The Gracies don't fight nicely.
But they do fight smart. The overall strategic approach they take towards combat sports - training youngsters into become very, very good at grappling, carefully negotiating rules in their favor and attaching showmanship to almost everything they do - combines very well with the surprisingly brutal and effective tactics we see in their fights. The Gracie stomp as I call it, was by no means invented by Helio or another member of the clan, but they did bring it to the modern television audience.
Related Judo Chops: The Chasse Kick | Fedor's Punch'n'Clinch | Anderson Silva's Clinch Work #1 | Anderson Silva's Clinch Work #2 | Inside Leg Trips | Jon Jones & Wrestling Takedowns | Jon Jones and Throwing Elbows |
When UFC 1 caught fire in the public consciousness, the freshness of the fights to the general audience and the right-for-its-time "no holds barred" marketing brought the sport of mixed martial arts and its little brother, Brazilian jiu jitsu to light. Neither MMA nor BJJ was actually au courant and almost everybody in the tournament had been fighting people for years, but it was new to us and that is often all that matters.
The underdog narrative of Royce Gracie faux-killing everyone he faced en route to three UFC tournament titles was easily the biggest part of the UFC's early success. Ken Shamrock's glistening muscley goodness might have helped too, but before I digress even further, let's get this Judo Chop back to its focus: the near-patented Gracie stomp that allowed Royce, who had awful standing striking skills back then, to close the distance and trip people to the ground.
The Gracie stomp is a mean technique that is aimed at both damaging the knee and creating an exaggerated step for a takedown shot. The best usages of the stomp saw opponents stepping back to preserve the health of their knees or swinging and having to immediately deal with a clinch or double leg shot. Royce was perhaps the first to use it on a stage that lots of people saw, but he was actually not all that skilled at using the stomp to get good positions.
The general idea of the stomp is somewhat similar to the chasse kick (which Jon Jones and Carlos Condit have taken to using). Both kicks are done with the intent of controlling distance - which is integral to success in MMA - through the threat of forcibly bending the human knee painfully backwards in a direction it is not meant to go. A grappler wants to be inside and tight, avoiding the punches and kicks of the other. A striker wants to deter a grappler from shooting in or achieving the clinch, so the strikes can land. Interestingly, both the stomps and chasse kicks have this sensation for the opponents that a properly timed punch or combination can beat it, but actually doing a counter is difficult due to the range and timing needed.
The chasse is done with the back foot and is done to deter the opponent from edging into range or attmpting a takedown of their own. After the kick lands, the fighter replaces it as the back foot and usually has a greater distance between them and the opponent. Thus far, the chasse kick in MMA acts more as an annoyance than an opponent-debilitating and fight-ending strike.
The Gracie stomp is done with a similar spirit, but with the front foot. In its ideal form, the stomp involves an actual stomp downwards and slightly outwards, rather than outwards and slightly downwards, towards the knee. The stronger strike can move a bit easier beyond the annoyance of a chasse kick to a risky strike for the opponent to let land without checking or moving. If the stomp lands incompletely or misses entirely, the foot is usually in place for a nice takedown opportunity or to move in for a clinch of some type. The fighter is usually better balanced to deal with counter-strikes too, than with the chasse kick gone wrong, but the fighter is much closer to the opponent.
While doing the stomp, it is crucial to protect the head during the move in for a clinch or a takedown. A smart opponent can counter and having the hands up decrease considerably the odds of a headbutt, punch or even a kick from landing.
Anyone remember the wild dash that opened Royce/Ken 1? Royce stabbing out with a leg and shooting in for a double?
Well, it was done from so far out that Ken got an underhook and sprawled quickly enough to prevent the double leg from succeeding.
Because Royce did not keep driving with his legs - as per good wrestling technique - no subsequent openings were available for Royce to get a takedown. In the modern UFC, we'd probably see the fighters go up against the cage due to crappy technique (no re-angling off to the side like Maia or chaining the next technique and the next like GSP is so fond of and successful with). Here, Royce and Ken ended up rolling around for a bit with Ken on top. After some back and forth, Royce would win by rear naked choke.
However, let us look at better examples of the Gracie stomp.
Here is Royce fighting Minoki Ishihara at UFC 2. As a karate fighter, Ishihara loves having the front foot way out and actually tried his own light stomp just prior to this still. Royce times his stomp just right to make Ishihara retract the front foot - despite Isihara wanting to punch Royce in the face - and would shoot in right after the foot lands. Royce's stomp is a bit outwards because he is chasing Ishihara with it, rather than going down for the takedown as some of his other family members would prefer.
Here is Royce trying a stomp on Gerry Gordeau. Just like with Shamrock above, he is doing it from way too far outside for it to really do much. However, the surprise of the tactic works well enough for Royce to get in on Gerry's hips (also, Gerry didn't wrestle growing up, so he has terrible defense too).
Royce gets his arms on the backs of the knees and theoretically should get a takedown from here. However, he (like so many BJJ guys) is not driving forwards and is instead sitting on top of his knees. This means he has to go to the next thing - the clinch.
Gerry's inexperience with the sprawl, clinch and more lets Royce pop right up into a body lock. It's often a stalemate in modern elite MMA because the defenses are so well known, but back then and occasionally today, we see a sweet throw or a nice trip from this position. Most submission grapplers like the outside leg trip from here, as the landing position will lead to at least half guard. An inside leg trip can work, but most times, the top fighter will land inside the guard of the opponent.
Royce goes for the outside trip. He is not a particularly good grappler at this stage in life (got much better over the years) and Gerry doesn't actually go down here. However, the idea comes through and that's what this Judo Chop is after.
Royce's half brothers, Rickson and Royler, had their own takes on the overall strategy to use in distance closing. Rickson didn't like kicking much. He tried a few times to do the stomp, but preferred to move in with punches or hand clasping.
In the Choke documentary, Rickson tried a single foot stomp in the three fights shown. The above still was taken from the Koichiro Kimura fight. The distance was right as he was much closer than Royce, but the move didn't work to Rickson's satisfaction. He got next to nothing out of it and immediately after, he moved to his preferred tactic - the punch, clinch and trips.
Rickson strongly preferred to keep his feet on the ground and move in with punches. In a way, his method was a precursor to Jon Jones standing in front of Rashad Evans and clasping hands to throw elbows. The end result differed, but the idea was the same for both champions. Against Yuki Nakai, Rickson moved in right away to clasp hands.
With Rickson being bigger, stronger, faster and smarter than Royce (in terms of MMA grappling), the clinch was much easier to achieve and he had much more success tripping his opponents. There was little to no battling back from a failed double leg for Rickson. Instead, he ran into different problems - namely the guillotine and other neck based attacks. Rickson being Rickson, he did things like the Superman jump to neutralize or reverse those threats, but that is a digression (although an awesome one).
Royler tried the stomp more often in his fights, but he occasionally ran into people who were much better at countering it and the subsequent clinch or takedown - like Kazushi "The Gracie Hunter" Sakuraba. After trying a stomp and missing badly, Royler was surprised by a head kick and knocked down. Sakuraba would take advantage of the opportunity and finish Royler.
What allowed Sakuraba to knock Royler down was the awareness that the stomp was probably coming, a step back, Royler not evading or even taking his head away from its center line and Saku's decisiveness in launching the head kick. Royler was slow enough and locked in enough to be properly countered. It is interesting to see Saku's counter here and compare it to how he countered Ralek Gracie's similar tactics ten years later.
Ralek opened with the stomp.
You can see in the still above that Sakuraba is already retracting his right foot slightly less than he did against Royler ten years before. Something different is coming.
Saku launches a counter left directly to the gut of Ralek. It landed hard enough that Ralek was visibly affected and each time Ralek tried to stomp afterwards, Sakuraba would charge in with a left and looking to add more punches to it. The punch counters worked well enough that Sakuraba was winning the stand-up portions, despite being much older, hampered by knee injuries and generally two steps slower than the Gracie Hunter heyday.
The interesting thing about this match is that Ralek came up with a counter to the counter - assisted by Saku getting a tad greedy with the lefts.
Here is Ralek setting up another stomp from a little closer in. Look at Sakuraba's left hand. He wants an overhand left straight to the noggin and is prepping for it.
However, Ralek already knew that and is getting his head slightly off the center line and bringing his hands up to block and launches into his counter to Sakuraba's counter.
Which is a bad single leg shot. Perhaps 10 years before, Sakuraba would have sprawled out of it and punished Ralek, but here the single leg is good enough to work and gets Saku down. Ralek would find himself in a bit of trouble with a kimura immediately afterwards, but the overall idea of re-countering an overhand left counter with a single leg is really nice and much more innovative than Royce ever showed.
I am not sure if the Gracie stomp has a place in high level MMA anymore. The stomp is too easily anticipated. Regular leg kicks are far more powerful. Opponents are better at countering with movement and strikes. Lastly, it may also be easier to set up a double or single leg or move into a clinch with punches and hand clasps - as Rickson showed time and time again. However, I do believe the preservation of the knee stomp in the street fightin' or self defense portions of grappling is correct - this will work on those who are not as good at controlling distance or have never seen such tactics before.
The evolution of MMA is filled with dramatic jumps when a new superstar athlete comes in with a different style or a new-to-us technique and often times the subtle adjustments and silent disappearances of old techniques go unnoticed. Right now, we may be in an era where Mike Winklejohn-taught fighters do well, but I believe this stomp still has some value to fighters, if not necessarily a fundamental place in elite MMA gameplans.
The Gracie stomp is certainly mean enough to stick around for a while longer.