This technique breakdown is a guest post from BJJ & Judo black belt, multiple time Fight 2 Win Pro competitor, and amateur Muay Thai fighter Tommy Elliott.
Part one of this series examined modern sport Jiu Jitsu guard passing, as well as the fundamental aspects of modern MMA wrestling and striking, and how those impact the ability to transition Jiu Jitsu techniques into mixed martial arts. Part two will examine the evolution of guard passing in MMA, and exactly why and how it has transformed to meet the specific needs of the sport.
Ahead of His Time: BJ Penn
BJ Penn is without a doubt one of the OGs of grappling in MMA. It’s amazing to watch his grappling in the early 2000s and see how modern it looks in comparison to other pioneers such as Royce Gracie. Even in the comparatively early days of MMA, Penn was combining control and positional advancement in a way that wouldn’t become common for another 15 years.
Here is Penn in one of his early UFC fights against Joey Gilbert. Having secured the takedown, Penn first tries to move immediately to side control, recognizing that Gilbert’s guillotine isn’t threatening without the ability to hook at least one leg over Penn’s body. Feeling that he doesn’t have the control he wants - or perhaps sensing an opportunity to go for more than side control - Penn steps back over, switching to a leg ride, and starts the pass to mount. Throughout the sequence, BJ always has at least one leg circled under Gilbert’s legs. This is a theme we’ll return to repeatedly, namely the notion of leg riding as an intermediate positional control between guard and mount, or side control. Leg riding allows the passer relatively free mobility in the hips, while inhibiting the ability of the guard player to disengage, frame, and get back to their feet.
This can be seen even more clearly in a series from BJ’s first fight with Jens Pulver. Pulver is attempting to walk his back up the cage to get back to his feet, a tactic that would become standard in the arsenal of fighters a decade after his heyday. Penn sticks with the double, and as Jens starts to push himself up, BJ pulls his legs back out from under him and immediately circles his right leg under Pulver’s left to prevent him from trying to stand again. After the leg is trapped, Penn starts to walk his arms up Pulver’s body, to move from hip control to waist control. This sort of slow taking up of space is a constant feature of effective passing in MMA.
A last example from their first tilt sees Penn in top half guard again against Pulver. Passing in this situation requires a little more finesse, as Pulver has more resources playing from the bottom. He can attempt to get underhooks to come up to his knees, or butterfly hooks to start elevating Penn for a sweep or standup. What Penn does is very instructive: he drops his head and establishes tight upper body contact with Jens. This leaves his hips and legs free to work independently without worrying much about a sweep. So long as BJ controls Pulver’s upper body and keeps him flat on the mat, no amount of leg work from Jens will result in a sweep—as Pulver won’t be able to turn his torso to get on top. Penn can let Jens elevate him, and use his exceptional dexterity to turn those sweep/guard re-composition attempts into a pass.
That is exactly what happens. After Penn gets his head to the mat and secures a near side underhook, Pulver starts to turn to his left, trying to get his right leg between Penn’s to get to butterfly guard. He succeeds, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Penn’s tight control of Jens’ upper body means that all Pulver can do is lift Penn up; he can’t turn him to complete the sweep. Penn feels the lift, and realizes it means that his opponent’s leg is extended and in poor position to resist a simple push. BJ reaches down and shoves the leg between his, moving to mount.
BJ showed how a dominant, control oriented top game could create guard passing opportunities. A man he’d fight and lose to twice carried that ethos forward and combined it with some of the most effective wrestling MMA has ever seen.
Nowhere to Run: Georges St-Pierre
Georges St-Pierre is in the discussion for best fighter of all time—in no small part due to the dynamic wrestling game he picked up at a relatively late stage in his athletic development (at least compared to opponents like Josh Koscheck and John Fitch, who had been wrestling competitively since grade school). A Kyokushin karate fighter since his youth, GSP committed to learning wrestling and BJJ with the same exacting fervor he brought to every aspect of his training. And it showed in both the success he enjoyed and the attention to detail evident in his fights.
The clip above shows GSP at the height of his powers against Dan Hardy. Having taken Hardy down, St-Pierre does a couple of things right off the bat to secure position and set up a dominant platform for passing Hardy’s half guard. Firstly, he stuff’s Hardy’s left leg between his own—depriving him of any chance to use the knee shield (a shin across the opponent’s abdomen) to control distance. Secondly, he shoots his left arm under Hardy’s to establish an underhook, while simultaneously punching his way into a strong crossface with his right. Once GSP is able to connect his hands behind Hardy’s head, there’s very little Dan can do to defend the position.
Randy Couture famously called top half the ‘beatdown position,’ because it afforded the fighter on top such a good opportunity to punish the bottom man with strikes. This is because of the entangled leg. That leg can be an asset in sport BJJ, but in MMA it mostly affords the passer a control point to keep his opponent on his back and in range for strikes. Though we’re concentrating on his passing, GSP himself would often use top half guard in this way to land attritive, round winning strikes against his relatively helpless opponents.
This clip shows the culmination of Georges’ control. Having stuffed the left leg and secured his crossface + underhook control off the takedown, GSP is looking to advance. He first circles his right instep in, to try and free his trapped leg. Hardy responds well by getting to his side, so St-Pierre places the sole of his foot on Dan’s thigh to try and kick through. Hardy defends that as well, but his guard is loosening—allowing GSP to transition to a knee slice and complete the pass. The main element here is that, throughout his pass attempts, GSP never loses control and never gives Hardy the slightest chance to counter.
Hardy could slow down the pass, and in some rounds of this fight he retained guard until the bell. But he never came close to reversing the position and GSP won a unanimous decision taking all 5 rounds on every scorecard. Georges’s ability to connect to Hardy’s upper body, and never allow him space to re-guard or frame, was responsible in no small part for the dominance of his performance.
The Torchbearer: Demian Maia
The demise of BJJ in MMA is, to paraphrase Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. As long as Demian Maia (and Kron and Neiman Gracie, and Garry Tonon) is fighting, BJJ has an elite representative willing and able to show that submission grappling can still be a successful specialty in the Octagon. That his BJJ is heavily colored with wrestling should be an object lesson to other Jiu Jitsu specialists looking to enter the cage (but that’s a digression for another day). The core of Maia’s game in the best stretch of his career was based on sublime guard passing and, incongruously (because Maia is one of the nicest people in MMA), vicious finishing—mostly from the back. (Before diving into Maia’s game, I’d like to note that I’m intentionally trying not to overlap too much with BJJ Scout’s magisterial series on Maia, which you can find here. Those studies are must-watch for anyone looking to fully understand Maia’s game, though I will focus mostly on different aspects of his passing.)
This is Maia in action against Matt Brown. In this clip, Maia has secured the takedown against the fence. But, Brown is no slouch on the ground himself, and knows that if he’s going to win he needs to get back to his feet. To prevent Brown from doing so Maia combines two principles we’ve seen from BJ Penn and GSP: he drops his weight forward to prevent Brown from framing, while simultaneously circling his right leg under Brown’s to keep him from establishing a base to stand. Matt controls Maia’s left hand, wisely preventing him from getting to a full bodylock. In response Maia shifts his hips to his left weaving between Brown’s legs and opening a path to the back.
This sequence from Maia is indicative of another truth of passing in modern MMA: you have to be ready for your opponent to turtle, and to take the back in transition. The lessons of folkstyle wrestling have been widely learned; having been taken down, most elite fighters will look to turtle, build their base, get to their feet, clear the waist lock, and resume striking. If someone wants to be a top control submission fighter, they had better know how to recognize when the pass to side control is lost, and shift their attention to taking the back. Which Maia does, as evidence by his nine finishes from the back among 26 wins.
The next example comes from Maia’s fight with Ryan LaFlare. Throughout this fight, LaFlare does an admirable job of keeping Maia from attaining dominant positions. But, he’s not able to consistently create enough space on bottom to shuck Maia off and get back to his feet. Breaking down this takedown from round 1 gives some insight into why. Maia shoots in on a relatively high single, switching to a waist grip and outside trip as soon as he gets LaFlare moving backwards. As they hit the mat, LaFlare correctly posts on his left arm and tries to get to his knees. However, he’s prevented from doing so by Maia’s leg wrap and a well-timed turn to his (Maia’s) left, dumping LaFlare onto his right hip.
Unable to keep the scramble going, Ryan gets his hooks in and starts looking for an underhook from butterfly guard. That underhook and butterfly guard might give him a chance to elevate Maia and look for a technical standup, except for Maia’s reaction to finding himself on top: he places his head under LaFlare’s chin, leans forward, and flattens him out while still keeping some waist control with his left arm. It’s almost always the case that, when playing any sort of open guard, being flat on your back is death. Because a grappler on their back lacks the mobility to escape their hips, work towards their opponent’s back, or come up on their own shot. In the GIF you can clearly see LaFlare trying to stay off his back. But, by the time he manages to get his head out from under Maia’s, the Brazilian has secured an underhook, is leaning far forward in his trademark tripod, and is in the process of splitting LaFlare’s legs with his own left leg, to begin his knee slice/leg weave passing series.
The final example from Maia is also from that LaFlare fight. Maia gets in on a double leg midway through round 2. LaFlare tries to counter with a guillotine, but Maia quickly clears the legs to side control—neutralizing the threat of the choke. At the same time, he starts picking up LaFlare’s legs to flatten him out to establish side control. Recognizing that the choke is lost, Ryan turns to his right, slips his legs back inside Maia’s, and starts pushing on Demian’s head to create space. Rather than try to fight directly against LaFlare’s frame on his head, Maia steps over his legs to start the weave. LaFlare continues to frame and shrimp and is able to temporarily create some space, but Maia relentlessly drives forward while again lifting LaFlare’s legs to keep him flat on his back. In short order Maia is able to get to his tripod staging position, secure an underhook, split LaFlare’s legs, and begin attacking the knee slice.
Reviewing these GIFs reveals that, in none of the three examples does Maia cleanly pass to side control or mount. Each example stops with him in an intermediate position on his way to the back or to the pass. The reason being that the finish is less instructive than the setup. Finishing a pass once you’re in a dominant position is mostly a matter of time, for top players as skilled as Maia, Penn, or GSP. The hard part is getting the opponent down and keeping them down long enough to start the pass in the first place.
This is where passing in MMA diverges from passing in sport BJJ, and becomes more akin to folkstyle wrestling; before you can pass, you have to ride. Riding in the context of passing is certainly different than riding in pure wrestling, but many of the conceptual tools are the same. Prevent the opponent from building a base through leg riding, elevating the hips, elevating the legs to flatten the bottom fighter, and getting upper body control. Deny space by tightening upper body control, neutralizing frames with body and head positioning, and clearing butterfly hooks to collapse into half guard. Once a fighter has done those things, the pass is almost incidental.
Starting With Wrestling: Khabib Nurmagomedov
The three fighters examined so far each came from a strong BJJ background (Penn and Maia) or learned BJJ alongside wrestling (GSP). To see how the evolution of ground grappling looks when a fighter starts with wrestling and adds elements of jiu jitsu, look no further than current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Highly skilled in combat Sambo and the international wrestling styles, Khabib has cut a swathe through one of the most competitive divisions in the UFC, using a wide repertoire of takedowns and throws. What he does once he has his man on the mat, however, has changed quite a bit over the years. No doubt his time at American Kickboxing Academy has exposed him to the tutelage of Daniel Cormier in American folkstyle wrestling and BJJ legend Leo Vieira (as well as extremely skilled grappling teammates like Luke Rockhold). It would be a significant overstatement to say that Khabib entered the UFC incapable of keeping his opponents on the mat, but his skills in that area have evolved considerably during his run to the title.
Khabib’s fourth fight in the UFC was against Abel Trujillo, an athletic and skilled wrestler in his own right, who enjoyed a lot of success on the collegiate level—albeit below the meat grinder of NCAA Division 1. What might reasonably have been expected to be a competitive fight turned into a clinic, as Khabib set the record for takedowns in a single fight—using a body lock to relentlessly fling Trujillo around the cage. What’s most notable in relation to passing, is that Khabib never really tried to pass Abel’s guard, or even did much to keep him on the mat.
Instead, he was content to forcefully return him again and again. As the clip above shows, while Khabib has taken Trujillo down he’s not moving to entangle his legs. His head – and thus his weight – are higher on Abel’s body, allowing Trujillo to build his base. And he’s not moving towards either the back or side control. He’s content to land a shot or two, and while Trujillo can’t separate Nurmagomedov’s hands and really get free, he does get back to his feet comparatively easily. This pattern was repeated throughout the fight. Trujillo was utterly dominated but he wasn’t really hurt at any point. Contrast Khabib’s matwork in that fight against his fight with Michael Johnson:
Here we see Khabib completing a double leg early in the third round. His right hand stays under Johnson’s left thigh lifting it up and feeding Johnson’s legs to Khabib’s for the entanglement, while rendering Mike’s chest lock useless since he can’t turn towards Nurmagomedov. Throughout the sequence Nurmagomedov’s weight is forward, preventing Johnson from starting to walk his back up the cage in order to return to his feet. The whole series looks a lot more like something Demian Maia would do than what Khabib showed in the Trujillo fight. Let’s look at one more example of the transition mastery Khabib has developed during his UFC run. This time from his highest profile fight: Conor McGregor.
In the first round of this lightweight title scrap, McGregor was largely able to neutralize Khabib’s offense on the mat—though he never managed to get back to his feet before the bell. In the second round the Irishman would prove far less effective at limiting damage from the ‘Eagle,’ and one big reason was his inability to stall Khabib’s positional progression. Here Nurmagomedov gets in on a high crotch and, with a huge lift, flings MacGregor to the ground alongside the cage.
McGregor’s grappling is often denigrated more than it deserves (he hit some nice sweeps in the first Diaz fight, and was able to get back to his feet very effectively against Chad Mendes) and, upon impact, he immediately pushes off the canvas with his left hand to get his back to the fence, with the intention of cage walking up. Khabib, however, has no intention of letting him do so, and drives his shoulder into Conor’s gut, while moving to a waist lock and immediately encircling the ‘Notorious’’ legs with his own. From there, he angles McGregor off the fence so that he has space to drive his shoulder higher, forcing Conor to his back. Once McGregor is flat, with his legs tied up, he has almost no potential for escape, and Khabib moves towards mount. The fight ended in the fourth, after more top control domination from Nurmagomedov, culminating in a rear naked choke.
Western MMA’s roots are in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but as the metagame of BJJ (one guy plays top, the other guy plays bottom) has given way to the mindset of folkstyle wrestling (never be down, never be on your back), it’s become imperative for grapplers to find effective ways to combine the two disciplines; to find a harmony between styles in order to consistently put themselves in position to control, damage, and submit their opponents. The fast, re-directive nature of guard passing common to modern sport BJJ isn’t conducive to keeping top position against an opponent hellbent on getting back to his feet. But, when Jiu Jitsu’s goal of positional advancement through guard passing is combined with concepts of riding derived from American folkstyle wrestling fighters end up with a very potent system indeed.