"Rickson by armbar " is an old MMA forum joke, reaching back to the old days when Rickson Gracie held a near mythical place among certain fans. These fans would annoyingly predict an effortless Rickson victory no matter the opponent. While meant as a jab at Rickson's fans it ironically has become a digital monument to his grappling skill.
Son of Helio Graice, Rickson was raised in the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and due to a combination of technical skill and physical gifts, he became known as one of the best grapplers of his generation. Rickson spent much of his fighting career taking part in largely undocumented Vale Tudo matches in Brazil, but did step on to larger MMA stages later in life.
While many associate high level Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with complicated moves, Rickson's success came from relentless fundamental technique.
This Judo Chop will start with a macro-view of Rickson's grappling game then break it down into parts. Rickson had a wonderfully diverse grappling background, training under his father Helio Gracie and also his cousin Rolls Gracie. Rolls encouraged his students to keep an open mind when it comes to other grappling arts. As a result Rickson had experience with not just the Gracie brand of jiu jitsu, but also Judo, Sambo and wrestling.
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Rickson embodies the simple formula jiu jitsu fighters used to great success in Vale Tudo and is taught in beginner's classes at jiu jitsu academies all over the world: clinch, takedown, achieve a dominant position, strike and then submit.
To the left is an example of this old school Vale Tudo style of jiu jitsu. Rickson is facing a nameless Judoka with some boxing experience in a challenge match in California. Rickson charges in for a body lock and is able to take the judoka down. The judoka's grappling background betrays him, as his judo instincts cause him to roll to his stomach to avoid being pinned. Rickson then takes the back and sinks in a choke, using strikes to get his opponent to first create openings for the hooks and then the choke.
Lets now take a look at each phase of Rickson's fundamental assault:
Clinch and Takedown
All fights start standing, and one of the most important skills for a grappler to have is the ability to close distance safely and then take the fight to the ground. Controlling the distance to minimize the risk of being hit repeatedly with heavy strikes is vital, spending as little time in that sweet spot of distance is the key. A grappler either wants to be out of range or clinched in so close he can't be struck with any real power.
Here we see Rickson using a classic sequence from the Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy's beginner's program, designed for self defense purposes, against Yoshihisa Yamamoto.
The primary problem for a grappler when looking for a takedown is finding a way to close from being too far to be hit to clinched quickly and safely. Rickson starts out side of easy striking range, and throws a step forward jab. As soon Yamamoto's hands come up to protect himself, Rickson drives forward, tangling up Yamamoto's arms to prevent counter-punching.
Once in the clinch Rickson works for double underhooks, and then scores a quick outside trip takedown by stepping his right leg in to force Yamamoto back and then stepping his left leg behind Yamamoto to score the trip. Rickson lands in half guard, which he quickly turns into the mount.
Here we see Rickson again getting a body lock immediately in the clinch. Again he goes to an outside trip takedown, this time by circling around to the side and using his right knee to trip up his opponent.
Rickson clearly favors these outside trips, possibly because they give him a chance to land directly in mount. At worst Rickson lands in a loose half guard and is then able to begin working to advance his position. Another benefit of this is that landing in the full guard, which happens when a fighter uses an inside trip, leave openings for sweeps or submissions.
When the phrase Brazilian Jiu Jitsu comes up many MMA fans think of dynamic bottom players, using some exotic guard to confound and sweep opponents. While this is absolutely part of the art, it is only half the picture. At the very core of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the concept that there are positions on the ground that grant a fighter advantages through leverage and gravity that negate an untrained opponent's strength. Dominant positions afford these advantages, which is why dominant position precedes submission in most cases. Rickson was always looking to improve his position to achieve the mount or back and then submit, rather than rushing for submissions.
Rickson's top game is all about pressure; to this day high level black belts train with Rickson and marvel at how much pressure he is able exert from top position. It is not an easy thing to see and not something can be circled with a telestrator, but it is a vital part of grappling. Good pressure from top position allows the top man more freedom to move and advance position and can be uncomfortable for the bottom fighter. Any grappler can tell you the misery of being trapped under a fighter who can put down a great deal of pressure, when simply breathing becomes an effort.
Here is a good example were you can see some of the pressure being put down by Rickson.
Rickson's opponent, Yoshinori Nishi, is using what is now called the "lockdown", which is a type of half guard. It simply means that Nishi has triangled his legs and hooks the foot of the left leg under Rickson's ankle, trapping it.
Rickson has his left arm hooked under Nishi's head and driving the whole left side of his body down, keeping Nishi pinned while his right hand is pushing on Nishi's knee to break open the half guard. What allows you to see Rickson's top pressure is how hard Nishi is working to try to disrupt Rickson's base and how little effect it is having. Nishi gets an underhook and tries to off balance Rickson to no avail. Nishi then tries to roll Rickson in the other direction, straining with the effort and Rickson simply rides that momentum into mount. At no point is Nishi able to really move his hips or get his back off of the mat, and it seems to fit with descriptions of sparring partners saying Rickson on top feels like 'a truck parked on you'.
This is not to say that he does not have a guard game. Rickson's style was one where only played off his back when the situation was forced upon him and when he is on his back he looking for a way to get back on top.
In a pair Vale Tudo matches in his early twenties, Rickson faced the much larger Rei Zulu, who came from a rival jiu jitsu school founded by a few outcast students of the Gracies.
Zulu was able to slam Rickson several times early and it was very clear that Zulu had a huge strength advantage over Rickson. It also becomes quickly obvious that Rickson is the better grappler, as Zulu was unable to pass his guard.
Rickson was able to to get an underhook from guard, which creates an opening to slide around to the back. Zulu panics and grabs a head lock, which actually just allows Rickson to continue around to the back.
This another excellent example of Rickson staying calm and employing fundamentals. Taking the back off a headlock is, again, one of those techniques taught to beginners, but gets forgotten because headlocks are so seldom used.
Strike and Submit
One of the biggest benefits of the mount or back position is that the top man has all the offensive options and the only real option for the bottom fighter is to escape. Once Rickson had mounted an opponent he was more than content to strike to a stoppage if his opponents refused to do anything. But in reality these strikes were not mean to stop the fight, they were to set up more grappling.
Despite his reputation for armbars, Rickson actually is very cautious about surrendering position in search for submissions. Rickson is in many ways embodies the old "position before submission" saying, fighting a very positional aware game where the goal was always to get to the mount, and catch the back when the opponent tries to scramble.
Without the gi, the submission attacks from the mount position are fairly limited, so early BJJ fighters would strike from the mount to force their opponent to move, setting up the take of the back.
The term "flow" is used a great deal in BJJ training, and the ability to flow with an opponents is one of the skills that separates the novice from the advanced grappler.
Here is a fantastic example of taking the path of least resistance. Rickson has mounted and starts to strike, and his opponent bucks hard. Rather that drive his hips down and try to stifle the buck, Rickson raises up his hips to allow opponent to roll under him. He posts his hands on the canvas to prevent from being thrown off and then sinks both hooks in quickly.
Once on the back, Rickson normally looks to establish belly-down back control. When Rickson drives his hips forward from this position it puts a huge amount of pressure on the bottom fighter. From here it is almost impossible to mount an active defense, and Rickson's opponent chooses to simply defend his neck. It is arguably the most dominant position in all of martial arts as there is practically no offense from the bottom position, even in a no rules situation.
Rickson begins to strike to force his opponent to move his hands and when he finds a small opening Rickson slides his right arm across the face. Rickson then pulls the head up to expose the neck, and slides his arm in to lock in the choke.
While that approach is a very rough approach, this doesn't mean Rickson is not able to play a grappling chess type of game. Rickson is subtly a move ahead of opponents on the ground and leads them right into traps. A fantastic example of that is this rear naked choke below.
Rickson has the back and is working for a choke. His right arm is worked under the chin and he rolls his opponent so his right elbow is on the ground. This is proper technique, it gives greater leverage for the choke and prevents escape the ground stops the opponent from turning into the choke.
The choke is being defended well, as Rickson is unable to get his right arm under the chin. His opponent starts working to spin to the left, getting Rickson's right elbow in the air and starting an escape. But Rickson is waiting for this, he quickly slides his left arm under the chin and locks in a rear naked choke on the other side. Rickson's style was not flashy, it was built solidly on the basics taught to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu students in fundamentals classes.