One of the premises of our art is that someone with a black belt in our style can go to a class at a different style and have a basic understanding of what is going on. This should be true from both a strategy and a technique point of view. For example, if they attended a boxing class, this (black belt) student would have a familiarity with the concept of combinations as well as a basic understanding of how to punch. Undoubtedly, they would be able to learn tons of new information from a good coach but they would not be starting from ground zero.
Another premise of our art is that we aren’t specialists – we train striking, throwing, weapons, grappling and self defense. We think about the consequences of our actions and try to make connections between what we do on the training floor and how we live our lives. We are an art that encourages students to be open to all that is “out there” in the martial community, so that we are better able to adapt, survive and thrive.
With those two premises in mind, here is a brief and basic introduction to the world of submission grappling as gleaned through the eyes of a Mo Duk Pai black belt who has trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for 3 years and is looking to give his knowledge back to the system.
One of the most visceral lessons of grappling is position. After being held down in the mount position for a few minutes it becomes brutally clear that where you are in space relative to your partner matters. There are, like in standup fighting, an innumerable number of positions you can find yourself in. What follows is an enumeration of a few basics that come up over and over:
Guard: This is when the top player is inside the bottom player’s legs. While it may seem that the top player has an advantage because of gravity, they can not effectively use their hips to generate power while inside the guard (they are using their legs to hold themselves up and can not do much else with them). Conversely, the player on the bottom does have the power of their hips to control, sweep or submit the top player.
Mount: This is when the top player is free of the bottom player’s legs. This, from the outside, looks bad for the bottom player… and it is. Someone who is good at holding mount can control a bigger, stronger player with ease by completely negating the bottom player’s ability to use their lower body.
Side Control: This position is similar to mount but instead of being directly on the bottom player, the top player is turned at a 90 degree angle. As with the mount, a player who is good at side control can make the bottom player miserable.
The video below gives a brief illustration of these three positions and some variants of them.
Undoubtedly, if you’ve been studying MDP for any length of time, you’ve done a monkey line and ended up squared off with two (or more) people. You know this is a bad position. Your teacher has told you it is a bad position. Hopefully, you’ve come up with some strategies to avoid this nastiness from happening in the first place (move your feet and angle) as well as some strategies to fix the problem when it occurs. Reversals, in grappling, are those strategies that are used to fix the problem when you find yourself in a bad position.
For most people, when they first start grappling, reversals will be desperate attempts at survive. However, as the student becomes more comfortable, reversals frequently transition naturally into submissions and become less about survival and more about creating better and better position until the other player runs out of options and a submission becomes inevitable (checkmate).
In the video below, I show 2 reversals from 4 different positions.
From mount bottom, I show the most basic escape is the bridge escape. The bridge escape involves the bottom player using their hips to upend the top player. It is vital for the bottom player to tie up one foot and one hand of the top player before executing the bridge. This is called “killing the post”. Failure to kill the post will mean the top player will simply reach out an arm or a leg and stop the motion. Once the posts are killed, the bottom player lifts up with the hips and then rolls to the side (that they have killed the posts on).
A second useful escape to know from bottom mount is the elbow escape. This escape requires that the bottom player know how to shrimp (basically the same as a bridge from the last escape but it means pushing the hips sideways instead of up). The bottom player pushes one of the top players legs slightly to the side using an elbow (or a hand). With this created space, they shrimp, thread the leg through and grab either half guard (one leg wrapped up) or guard. If the bottom player finds themselves in half guard, they can simply repeat the process on the other leg to get into guard position.
From side control bottom, the two escapes in the video are actually remarkably similar to the mount escapes. One could argue, in fact, that side control is really just a mount variation. However, there are enough differences between the two that I think even for the most basic understanding of submission grappling that they should be differentiated.
From guard top, the first reversal in the video is the double over pass. With the majority of seated guard passes, the key is to posture up. Structure (as in standup) is of the utmost importance in submission grappling (especially when you are smaller than your partner). To start the pass, the top player sits up straight and then sits slightly back on their heels. This creates space and makes it difficult for the bottom player to hold on tightly. Then, if the guard is not yet broken, the top player can slide one knee under the tailbone of the bottom player and pop up on the other foot. As a last step to this part, if this still does not break the guard, the top player can continue to scoot backwards (hold tight to the pants or push against the hips) until the feet open up. To then seal the deal and get to a better position, the top player wraps their arms just above the bottom player’s knees (wrapping them up like a sack of potatoes) and slides around to side control.
The second reversal for guard top on the video is called the baseball slide. It starts exactly the same way the double over pass does – posture and drive back until the ankles open up. From there, the top player slides a knee across (crossing their own centerline) one of the bottom player’s legs, placing the knee on one side and the foot on the other (not on top! It hurts to put the knee on top but it is less secure.). At the same time the top player reaches an arm diagonally across the bottom player’s torso and opens their hip to put some weight into the pass. The final step is to slide into side control.
The video includes two basic passes from guard bottom. While guard bottom is considered a good position in submission grappling, it isn’t as good as mount – so often players will attempt to sweep from guard bottom to gain an even better position. In addition, if the situation is self defense and not sport, being in bottom guard may not be the most advantageous position.
The first reversal is the scissor sweep. The bottom player begins by making sure they have purchase on the top player’s upper body. From there, they let go of the guard and shrimp so that they have one leg across the top player’s waist and another on the ground. This shape of the legs (and the kick that follows) is what gives the reversal the name “scissor sweep” – the legs look like a pair of scissors. From this position, the bottom player pushes with the leg across the waist (like a round house kick) and pulls with the leg that is on the floor (like a hook kick). In addition, the bottom player should turn aggressively with the arms to accelerate the action.
The second reversal is the hip heist. It is in some ways quite similar to the bridge reversal from bottom mount, as it uses the power of opening the hips to force the change of positions. It begins with the bottom player coming to open guard, placing a hand on the ground and launching their hips into the top player’s waist. From there, the bottom player continues to drive up and in an arc to bring the (formerly) top player down to the ground. Most of the time it is important for the bottom player to grab the arm (on the side they are going toward) of the top player so that the top player doesn’t post and stop the sweep.
Every art is loaded with submissions. Some favor finger locks, some love chokes. Whatever the flavor, they are all means of control and compliance (though taken to the extreme we have to remember that they break things). In submission grappling, the goal is to get the other player to tap. For every joint on the human body, there is a way to manipulate it so that it will cause pain (and eventually break). The ground makes it easier to accomplish this because it limits mobility.
One of the very helpful things about submission grappling is that you really know if a technique works because you get to test it full speed against a fully resisting opponent. There is no question of function. There is (of course) a limited number of techniques that are legal, but because of the way the sport is played, players get quite good at figuring out how to time their attacks and how to apply them.
The four submission below are a bare bones introduction to how to submit a partner when on the ground.
Kimura: A shoulder lock with the arm pointing down toward the hip. This move can be accomplished from a variety of positions, though side control and guard offer the easiest opportunities for closing it. The lock is usually closed by using a figure four grip with both arms and then either pinning the body to the ground (as in side control) or by immobilizing the body between the legs (as in the guard variant).
Americana: Another shoulder lock but this time the arm is up instead of down. Again, it is usually accomplished using the figure four grip of both arms. It can be closed from various positions but side control offers the best angle as well as the easiest ability for the top player to use gravity to stop the bottom player from resisting.
Arm bar: This infamous lock is an exploitation of the fact that the elbow only opens so far. In most variations, the legs control the torso, the arms grasp the wrist and then the lifting of the hips closes the deal. There are three variations on the video – from side control, guard and mount.
Calf cutter: This is a pain submission that drives the radius bone into the calf muscle. In the video, the submission is shown from top guard position. The top player breaks the guard, scoops an arm under the bottom player’s leg and sits back at an angle. To stop the bottom player from sitting up, the (formerly) top player places a foot on the hip, squeezes the knees together and drives the radius bone into the calf.
As mentioned previously, one of the benefits of submission grappling is to discover the truth of techniques – either they work against a resisting opponent or they don’t… either they tap or they don’t. This means that working with a partner is key. The drills in the video below are meant as a slow introduction to building up to working at speed with a partner. Even though submission grappling is meant to be done against a fully resisting opponent, it isn’t a great idea to jump right in and go full speed. Take it slow and move forward at your own pace.
Grappling flow: This is simply a drill that puts positions and reversals together. Two players start in mount. The bottom player does a reversal that ends them inside the guard. This same player then reverses the guard and ends up in side control. Finally, from there, they pass to mount. The cycle then repeats with the (new) bottom player doing the same thing. Players are encouraged to use different reversals and offer some resistance as they improve.
Harmony grappling: Like harmony sparring, this drill is a tool for players to observe and get comfortable. Like harmony sparring, there should be constant movement. There should be no grunting or forcing of anything. Just move, relax and see what is happening.
Chi Sao grappling: Like regular chi sao, it is a sensitivity drill. In stage one, one player leads and the other follows. In stage two, one player attacks (looking for subs) while the other defends. In stage three, the game is on.
No grappling education would be complete without an introduction to chokes. The video below includes three chokes with the gi and three without the gi. While it may seem odd to the outsider to watch people grapple while wearing big bulky jackets, the logic is that most people, most of the time, are wearing clothing. Should you find yourself in a self defense situation, your assailant(s) are likely to be wearing clothes. The gi allows both players to grip and manipulate one another’s clothing without the fear of rending it in half (you can pull really hard and not rip the thing).
Front choke: The front choke (guillotine) can be easily accomplished from the guard position. The bottom player releases their ankles and loops an arm around the top player’s neck . Then, the bottom player scoots out to make some space and grabs their own wrist with their free hand. Finally, the bottom player closes the guard and lifts their hips.
Side choke: The side choke (arm triangle) is best learned first from the side mount position. The top player slides their arm over the bottom player’s torso and then inserts the forearm under their neck. They then lock this arm into position by grabbing their own hand on the floor. To close the choke, the top player puts their ear to the bottom player’s triceps, pushes their own forehead to the floor and begins to draw their hands towards themselves.
Rear choke: The rear choke (rear naked choke – named so because no gi is required to close this choke) is a mainstay of the submission grappling community. One partner sits in front of the other. The partner who is behind the other has the “rear mount” and has a clear positional advantage. To close the choke, they slip and arm over their partner’s throat, leaving the crook of their elbow in the middle. They then place this hand in the crook of their other elbow. The free hand then slips into the back of the mounted partner’s neck. To close the choke, the attacking player presses down with the elbow into the sternum and squeezes inward like a python.
The three gi chokes are a wonderful reminder to the MDP student that the environment is a weapon. Be aware and use all the tools at your disposal.
In conclusion, the purpose of this article is to provide a brief introduction to the art of submission grappling to the students of MDP and for me (as a student, teacher and black belt of MDP) to give back to the system. I feel that training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) has helped me make connections in both technique and concept as a student of MDP and I hope that this brief overview can do the same for others.
Thanks to all my students who were in and helped film the videos. Thanks to all the members and teachers at Alive MMA for their instruction and patience.