Kazushi Sakuraba, The IQ Wrestler. A Japanese catch as catch can and professional wrestler who became legendary for his bouts with much Larger fighters and his multiple victories over members of the Gracie Family that also earned him the nickname The Gracie Hunter.
In this study, we are going to look at the career, techniques, impact and legacy of Sakuraba on the sport and entertainment side of the industry. As a professional wrestler, he made sure his entrances into the Pride ring were always a spectacle and entertaining, and it was another form of entertainment that would be the catalyst for Sakurabas Entrance into the sport of mixed martial arts.
Born in Japan in 1969, As a youth, he was a fan of the Japanese Manga or graphic novel called Tiger Mask which tells the story of a professional wrestler who battles against a mysterious organisation of wrestling villains known as the Tigers Den. The Manga also had an anime television show featuring the same professional wrestling storyline that inspired Sakuraba to follow the career path of the protagonist.
Sakuraba began amateur freestyle wrestling in high school that lead to him having success representing Chuo University. There he was coached by Olympic Gold Medalist & world champion Shozo Sasahara. But after turning down the opportunity to stay on and coach at the university, he decided to continue with his original intention. He started his professional wrestling career in the Union of Wrestling Forces International organisation. But how does a quirky athlete pursuing a career in professional Wrestling become the biggest adversary of a notorious no holds barred fighting family? This is where we have to explore the origins of professional Wrestling and how Sakuraba trained.
Many of the moves that Sakuraba used to defeat his opponents can all be seen in vintage professional wrestling matches. This is because the roots of professional Wrestling can all be traced back to catch Wrestling or catch as catch can. Catch wrestling is a collection of several English wrestling styles, the most prominent of these being Lancashire catch-as-catch-can and dating back to around 1870 in England, a full decade before the establishment of Judos Kodokan Dojo.
Catch wrestling was a legitimate combat sport that involved winning by pin or submission. Catch wrestling was even included in the second modern Olympic games in 1904. But eventually with some submission techniques considered too dangerous rulesets evolved that removed submissions and led to the creation of folkstyle Wrestling in America and Freestyle Wrestling in the Olympics.
Professional Wrestling also evolved out of this style. So in the beginning, all-pro wrestlers had legitimate grappling skills, or as it was known the ability to “shoot”, making the bouts seem more realistic. They may have even issued challenges for anyone in the crowd looking to test their might against the travelling show. Overtime professional wrestling drifted further away from the sporting aspect and towards the entertainment, with promoters finding it more profitable to have matches with outcomes within their control resulting with less of a requirement for wrestlers legitimate grappling credentials.
But eventually, a return to more realistic matches was seen in Japan which leads to the creation of Japanese Shoot-Style or Strong Style wrestling. Spearheaded by Karl Gotch, known as the God of wrestling in Japan and who the German suplex is named after, and the legendary Antonio Inoki who famously had an early mixed rules match against Muhammed Ali. Both these men were pivotal in the creation of the Japanese MMA scene. Now Shoot Style was professional Wrestling performed in a hybrid style that intended to appear as legitimate freestyle fighting while still retaining a predetermined winner. And the UWFi that Kazushi Sakuraba made his debut in was one of a handful of these shoot-style promotions.
The UWFi employed legendary catch wrestler Billy Robinson to train its wrestlers with the legitimate submission grappling skills of catch-as-catch-can to increase the level of submission grappling ability in their bouts. Billy Robinson learned his catch wrestling at the legendary Wigan Snakepit in England under Billy Riley who learned Lachashire catch as catch can from the coal miners of the area. After learning his skills as a young man, Billy Robinson then became an experienced professional wrestler who travelled all around the globe performing. Sakuraba, now with his catch wrestling training he received under the watchful eye of Billy Robinson, was able to use that submission grappling style and the influence of the Wigan Snakepit in all his future bouts.
Now beginning with Antonio Inoki, Japan had a tradition of entering their pro wrestlers into freestyle fights to prove their strength. While the outcome often didn’t go the way of the wrestler, it was from this tradition that Sakuraba entered the UFC in Japan as a late replacement to help promote the Kingdom Pro Wrestling league. Shockingly defeated the much larger Marcus Silveira, becoming the first person in the UFC to tap a BJJ Blackbelt and winning the UFC Ultimate Japan Heavyweight Tournament. From then on representing Pro Wrestling, Sakuraba would become one of the all-time greats of freestyle fighting with many of his victories coming from Catch as Catch can submissions. But before Sakuraba could use his catch wrestling, he would have to deal with the fights starting standing and work with his striking skills.
Striking of Sakuraba
Now Sakuraba was never known for his striking prowess, a southpaw he was mainly characterised from his rushing flurries and swarms towards his opponent. His main goal would have always been to secure a takedown and work towards a submission, but he was not afraid to throw down with some of the scariest strikers in the sport including Mirko Cro Cop, Wanderlei Silva and Rampage Jackson. He was able to throw off his opponents and with an array of unique and deceptive tricks including a standing double axe handle or hammer fist.
But along with the catch wrestling training, Sakuraba also received training in Muay Thai from Bovy Chowaikung. He was employed to train the wrestlers and also competed for the UWFI in a series of kickboxing matches in what was known as the UWF International Stand-up Fighting Division. As such he was able to strike and had a few sleight of hand techniques like faking a hook and throwing a straight and feints and deception, in general, played a significant role in his striking game.
After two fights with Wanderlei Silva, he even went to Chute Box in Brazil to work with Rafael Cordero and also won two contests from using his punches. One against Ken Shamrock as he slapped down his lead hand to land a straight left and against the Judoka Yoon Dong-Sik after battering him in his debut. But perhaps a more substantial part of his striking arsenal was his array of kicks including massive head kicks and relentless low kicks whenever an opponent attempted to step in and even spinning back kicks.
The consistent volley of leg kicks also setup other avenues for Sakurabas feints as he would then be able to feint his leg kicks to put an opponent onto one leg and then follow through with a straight punch that would catch fighters off guard. He even worked his leg kick feints into setting up takedowns. The repeated leg kicks and perhaps the heavily taped knees would also draw opponents into leg kicking back at Sakuraba. That would also lead to further takedowns for him as he was adept at catching an opponents kick out of mid-air and turning it into a wrestling exchange where he could put them onto the mat.
Takedowns of Kazushi Sakuraba
Once he was in a wrestling exchange, Sakuraba’s wrestling experience allowed him to implement a wide variety of takedowns including body locks, ankle picks, double legs, trips and his most frequently used the single-leg takedown. Sakuraba’s amateur wrestling career was also quite successful. At high school he placed as high as second in the nation and in his university career where he would also serve as team captain, he won the east japan tournament in his freshman year and in his senior year he finished in fourth place in the all japan tournament and held a notable win of future Olympic bronze medalist Takuya Ota.
The art of Catch Wrestling is also very rich in takedowns along with the submissions as the standup wrestling portions would take up a large amount of the bouts. It invariably valued top position more where you can ride your opponent and use your weight and gravity on them. Sakuraba was also able to score many takedowns caused by changing levels on his opponents as they rushed or blitzed towards him in striking salvos. Once Sakuraba had put his opponent to the mat with his single leg unless he was able to land in side control, he often found himself at the end of their feet. It allowed them to guard which would be one of Sakuraba’s most challenging yet most exciting parts of his game.
The Trouble with Guard Passing
Which the guard does exist in Catch Wrestling where it is called the Body Scissors, due to the nature of pinning it is not as extensively developed or trained as other grappling styles. At the end of an open guard, Sakuraba was so troubled that he might even elect to drag his opponent around the mat rather than look to pass and also the phenom Vitor Belfort sat to guard as he knew it was a weak area of Sakurabas game.
Sakuraba would still launch thrilling attacks like baseball slide kicks and round kicks over the top of the guard and when he did attempt to pass it often became some of the most memorable moments for fans. His most notorious method would be the cartwheel guard pass, where he would look to cartwheel over the side of the opponent’s guard. Keeping a hand posted he would run at the opponent and launch into a spectacular cartwheel attempt that was visually impressive but never worked effectively as a successful pass.
The other method that wowed the fans would be a high flying jump over the top of the guard. Sakuraba might try to land cleanly on the other side, or come down with a stomp on the opponent or ever throw a dramatic flying punch. Sakuraba did this so often that merely taking a few steps back for a run-up would get the crowd anticipating the high flying attack. He was also able to use the threat of the jumping guard pass to help brutalise the legs of his opponents with kicks. As he would fake a jump, the opponent would raise their feet, exposing their thighs for Sakuraba to fire off devastating low kicks.
Kicking the opponent’s legs in the open guard was an area that Sakuraba did become proficient at and was able to inflict a lot of harm as he showed when he brutalised Royler Gracie’s legs in their outing. But kicks were not the only way Sakuraba would attack the legs as Leglocks were also a preferred technique of Sakuraba and Catch Wrestling.
Karl Gotch even once stated that “If a jiu-jitsu guy has you in his guard and you didn’t break his leg with a leglock, you should quit Wrestling forever.” and Sakuraba certainly embodied this ethos as he dived for toeholds, kneebars and foot locks at every opportunity.
Catch wrestling always valued leg locks as a technique and even influenced other arts like Sambo to incorporate them into their style. As the name Catch as Catch can suggest, you take whatever your hold your opponent gives you so if an opponent plays guard then the feet, ankle and legs are always going to be the first avenue of attack.
And Sakuraba had a commitment and belief in the power of leglocks that would see him hold onto some for an extraordinary amount of time as he would chain between toeholds, kneebars & straight ankle locks while absorbing a remarkable amount of punishment. So while on the ground Sakuraba was on the hunt for leglocks and this would even help open up the opponent’s guard, allow Sakuraba to get back to his feet or it could also set up successful guard passing opportunities.
Once Sakuraba did get past the guard, he would start to look for another quick kill by diving onto armbars. It’s here where we will pick up with part 2 as will finish by examining his use of Catch wrestling armbars—rolling to his belly and turtle, his infamous double wristlock and the legacy that Sakuraba has left on the sport and entertainment industry of Mixed Martial Arts.
Lets to take a look at the Bulldog choke. It’s a rare submission first used in the UFC back at UFC 31 when Carlos Newton submitted Pat Miletich.
Historically the Bulldog choke has been favouredby catch-as-catch-can wrestlers because it forgoes the safety of securing a solid back position and instead directly attacks the head for the submission. So instead of securing back hooks for a dominant position when going for the Bulldog choke, you will attack the head and bring the body with you.
The Bulldog choke essentially becomes a modified headlock or a headlock mixed with a rear-naked choke. In Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, a headlock is seen as an amateur or beginner move as it gives up an easy pathway to the back for the person being attacked. But if you get your hand underneath the chin and can sit your feet and hips out in front of the head of your opponent, it becomes challenging to execute that escape quickly.
Instead, you can use your entire body weight on the head neck and draw your opponent to choke them and crank their neck. The Bulldog choke will most commonly be taught from the side back or turtle position, and it becomes a good option when the opponent is so intent on defending one side of their neck from the rear-naked choke that you can come in on the other side with the Bulldog. But an opportunity for a bulldog choke can come up in many scramble situations where enough time has been had to collect the neck but not enough time to establish back hooks.
With that being said, the Bulldog choke is still an uncommon submission to see in high-level MMA. However, at UFC 181, it was scored twice in one night by Raquel Pennington and Urijah Faber. They both finished their opponents with Bulldog chokes next to the fence, and the fact that it has been proven to work at that high level before means it may be a technique you want to keep in your arsenal for the future.
In this study, I look at pulling guard in MMA as an alternative way of getting the fight onto the ground. It’s a rarely utilised strategy but has been successful for a small set of fighters who have excellent guards and have made it their speciality. The guard is technically an inferior position in fighting as you are on your back and trapped between the mat and the weight of your opponent on top of you while they can use the assistance of gravity to implement control and throw strikes.
However, the UFC was built on Royce Gracie’s success from the guard and the impressive look of a small man submitting larger opponents off his back and Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a whole as built a reputation around taking this inferior position and with practice study and techniques turning into a spot where they have a competitive advantage and can finish fights. So in competition Brazilian jiu-jitsu players will often favour this position on their opponents to the point where double guard pulls where both competitors jump to pull guard at the same time was a problem, and a rule had to be developed to prevent both competitors from stalling from there.
However, in mixed martial arts eventually, fighters got better at defending submissions from the guard and when you add that strikes are allowed the guard is not an excellent position to be in for a lot of sensible reasons. Not the least being that the time spent on your back will typically be seen as you losing the fight on the judges scorecards.
The Third Option: Pull Guard
So what situation would you need in MMA where pulling guard would make sense. Well, Eddie Bravo has a great video on this where he explains pulling guard is the third option. The basic concept is option number one in a fight is to beat your opponent standing with strikes and option two if you can’t win the battle there is to wrestle your opponent to the ground and score a takedown.
The problem that arises is if your opponent has better striking than you and better wrestling so you cannot outstrike them and you cannot score a takedown. Well, that is where pulling guard becomes the third option. While I might suggest that clinching or working against the fence might be other options the point still stands that the guard can provide an avenue to victory that is often neglected.
Now several fighters have shown the guard pulls effectiveness throughout the years, and a handful has actively sought this position in MMA. These are fighters who do have excellent attacking guards and are extremely dangerous when they’re in that position so for it to be considered a good strategy you do need to have the type of guard that the opponent would actively avoid if given a choice as they know they’d be in danger. So in this breakdown, I’ll look at the techniques that martial artists have used to pull guard and get the fight to the mat successfully.
Pulling Half Guard IN MMA
Half guard is statistically the most common position that sweeps are successful from in MMA so pulling half guard is a great option if you have a strong sweep game to get on top and begin to throw grounded strikes or start working for a submission. Now if you want to pull guard, you will still have to close the distance on your opponent. Although sometimes guard pulls will be attempted by simply flopping onto your back, this is an awful tactic that leaves the decision to play guard as a choice for your opponent to make and looks terrible if they decide not to.
If your goal is to take your opponent down, then you’ll still need to be taking wrestling shots that may be getting sprawled on, and this is where we will begin to work one of the significant positions to execute a successful guard pull.
This method still requires you to shoot in deep for a single or double leg shot and getting to your opponent’s hips and thighs. So consider this the guard pulling paradox, where one of the best ways to pull guard is going to require that you still have good setups and wrestling shots. Once in on your opponent’s hips, you’ll want to have your hands around their waist or even better maybe locked around a single leg.
The critical detail here is to get your outside leg to come round and hook behind one of the opponent’s calves which then allows some control over the opponent’s base to prevent them from standing back up and backing out. Once that outside leg has been hooked in place, then the inside leg can shift between the opponent’s legs to lock off a half guard position properly.
Alternatively, the outside leg can be brought around the opponent’s back to control their posture while the inside legs knee is carried across the opponent’s hips. From there you can look to work one of the many half guard sweeps to get on top of your opponent and into a dominant top position or you could proceed to full guard and begin working for a submission.
Pulling Guard IN MMA – Collar Tie
The other majority of guard pulls are going to come from the standing upper-body clinch position and performed with a few different gripping options with the first we’ll look at is the collar tie. Now, this still does require striking or feinting on your opponent to close the distance and get into the clinch and then securing an over tie a single collar tie or full Thai head control before jumping to pull guard.
These grips give control over the opponent’s head and are used to assist in executing the critical element of the standing guard pull which is breaking the opponent’s posture. With proper control over the opponent’s head and neck, snapping them forward and adding your entire body weight for them to carry will help bring the fight to the mat. From these collar tie positions when the guard hits the mat, the collar tie can then remain on the back of the head to continue to control the opponent’s posture while the other hand can move to bicep or wrist control to start attacking a submission.
Pulling Guard IN MMA – Overhook
Another grip when in the upper body clinch is the over hook. This is good for guard pulls and setup by securing an over hook with one arm and having the other hand either controlling the opponent’s wrist or in a collar tie position. From there you can begin to break the opponent’s posture by getting them to walk forward with a Whizzer so that they become off-balance and when the guard jump is made the additional bodyweight will bend them at the hips and drag the opponent forward and down to the mat.
Once hitting the mat that over hook gives a strong trapping guard that continues to control the posture of the opponent limiting their ability to land significant strikes and this position may be one of the best guards in MMA to begin to work for a triangle choke or an armbar.
Flying Triangle Guard Pull
Another guard pulling attack that works off the over hooks is to go for a flying triangle. With this move once clinched up with an over hook on one arm and wrist control on the opposite arm of your opponent, you jump in to pull guard while at the same time you push the opponent’s arm out of the guard on the side you have wrist control on so that you land in a fully locked triangle choke submission that you can begin to work on finishing immediately. Alternatively, if your Shinya Aoki you can pull off an extremely rare flying Omoplata that you use to sweep the opponent and land in top position.
Pulling Guard IN MMA – Double Underhooks
Another option for the guard pull can also be performed from the double under hooks in the clinch. However, this would be my least preferred position to pull guard from, for starters if you do manage to get the double underhooks this is the best position to still work for a takedown so you may not want to give that up too quickly, but secondly, if you do pull guard with double under hooks when you hit the mat it is going to be the most challenging position to control the opponent’s posture as both their hands are free to cross face and throw down significant strikes.
It can also be performed from a wrestling shot that is sprawled on, but the problem with being open to strikes remain as opposed to going to a half guard position where you are angled off to the side and working for a sweep. Alternatively pulling a butterfly guard with double underhooks may be the best position to work from with a butterfly sweep but if you can transition your grips quickly to gain control of the opponent’s posture, then this is still an option that has been used successfully many times by some of the fighters we’ve looked at.
The Jumping Guard Pull
A rarer option is to jump to the guard position from out of striking range or with only the slightest of contact being made on the hands of the opponent’s. Aoki and Imanari have done where they’ll run directly towards their opponent and jump at them relying solely on the momentum of the jump to break the posture of the opponent. This is pretty risky though, and you even run the chance of knocking yourself out as the back of your head slams down onto the mat but has been something that’s shown to work by these two fighters.
Throwing Kicks, Imanari Rolls & Leglocks
Throwing big kicks and guard pulling goes hand in hand, see another advantage of having a good guard is that it does open up more striking opportunities when standing as you can have the confidence to strike without being too scared of ending up on your back. This is especially true with kicks as you do not have a fear of your kick being caught and you being taken down as you know you can confidently attack or sweep from there. So with that belief, a common theme with fighters who have strong guards is that they will throw high kicks and low kicks with almost reckless abandon.
Now a lot of the guard pulls in this study have been from Imanari, he might be most known for his Imanari Roll into a leg entanglement but should also be noted that many attempts at the Imanari roll often resulted in guard position which was just as desirable for him and could be seen as another option for pulling guard.
Moreover, there’s also a big crossover with the fighters pulling guard and attacking for leg locks. In the process of working to guard the opportunity for leg locks will be available and dropping into any of the leg locking positions in an MMA fight could be considered a guard pull. This is an exciting topic that is worthy of individual study but be aware that leg locks and guard pulling are strongly connected.
Should You Pull Guard In MMA?
Now that rounds up this look at some of the various methods that have been used to implement this often neglected strategy, now while it is still recommended that fighters always work on their striking skills and wrestling skills to get them as technical as they possibly can. This is something to keep in mind if you have a dangerous guard and find yourself in a situation where you might need to use it. That indicates that you’ve spent time sharpening your guard, so you’re ready to sweep or submit your opponent as soon as it hits the mat.
Karo Parisyan is an Armenian born mixed martial artist who moved to America at the age of six and began training judo at the age of nine and was competing in freestyle fighting against fully grown adults when he was only fourteen years of age. In this study, we will list the Judo techniques that Karo utilized during his MMA career.
Karo Parisyan – Start In MMA
He was trained by the legendary Gokor Chivichyan and “Judo” Gene LeBell at the Hayastan academy where he also learned the Hayastan grappling system. He was a ferocious competitor and became a ten-time Junior national judo champion a four-time International judo champion and had faced the likes of Sean Sherk, Antonio McKee and Jason “Mayhem” Miller in MMA and was focusing on the 2004 Olympic Judo trials before he got the call-up from the UFC.
Ippon Seoi Nage
We will start with the Ippon Seoi Nage, the one-armed shoulder throw technique where both hands are used on one arm of the opponents as they are loaded onto the back lifted and thrown over the shoulder.
Seoi Otoshi or shoulder drop, it’s a hand technique where the opponents are loaded onto the back and pulled straight down over the shoulder and thrown while you drop both knees to the mat.
The Harai Goshi or sweeping hip throw is a hip technique where the opponent’s balance is moved in a forward direction and your hip is turned and leg extended placing the back of your thigh against the front of the opponent’s and as you continue pulling them forward this is used to sweep their legs out from underneath them in a sudden motion.
Osotogari or major outer reaping is a leg throw performed by stepping outside the leg of your opponent and cutting down on the back of their leg taking it out from underneath them. Although in practice when used by Karo in the UFC it often ended up looking more like a Harai Goshi when finished due to the movements of the opponent when being thrown.
The Ashi Guruma or leg wheel consists of placing your leg against the opponent’s leg between his knee and shin and then using the rotation of your arms and body to throw the opponent down with an instantaneous twisting motion.
The Uchi Mata or inner thigh reaping throw is a leg technique that consists of off-balancing the opponent diagonally towards you then rotating your body and placing the back of your thigh between the opponent’s legs and swinging upwards in a sudden motion to execute the throw, an excellent sense of timing is required to achieve this throw and it is one that Karo has often favoured using in competition. You can see Karo using this throw while simultaneously working towards an Ude Garami grip on his opponent.
The Ude Garami, Kimura or double wrist lock was an attack that was also often favoured by Karo. With the use of the Kimura grip, these throws turn into variations of Makikomis or wrap around throws like the Osoto maki komi or large outside wrap around throw which begins as an Osotogari with your leg cutting down on the opponent’s leg but then you wrap around your opponent’s body and fall down with them.
The Harai Maki Komi, a hip sweep wrap around throw which begins as a Harai Goshi by bringing the opponent on to the hip and twisting at the waist to flip the opponent over while also using the Kimura grip to wrap them around your own body and fall to the mat with them. These throws are classed as side sacrifice techniques and often finish with the opponent on your back but as Karo would hold onto the Kimuragrip he could remain on the offensive.
Another use of the Kimura is with the Hikikomi Gaeshi or pulling in sacrifice throw, which consists of destabilizing the opponent in the forward direction and then inserting the instep of your foot between the opponent’s leg in the crook of their knee while dropping onto your back and throwing them over your own head after which you can continue attacking with the Kimura from the top position.
Kouchi Gari & Kosoto gari
The Kouchi gari or small inner reaping that consists of off-balancing the opponent by pushing them and reaping their heel in a decisive scooping motion and the Kosoto Gari which is a small outer reap that also consists of scooping the opponent’s leg sending them to the mat.
The Ōuchi gari or large inner reap is executed by moving straight into the opponent’s chest and then performing a leg reap from the inner side swinging the reaping foot in a half-circle in order to spread the opponent’s legs destabilize their balance and throw them onto their back.
The KosotoGake or small outer hook consists of driving towards the opponent and placing a foot behind them, then after hooking the leg you can either lift and scoop the leg out or trap the leg and lean on them until they fall to the mat.
Kibisu gaeshi & Kuchiki Taoshi
The Kuchiki Taoshi or one hand drop consists of grabbing one of the opponent’s legs and then pushing and running them down to the mat. This is often performed by Karo off of caught kicks. And the Kibisu Gaeshi or heel trip consists of grabbing the opponent’s heel with one hand and then pushing the opponent over onto their back where they land on the spot. This is in contrast to the Kuchiki Taoshi where they are pushed and run backwards.
And the Morote gari or two hands reap which is performed by grabbing both of the opponent’s legs with both of your arms while driving forward and throwing them onto their back this technique is the Judo version of the wrestler’s double leg takedown.
A Sukui Nage or scooping throw is executed when during a Morote gari, Karo scoops or lifts the opponent fully off the ground and slams them onto the mat. In MMA this was often performed by him when pressed against the fence.
Karo Parisyan – the Pioneer fo Judo in MMA
While spending most of his career training at Hayastan Academy with Gokor Chivichyan He also spent time at Team Punishment, training with Neal Melanson and at Xtreme Couture and during his time competing in mixed martial arts Karo became the WEC welterweight champion, the UFC welterweight number one contender, a Bellator veteran and winner of the 2006 fight of the year with Diego Sanchez.
Although Judokas were fighting MMA in Japan at the time when Karo began fighting in the UFC Judo was severely underrepresented and somewhat dismissed by North American fans as a traditional martial art that may not hold any value for the future of freestyle fighting.
But when Karo began to literally throw opponents on their heads he certainly changed that opinion. He paved the way for countless other Judokas in the UFC, gaining respect for the art by successfully adapting it and showcasing its effectiveness under the mixed martial arts rule set.
That concludes our look at the use of judo in MMA through the lens of the career and legacy of Karo Parisyan.
Parisyan, K., Krauss, E. and Cordoza, G. (2008). Judo for Mixed Martial Arts. Calif.: Victory Belt.
In this analysis, I’m going to give a quick breakdown of the Suloev stretch submission. A hamstring submission is executed from the back mount as your opponent tripods to escape. The Suloev stretch is a name coined by writer KJ Gould after the Armenian MMA fighter Amar Suloev who you can see using it here to submit Paul Cahoon. Amar previously fought in the UFC against Chuck Liddell and Phil Baroni.
Suloev Stretch in Folkstyle Wrestling
The move is very reminiscent of the banana split pin in folkstyle wrestling, which can be modified into a painful submission and has been used to get a tap in MMA. But the banana splits are executed from only one hook in and from a cross-body ride where you will reach across and grab the far leg of the opponent. It is also used in folkstyle wrestling matches where both boots are thrown in and as the opponent stands and tripods the leg is grabbed and used to off-balance the opponent knocking them over and securing back points.
Suloev Stretch in MMA
And there are some additional examples of its use in MMA when you have your opponent’s back and they tripod up to throw you off the top of their shoulders, it will bring you closer to their foot which you can grab to then peel back and apply the submission. While it may look like a kneebar the majority of the pressure is being placed onto the hamstring hence the stretch name. While it’s not advisable to get that high on your opponent’s back to look for the submission, it does give you an option if you do find yourself there.
STRETCH SUBMISSIONS in the UFC
Aljamain Sterling had previously looked for it in a UFC bout against Renan Barão but he escaped. But the first successful application of the Suloev Stretch in the UFC belongs to Kenny Robinson in his match against Brock Jardine where again Brock tripods up and Kenny reaches down and grabs his ankle extending his hips and pulling back on Brock’s leg to obtain the submission. And that was the only example of it being used in the UFC until of course Zabit and Aljamain Sterling both got on the same evening. I hope you enjoyed this quick look at the Suloev Stretch.
Demian Maia, he’s a fourth-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, an ADCC champion and perhaps the greatest grappler in mixed martial arts. But as a practitioner of a ground-based fighting art a key part of his game is how he takes the fight to the ground and in this breakdown we will be examining his favourite takedown tactics.
Setups & Takedown Entries
Let’s start with his setups, his most common entry into his shots is the jab fake where he faints his jab in order to draw a reaction out of his opponent by either blocking or a counter shot and when they do react he drops his level underneath their lead hand and straight onto a single leg. Another way is waiting for his opponent to jab or step in with their lead leg and as soon as they extend their leg Demian Maia will time it and drop down into a single leg as a southpaw with his right leg forward the single-leg shot is a much quicker and easier option that is always there against Orthodox opponents.
Running the Pipe
Once Demian Maia gets in on the single-leg his preferred finish is running the pipe where he rotates his outside leg backwards which spins the opponent while at the same time dropping the head shoulder and chest pressure down on the opponent’s thigh this shifts the opponent’s centre of gravity to a point where they would need the use of their trapped leg to stand and maintain balance but instead they’re forced to sit down. This finish works in open space but also against the fence where you must rotate your opponent away and off the fence to prevent them from using it to lean on and maintain balance in place of their trapped leg.
Head on the Outside Single Legs
While it is most common to do this with the head on the inside Demian Maia has also used this finish with the head on the outside and while this is not surprising in wrestling, in BJJ where submissions are involved this is often seen as too risky in a rookie mistake as it gives your neck to the opponent for a guillotine choke. While that risk certainly does exist here it is being used safely against multiple high-level competitors.
Back Trip Takedown
From the single leg, another finish Demian Maia executes is the back trip where his outside hand may reach and secure hip control on the far waste of his opponent as he looks to trip the far leg out from underneath them while circling his way down to the mat and over the top of the blocked leg this will result in Demian Maia taking the back or landing in top position and he will even look to trip the far leg without gaining control of the waist.
Demian Maia will also look to trip the near leg proactively hooking it after his shot if he is unable to lift it or if his opponent can get it back to the mat and this all works in combination with his back taking strategy of constantly spiralling around his opponent looking to secure hooks.
Spiralling to the Back
In fact, in his first MMA fight, Demian Maia charges straight into the clinch and immediately circles to the back and executes a trip on his opponent. Although it does have the goal of securing his hooks once he gets their back and secures a body lock he has a variety of trips he will execute to bring his opponent to the mat most often he is blocking a leg and dragging his weight and the opponent backwards over the top of it but he will also continuously hack away at any leg of the opponents that is available to attack as a means of destabilizing them and breaking them down.
Trips against the Fence
Here against the fence, Demian Maia looks for a trip that allows him to begin rotating towards his opponents back now from a T – position he looks to trip again which rotates him all the way to the back where he completes the takedown.
The trip against the fence is another of Demian Maia’s favourite takedowns. Once there Demian Maia will look to secure under hooks and trip the opponent by reaping at the calf and rotating them away from the fence and dropping his weight at the same time this is made easier if the opponent’s foot is placed away from the edge of the fence but Demian Maia will also stretch to the hook if necessary.
One danger in executing trips in this fashion is that during the process of lifting your leg to trip you momentarily place yourself at a disadvantage as soon as you lift a leg to trip you now only have one point of balance while your opponent still has two and even three if they are leaning against the fence this creates a risk of your opponent reversing the takedown and landing in top position regardless of that risk Demian Maia was able to make this takedown work consistently may be in part due to his opponent’s hesitation in wanting to go to the ground at all.
He had success with this technique even from a front headlock position and was able to score the takedown in open space and I also have to mention the amazing lateral drop he scored on Chael Sonnen then immediately transitioned into a triangle choke for the win.
Double Leg Takedowns
Demian Maia will also switch to a double leg if necessary when he does his favourite means of finishing is to turn the corner which he does by pushing off from his outside leg to drive his force at an angle across his opponent’s hips. Driven by his pursuit for the back Demian Maia will constantly spiral and rotate towards his opponent’s back taking them to the ground with him.
An on occasion he will also switch to a double leg against the fence favouring a bump and dump where he can secure his hands together behind the back of his opponents and then bump them off the fence also if you remember back to the start of the analysis where we covered running the pipe well if the first attempt of that is not successful it sets up a switch to a double leg by reaching for the far knee and driving across the opponent’s hips and here is a very interesting leg entanglement that Demian Maia uses to sweep and secure a double leg takedown.
Pulling Guard in MMA
Another option that Demian Maia would use to secure a takedown is to pull guard his general sequence would be to take a shot and then if sprawled on you would look to scoot into a half guard position secure and under hook and then use it to sweep or stand back up and finish a takedown or else he would jump guard from an upper-body clinch with an over hook a pulling guard does come with obvious risks but Demian Maia made it work for him on multiple occasions at a high level. I do have another study on pulling guard in MMA so check that out if that is an area that interests you.
Future of Demian Maia BJJ Takedowns
So where to from here well aside from a brief moment as K1 Maia, when he turned into a kickboxer, his submission game has been one of the sharpest in all of the UFC taking him to 12 submission victories and working his way into two title shots in two different weight categories.
No matter what happens in his future he will always be known as one of the greatest grapplers in freestyle fighting but I would be remiss to conclude this breakdown without mentioning that Demian Maia is now 0 for 49 takedown attempts in his last 3 UFC bouts with all of his opponents able to completely shut out his takedown game and nullify any chance of a submission being accomplished.
An important note is that a common thread with all three of these opponents was that each one was an all-Americanfolkstyle wrestler so that leaves me with a question if the submission techniques and effectiveness of a ground-based fighting art are completely negated if you cannot get the fight to the ground then how much emphasis should be placed on takedowns within that system.
It is also worth noting that the rate of submission victories overall in the UFC has been falling however this is not a reflection of jiu-jitsu being less applicable but rather the level of jiu-jitsu has risen across the board as now every UFC competitor will be training with jiu-jitsu practitioners day in day out and if a competitor was to stop training jiu-jitsu or submissions and let a skill disparity develop that will quickly find themselves submitted.
With that being the case is it better to focus on MMA or going for takedowns control and ground striking?
That concludes our study on Demian Maia’s takedown game if you would like to see more on his guard pulling techniques then check out my dedicated study on Pulling Guard in MMA.
Fedor Emelianenko, the greatest heavyweight of all time. His run through the Pride Fighting Championships heavyweight division is legendary. Well known for his striking and dynamic ground-and-pound a less talked about area of his game is his takedowns. See he doesn’t shoot for singles or double legs, he’s a master of Sambo and a Judo black belt. This means all his takedowns have come from trips or throws in the clinch.
First, let’s take a look at his entries into the clinch. His most common clinch entry is a right-hand lead and step (The Fitzsimmons Shift) . This is where he throws a lead right-hand punch while at the same time taking a step forward with his right leg which enables him to fall into a clinch position. Now the right-hand punch is thrown as a legitimate shot and not as a fake. If it lands and his opponent starts backpedalling. He will follow up with further strikes.
The next entry used is hand trapping where Fedor will briefly block his opponent’s hand. Against Zulu his lead right slaps down Zulus left allowing him to jump in with a leaping hook, he used the same combination against Tim Sylvia. If we concede that the clinch starts as soon as your opponent’s hands and your own are touching then this offers a good entry into the clinch.
Fedor would use his lead right to block down his opponents front and rear hand and will even use his lead left to block his opponents lead left. For a brief moment, his opponent is unable to retaliate with strikes on their covered hand and Fedor uses this moment to close the distance.
Fedor could also initiate a clinch after catching a body kick. If he caught a kick he could either slide straight up the leg into an upper-body clinch and takedown or he would hold onto the leg to keep his opponent on one foot. Otherwise, he would return fire with a straight right that could knock his opponent down or even knock them out.
Now that he has successfully entered the clinch one of his most common takedowns from there was the outside trip. This is where he steps his foot around behind his opponents with his knee resting on their thigh trapping their leg. He would then drive his weight over the top of that foot preventing those opponents from regaining their balance and forcing them to fall over. This move is ideally done while trapping your opponent’s under hook by clamping down with your over hook and driving them to the same side, but Fedor was skilled enough to pull this move off from any over hook or under book combination. Ideally, you’re using the smallest steps possible to get your foot around behind your opponents and Fedor will use his momentum from entering the clinch to help finish the takedown.
The inside leg trip was another one of Fedors takedowns where if their hips and feet were close enough to him, he would step his foot in between their legs and then bring his heel on the back of their calf and sweep it out from underneath them. While he drives his upper body weight forward he makes sure to keep his head on the opposite side of the trapped foot enabling him to fall into their guard.
The knee block is where Fedor will reach down with primarily his left hand hooking behind his opponent’s knee and then driving forward. Using his under hook to lift his opponent’s upper body or a collar tie to push forward on their neck and shoulder. This is a good move when Fedors hips are away from his opponents and it’s closer for his hand to reach down rather than to step around with the trip It’s also a good move when it has a lot of forward momentum to help knock down his opponent
If the opponent starts leaning their weight forward over Fedors body he would look to execute an outside foot sweep. His right leg will step forward blocking his opponent’s feet and he will then rotate his hips to the right and sag his body forward knocking his opponent over that blocked foot. If Fedors executing this move from an over-under position. He will look to rotate onto his overhooked side.
If he rotates towards his underhook side he will look to perform a shoulder bump and take his opponent back to perform this his main goal is to get his shoulder underneath his opponent’s armpit. While he drives his under hook up and across their back while at the same time stepping around and as he steps around he’ll grab a tight waist allowing him to perform a trip, a sweep or throw from the back.
If Fedor secures double under hooks on his opponent his preferred takedown is the scoop slam. This is where he lifts them up into the air while rotating his elbows in a circular motion with one elbow driving up into their ribs and the other down into their hips. This rotates their body midair taking their feet out from underneath them and making them easy to slam into the mat This is the closest takedown that Fedor gets to a double leg and is a very explosive movement.
If Fedor winds up with double over hooks, which is technically an inferior position he will look to go to a hip toss which is where he rotates his hips past the line of his opponents and throws them over his blocking leg or thigh and he will also sometimes bring one over hook up into a collar time to help assist with the throw. He will sometimes also go for the hip throw from an over-under position
Off Balancing (Kuzushi)
Now that we’ve gone through the techniques that Fedor used let’s look at the underlying concept of off-balancing that allows all these throws to work and look almost effortless when executed you can see when an opponent has put themselves Off-balance with a failed shot that can easily be tipped over using only one arm. But Fedor was also able to tip over a standing opponent with one arm after colliding into them. This is because of Fedors expert understanding and application of balancing his opponents. In his training, he places great emphasis on spending time in the clinch and moving your partner around to get a feel for the change in weight distribution and balance.
This off-balancing training is vital to understanding the timing needed to throw an opponent and can simply be pushing or pulling them until they fall over, but when you attempt to do this in a fight that will likely push or pull back so once you have them reacting to your movements then you can blend your energy with theirs so you exaggerate their motion until you force them to be off-balance using maximum efficiency.
This is where the chaining together of throws becomes important as your first throw might attempt to get your opponent to place all their weight in one direction where you can then switch techniques to help take them further in the direction that they were bracing.
You will notice that Fedor is constantly engaged in this dynamic rocking movement from side to side and that it will chain the momentum and shifting of his striking entries down attempts together this effectively allows Fedors off-balancing techniques to begin before he’s even entered into the clinch with the constant rocking motion allowing him to score takedowns at the slightest off-balancing of his opponent. It will also allow him to work into devastating striking attacks like this hook off a failed hip toss now.
Lessons from the Last Emperor
What lessons can we learn from the last emperor well certainly that? Constant dynamic movement as a means to off-balance your opponent and keep you always scrambling and moving towards a takedown is a very important element of his game and also that he relied on the clinch and upper-body takedowns without the use of single or double leg shots as by comparison the risk and going for an upper-body clinch is a lot less than the risk of being sprawled on from a double leg shot.
Lastly, making sure that you have drilled and practised your techniques so that you have a throw ready from any position or combination of over hooks and under hooks possible so that no matter how you end up clinching you always have a go-to plan of how to launch your opponent through the air and to the mat.
Now that concludes this study on Fedors clinch work!
Khabib Nurmagomedov began training at the age of six under the tutelage of his father and by the time of his first MMA contest he had gained a background in freestyle wrestling judo and combat Sambo. Before his UFC debut, Khabib’s matches took place on either an open mat or in a ring and his early takedown game consisted almost exclusively of shooting to his knees for a single leg with the head on the inside. The majority of these shots are taken from outside of the striking range of his opponents and made with minimal setup.
Single Leg Takedowns
Once he got in on the single-leg he would finish them in three primary ways with the most common of these being the cutback. Next, we will see Ben Askren demonstrate how to finish the single-leg shot with the cutback. Once you have shot in on the single leg and finish by stepping your leg up, raising your head up to the ceiling, and pulling your opponent’s leg up and across your body.
Here we see examples of Khabib using the cut back in his matches. Here he shoots in on the single leg, lifts his leg up and then drags his opponent’s leg up across his body. This single-leg finish was favoured by Khabib during the majority of his early matches.
If his opponents were able to stand or maintain balance during the cutback then Khabib would switch to running the pipe. This is where once you have the single leg you rotate your body with a back step and as your opponent hops around you drop your weight onto their thigh to force them to sit down. Here during a match, you can see he’s shooting for the single-leg rotate his body around and sit his opponent on their back.
And lastly, his third option off the single-leg was to turn the corner. This is when once you have locked onto the single leg you start stepping around to the opponent’s back, as you make your way around it is common that your opponent will pull guard but if you turn quicker than they do then you’ll take their back.
Here is a match, Khabib locks onto the single leg and as he turns his opponent pulls guard. With this shot, we’ll see Khabib chain these techniques together as he shoots in low and grabs onto a single leg with his head on the inside. He first tries for the cutback, with that failing he stands and goes to running the pipe, also unsuccessful eventually turning the corner and taking his opponents back.
With a pre-UFC career consisting almost entirely of single-leg shots, he would enter the Octagon with a 16-0 record and face a substantial step up in the level of competition. In his first outing, he would face an accomplished wrestler in Kamal Shalorus and with a head position against the cage and a good sprawl was able to defend Khabibis takedown attempts initially. But after causing damage with strikes he was able to work his usual strategy of a strong single leg with a cutback finish.
Gleison Tibau – His Toughest Challenger
But next, he would face his toughest challenger to date. Gleison Tibau is a physically imposing veteran of over 50 fights and holding an impressive 92 per cent takedown defence statistic. During the contest, Khabib applied his usual takedown strategy but had every single leg attempt defended. Overall he went 0 of 13 takedown attempts. Using the fence to keep his balance Tibau was able to defend against the cutback, running the pipe, turning the corner and any other technique that Khabib applied. Although Khabib still won a close decision victory that split opinions* a weakness in his strategy had been revealed.
American Kickboxing Academy
After that fight, Khabib would switch his USA training camp to American Kickboxing Academy and his next attempt at takedowns would see a new strategy employed. Against Abel Trujillo he would look for an upper-body clinch to take the back and secure a body lock he would then execute a series of trips, sweeps and throws. If you’re interested in learning more about this mat return strategy you can view my other study which goes in-depth on this topic.
Using this new strategy against Abel Trujillo he set the UFC record for the most takedowns in a match with 21 and all of this without any of its previously utilized single leg shots. Where he had once been relentless in shooting for single legs he was now persistent in securing upper body clinches body locks and taking the back.
Upper Body Clinches
With these clinches he would now also use a strategy which he had shown on a few previous occasions in his bouts prior to the UFC when clinching against the ropes Khabib would secure a body lock and then bounce and turn his opponents towards the centre of the Ring before executing an inside or outside trip takedown.
This is a strategy favoured by Ben Askren as he demonstrates here using the fence to secure your body lock and then rotate your opponents away from it to prevent them from using the fence to keep balance. Once Khabib secures this he will then use a series of inside trips outside trips or brute force lifts.
Pressure Striking to Takedowns
Khabib would now also uses striking much more effective to set up these takedowns while his striking could be described as “wild” with winging hooks lunging uppercuts and flying knees, it serves a purpose to pressure his opponents, where if he now gets them on the fence and committing to or defending strikes he will grab a quick double leg takedown.
And if you now attempt to negate Khabibs pressure striking by moving forwards he will shoot for a reactive double leg takedown. We have seen Khabib evolve from being primarily focused on single leg shots to now being more centred around upper body takedowns and using his striking to set up double legs. The constant threat of takedowns relentless mat returns and exhausting groundwork combined with wild and continuous pressure striking can force his opponents to make bad decisions.
Like when RDA decided to shoot on Khabib in the third round setting up a massive Hare Goshi throw. Or when Abel Trujillo chooses to clinch with Khabib in the third round of their bout and lastly in the third round of his bout with Michael Johnson after having successfully sprawled Johnson decides to jump guard and go for a guillotine
We will now take a look at the mat work and ground game of Khabib Nurmagomedov. It is a style that is often characterised by relentless top pressure with a superior head position, pinned on the chest or under the chin of his opponent stifling the shoulder movement while throwing scoring punches and elbows.
Khabib Grappling Breakdown
Open Guard Punch to Pass
Once the fight hits the mat Khabib has a diverse array of techniques that we’ll be taking a closer look at here. The first of these is from an open guard position. When Khabib is standing he will launch in with a leaping overhand right in an attempt to pass the guard of his opponent and cause damage while doing so. The overhand to guard pass is a technique that was also employed by his countryman Fedor Emelianenko and Khabib even used it once to score a TKO victory.
Knee Slice & Tripod Passing
Once Khabib has engaged his opponent on the ground from either full guard or half guard he will look to pass using a knee slice. This is where Khabib raises his hips and knees higher than his opponents by beginning to stand and then dropping one knee back down to the mat while slicing his shinbone across his opponent’s thighs. This is a passing strategy that was often employed by George St. Pierre and is ideally done with an underhook on the far side arm, but Khabib will even attempt to with an overhook. An interesting strategy of Khabib is that when attempting the knee slice pass, he is not always looking to pass the guard entirely. If he gets his ankle stuck in quarter guard, he will begin to throw punches and elbows at his opponent. He will often camp from this position using it to gain posture while his opponent is stuck below him and then starts to throw heavy shots.
Knee on Neck Ride
Another technique he will use when in a quarter guard or even from knee on belly is to use a shin or knee on neck ride. This is where he pins his opponent’s neck by forcing his knee or shin down onto their throat which gives him additional control and posture to strike while making it extremely uncomfortable for his opponent.
Double Wrist Lock
Once he passes into side control one of his attacks is to look for the double wrist lock, where once he has control of the arm he moves his hips towards his opponent’s head while applying torque to their shoulder. Currently, he successfully finished two fights using this technique. But his preferred technique from side control is to look for the topside crucifix. Which he will even move directly from a knee slice pass after pinning his opponent’s arm with his far knee.
The topside crucifix is a powerful control position the traps both his opponent’s arms leaving their face defenceless to Khabibs punches and elbows. While these punches are not the most powerful, they accumulate damage and drain the energy of his opponent. This technique utilises a concept that I like to think of is putting your opponent into a positional deficit. This is where you have now made your opponent’s primary goal into escaping the crucifix but even if they do achieve that they will still find themselves trapped in side control.
If Khabib moves from side control to mount his favourite technique is to then transition into S-Mount. This is where one of your feet is brought forward past your opponent’s shoulder which roughly puts your leg into an S shape where the position gets its name. While this does leave your opponent’s hips free, it places all your weight down onto their chest and put you in an excellent position to attack their arms. From the S-Mount, Khabib will then attack with his favourite two submissions which are the triangle and the armbar. If his opponent gets their firearm underneath his leg, he will fall to his back while pulling his opponent on top and locking up the triangle choke. If they have their arm on the inside, he will drop to his back and attack the armbar. If they resist the armbar he will happily pepper them with strikes. He will also smoothly chain the two submission attacks together depending on the reaction of his opponent. Here he attacks with the armbar but as his opponent regains posture, he switches to a triangle choke.
It might seem odd for grappler more known for their crushing top game to have a preference for submissions off his back, But Khabib does have a very aggressive guard game where if he is taken down he then offensively looks for triangles and armbars which he will use to submit or sweep or even regain position. While I have shown some of Khabibs common habits even more impressive is the wide variety of technical moves he has executed once but only when they were required by the situation.
A depth of Grappling Techniques
This hints at the real depth of his game which is continuously evolving to use more advanced concepts, for instance, utilising headbutts from the closed guard when the rules allowed it, using a body triangle to control the back or employing an octopus guard to regain a standing position. From the knee slice pass cradling his opponent’s leg. Even using the folkstyle wrestling cowcatcher to put his opponent back on the mat, defending a single-leg attempt with a belly roll and from a single leg ride using inside wrist control to continually break his opponent’s posture and using a full leg mount against the cage.
In conclusion, although fighting infrequently, Khabibs ground game went through massive evolutions in his last two fights against Darrell Horcher and Michael Johnson. If it continues at this pace, it will be fascinating to see what techniques Khabib continues to utilise in the future.
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