Last Saturday night, Georges St. Pierre registered what was arguably the most impressive performance of his career. In the main event of UFC 154, the longtime Canadian welterweight kingpin defended his title against interim UFC (and former WEC) welterweight champion Carlos Condit, and persevered through a handful of adversity while demonstrating a wide range of skill in the process of retaining his belt.
Normally a full-fledged optimist, my pre-fight Dissection for GSP vs. Condit was uncharacteristically provocative and critical. In it, I voiced my skepticism as to whether GSP deserved to be considered a legitimate 3-dimensional fighter by imposing his uncanny top game against a legitimately dynamic and effective guard player. He's undoubtedly forced wrestlers to face him standing and carved through the guard of many talented grapplers, but the only elite submission-oriented opponent he'd spent considerable time on the mat with was B.J. Penn; a natural 155-pounder who's never hit a submission from his guard in MMA.
Condit boasts 13 career submission wins and is exceptionally cunning off his back. He's the type of creative grappler who dispels the myth that "the fighter on the bottom is always losing in MMA" by attacking relentlessly and constantly angling his hips for submission attempts or sweeps. From a big-picture standpoint, Condit is the rare breed of submission grappler who exemplifies how a fighter dueling from his guard -- a position that's often seen as especially vulnerable -- can still control/dictate the pace and be more effectively offensive than his opponent.
Not only did St. Pierre immerse himself in Condit's versatile guard for prolonged periods on the mat, but he showed an excellent grasp of technical submission defense, scrambling/transition abilities and authenticated that he's much more than just a wrestler and a striker. Finally, St. Pierre was straight-up flattened by a vicious Condit high kick in the 3rd round but admirably dug deep, battled through the challenging swing in momentum and regained the helm en route to an entertaining decision win.
For those keeping track, GSP's performance at UFC 154 answered every question I posed about the potentially unproven aspects of his game, and I'm satisfied enough to stamp him as a full-blown 3-dimensional fighter with an A-level submission grappling acumen. Now ... on to T.P. Grant's analysis of his fundamentally sound grappling tactics.
T.P. Grant's Breakdown
What makes Georges St. Pierre so excellent on the ground isn't mastery of a hyper-modern technique or grappling system, but rather his use of fundamental techniques. An excellent example of his use of basic grappling techniques was the defense St. Pierre used against Carlos Condit's armbar attacks from the guard.
The first step in using any submission escape or prevention technique is not to panic. When it comes to armbars from guard this means not standing up while the guard player has a firm control of your arm. But in no gi grappling this reaction can actually produce results for the top man, if the bottom man is not properly controlling his posture or it is late in a match and there is a great deal of sweat, it is possible to slip right out. So it is that some fighters build the habit of making standing when in an armbar their first reaction to the situation, and this is a mistake.
While the maneuver does work sometimes and in certain situations, it will become increasingly less likely to work against more skill opponents. Training a move that you can get away with against less skilled grapplers is not the way to train as a professional or even as someone who wishes to advance in their grappling skill as eventually they will encounter a grappler who is able to take advantage of that mistake.
Ivan Menjivar's armbar finish of Azamat Gashimov is a perfect example of this. Menjivar catches an excellent armbar from the guard and gets a deep bit under the armpit of Gashimov, giving him excellent control of the Russian's posture. Gashimov's reaction is to leap to his feet and attempt to slip his arm out, but Menjivar's position is so good that all Gashimov accomplishes is extending his own arm and helping Menjivar armbar him.
Menjivar was able to then slip his head out and go belly down to finish the arm bar because of the space allowed him by Gashimov standing up. This is a mistake seen around MMA, included when Jon Jones was caught in an armbar by Vitor Belfort. Relying on strength or sweaty limbs to stand out of an armbar may work sometimes but at other times it is a very dangerous maneuver. The gi can be an excellent training tool for dissuading grapplers from using this escape because of the increase friction it creates it is nearly impossible to stand up and slip the arm out in this fashion when facing a high level grappler or a properly applied armbar.
One of the highest percentage and safest escapes involves quite the opposite, instead of creating distance the fighter defending the armbar takes it away. To introduce this escape and how it can look here is a video of MMA instructor Garret Goldsberry, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the Renzo Gracie Academy, where St. Pierre also receives a great deal of his BJJ instruction.
How to Escape an Armbar From Guard (via NJMMA1)
While it may seem counter-intuitive the way to prevent the armlock is to smash down on it, also known as stacking, preventing the bottom man from being able to extend his body and the trapped arm. A proper stacking consistes of suspending the hips off the ground and putting all the bottom man's weight on his neck and shoulders, this removes the ability of the bottom man to use his hips effectively. The top man putting his knee under the hips of the bottom ads to that and leaves the bottom man more or less immobilized.
Stacking is an art form unto itself; not enough pressure and the bottom fighter can simply use their hips to push away and finish the armbar anyway. This is how Ronda Rousey was able to finish Sarah Kaufman, who was able to get into position to stack, but was never able to sink her weight down and control Ronda's hips. (G) If the top fighter applies good pressure put is leaning to too far forward the bottom fighter can slip his head out and go belly down or roll the top man on their back, as Rousey did to Kaufman a little before finishing the armbar.
The principles of that escape can be applied to prevent armbars before they get to the point where the full escape needs to be applied.
- Getting the elbow out of danger, while keeping the arm bent
- Take away the space needed to isolate an arm
- Controlling the guard player's hips
The basic premise of the fighters who try to simply stand out of armbars is not incorrect, they want to get the elbow out of danger as quickly as possible. The armbar works on the basic principle of leverage, the arm is turned into a lever and the elbow becomes the fulcrum of that lever. To take all that pressure off the elbow it must be taken out from between the legs. Once the elbow slips out the pressure shifts to the forearm, and often there isn't enough power there to break the bone outright, with one notable exception.
What is important to note that the pressure on the elbow is at its most intense right before it is out of danger, which is why anyone looking to simply pull the arm out does not want it to be straight as the armbar becomes more powerful the closer the elbow is to escape. So the first line of defense is learning how to extract the arm quickly, while keeping it bent, stopping an armbar before it ever happens.
St. Pierre showed how automatic this defense can be. St. Pierre was very active using the can-opener to open Condit's guard, it is an effective technique but is vulnerable to armbars and about half way through the first round Condit attempted his first armbar. Notice that GSP doesn't pull up when Condit angles for the armbar, but he drives his elbow down. This is partially because Condit got an excellent angle and off balanced the Champion, but it also much safer than pulling up and out. (G)
There was another armbar attempt towards the end of the second round in which St. Pierre showed how to smother an armbar. The submission can't work is the arm can't be isolated and extended, a bent arm held tight the body has the additional strength of the chest and back muscles, the legs need to be brought into play to create enough leverage to pull the arm free and then break it.
When Condit attempted his armbar St. Pierre prevented any space from being created by driving his head down, touching foreheads with Condit. While Condit is able to climb his guard, he cannot get his legs into position to push St. Pierre away. Condit keeps trying to swing his leg in front of St. Pierre's face, sensing danger the Champion rotates back towards Condit's guard, flattening his hips back to the ground. (G)
The manipulation of the hips is another key way to prevent armbars. Here is a sequence that shows GSP controlling Condit's hips.
GSP's arm is again in danger because of his aggressive work in guard. Condit sees that the arm is extended in his guard and is ripe for an armbar. Condit opens his guard and puts his knees between himself and St. Pierre, creating space for the armbar. Condit's hands have moved to trap St. Pierre's writs, preventing him from pulling his arm out of danger like before. Condit's hips are off the ground and driving into St. Pierre and are in a powerful position.
Condit begins to rotate, trying to get the proper angle for the armbar. GSP drops his head down to take away the space like before, but he also places his knee to push on Condit's hip. Condit attempts to counter by placing his left hand on St. Pierre's head, pushing it away and then using his right arm to hook St. Pierre's left leg. If Condit is allowed to continue to rotate he could roll the Champion onto his back, which would be an almost certain position to finish the armbar.
But it is took late because space had already opened between Condit's hips and St. Pierre. To prevent the roll attempt and increase the space, GSP sinks his hips down in a sprawl. He is able to press down with his hips and extract his arm, still bent, from danger. (G)
Thanks To Zombie Prophet for the gifs.
Title photo by Esther Lin for MMAFighting.com.