The Art of Submissions: An Impossible Puzzle
JUN 12, 2014 1:00p ET
The founder of Brazilian jiu-jitsu Carlos Gracie may have seen the future coming. In his later years, when he was mentoring some of the sport's future masters, he would occasionally offer up advice based upon his own experiences.
"Always look for chokes rather than locks," he would say. "The Japanese, they won't tap."
That counsel appears downright sage in the UFC of 2014, where locks are nearly a thing of the past, and not just against Japanese fighters, but everyone. Through 211 fights since the start of the year, only two fights have been finished due to submissions involving locks, and one of them was a kimura combined with an inverted triangle that had its victim Tim Boetsch so checkmated that it was either tap or total shoulder destruction.
In 211 fights, there has been one armbar.
No straight kimuras. No kneebars or achilles locks. No keylocks or heel hooks. Indeed, it seems as though the fight world has become immune to joint locks. When it comes to submissions these days, it's an art. And in 2014, the art of submissions has mostly become the art of chokes.
“Always look for chokes rather than locks. The Japanese, they won't tap.”
"There are so many things that make the moment for a submission," said Raphael Assuncao, the likely next UFC bantamweight title challenger who has 10 tapouts in 22 career wins. "There is timing, muscle memory, a lot of times power. When you commit, you have to have power and technique. It has to be sharp. I like to say jiu-jitsu is like mathematics. It has to be exact otherwise you don't have it."
And as the numbers show, submissions on the whole are getting more and more difficult to pull off.
As recently as 2006, when the UFC's schedule first began its worldwide expansion, submissions accounted for 32.3 percent of all fight endings. By 2010, that number had sunk to 24.1 percent. So far through 2014, only 15.2 percent of bouts have ended via submission.
So in eight years, the submission rate has been cut by more than half.
Niklas Backstrom's bulldog choke win shows that improvisation remains a key to finding submissions.
"The sport keeps getting more and more competitive," said UFC welterweight Jake Ellenberger. "Submissions are very opportunistic. It's hard to get that opportunity to submit or finish guys because people are so much more aware. The competition keeps getting better and more cognizant of putting themselves in those dangerous spots, so it gets tougher to find those spots to finish."
"Submissions are harder and harder to come by now, and I wish people would appreciate them more," said heavyweight Brendan Schaub, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt. "Obviously everyone loves a knockout, but the art of submission is just so damn tough to pull off at this level. You have to take guys down, and everyone has good takedown defense these days. The day of the one-dimensional striker is over. So for you to go in there, take a guy down and set up a submission, I wish people could realize what goes into all that. It's a little bit different than knocking a guy out."
When they actually occur, submissions are mostly the culmination of a series of offensive actions and defensive mistakes, a strategic battle that plays out in often slight body movements. Action, reaction, adjustment, repeat until one escapes or the other finishes.
For the offensive fighter, it's an attempt to pass guard until reaching favored positions, aided by muscle memory and opportunity. For the defensive fighter, it can be like drowning in quicksand, or getting suffocated by an anaconda, where everything you do results in the escalation of danger.
But that is also where the real cat-and-mouse of the whole situation plays out. As major fight teams have focused more on BJJ and brought in specialists to shore up defense, the obvious moves that won fights in years past are no longer working with the same efficacy. The mistakes that used to be common are now rare. Traps that used to bait a limb free or a neck open often come up empty.
“I like to say jiu-jitsu is like mathematics. It has to be exact otherwise you don't have it.”
"Nowadays it's not even easy to pass the guard anymore," said No. 9 ranked flyweight Zach Makovsky. "The way I look at it, when I'm attacking for submission, and I get to a position where I can attack your arm or a neck or something, at this point everyone knows what you're going for. So you have to give yourself options. I try to have multiple options so if they defend one way, I can go to the neck, and if they defend another way I can go to the arm. You have to give yourself options and make them choose what they're going to give you so you can keep advancing."
Some fighters try to create those options through ground strikes, which can either end a fight or open opportunities to sink in a submission or pass to a better position.
Passing the guard has become an art unto itself due to the implementation of various strategies. Several years ago, grounded fighters were likely to use a closed guard as their primary defensive position. But as advances have been made in opening up that guard and passing, it became obvious that mastering one guard position wouldn't be enough to compete at the elite level. In the ensuing years, we've seen the proliferation of several more styles, many of which were once thought to be too risky for mixed martial arts. Among them, the butterfly guard, rubber guard, and even the X-guard.
With many more tools at their disposal, the defending fighter has the capability of keeping his opponent off-balance, creating space to escape, and threatening a counter-attack of his or her own.
Often, these types of counters will cancel out or nullify the attempts made by the fighter on top. Since they also offer danger, they are bound to lead to more conservative offensive approaches than times past. And therein lies the rub; if you get overly aggressive, you put yourself in jeopardy of losing your position or even being finished.
"A lof of times in the past I was too aggressive in trying to finish fights," admits No.7 middleweight Gegard Mousasi, who submitted Mark Munoz his last time out. "Maybe I was younger, but now I'm fighting smarter and taking less chances. Maybe that [finishing] rate is going to go down, but I always want to finish the fight. I'm just smarter now. Back then I was just trying to overwhelm opponents, but coming to this level -- the highest level -- it's all about details. You can't just think you're going to run over your opponent. So it's a different approach."
Patience is a key in closing out a submission, fighters stressed, but there's a complicating factor: they're often up against the clock. It has always been a referee's discretion to stand up grounded fighters who are locked in a stalemate, but the uncertainty of that official's internal clock can bring frustration to the ground game. During the TUF 18 Finale, for instance, Peggy Morgan was trailing on the scorecards in the third when she worked into Jessamyn Duke's half-guard. Referee Kim Winslow let her work in the dominant position for only 50 seconds before standing them up. More recently, at the UFC Fight Night show in Albuquerque over the weekend, Jon Tuck was stood up by referee Raul Porrata from half-guard after just 20 seconds, a call Tuck called "bogus."
It's a situation many fighters have dealt with. Go through the effort of a grueling takedown, diligently labor to pass, and then have all that work wiped out by a quick standup.
Submissions are becoming so rare that even Ronda Rousey's streak ended with a TKO win last time out.
"The matter of them standing the guys up in those cases, it's just them being uneducated," said Schaub. "If, for example, you have a fight with Fabricio Werdum and me, he's the best grappling technician in the heavyweight division, bar none. If me and him fight and it goes to the ground, that ref should be educated enough to know we're both very good grapplers and we're going to spend some time there. I mean, listen, if it's Tank Abbott and Kimbo Slice fighting and it goes to the ground, stand those two jackasses up right away. But the world-class fighters in the UFC? Let them work, man."
"I don't like standups," added Makovsky. "I don't think they should happen but I also understand the entertainment part, and that there are times the action is low so it's necessary. But you shouldn't gain an advantage for trying to stall the fight. it's always tricky because you give the refs that discretion and some make better calls than others."
Tuck's finishing sequence was actually an example of how difficult it is to tap someone in the UFC of today. He ended up doing so, but due to heel strikes to the body, a UFC first.
Late in the fight, Tuck was on Jake Lindsey's back and attempting to sink in his choking arm. To do so, first he tried misdirection with heel kicks to the body, then he tried to trap Lindsey's arm with his leg. But Lindsey continued to hand fight to keep his neck free, so Lindsey went back to the body with heel strikes that were hardly intended to end his opponent's night.
“I mean, listen, if it's Tank Abbott and Kimbo Slice fighting and it goes to the ground, stand those two jackasses up right away. But the world-class fighters in the UFC? Let them work, man.”
"I wanted to hit his ribs so he could be in shock and drop his hand and I could sleep him with the choke," Tuck said of his original plan.
As that finish showed, improvisation remains a key skill for catching any kind of win in the octagon, even in the most unexpected of ways. That's proven out in the variety of submissions used to finish fights in 2014. A bulldog choke. A Von Flue choke. A Ninja choke. None of those are common attacks in this day and age, which might be exactly why they worked. The element of surprise was on the side of the winners, Niklas Backstrom, Ovince St. Preux and Ilir Latifi, respectively.
"If a person, an athlete is not versed in something, their first reaction when there is a bad situation is not a good feeling. It's panic," said Assuncao. "It's like when you're first learning jiu-jitsu and a guy mounts you or catches your back. You feel weak. You end up using the wrong muscle groups, and you get tired and vulnerable because you don't know how to react."
That's why so many defending fighters will do whatever is necessary to survive, even if that means stalling. Stalemates are a primary cause for referee standups as many many fighters simply attempt to tie up an opponent and wait for a restart. Others are good at creating small openings to return to their feet.
"People are getting really good at using the cage and keeping their back against the cage to get up," Makovsky said. "You see people get taken down and they'll scoot to the cage. If you keep your back secured against cage, nobody can get to your back to finish a submission, and generally it's pretty hard to just catch a submission out of nothing. You have to be in pretty good control of the other person before you can isolate the arm or neck to go for the kill. You can try to catch them in transition, but they're not as controlled so they're better able to escape those situations."
Then there are the fighters who are perfectly content to compete from the bottom. Though those numbers are dwindling, fighters like Werdum, Frank Mir and Nate Diaz have invited action from their guards, only to rebuffed by opponents hellbent on avoiding the ground with them altogether.
With percentages going down, an evolution of submissions may be in the offing. Usage of the De La Riva guard and the Berimbolo are all the rage in sport jiu-jitsu and are slowly starting to seep into MMA, albeit in modified forms. Variations of the head-and-arm chokes are also growing in popularity, which may be game-changers for long-limbed athletes. Until then, numbers may stay depressed.
Because most fighters naturally prefer the striking arts, the standup game will always draw the lion's share of attention. There's also no better way to set up a submission than a good old-fashioned knockdown shot, but as long as bouts remain standing, there's always the belief that any fight can turn on any single given blow, intended or otherwise, and that brings with it extra risk. Submissions are different. As a general rule, they are not attributable to luck or chance; they are earned through sweat and superiority.
In that way, they are perhaps the ultimate confirmation of winning and losing. With a few taps, your opponent willfully surrenders his chance at victory and signals his own defeat. With that, there is nothing else to debate. All you have to do is get there.
"The mental approach always makes the difference," Mousasi said. "When you're young, you think you're going to destroy everybody, but as you get older you realize you have to be patient to make it happen. Submissions are now so difficult to get because everyone knows submission defense. Everyone knows wrestling. Everyone knows jiu-jitsu. It's not like the old days."