Current Submission Underground (SUG) champion Mason Fowler might have the best gig in grappling. Since winning the SUG title last year, Fowler has successfully defended his belt six times with wins over Craig Jones, Vinny Magalhaes, Richie Martinez, and others. Importantly, Fowler is competing and getting paid regularly — something that is far from expected in professional grappling. It’s a gift that Fowler doesn’t take for granted.
“I know I’m in a really good position,” Fowler told Grappling Insider. “I’m really thankful to Submission Underground and Chael Sonnen. Without them this wouldn’t be possible.”
Fowler recognizes that only a handful of grapplers on the planet have the luxury of what is essentially a steady paycheck just to compete.
“Of course you have Gordon Ryan and Craig Jones, maybe a couple other guys with really big names that are making consistent money to compete, but it’s very very rare that you see that.”
With that in mind, fans might be surprised that more of grappling’s most prominent names aren’t gunning for Fowler’s SUG title. According to Fowler, there are two main reasons why the sport’s biggest stars are hesitant to compete in the SUG cage: the ruleset and the dangerous (but relatively unknown) competition.
The SUG ruleset consists of a five-minute regulation period that is submission-only, and if no submission occurs, EBI overtimes follow to determine the winner. That ruleset requires a specific, submission-oriented set of skills.
“So you might be able to take someone that’s a black belt world champ, they’ve never competed in EBI overtimes, and they’re gonna be kind of lost,” said Fowler.
He also recognizes that many top competitors don’t want to risk losing to lesser-known competitors that thrive under the SUG ruleset. Specifically, many of SUG’s top competitors are 10th Planet representatives with a style that is tailor-made to upset some of the sport’s more established grapplers. It’s that fear of losing that might be keeping some elite competitors away.
“I think a lot of the guys I’ve been facing are just as dangerous [as the big name grapplers] under these rules,” he said. “That is the reason why a lot of really big name grapplers are maybe declining competing for Submission Underground, because it’s a very very unique ruleset… Take someone with a more 10th Planet-esque style, which is… submission first. There are a lot of 10th Planet guys that are good at point fighting but for the most part they’re really submission-heavy. And then they’re really good at the EBI overtimes. Then if you have Submission Underground, which is sub only with EBI overtimes, those guys would thrive in that ruleset.“
On May 23, Fowler will defend his title against Kyle Chambers at SUG 23. It will be Fowler’s third consecutive title defense against a 10th Planet black belt (following Richie “Boogeyman” Martinez and Andy Varela). With his 10th Planet style that is well-suited for the SUG ruleset, coupled with his unique build and athletic gifts, Fowler views Chambers as a dangerous challenge.
“… all around he’s a really unique athlete and it’s gonna be a really good test.”
“He’s really leg lock heavy, which is typical of a 10th Planet black belt,” Fowler said of Chambers. “I would say some very unique challenges he’s gonna bring to the table are his length; he’s really tall. He’s lighter than me but I think he’s taller than me. He’s really tall and guys like that will give you a lot of problems. Lanky guys, they’re good at shooting triangles and shooting armbars from weird angles. And then also he’s really explosive, too. From what I can tell he has great cardio. So all around he’s a really unique athlete and it’s gonna be a really good test.”
Indeed, Chambers is an excellent leg locker; he earned his shot at Fowler with a 72-second heel hook of Ben Egli at SUG 22. Whether Chambers pulls guard or looks to wrestle, Fowler is certainly expecting him to attack his legs early and often.
“If I had to bet, I bet that he dives at a leg from the feet or pulls, pretty early. First minute or so.”
That said, Fowler feels prepared for Chambers’ leg lock game. Because although fans typically see Fowler working from top position to pass the guard and gain dominant position, that doesn’t mean he’s neglecting other parts of his game.
“I started with MMA, and whenever I was training for MMA, I always reflected on myself and my skills and I always wanted to be well-rounded,” Fowler said. “I never wanted to get exposed in one area so I’ve kinda taken that same mentality into grappling…
“I have put a lot of hours into the leg lock game, but most people probably would be surprised with how much I actually know about leg locks because in competition I don’t use them much, and the reason why is because I believe that it’s almost like a 50/50 position. Yeah, you can tap the guy, but also your legs are right there to get counter-attacked, as well, so I would prefer to not put myself in positions where it’s 50/50.”
Against Chambers, Fowler will certainly have his leg lock defense tested, but he’s ultimately confident in his ability to retain the title.
“Every match is different. I would say with Chambers… I think that he’s good in the overtime, but I don’t think he’s gonna bring anything that I haven’t seen. And I think that he is the most dangerous attacking the legs in the regulation. I would say that he is also gonna be dangerous in the overtime, but I think I’m gonna be better if it does go there.”
How to watch: SUG 23 takes place on Sunday, May 23 and will air live and exclusively on UFC Fightpass.