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Scientific Ground and Pound part 1: Georges St-Pierre's Inside Control

Bloody Elbow's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch dips his toes into the misunderstood world of ground and pound, analyzing the can-opening guard work of the great Georges St-Pierre.

Esther Lin - MMA Fighting

A long time ago, I outlined my plan to analyze ground striking in MMA. I wanted to create an online encyclopedia of ground and pound technique. You see, ground striking is perhaps the single most unique aspect of mixed martial arts, and yet there is very little to be found on this subject in the way of technical analysis and instruction. I have even spoken to fighters who don’t seem to put much stock in the idea that ground striking is essentially complex. The consensus seems to be that you get on top of a guy, and you hit him. Simple as that.

Of course the reality is much different. Watching MMA as much as I do, you start to realize just how intelligently designed the ground and pound games of elite fighters are. In gyms and academies across the world, there are deliberate, systematic approaches to this seemingly wild and improvised aspect of the fight game.

And it was that realization that caused me to falter in my attempt. A confession: I do not know all that much about grappling. I can tell you the basics of each fundamental position, and I can identify a wide variety of submissions, takedowns, passes, and sweeps. On a deeper, conceptual level, however, I am a striking specialist, as most of my article summaries indicate.

The thing about ground striking is that it is neither identical to kickboxing nor to submission grappling. The effective mixed martial artist blends these two phases together when he attempts to strike on the ground. In this way, ground and pound is not only the most unique facet of MMA but the one which really defines it. With ground and pound, fighters can pursue grappling goals with striking techniques, and vice versa. Guard passes, submission defense, and breakdowns all change dramatically with the introduction of strikes, just as striking changes dramatically with the introduction of sweeps and submissions.

There is so much material to cover, and I am so relatively unversed in the world of grappling, that I could never create an encyclopedia of ground and pound one my own. It was arrogance to set out with that promise.

What I can do, however, is breach the topic slowly, just as I did when I first began to study Muay Thai and boxing. I can look at not only a single position, but a single technique from that position, and start to break down why it works, or doesn’t. In this way, I can learn the ropes of ground and pound even as I attempt to illustrate them to you. It won’t turn me into a master of the concepts overnight, and it certainly won’t allow me to execute them, but it should prove interesting and enlightening nonetheless. Think of this like the GnP version of Wait But Why.

It’s the long way to understanding, but experience has taught me that there is none better. And as we explore the finer points of ground striking together, I intend to bring in the opinions and insights of those more experienced in the technical aspects of grappling in MMA.

So my thanks to T.P. Grant for his help with this piece. Let’s dive into our first topic.


Hand-fighting is a good place for us (meaning me) to start. In standup striking and wrestling, the placement of one’s hands, arms, and head is crucial aspect of defense, control, and leverage. To analyze how this works on the ground, let’s look at the technique of one of MMA’s greatest ground and pound technicians, former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. And just to illustrate the importance and power of these concepts, we’ll be looking at a few sequences from his UFC 94 fight with BJ Penn, one of MMA’s preeminent guard players.

Whenever two fighters are engaged in some form of in-fighting, whether in boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, judo, jiu jitsu, or MMA, inside control is vitally important. In close, leverage is paramount, especially in sports governed by weight classes, where the strength disparity between any two fighters is typically very thin. Inside control occurs whenever one fighter swims his arm inside that of his opponent. On the feet, for example, a double collar tie is a very powerful example of inside control.

    Anderson Silva's inside double collar tie gives him tremendous leverage

This concept is no less important in the realm of grappling, and it carries particular weight when strikes are involved. Just as in a clinch, posture is immensely important on the ground, and whoever has inside control is typically able to control the posture of themselves, and that of the opponent.

In fact, when St-Pierre fought Penn he made frequent use of the can-opener, almost identical in every way to the double collar tie you might see in a Muay Thai clinch. Here's how it works.

1. BJ Penn attempts to control the posture of Georges St-Pierre in closed guard, but has given up inside control.

2. With his head low, St-Pierre flares his elbows to weaken the strength of Penn's arms . . .

3. . . . and then posts on Penn's collarbone to free himself and posture up.

4. Now St-Pierre has a full can-opener and upright posture.

5. He lands a quick downward elbow to Penn's stomach.

6. And then pins Penn's shoulder to the ground with his left hand--still keeping inside control.

7. Posting on that hand, St-Pierre works his way to his feet.

8. And lands a hard straight left to Penn's body, forcing his guard open in the process.

In this one sequence St-Pierre demonstrates just about everything that makes inside control so effective. With his arms closer together (and closer to the center of Penn's body) he is easily able to open Penn's elbows, weakening his outside collar tie and allowing himself to posture up. Because he keeps his hands inside Penn's, Georges can frame against his opponent's body. Not only does this allow him to posture up and stand without placing his hand on the mat, which might put him at risk of a submission, but it allows him to pin Penn in place in the process. With St-Pierre's bodyweight mashing down on his shoulders, BJ cannot hip escape. And no hip escape means no submissions, no sweeps, and no escape.

St-Pierre's double collar tie can also be turned into a submission--the real "can-opener." The can-opener rarely succeeds in finishing an opponent; all he has to do in order to free himself is to open his guard--but that creates an opportunity to pass. It is no coincidence that St-Pierre, one of the early adopters of a technical can-opener game, is also one of the most consistently successful guard passers in the history of the sport.

There are risks inherent to the can-opener, of course. Reaching too much for the opponent's head, and thus straightening out the arms, can invite an armbar. Benson Henderson learned this lesson when Anthony Pettis hit an almost imperceptibly quick hip escape and locked up an arm in their UFC 164 rematch. Still, the can-opener position, and the powerful inside control it offers, is extremely valuable to the modern ground-and-pounder. The key to Georges St-Pierre's success with the technique was his total situational awareness. The risk-averse attitude for which he was so often criticized was in reality the key to his success, and arguably the factor that made him the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.

Here, he thwarts BJ Penn's submission threats before they can take root, and punishes him for every attempt.

1. Penn wraps up St-Pierre's right arm. Georges senses an armbar attempt.

2. St-Pierre drives his left hand through past Penn's head, and at the same time jerks his right arm back to free it from Penn's grip.

3. Holding the back of Penn's head with his left, St-Pierre slashes downward with two elbows from his free arm.

4. As he loads up another strike, Penn extends an arm and starts hip escaping to his right.

5. Knowing that his left arm is still safe for the moment, St-Pierre keeps his collar tie and attacks Penn's ribs as he turns away.

6. Now Penn gets a collar tie of his own, and manages to pull St-Pierre down, snaking his left leg up his back at the same time.

7. Georges feels a triangle, incoming, and swims his right arm inside once again . . .

8. . . . using the double collar tie to frame and break Penn's high guard.

Ground and pound will always be a risky proposition. Though the risks can be mitigated, a collar tie or can-opener will always be seen as an armbar opportunity, and no shortage of skilled fighters have been caught out this way. We already mentioned Ben Henderson's defeat, but no less a great than Jon Jones was nearly submitted by Vitor Belfort in exactly the same way. Opportunistic submissions may be even more dangerous today, in an era of fighters who tend to avoid playing guard at all costs. Many excellent fighters simply don't have the depth of skill or the drilled-in awareness of submission threats on the ground.

Every submission needs a set-up, though. Quick as it was, Anthony Pettis still had to put the pieces of his armbar in place before springing the trap. Belfort had to tie up an arm, plant his foot on the cage, and then successfully angle away from Jones before he could even think about hyperextending the light heavyweight kingpin's elbow. For St-Pierre, the key to maintaining safe inside control was to squash out the building blocks of a submission the moment the bottom fighter put them in place. Penn traps an arm? Use the other one to break free and hit him. Penn goes to a high guard? Get both hands inside, break his grip, and hit him. Penn breaks posture? Frame, get to the feet, and hit him.

If you haven't caught on to the pattern by this point, have no doubt that BJ Penn has. Every attempt to set up a submission is thwarted, and punishment quickly follows.

That's our first look at inside control, but the topic will no doubt crop up again as we wend our way through the wonderful and woefully under-explored world of ground striking in MMA. With Anderson Silva returning to the cage soon, our next topic will be the Spider's specialty: straight punches, and the devastating knockouts they produce.

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