davis. This seems highly unlikely due to Davis’ superior wrestling skills, but we’ve seen high-level jiu-jitsu players surprise us before against top-level wrestlers, the most recent example coming at UFC 156 when Demian Maia completely shut down Jon Fitch and his grinding style.

Along with Maia, Magalhaes represents the best chance for a true jiu-jitsu expert to reach the top of the sport again, but any chance he has of becoming a top contender in the UFC starts and ends on Saturday night. If Magalhaes is unable to get Davis to the mat and is picked apart on the feet (or worse, is held down for the majority of the fight), it will be obvious that he is unable to compete with the upper echelon at 205. However, if Magalhaes shows up and proves his ground game is as lethal as it is on paper, he’ll not only become a title threat, he may have a chance to reinvigorate jiu-jitsu in the process.

Photo: Vinny Magalhaes (L) secures an armbar (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.