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Judo Chop: The Hybrid Attack of Josh Barnett

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T.P. Grant takes an in-depth look at Josh Barnett's wrestling tactics, adapted by his experience in BJJ and MMA to become something truly formidable and worthy of being called a catch wrestling base.

At Metamoris 4 Josh Barnett dismantled and submitted two time ADCC champion Dean Lister in one of the most impressive performances in the short history of the grappling promotion. The aftermath of the match has been interesting to behold: in his post-fight interview, Barnett said he wished to demonstrate the effectiveness of catch wrestling in grappling competition. The Barnett/Lister match was being framed as a BJJ vs Catch Wrestling affair in promotional efforts, although some in the jiu jitsu community attempt to claim Barnett as one of their own due to his having a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Both attempts to re-contextualize the match are incorrect, overly simplistic, and miss a larger trend that has been occurring in no gi submission grappling for some time now: the blending and hybridization of grappling games from many different "styles". Most jiu jitsu competitions have rules in place that seek to help express the views of the martial art, as do Judo, Wrestling and Sambo competitions. The open rule sets starting to appear in some grappling competitions, specifically no gi competitions which have far more open rules concerning positions and submissions (examples include Metamoris, Five Grappling, NAGAs, US Grappling, and ADCCs). By virtue of their reduced rule set, these competitions break down the boundaries between the different submission grappling arts and thus become more approachable for grapplers with different stylistic backgrounds. With the rise of American Freestyle Sambo and the new rule set laid down by Rickson Gracie, this more open minded rule set looks to be coming to jacketed and gi grappling as well - which I and many others view as a great thing.

In these more open rule sets, grapplers who train in multiple styles of grappling and defy the classic conventions of being a "jiu jitsu guy", a "judoka", or a "wrestler" are becoming more common sights. In the match between Dean Lister and Josh Barnett, we have two athletes who were really on the forefront of this trend. Lister started out as a wrestler in high school, moved on to Sambo, and then took up Brazilian jiu jitsu where he built a career for himself. Barnett also was a wrestler in high school and then began to study catch wrestling under the great Billy Robinson. Barnett then began to train under Erik Paulson, a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Judo black belt, Sambist, Shootfighter, and all-around human encyclopedia of grappling knowledge. Barnett has had the far better career in MMA as well.

Together with Paulson's assistance, Barnett has mixed together many different approaches and perspectives to grappling to create for himself a hybrid game that remains based around his catch wrestling, yet incorporates other elements as supplements to create a more complete attack that is very difficult to deal with for most ordinary human beings.

In this Judo chop we will examine some of the key elements, some of which were touched on in a previous Judo Chop on the match. This article will cover:

  • The Guard Passes
  • Barnett's Top Control, Pressure, and Rides
  • The Finish
These three elements nicely demonstrate Barnett's varied and mixed skill set. Let's dive right into this.

Guard Passing


Passing the guard tends to be a skill set normally picked up through training jiu jitsu, which is the art that puts the greatest emphasis on the development of the guard. For every guard player, there is a guard passer, so the technique and approaches to passing tends to be as rich and diverse as the approaches to guard work. Barnett was awarded a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu by Paulson in 2009 and has won the IBJJF No Gi World Championships, while sporadically competing in the gi and submitting some of the best in jiu jitsu. But guard passing also is not unique to jiu jitsu, as Sambo and Judo also have athletes with the need to pass the guard. Even wrestlers need to deal with and bypass the legs of opponents to score points and win matches.

Against Dean Lister, Barnett was facing a very dangerous butterfly guard player. Lister prefers the butterfly guard because it is relatively difficult for the top man to attack with leg locks, while allowing Lister to transition to his feared leglock attacks. The butterfly guard is not exclusively a jiu jitsu tactic - in fact, it most likely was adapted to jiu jitsu from wrestling, but we see it commonly employed by more advanced jiu jitsu practitioners.

Barnett's first step in passing this guard was to eliminate one of Lister's butterfly hooks.

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In the above picture, you can see that Barnett is controlling Lister's left foot and stopping it from getting to the inside of Barnett's thigh to act as a proper butterfly hook. Barnett is also leaning heavily to Lister's right, towards Lister's only remaining butterfly hook, which forces Lister to be on his right side and greatly reduces any chances Lister has of sweeping in the other direction.

At this point, Barnett has a mechanical advantage, but he is far from out of danger, Lister's guard is not passed at this point and Lister is shifting focus to gaining control of Barnett's left arm by attempting what is known as an armdrag.

In the GIF above, you can see Lister devoting both his arms in an attempt to pull Barnett's left arm across the body, which sets up a possible back take. However, this is a two-stage threat as the armdrag is also one of Lister's favorite ways to set up a heel hook. Barnett is highly aware of both threats and puts his attempts to pass on hold, while he tries to free his arm.

Once Barnett is able to gain the upper hand in this grip fight, his goal is to underhook Lister's left leg, while simultaneously pinning his right leg. In the GIF, you can see Barnett first using his left hand and then his right shin to control Lister's leg. This method of killing the butterfly guard requires the top player to get the guard player off his side and flat on his back. With the back flat, one leg underhooked and the other controlled, Barnett is in a classic over/under passing position. Over the course of the match, Barnett works a fundamental combination of passes from this starting point.

The first pass he attempts is a fairly basic pass, that oddly lacks a widely used name and does not have a great deal of instructional videos made of it, but I was able to find this video that does a good job of explaining it. The instructor in it is not credited for some reason. Notice how the hips are controlled by the grips on the legs and then the back is pressed flat to the mat, immobilizing the guard player.

Barnett uses a variation of this technique to achieve his first successful guard pass of the match, pictured below.

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Barnett has an underhook of Lister's leg, and is using shoulder pressure to force Lister to his back. Both of Lister's butterfly hooks are gone and he is prevented from stiff-arming Barnett away or turn his lower body back into Barnett to re-establish his butterfly guard. We will get into why this is a very bad position for Lister in the next section.

Later in the match, Lister is able to regain his guard and Barnett is again able to underhook a leg, but this time Lister does not allow him to pin his leg. Reacting to this defense, Barnett uses a companion technique to the previous pass -the single leg stack pass.

Here is quick video explaining the stack pass from Modesto Grappling.

Now let's take a look at how Barnett used it and how Lister reacted.

You can see above that Barnett starts standing, controlling Lister's legs and then makes a quick attempt to dive around the guard. When Lister moves, Barnett loads up the leg and attempts the pass stack. Lister responds with a classic BJJ reaction: doing a backwards roll to turtle. While this isn't considered a "guard pass" in the strict sense and in a point scoring sense, for Barnett, this is still a positive advance in position and it leads nicely into a wrestling ride and opportunities to bring pressure and work his catch wrestling based game.

Thus far, we've not seen really much of anything from Barnett that you wouldn't learn in almost any Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym, but there are subtle bits of catch wrestling favor to his guard passing game.

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The grip of the toes/upper foot that Barnett made heavy use of is one that would not normally set off alarm bells for your average jiu jitsu student. Yet in a battle between two leg lock experts who have studied catch wrestling, they both are keenly aware that the grip is a lead in to a toe hold attack. Notice that Barnett also has the other leg hooked, meaning Barnett could possibly roll through at any time.

Here is a GIF of American catch wrestling coach Tony Cecchine demonstrating the basic toe hold from that position.

It is a hold that Lister is keenly aware of and he has to take into account at all times Barnett has that grip into his own guard work. This subtle battle for position adds a extra dimension to their guard battle and creates an additional factor dividing Lister's attention while he works his guard-based defenses and attacks. If you don't believe that toe hold was in the back of Lister's mind, here is a video of the the man himself teaching that attack.

Dean Lister Teaches Rolling Toe Hold in Open Guard (via BJJ Video Vault)

Top Pressure

In an interview with Sherdog, Billy Robinson said that his way to defeat a guard player would be to grind down the bottom guard player by making him carry his weight and the weight of the top player as well. Barnett, thanks to his guard passing, was able to implement his late coach's principles constantly throughout the match. This is not a strategy unique to wrestling, as we some incredibly physically dominating jiu jitsu players who regularly do this to their opponents. Yet catch wrestlers strongly pride themselves on the roughness of their grappling, which seeks to force their opponents to carry the combined weight as often as possible. Barnett puts down horrendous pressure throughout his matches and will consistently bring his elbows, shins, and knees across the face to contort body alignments and increase his control of the opponent. In the match with Lister, Barnett actually caused Lister's nose to bleed with his tough top control.

Any chance Barnett had when he was in side control, Barnett was making use of a classic crossface - pushing his shoulder to the mat with Lister's face in the way.

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The picture above is how Lister spent a great deal of the match - on his back with his guard passed and Barnett's shoulder in his face. It is very easy to see the pressure Barnett is putting down here as Lister's face is contorted under the pressure. This shoulder pressure keeps Lister from being able to turn back to face Barnett to work his guard again, and the weight carrying makes the simple act of breathing more work than is ideal.

Again, this position isn't unique to catch wrestling, but what Barnett gains from his long time spent in catch wrestling is the subtle adjustments and body positioning of putting down enormous pressure - specifically from the pin position (opponent flat on back). While jiu jitsu does preach control, there is a difference in grappling games when a key match goal is to bodily pin an opponent. A lifetime of catch wrestling has given Barnett an oddly delicate sense for how and when to apply this pressure to a resisting opponent.

It was in this instance were Barnett's much discussed choice to wear wrestling shoes paid serious dividends.

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The entire time Barnett was on top, he was actively applying pressure by digging his shoes into the mat and driving forward in to Lister to keep up a constant crushing pressure. In the above image, you can see Barnett's shoe bunching the mat as he actively pushes off. This is good, fundamental top game from Barnett and it allowed him to maximize his size advantage in this match. By itself, a size advantage is not usually a deciding factor in a match between elite grapplers. Yet over time and with continual employment of it, carrying weight principles and more, the size advantage lets the larger grappler crack open opportunities for positional advances and submissions. Barnett made sure to continually put himself in position to use his as an advantage in the match.

Lister had a very difficult time countering this pressure and at several points threw his arms up in frustration, lobbying the referee for stalling as a way to get out of the position. Later in the match, Lister responded by going to his knees, which likely allowed for easier breathing, yet gave him little respite from Barnett's movement and pressure.

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This top of turtle position is one in which wrestlers thrive in because it is a highly common position in both regular Olympic/freestyle and folkstyle wrestling. Catch wrestling also focuses on this position because of the ability to roll an opponent over to reach a pin - which is a match winning move. Lister, like anyone who has turtled on the bottom, does not stay in this position by choice. His goal is to transition back to standing, roll back to guard, turn and engage Barnett's legs for a takedown, or any other number of offensive actions. But he is forced to stay crouched over on his knees by Barnett's pressure. Again, you can see the firmly planted right foot of Barnett driving off the mat and into Lister's hips, keeping him controlled. Look at how Barnett has placed his left shin on top of Lister's right ankle. This position can be quite painful and limits Lister's mobility in going forwards or rolling over at an unplanned time.

From this position, Barnett was able to turn Lister back into side control a few times. The result of Lister's attempt to move the match to the turtle position was an unending assault on Lister of weight and pressure that ground away at his energy and ability to resist, setting up the final submission.

The Finish

To open this final segment, take a look at Josh Barnett's coach Erik Paulson teaching what is referred to as a "lock flow", a chain of submission attacks. Pay specific attention to the early submissions, where Paulson traps his training partner's arm across his body and applies a squeeze.

These submissions are compression chokes that squeeze the air of out of the bottom fighter using good position and body mechanics. The emphasis on their usage is fairly unique to catch wrestling and at the 0:46 mark, Paulson demonstrates the submission that actually finished off Lister.

As Barnett's consistent top pressure took a toll on Lister, the catch wrestler began to look for submissions from this lockflow series.

Above you can see Barnett trying to trap Lister's arm across his body to set up one of the compression holds, but Lister is able to keep from getting put flat on his back and stays on his side facing Barnett. By doing this, Lister is eventually able to create enough space to get his arm out and prevent that particular submission.

Barnett would return to the compression principles in the closing seconds of the match. As the match was coming to an end, Barnett passed the guard one last time and they ended up in the position below.

Lister turns away from Barnett and his right arm is high on Barnett's hip. You can see a great deal of space between the upper part of Barnett's thigh and the mat. Barnett sits through that space with his right leg into what is commonly called the scarf hold, or kesa gatame. As Barnett sits through, he grabs Lister's right arm, pulls it upwards and encircles Lister's head with his left arm.

Barnett then splays his legs out, getting to the classic 12 o'clock and 9 o'clock pinning position. Proper leg positioning is critical here, Barnett's right leg at 12 o'clock kills Lister's ability to bridge and the left leg at 9 o'clock drives forward, keeping Lister from sitting up.

Barnett then sinks his hips down, which puts immense pressure down directly on top of Lister's lower ribs. It is when Barnett pulls Lister's head and shoulder up off the mat that the submission really begins. Barnett's grip is too low on Lister's head to be a particularly dangerous neck crank, so in this case, the submission comes from the fact that Barnett is compressing Lister's chest enough to prevent Lister's lungs from filling back up with air after exhaling. The muscles of Lister's chest and core, already severally taxed by the top pressure Barnett has been putting down, are unable to muster up the titanic effort need to refill his lungs and Lister is forced to tap in competition for the first time in over 15 years.

Conclusions

Josh Barnett makes it a point to call himself a catch wrestler and that is where the majority of his grappling experience comes from. But he has devoted time to learning and competing in other grappling arts and bringing their techniques and perspectives to broaden his grappling game, much as Dean Lister did with Sambo, jiu jitsu, and a bit of folkstyle wrestling to great success.

Barnett has taken his experiences with other grappling arts, apply them to his catch wrestling game and funnel matches into the areas where he is strongest - the top game with his wrestling rides, turnovers, head and arm control and sneaky submissions. A grappler hailing from only one background or perspective usually has positions or transitions they are unfamiliar with or are extremely underdeveloped in comparison to other areas of their game. This match should be celebrated as an excellent clash between two fairly well rounded, open minded grapplers that really show cased the high value of thinking broadly about grappling. Lister gave a strong effort in defeat and Barnett showcased that despite all the baggage attached to his MMA career, he is still a very, very formidable heavyweight grappler - and a huge Billy Robinson fan.

To close with on that note, here is a fantastic video of Josh Barnett learning from the late Catch Wrestling legend Billy Robinson with Erik Paulson around in the background. This video really helps drive home that catch wrestling has just as much depth of thought and technique as the other grappling arts. It ain't just a pro wrestling gimmick. 

Billy Robinson's Catch Wrestling Arm Lock Techniques (via fadedsideways)


For more MMA and Grappling analysis, history, technique, and discussion be sure to follow T.P. Grant on Twitter or Facebook.