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Takedown breakdown: Cub Swanson’s head-and-arm throw

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There are many headlock attempts in MMA, Cub Swanson’s are better.

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UFC on Fuel TV: Swanson v Poirier
Most of Cub Swanson’s big upper body takedowns came in the early years of his UFC career.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

MMA veteran and fan favorite Cub Swanson returns to action this weekend at UFC Vegas 25, against the Georgian striker, Giga Chikadze. While Swanson has done most of his work as a striker, there was a time when transitional takedowns from upper body positions were one of the highlights of his game. Who could forget that beautiful whizzer hip toss against Dennis Siver?

Today we’ll look back at one of his highest percentage takedowns - the head-and-arm throw, or headlock. Considered by some coaches and fans to be a “junk” move, the headlock really functions as well as any technique, if performed correctly. At this year’s NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Championships, I lost count of how many successful headlocks I saw. It works if you work it.

Cub Swanson’s Headlock

VIDEO CLIP: Cub Swanson utilizes the head-and-arm throw throughout his career

The head-and-arm throw is not an uncommon technique in MMA, especially in women’s divisions. The problem with the majority of those attempts is that the attacking fighter treats it as a two-step process, rather than one fluid, explosive motion. That’s not to mention other mechanical errors such as high hips, misplaced feet, or lack of important control positions.

The best time to throw a headlock is when your opponent has gained underhooks. The attacking fighter’s arms are already higher than their opponent’s arms, giving them access to the head. Additionally, the attacking fighter will need to grip one of those underhooking arms and pull it across their body when executing the throw. Fighters with double underhooks will usually look to pressure forward, usually offering the necessary momentum for the attacking fighter to rip the head and pull them over the hip block. Let’s look at an example.

Cub Swanson headlocks George Roop
The most important step - rip his head off.

In this situation, George Roop had gained underhooks by rising up off a double leg attempt, his momentum was still driving him forward. All in one motion, Cub Swanson reached for the head, pulled the tricep across his own chest on the other side, switched his hips away and lowered his level. This is the “triangle step” in judo.

The key to this move, and many throws, is to pull your opponent over a block of some sort. The attacking fighter’s hips are often an important block, in addition to the feet or legs. The “pulling” motion is achieved by the headlock itself, and the underhook being pulled across the chest with the tricep grip. Not only does that grip pull the opponent forward, it pulls them to the side, dragging them across their base and weakening their stance.

The lower body motion is just as important. The attacking fighter has to pull their opponent in, but if there’s nothing for them to fall over, not much will happen. Cub Swanson is great at explosively dropping his levels and pivoting to put his butt underneath his opponent’s hips. Timing is extremely important. If Swanson’s hips weren’t in position by the time the headlock pulled Roop in to make contact, Roop would simply hit a wall that stopped his momentum, rather than hitting a low block for him to fall forward over.

Following through can make or break a headlock attempt. The goal for the attacking fighter is for their chest to end facing up, their throwing shoulder down, with only one side of the hips touching the mat. Not only did Cub Swanson nail the rotation in his hips and upper body in this example, he also folded over his foot on the throwing side, allowing him to complete the rotation and touch his hip to the mat faster.

Here’s another example, this time from Cub Swanson’s fight with Dustin Poirier.

Cub Swanson headlocks Dustin Poirier
Swanson vs. Poirier was fun in general, you should watch it.

One of the main differences in this example is that the two fighters were standing in a relatively static position before the throw. There wasn’t built-in momentum to work with like there was against Roop. However, Cub Swanson attacked in a moment where Dustin Poirier’s hips were close, and he was standing upright. That is an important detail in why this throw worked.

The general mechanics of the throw were the same as the Roop fight, but Poirier’s static stance allowed Swanson to triangle step explosively in-between Poirier’s legs. The closer the attacking fighter’s hips are to their opponent, the more they’ll be able to move them with the headlock and tricep pull. When the opponent is already moving into the attacking fighter, this is less important.

After the initial triangle step, when the pull began, it didn’t look like Swanson was in a great position to finish. However, because Swanson was starting his headlock with their hips already touching, and because Poirier was in a weak stance to begin with, he was able to create enough motion to force Poirier’s weight over his left leg.

It’s pretty crazy that Cub Swanson has such clean judo technique, for an MMA fighter. After all, he didn’t have any formal martial arts training as a base when he began training at 19 years old. Dynamic throws are just one of many unorthodox looks Cub Swanson has provided in his fantastic and entertaining career. I’m hoping he can continue to show the efficacy of “junk” techniques that other fighters are unwilling to try.