What kind of a recipe goes into a fight like the legendary slugfest that Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Dan Henderson fought through on November 19, 2011? Two fighters created out of the thin air? Attributes leveled up with scoops of power here, dollops of striking and grappling skill there? Flavored by dashes of emotion, situational awareness and tenacity with the sweetness of combative genius on top? Not quite.
The near-mythical fight we saw at UFC 139 that night was the battle of two elite mixed martial artists who have put in years of hard work to develop game plans that take advantage of their natural gifts, learned techniques and comparative advantages while minimizing their relative weaknesses. Within those game plans are core techniques that are imprinted so deeply within a fighter’s mind and body that they can pull it off blindfolded or when stunned and dangerously close to losing a fight. For a battered Shogun, the leglock that saved the fight was the instinctive implementation of a specific half guard position he has been going to for at least the last five years, if not more.
After the jump, I will take you through several fights in Shogun's career to see how exactly he utilizes the half guard position to deal with the wrestlers who take him down. We start in 2006 with the PRIDE 32 battle against Kevin Randleman, which gave us one of the best kneebars in the sport. After that, we jump to UFC 93 to the second Mark Coleman fight, where specific idiosyncrasies in Shogun's game rear their head. We will then detour to Strikeforce: Nashville for Shields/Henderson to see how Jake Shields threatened Hendo with a late round leglock and then segue into the fight-saving leglock from Henderson/Rua. To close out, we will linger for a while on the brilliance of Jon Jones, the young 205 lb champion about to defend his title against Lyoto Machida this weekend at UFC 140, and how exactly Jones stifled the deep half guard game Shogun loves so much.
The half guard is a middle ground between having a closed guard (back to the mat and both legs encircling the opponent at the waist) and some variation of open guard (back to the mat and legs free to move). The trademark half guard position has the person on the bottom placing one leg in between the legs of the person on top and working to stay on their side, rather than be pushed flat on their back.
Earlier in grappling history, the half guard was viewed as a weak position in terms of self-defense or tournament meta-games, but several competitors in grappling and MMA have achieved great success with the position and used it to win big tournaments and prized championship titles. Names like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and his younger twin, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, should come to mind as mixed martial arts competitors who have used the position well.
The general key to the half guard is to use the position to off-balance the opponent and create opportunities for sweeps and leglocks. The off-balancing is generally done by getting underneath the opponent's center of gravity, usually with an underhook of the leg nearest the head, and shifting around enough that the opponent is forced to put a hand or two down to balance and/or stop punching you in the face. An incorrectly performed half guard can leave a fighter exposed to extreme amounts of damage through elbows, punches and the occasional knee to the body, as well as increased opportunities for passes into mount or side control. Within MMA, the half guard is often a high risk, high reward position and only a select few have been able to use it successfully. Shogun Rua is one of those few.
The First Real Glimpse of Shogun's Deep Half Guard Game
In October of 2006, Kevin Randleman was a former two time Division I 177 lb wrestling champion who had gone 7-7 since losing his UFC heavyweight champion to Randy Couture at UFC 28. The record is a bit misleading as he did bounce back and forth between weights and fought the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Quinton Jackson, Kazushi Sakuraba and Mirko Filipovic. Shogun Rua was the 2005 PRIDE Middleweight champion and easing back into elite-level competition after a badly dislocated elbow earlier that ear. Randleman came into the fight looking to to quickly impose his explosive brand of wrestling on Rua and grind his way to victory. Shogun had other plans.
Randleman came out with a quick double leg and hits Shogun clean enough to carry him off his feet and onto his back. Once they hit the canvas, Rua shifts to a half guard position, coming up on his right side, and ties Randleman up enough to prevent any damage. Note that Shogun buries his head close to Randleman's body as Randleman's hands start to come up to control the head.
Once Rua has the legs triangled and the underhook of Randleman's left leg with his right arm, he rocks backwards and off-balances Randleman. See how far Kevin's left leg comes up to regain balance and how much space there is for Rua to escape out the back door or work for leglocks. I recommend watching the entire fight, as it takes Rua a few minutes to actually work through each stage of his attack and sweep to the top before the finish. The following gifs are the highlights of each attack stage.
Rua uses this space to bring his right leg over Randleman's left hip and start working for leglocks. Randleman is turned away and his inexperience with the position leads to a very slow reaction and general immobility, which only helps Rua. In this gif, we see a heel hook set-up shift to a figure four toehold. It may be a sign of the PRIDE era that the referee keeps pointing at Randleman rather than stopping the fight after the yelp of pain.
Here we see Rua finally use the toehold to maneuver Randlemand to the bottom and open up the route to the top position. His legs are still clenched firmly around Randleman's thigh and the foot is controlled enough to prevent Randleman from bumping Shogun off, pulling his leg out and getting to the top ride positions he knows so well from wrestling. To Randleman's credit, he had earlier used his free leg to push Rua off the toehold, but Rua manages to quickly reclaim top position here. Shogun sits down on Kevin's hips to immobilize them and threatens a backwards hammerfist. Randleman reacts by ducking to his right and momentarily exposing his left leg even further - which sets up the kneebar.
To get the kneebar, Rua controls Randleman's left leg with both hands at the heel. This allows the straightening of the leg and the roll to the left prevents the right leg from coming in and pushing one of the controlling hands off. Rua knows Randleman is a tough fighter who will probably not tap until the bitter end, so he switches the control point of the heel to below his left armpit. Now Shogun is able to pit his entire core strength against the strength of Randleman's left leg. The hyperextension of the knee and the tap soon follow.
Patterns and Tendencies Emerge
Now we jump forwards two and a half years to the next time Rua took on a wrestler - who happened to be Randleman's one-time teammate. In January of 2009, Mark Coleman was making a defiant last stand in the light heavyweight division to stave off retirement and to chase the dream bout with Randy Couture. Coleman was a NCAA Division I 190 lb wrestling champion, silver medalist at the 1991 Worlds, the first UFC heavyweight champion and 2000 PRIDE openweight champion. Injuries and the ever-increasing size of his potential opponents in the UFC heavyweight division caused a drop to light heavyweight and a bout with Shogun, who had returned from injuries of his own.
Early in the first round, Coleman came out hunting for the quick takedown, much like Randleman did. Shogun once again went to deliver a knee and allowed Coleman to absorb the punishment and get Rua to the ground. Once on the canvas, Rua proved elusive enough to avoid most of Coleman's punches.
Here we see Rua latch onto Coleman's left leg (his preferred leglock side) and go for a similar toehold to the one that swept Randleman. Coleman falls to his knees and we see Rua check with his butt as to where exactly Mark is. Deciding that the best option is to return to his feet, Rua turns into Coleman and works the quick underhook to fend off the takedown Mark launches into. The pause and butt check tells us that Rua would have probably preferred to have Coleman go all the way over, but adapting to different situation is a part of MMA.
In the second round, Coleman pushed through thudding leg kick after thudding leg kick to snatch a high double on Rua. The subsequent slam to the ground left Rua in a half guard position on his left side. Here we see that Rua employs different half guard tactics when on his left side than on his right. There is no shifting for leglocks or an escape out the backdoor. Shogun uses his right arm and his left leg to push Coleman's body and knee far enough away that he can quickly get to his feet and step outside. Note that Rua does not control Coleman's hands here and is lucky that Coleman goes for head control and a single, off-target punch rather than to explode in a flurry.
It took years for this to happen in a high profile MMA fight, but this gif finally shows Shogun using the submission attack that Nino Schembri, the Brazilian jiu jitsu champion who gave Rua his black belt, is best known for: the omoplata. Schembri is an enormously talented middleweight grappler who won world championships in his mid-twenties and played around with things like the gogoplota and rubber guard long before they became MMA boogyemen. Schembri is still a beast on the mats in his mid-thirties and now teaches in Southern California.
Coleman has dumped Rua to the ground by seizing a lazy knee and Rua immediately launches into an omoplota attack on Coleman's left arm. Rua has sufficient flexibility to get the gogoplota threatened, which pushes Coleman's head away and allows Rua to drive the right foot nearly to the canvas. From here, Rua slowly inched his way into a genuine omopolota attack and punched Coleman a few times in the face to try and get the submission to work. Coleman benefits from being perhaps the strongest person to ever fight at 205 and simply links his arms to wait out the minute until the round ends. Omopolotas are very versatile attacks and can be hit from all kinds of angles, but a massively strong opponent is hard to truly submit with this shoulder-based attack.
Midway through the third round, Rua is taken down once more and finally gets his preferred right-side half guard position. He has the right leg controlled with both of his own legs and the left leg underhooked with his right arm. Just like with Randleman, he rocks backwards and attempts to off-balance Coleman. The cage and Coleman's better base prevent the tactic from working to the same degree it did against Randleman. Coleman manages to stall Rua enough to dish out a few hammerfists and elbows. This is a dangerous position for Rua and he needs to be working, not stalling. Not seen in this gif, since almost everything in this Rua/Coleman fight took place in real-life slow motion, is Rua eventually adapting to the cage by walking along it and improving his position well enough to go for a leglock.
Rua manages to reap his right leg over the left hip of Coleman here and starts working a heel hook. Coleman balances well enough that Rua cannot spin him around and immediately torque the heel, but Rua does eventually get the turn. Not seen in the gif, due to the slow action, is Coleman sitting on the foot and then turning into a top ride, from which Shogun takes quite some time escaping from. The fight would be finished by knock-out with twenty-some seconds left in the third round.
In this second fight with Mark Coleman, we see that Mauricio Rua usually goes for a leglock when he is on his right side in the half guard and usually looks to stand up when he is on his left side in the half guard. This preference for one side over another for certain movies is not unusual for grapplers, but in mixed martial arts, a smart opponent can see this pattern and exploit it.
Dan Henderson's Leglock Defenses
Now for the detour to Strikeforce: Nashville and to Jake Shields' victory over Dan Henderson. After barely surviving the first round, Shields came back to dominate the later rounds. Shortly after being dropped by a massive punch, Jake pulls half guard on Dan and ends up in a similar position to the left leg heel hook that Rua likes so much.
Jake controls the left leg near the heel to prevent Dan from getting away and manages to cross his right leg over the back of the thigh. Note that Dan is fighting to prevent the left leg from going behind him and launches into a counter-leglock with a figure four toe hold on Jake's left foot. This control of the left leg is Dan's standard tactic against leglocks and the toehold can actually submit an unwary opponent.
Shields is an elite grappler that probably would have won many world titles if he had stayed within the grappling world and forgone his entry into mixed martial arts. He is not going to tap to that toe hold. Dan then shifts to another common counter, which is to force Shields' left leg down, so that it torques Shields' right foot.
Those who remember the Uyenoyama/Yamamoto Judo Chop may recall a similar tactic used to defend against back control.
Jake is not going to tap to that either. However, all of the maneuvering and shifts of balance allow Dan to open up the legs enough to hop his way forwards and free. Jake no longer has the heel up by his armpit and is basically looking to control Henderson enough to prevent a quick turn and/or a flurry of potentially fight-ending punches from the top position. Henderson displays a surprising knowledge of leglock defense here, but it is worth saying that Hendo has a pattern of letting himself fall into the leglocks before defending them. It is far better to avoid the submissions than to waste time fending them off and risking a fight-ender.
The Fight-saving Leglock Against Henderson
To avoid beating a dead horse into the ground, I give you Tom Grant's mini-Judo Chop from last week on the leglock Shogun used in the third round to buy enough time to recover and turn momentum his way.
I'll add a couple notes of my own. It is a right side half guard and thus Shogun looks first to rock back and open up space for a leglock. Look at how Shogun buries his head against Hendo. The exposure of the back of his head is risky in a street fight environment, but in MMA, a referee will (usually) stop punches to the back of the head. Shogun buys a couple seconds here, as Hendo looks to pry himself some space to punch or elbow Rua some more. Rua rocks back and spins into the leglock.
Perhaps Dan's Greco-Roman days reveal themselves here, as he is more easily rocked and turned than Coleman was back at UFC 93. Hendo has much better leglock defense though. Look at how Hendo swiftly takes that right leg of Rua's and pins it to the canvas. That drags Rua's left leg downwards as well, which frees Hendo's left leg and opens up the spin-out escape for Hendo.
Now that the leglock is spoiled, Rua goes quickly to his next preferred option: to stand up and get his opponent into the Muay Thai clinch he began building from his Chute Boxe days. Here he clinches with the very tired Dan and buys more time to recover from the staggering amount of punishment he took earlier in the round. When both fighters came out for the fourth round, it was clear that Rua had recovered enough from the earlier punches to bring us onlookers home in legendary fashion. Whatever your feelings on the decision and judging, appreciate the technique and the heart both guys brought that night..
How Jon Jones Shut Down Rua's Half Guard
Jones had little trouble taking Rua down. Having non-stellar takedown defense has never before been a large concern for Rua. This time, things turned out differently.
With the whizzer in on the opposite side, Jones sees the right underhook coming and bases out on the left leg to prevent it from clamping on. To further deter Rua from working for the underhook, Jones smashes in an elbow. Anyone remember the Vera fight and how much damage Jones's elbows did? Rua rolls slowly to his back, attempts to see if he can work something unknown to us and eventually recomposes full guard.
After Rua's full guard is recomposed, he goes to his favorite tactic of threatening a triangle. Shogun shunts Jones's right arm inside and goes to slap his legs in the right position. Since Jones's arms are so long, armbars are a threat as well, but Jones quickly gets decent posture and puts both arms inside Rua's legs. Not seen in the gif is Jones working his way back to full guard and then again uses the left leg base-out to prevent the right-side half guard.
This early in the first round, it is patently obvious that Jones knows exactly what Rua wants to do with the right-side half guard and has gameplanned against those favorite tactics.
Later in the first round, we see Jones use his massive wingspan to control Rua's neck and thus prevent the head from diving in towards Jones's body and securing the underhook and/or the leglock. Rua is tring valiantly for the position, but Jones has the strength, base and position to keep him from achieving that goal. Rua would spend the next minute and forty five seconds trying desperately to get that half guard position - to no avail. I am not an elite MMA fighter or grappler, but for me, to try one move for so long means either an immense faith in the efficacy of the move or a lack of adaptability in the gameplan. Or both.
Finally, Rua gives up the half guard pull and shifts to full guard. He then shifts to a left-side half guard in preparation to get up. Again, Jones shows that he has anticipated this in the gameplanning sessions and sets Rua up for a thunderous knee to the ribs. Unlike the UFC 93 fight against Coleman, Rua is not able to escape the damage and takes even more punishment from Jones once they are standing again. Jones shows here that his trainers and coaches have equipped the 23 year old (with just three years as a professional fighter) with the proper tactics to deal with Shogun's half guard game.
The second round featured more punishment for Rua on the feet and in his unusual, but unsuccessful attempt to get a right leg heel hook on Jones. Again, Jones stifled the deep half guard attempts and worked to constantly deliver punches and elbows from full guard and top half guard.
In perhaps the best in-fight homage I've ever seen, Jones goes for a kneebar that is strikingly similar to the one Shogun submitted Randleman with back in 2006. He even tosses in a backwards hammerfist. This is at the end of the round, so breaking Rua's leg triangle, controlling the heel and pinching his own legs together to better set up the submission attempt may have been too much to do within the dwindling seconds of the round. Above all the possible technical flaws, seeing that Jones has the gumption to go for such a submission against a dangerous opponent is a wonderful thing.
In the UFC 128 title fight, Jones made it a clear point to control Rua's head, to prevent his left leg from being taken and knew ahead of times which sides Rua would employ which tactics from. It seems all too easy to teach a young fighter "Right side, sweep and leglocks. Base out and prevent. Left side, omoplota and stand up. Posture and punish.", but to hone those counters within one training camp to a point where these reactions take place near-instantaneously and are massively effective is impressive. Shogun had no surprises for Jones in that fight and lost his belt to the better fighter that day.
Despite the comprehensive destruction of his favorite tactics at the hands of Jon Jones, the majority of Shogun Rua's deep half guard game works against elite, wrestling-based opponents. In a mixed martial arts arms race, having a full set of tactics that work on an elite competition level and play into your own strengths is a decisive advantage. It may be a good idea for Rua to vary his tactics some, but if just about nobody outside Jon Jones can stop these tactics, should he stop employing them?
As a treat for the grappling fans who've come this far with me, enjoy ArmyofZenMonkey's Nino Schembri highlight:
All gifs by Grappo (except the Hendo/Shogun ones, which are by K.J. Gould). Many thanks for the excellent images.
Check out the other deep half guard Judo Chops on Big Nog vs Tim Sylvia and Lil Nog vs Jason Brilz, as well as the Oleg Taktarov rolling kneebar on Dave Beneateau at Ultimate Ultimate 1995 write-up that I did for MMA Nation (all the way down at the end of the piece).