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Bloody Elbow Judo Chop: Two Approaches to the Heel Hook

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Heelhook3_medium Last night's SENGOKU Sixth battle event featured two fights ending in one of the less common submissons: the heel hook.

Satoru Kitaoka nails a heel hook in his semi-final match against highly touted (and #15 meta-ranked lightweight) Eiji Mitsuoka.

Kitaoka -- training partner of fellow submission kings Shinya Aoki and Masakazu Imanari -- has adopted many of the grappling techniques of BJJ revisionist Eddie Bravo. But applying leglocks in MMA isn't something Bravo recommends.

From an interview Eddie Bravo did with Boxing Insider:

Eddie Bravo: I think leg locks are risky for MMA. If you just pay attention to all the leg lock attempts in MMA -- many times someone goes for a leg lock they leave their opponent's hands free -- free to bomb on them.

It happens so much in MMA: Frank Mir / Ian Freeman, he got killed going for leg locks; Rumina Sato against Joaqiem Hanson, got killed going for leg locks; "Cafe" Dantas against [I think it was] Gan McGee -- got killed going for leg locks. It's just too dangerous. You've got to round up your opponent's arms. You can't leave your opponent's arms free to punch you.

Another reason is that a lot of times leg locks aren't always adrenaline proof. A lot of people tap in the gym, in their training, because they don't want to get hurt. So the guy pulling off the leg locks starts to rely on them because people tap quick in class, but in the cage and in the ring -- when there's a lot of money on the line and alot of adrenaline pumping through your system-- it doesn't seem that people tap that often to leg locks, -- with all that adrenaline going, they don't seem to feel it.


So that is why I choose to master going after the neck instead of the legs. Another reason is that when you're attacking someone's legs, you're attacking your opponent's strongest limbs. You're attacking your opponent's strength. It's better to attack his neck and his arms. They are weaker. Why would you want to attack the stronger limbs?

And leg locks are the only submissions where -- if you go for a leg lock, your opponent can go for a leg lock on you. You could try to get a heel hook on someone and they could turn it around and get a heel hook on you. There's no other submission like that.


So all in all, I think leg locks are way too risky for MMA, but for submission wrestling they're great. This just my philosophy, I could be totally full of shit.

Note that Kitaoka starts in a modified side-control that's really more of a standard wrestling position. I believe its called a cradle where he's controlling his opponent's head and legs (wrestlers pipe up and correct me please). He quickly drops back, grabs the leg and gets figure four control over Mitsuoka's thigh. This is critical if you're going to control your opponent's position while going for the submission.

Also note that they end up in a position where Mitsuoka has little if any chance of countering with a leg lock of his own. By doing these two things Kitaoka has answered the criticisms of the leg lock given by Bravo.

We've been seeing more and more leglocks winning in high level BJJ and submission grappling contests in recent years and I believe the trend is now making it into MMA.

I'll talk about Jorge Santiago's leg lock and more theory in the full entry.

About the name of this feature: I chose Judo Chop because it’s an utter misnomer that is sometimes used by poorly informed MMA commentators during fights. It’s also from the Austin Powers movie. I chose it because it reflects my own lack of expertise and what this column is, my stumbling along in the dark trying to get a handle on the technical aspects of the fights. The techniques featured here will sometimes involve judo but not always. Sorry if that's confusing. As always I'm strictly an armchair technician so anyone with real knowledge is encouraged to pipe up.

Heelhook1_medium  Here's middle-weight tournament winner and American Top Team star Jorge Santiago winning his semi-final bout over Siyar Bahadurzada with a different approach to the heel hook.

Santiago starts out with standing back control of Bahadurzada, drops, gets control of his opponent's ankles...shit I can't figure out exactly what he's doing here but its awesome. I've never seen this particular roll before. If anyone's seen something similar please pipe up.

Once they're on the ground, Santiago again is in an unconventional position. Note how he has both legs wrapped up, one foot in each of his armpits with Bahadurzada's left leg crossed over and under his own left arm. Initially he looks to attack that leg but quickly switches to Siyar's right leg where he locks in the heel hook.

My inclination given Santiago's high level camp is that this is some next level shit right here. Either that or some very fortunate improvising. Anyone know?

One guy I've been paying attention to for a while regarding leglocks is Sambo trainer Scott Sonnen.  Here's a bit of his theory from his MMA Saddle site:

Many fighters don’t control the hips because they learned their leg attacks from traditional Sambo or from someone who learned them from traditional Sambo. In traditional Sambo, there are no points awarded for passing the guard, and unlike traditional Judo and Jiujitsu, leg attacks have never been prohibited. As a result, Sambo athletes will stay in the “lower-half” (by the legs) rather than rushing to establish “upper-half” position in the way that Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ) has become famous.

With only 60 seconds permitted to land a submission in traditional Sambo, there has never been much encouragement to establish positional control because both players are trying to submit the other opponent as fast as possible. Hence, Sambo prides itself on “fast-wrestling.” Sonnon explains however that this tactic only works a small percentage of the time (20%) against positional fighters, especially in MMA, and isn’t worth sacrificing quality position. As a result, Sonnon modified traditional Sambo to become a positional approach so that fighters could both strike and defend against strikes, could maintain positional dominance, and could easily transition from one submission to the next in a chess-like fashion, as BJJ has become known for in the “upper-half” game.

I don't know that either Santiago or Kitaoka is familiar with Sonnen's work but it seems like they're applying similar principles.