When Vinny Magalhaes tapped out Igor Pokrajac at UFC 152 with a very flashy armbar, most people thought the Submission of the Night was locked up. Later on, Jon Jones swiped that away with a very powerful keylock in the fourth round of his title fight against Vitor Belfort. However, Vinny deserves at least a Judo Chop for his efforts.
Most people reading this understand that an armbar is a joint lock that threatens to snap an elbow by immobilizing both ends of an arm and applying pressure on the elbow in a way that forces the elbow to bend the wrong way. Most people tap out to signal that they are done when the arm lock is secured and the elbow is threatened. A small population of people, grapplers and fighters will struggle to the last and force the opponent to break the arm - like some of Ronda Rousey's recent opponents.
via @VinnyMMA, Vinny's official Twitter.
Fortunately, Igor Pokrajac tapped before anything grisly happened and we can be content with a technically brilliant submission to analyze. What is unusual about this submission is that it came as a counter to a counter to a counter - three layers for those counting - and it was applied by Vinny in a way that beat every defense that Igor could start or even before they started. Slicing through any and all defenses for the submission is what truly aggressive submission grappling is about and Vinny showed us that rare beastie, complete with his own unique flair, on Saturday night.
For those who did not watch the fight, the first round went to Vinny after a hybrid trip takedown led to methodical groundwork and two armbar attempts. Igor correctly escaped each of the armbars and once he had the opportunity, he stood right back up at the end of the round. The second round is where the magic happened - after some rather dull clinching in the middle of the cage. Vinny applied a triangle in lightning quick fashion and then transitioned to a spinning armbar very soon afterwards - literally spinning on his head and rolling Igor's entire body over his head to get the submission.
First, let us start with the ideal defenses to the triple attack of the triangle, armbar and omoplata.
The general method of defending triangles is through achieving and maintaining upright posture during the grounded fight, while making sure there is no "one arm in, one arm out" situation going on. The way most people defend armbars is through forward or stacking pressure. It is crucial to know that when defending a triangle, you will almost certainly open yourself up to an armbar (or its shoulder lock cousin, the omoplata) and vice versa. The three submissions - the triangle, the armbar and the omoplata - flow into each other very well and most grapplers learn the various entry and switching techniques to chain them together to achieve a submission. Most grapplers also learn the proper defenses to each and submitting a UFC tier MMA fighter with a triangle, armbar or omoplata can be difficult. They usually know the right defenses, are very strong and the ability to punch or elbow makes for less aggressive guards than in pure submission grappling.
Ideally, the MMA submission about to be applied is nipped in the bud with correct posture and perhaps a few blows are delivered for even thinking about applying such a thing. Jon Jones is already a master at this and Fedor Emelianenko was similarly powerful from the top guard. However, a fight is almost never an ideal environment and not every attempt can be stifled early on. What becomes crucial to the defender is getting the trapped elbow out.
Vinny never let Igor do that in the sequence that led to the submission.
In Round 2, with the round clock showing 4:24 to 4:20 (G), Igor goes for the ill-fated trip takedown. What is important to notice is that in most fights, there is a momentary pause between the takedown and when both fighters go to work doing what they should be doing - passing the guard, delivering strikes, escaping back to the feet, hunting submissions or shutting down the opponent's damaging blows. Most downed fighters these days in the UFC choose to escape back to the feet or shut down their opponent - if they don't pause and weigh their options in that brief moment.
As seen in #1 of the filmstrip above, Vinny goes directly for the submission and he does it by exploding his hips up immediately after he hits the ground. Igor is still transitioning from "takedown" to "groundwork" mentally and is caught with a broken posture. In #2, Vinny grabs Igor's head with his right hand to prepare the way for the right leg to come over for the triangle position. In #3, the right leg is coming over and the posture of Igor is still controlled. Also in #3, I swear Vinny cracks a smile because he thinks he's got the fight in the bag now. The triangle is on by #4 and Vinny commits to it by pulling the head down and continuing to make proper adjustments, but we will fast forwards to the next key moment.
The triangle Vinny has on Igor is not ideal. The figure four is hinged upon the front of the foot, rather than back farther up on the ankle - which allows more opportunity for escape and decreases the pressure Vinny can apply to Igor's carotids. The general dogma most people learn is "front of foot bad, try to get it on the ankle - but if you can get the finish, okay then". This foot position is probably why Vinny takes advantage of Igor's building of a defense to the triangle and goes right to the armbar (G). The timing and the smoothness of the switch shows how good Vinny's technique and situational awareness is at this point.
The defense Igor builds is the stacking defense with a gable grip (which is slightly different from this good YouTube instructional). Essentially, Igor wants to stand up, fold Vinny over himself uncomfortably, rip out his elbow or entire arm if he can and then start launching heavy punches downwards or pass the guard. As part of the defense, Igor wants to step his left foot up closer to Vinny's head. Magalhaes initially went for a standard underhook, which could lead to a sweep and a better armbar position, but due to the placement of the takedown and the cage wall, the usual underhook sweep would probably result in Igor just bouncing off the cage wall ineffectually.
I cannot speak for Vinny's mindset, but immediately after getting the underhook, he decides to shift to what I call a juji roll (G). (Although some people will call it a head roll, spinning armbar or "that thing where you go shwooop shwooop and the opponent is like aaaagh" etc. etc.).
Note the Vinny is up on his neck and shoulders, rather than his back and shoulders. This allows a tighter armbar and lets Vinny spin much, much better. Vinny also needs space to spin and he creates it in a manner that wasn't immediately obvious on the first angle.
As the overhead angle shows in the replay shown at the end of the fight (G), Vinny switches where his right hand goes after underhooking that left leg. The hand slips out from under the left leg and then goes all the way across Igor's body to push on the side of Igor's right leg to create the distance between their bodies. The right hand is then swiftly used to guide the leg over Vinny's body (the technique is so well done that he barely needs to push or pull at any time with the hand - the hand positioning is almost superfluous in this instance). This is the juji roll portion and Vinny does it well. A variant of this that I call the Iaskevitch Roll has been covered several times in the armbars of Ronda Rousey, as she attacks turtled up opponents or opponents who give up their back (Judo Chop Ronda vs. Sarah Kaufman, Judo Chop Ronda vs. Miesha Tate). What is important is that Pokrajac does not do a straight somersault. Magalhaes brings him around, which is far easier to do and has the added bonus of preventing any wiggle/escape room from forming.
I am not sure I have seen someone as helpless as Igor Pokrajac looks during the juji roll in recent times. He has no physical choice but to go along for the ride - and he's generally a decent grappler in the context of MMA with a successful escape earlier in the first round. Perhaps that feeling of helplessness is why he started grumbling nonsense on Twitter afterwards.
Let us look at Igor's correctly performed escape attempt and why it worked.
Round 1 action via Vinny's Twitter again.
In Round 1, with the clock on-screen showing 2:15 to 2:08 (G), Vinny is dealing with Igor after an attempt at a classic armbar from the top. Igor has turned over and is S-gripping to rip the elbow out. As shown in the picture above, Igor gets the elbow to the point where the armbar is probably not feasible anymore and Vinny lets it go soon after.
Immediately after the letting go, Vinny goes right to work, instead of weighing his options. As soon as the guard is recomposed, he begins to break down Igor's posture and to set up more submission attacks. Hesitation is not good in submission grappling nor in MMA. That is why people train their cardio endurance and explosive ability - so they can shift immediately to the next thing without any lag that could give the opponent a winning advantage.
Round 1, 1:35 to 1:27 (G), as you can see, Vinny has thoroughly broken the posture of Igor and starts hunting submission opportunities. He briefly uses rubber guard in what I believe is yet another attempt to crack open an armbar - or at least force Igor into mistakes - and shifts to a high guard, which uses the legs to enforce the broken posture and frees up the arms to work.
Pokrajac is basically stuck until Vinny gives him a clear opportunity to escape - which he does, as the spin for the armbar is not tight and gives Igor the room to pull out the trapped elbow. Most times, an incorrectly performed armbar from the guard can be disastrous in MMA, as a quick opponent with time left on the clock will pass the guard and start delivering damaging blows. Here, Vinny pays no such price and the fight works back to the feet for a short while.
From the initial ground work in the first round to the eventually successful finish in the second round, you can see that Vinny was hunting armbars nearly the entire time he was on the ground with Igor and it was apparent to the careful observer very early on.
Remember that this extraordinary submission comes from three things - 1) explosive hip movement as soon as the fight hit the ground, 2) commitment to a direct attack that later combined with 3) the rapid and correctly performed transition to the proper counter as the opponent moved to defend the direct attack. By reacting correctly and much faster than his opponent could build defenses, Vinny had created an OODA loop that was so much tighter and faster than that of his opponent that he basically had any number of avenues to success - and chose one of the sweetest and flashiest to secure the win.
Ronda Rousey explains what she calls the juji squish roll to Black Belt Magazine:
Guy Pendergrass has a variant on the spinning armbar roll that leads to a back take if the opponent defends correctly throughout: