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Judo Chop: Art of the Transition - The Flying Armbar

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T.P. Grant kicks off a sub-series of Judo Chops with conceptual looks at transition grappling and starts off with the Flying Armbar.

When someone first begins to learn submission grappling, they are often introduced to the basic positions and learn fundamentals within each position: they learn the proper defensive postures, techniques, and also the subtle ways to move to other positions. These basics are often a student's first introduction to the concept of transitioning.

The students start to discover that moving between these positions presents challenges all to themselves as the "correct" defensive positioning and ideal basics often shift completely from position to position. In the midst of these fast transitions, it is possible for even experienced grapplers to find themselves making basic mistakes. This is not because they are poor grapplers, but rather the person who initiates a transition can often be a step ahead while the other has to catch up. That is where the opportunities to win at the elite level start to show themselves.

Examples of these transition include allowing an opponent to roll right into a guillotine choke, snatching up a heel hook during a guard pass, or catching the back off a single leg attempt. The ability to win a transition battle allows a fighter to pull the rug out from under his opponent. It is transitions that make grappling truly three dimensional chess, as grapplers have to account for the dangers and possibilities of the position they are currently in and also try to predict any transitional moves an opponent might make and defend/attack accordingly. It should come as no surprise that when high level grapplers meet, they are able to account for the positional dangers exceedingly well - so it is often in transitional play that they can be caught.

When watching an MMA or grappling match, a casual observer witnesses a transitional move, it may seemamazingly unique and improvised. While there are unique aspects to almost every transition, often the moves you see are drilled time and again by athletes looking to never be in an unfamiliar situation. The techniques are rehearsed and instilled into instinct.

One of the more interesting transitions between position is the one between standing and the ground and this article will examine one of the practiced attacks that targets this transition - the flying armbar.

During standing clinches/grappling, a fighter is often forced to extend his or her arms during grip fighting. This would be a mortal sin inside the guard or while mounted (two positions where the armbar is an established and consistent threat) but this is not so in the standing clinch or in striking. Also, even if it is a risk, extending one's arms is a common strategy in grappling on the ground and is often refereed to as "stiff arming".

A transitional armbar can be a very effective counter to stiff arming, so let us look at a basic transition to the armbar from standing - the sitting armbar. As an example, here is Reilly Bodycomb, a former member of the U.S. National Sambo team, a Sambo coach at NOLA BJJ in New Orleans, and a dedicated teacher of dynamic transition attacks.

Flying Armbar Alternative -Reilly Bodycomb Sambo seminar 4/3/2010: (via Reilly Bodycomb)

The sitting armbar allows Bodycomb to transition from standing to the guard, while his training partner is forced to follow unwillingly. He is basically pulling guard - but with the intent of attacking the arm on the way to the ground, rather than just to pull guard and then go to work.

There are several variations to this concept, but in this one, Bodycomb uses his right foot to stretch his training partner and uses his left hand to trap his partner's arm with a sleeve grip. When Bodycomb sits, he is forcing his partner to transition to the open guard with his posture already broken and his arm extended, which is a ripe opportunity for an armbar and win.

What started out as a fairly standard and harmless grip for his training partner suddenly becomes a dangerous mistake because he was not prepared for the transition that Bodycomb forced upon him.

The more dynamic the entry, the more sudden the armbar. The more dynamic entry is often referred to as the flying armbar, or as it is called in Judo, the Tobi Juji-Gatame. These more dynamic attacks increase both the risk and reward of the technique; it is more difficult in some ways to accomplish, but when done right, it is very tough for an unsuspecting opponent to defend.

Below is a gif of former AKA Grappling coach and U.S. National Judo team member Dave Camarillo hitting a flying armbar at the 2000 U.S. Judo Nationals.

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You can see Camarillo's opponent, in the blue gi, using his left arm to grip Camarillo's gi and try to control Camarillo at a distance with a stiff arm. The man in the blue gi pushes forward and that is when Camarillo makes his move, launching off his left leg, bringing his entire body off to the side of his opponent, rather than squaring up.

As he does that, Camarillo uses his left arm to trap his opponent's arm in place, pulling him forward at the same time Camarillo's upper body falls to the mat. At that point Camarillo is already in the armbar position in mid-air, he did not bring the arm to him, rather he brought himself to the arm. This entry for Camarillo is well schooled, and he used speed and dynamic entry to catch this armbar. A strong, stiff grip on the collar is extremely common in Judo and with a fast and dynamic entry, Camarillo was able to bypass the guard pull entirely and transition directly to the armbar around the extended arm.

Getting the arm exposed is the key to hitting an armbar in transition. In both previous examples, the victims were extending their arms to get a collar a grip on a jacket, but what happens when there isn't a gi to grip?

The key to getting an armbar in general is getting the elbow away from the body. When the elbow is close into the body, that arm is mechanically stronger and far more difficult to isolate. If the elbow can be drawn away from the body, fewer muscle groups are in play and the arm is weaker and more easily isolated.

So let's look at a no gi strategy that forces the opponent to make a choice. Here is Vinny Magalhães hitting a flying armbar on the then-unknown Chris Weidman.

Magalhães starts off with double wrist control on Weidman's left arm. Magalhães then attempts an armdrag, where his right hand goes up to Weidman's tricep to pull Weidman's arm across his body. The armdrag is a common wrestling tactic and serves as the preamble to any number of takedowns, but in no gi grappling, it is often used to circle around to a rear waist lock and threaten a back take. That appears to be what Magalhães is setting up, as his right hand reaches up around Weidman's back and grips the far side of his rib cage.

At this point, Weidman has to react, his back is about to taken and he will be in a very bad position. At the same time this back take threat is being presented, notice that Weidman's elbow is away from his body and his arm is extended. The most likely play for Magalhães is go for the back here, so in what is likely a pure reaction rather than a thoughtful move, Weidman tries to turn back into Magalhães to defend the back take.

It is then that Magalhães goes into his dynamic flying armbar entry with Weidman already bent over, posture broken, and with his arm extended, a perfect opening for a transitional opportunity and Vinny seized the win with aplomb.

Now let us look at an example in MMA, where that much space in the clinch can be hard to come by due to the addition of strikes. One of the finest armbars in a standing-to-ground transition in the history of the UFC was executed by Dustin Hazelett against Josh Burkman on an Ultimate Fighter Finale card. Even years later, it remains a truly excellent display of transitional grappling.

We will start with a full gif of it and then break it down.

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Burkman starts with double underhooks against Hazelett and is trying to drive him into the cage. Hazelett is using an overhook with his left arm turned a bit and while Burkman is head-fighting him him, Hazelett has wormed his left leg around Burkman's right leg, circled in blue.

From here, Hazellet looks to execute a Judo style throw, an Uchi Mata (also commonly used in wrestling).

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You can see in the above picture that Hazelett does elevate Burkman's leg and forces his weight forward, as per the classic Uchi Mata. But Hazelett is actually doing a slight variation: at the same time that he elevates the leg, Hazelett reaches down with his right and simultaneously performs an ankle pick, which drops Burkman onto his stomach instead of on his back as the classic Uchi Mata would.

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Burkman does not concede the takedown and fights his way back to his knees. During this, he uses his underhook in an attempt to level Hazelett off of him, circled in red. But in the process of doing that, he extends the upper part of his arm, leaving his elbow away from his body.

Burkman is in the process of transitioning his way back to his feet, but he is already a step or two behind as he is bent over with poor posture with his elbow away from his body.

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It is here that Hazelett makes the move truly special by planting his right foot on the ground and swinging his left leg over Burkman's body. Again, this is a case of Hazelett bringing himself to the arm rather than wresting the arm to him. This is not a true "flying" armbar; a more accurate term might be "step-over" armbar.

Hazelett's chain takedown attack had Burkman so firmly fighting to transition back to the feet that he left an arm exposed. Hazelett was fully ready to capitalize with a transitional armbar and finished it after a brief struggle on the ground.

Have a look at the gif again now and see the progression of events in real time.

While this seems like an amazingly unique attack, it is something that you will see regularly in Judo competition when a Judoka is fighting for balance stooped over with an arm exposed.

Below is a gif of a similar "stepover" armbar in a Judo competition.

Notice when the Judoka in the blue gi is broken down and brought forward, the Judoka in the white gi keeps his right foot planted on the mat and steps over his head with the left leg in a near carbon copy of the entry used by Hazelett.

Keep in mind that this is just a brief overview of armbar attacks in the transitions between the ground and standing. There many variations and situations not addressed here, yet the basics of any flying armbar remain the same.

Once a fighter can get the opponent's elbow away from their body, and maintain some form of control over that arm, it then is all about the entry. The more dynamic the entry, the less the opponent's posture needs to be broken and the faster the armbar is applied, which gives less time for an opponent to defend.

If the fighter is able to perform an extremely athletic entry - such as in the cases of Rose Namajunas and Rumino Sato - the posture of the opponent does not even need to be broken. The athleticism and the timing they used during the transition allowed them to bring their bodies to the armbar so fast that the fight was over in the half second it took to hit the mat.

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The transition is where athleticism and experience become huge boons. Transitional attacks need to be expertly times, be done with conviction, and a bit of dynamic athleticism always helps. Beyond being exciting for fans to watch, transitions are rife with opportunities to win matches or fights and mastering transitions is what makes elite grapplers elite. This series will examine different transitions and examine how athletes apply them and what makes them work.

To close this edition of Art of the Transition here is renowned Sambist Vladislav Koulikov teaching his version of the flying armbar.

SAMBO : Flying Arm Bar (via Combat2ouf)

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