Sunday, December 28, 2014

Why Are Leg Locks And Neck Cranks So Vicious?

Charles Oliveira with a brutal leg lock on Eric Wisely

Some submissions are naturally brutal

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

I've grappled against 300lb wrestlers in the past. I've tried to armbar them from top, I couldn't. Imagine if you weigh 140 lbs but you're a high level grappler. Your opponent is 300 lbs but is a novice. Yet he can cling from a pull up bar with one hand nearly indefinitely. So that means he can grip 300 lbs in one hand for a long time. Now imagine two of those hands gripping together. Not only that but he can two hand curl well over a 150 lbs. Even with perfect technique, an armbar is essentially a back extension. Someone's back versus someone's arms, most of the time the back wins, but not always. Now imagine if I had tried to leg lock him? Or neck crank him? Basically attacking the strongest parts of him.

In lifting terms, most submissions use the same muscles as the deadlift. It becomes my max deadlift versus their max cling to exhaustion. My best shot would be to weasel my way to his back and choke him (attacking his arteries and not the neck), much like Rickson did against larger opponents.

Why neck and leg attacks can be so brutal is because they often require more weight, more strength, more speed, and a certain relentlessness. They're the limbs that are hardest to control.

I have a confession

I'm a brown belt under Rubens "Cobrinha" Charles. I've also been a student of Ricardo "Franjinha" Miller of Paragon and Shawn Williams of Renzo Gracie LA. Prior to all of that, I was a total anti-BJJ grappler. Some of my old Catch-as-catch-can wrestling and Sambo posts are still floating around somewhere on the internet. In the 90s, MMA and grappling gyms were very rare. Many didn't have their own school and taught out of a karate or Tae Kwon Do studio (like Rickson Gracie), and many were just plain fakers. My first introduction to real grappling came from Gene LeBell and Gokor Chivichyan whom I both greatly still respect and admire. I not only trained with them but took classes and seminars with other greats in Sambo, Shooto, Catch, and Judo. If you remember, many of the legendary MMA fighters of the past didn't want to take BJJ because they were always fighting the Gracies. I saw many of them there and I trained with many of them. And one soon to be legend, in a young Ronda Rousey.

It wasn't until I truly dedicated myself to the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu did I begin to understand all the subtle and major differences. I had to train Jiu Jitsu to better understand the non-BJJ arts.

It's sometimes vicious because it requires more strength and speed

Mark Kerr Vs Igor Borisov, Pride 10
Position before submission, this is the main concept of BJJ. Many non-BJJ practitioners may argue that is its weakness; those who train will argue that is its strength. Many in BJJ in fact will break this rule, but prior to breaking it they first had to understand what they were breaking, otherwise they would not understand the consequences.

The focus then wasn't necessarily about attacking the legs, it was about passing the legs if you were on top. From bottom, it was entangling your legs around your opponent's legs to sweep them and end up on top. What I was used to was entangling my legs around my opponent's legs to attack a leg lock from bottom.

With neck attacks, you have to incrementally climb up your opponent from the back or from mount until you could cut off the airway and/or the arteries of the neck.

With neck cranks (it's really an attack of the cervical spine), it's a possible fight finisher whenever I can touch my opponent's head. Even if I was in their closed guard, I can attack with a neck crank (referred to as a can opener). Mark Kerr used this to set up openings when he competed in the ADCC, and broke the neck of Igor Borisov in Pride.

It wasn't until I trained BJJ did I really learn to sweep or pass. I never really needed them before, since I would attack from any position. This made me good at submissions and bad at grappling.

Conditioning was a mandatory part of many martial arts

Karl Gotch conditioning book
"Conditioning is your best hold." — Karl Gotch
Conditioning and physical strength is an important factor of Catch, Sambo, and Judo. Many of the early books on conditioning and strength in Japan, Russia, and the US came from these three arts. It was your job to get yourself strong, it wasn't something you should bypass. Strength was in your control and was part of your technique. There should be no excuse. Saying you just wanted to work on technique and not on conditioning just meant you were lazy. Collegiate wrestling is equal parts technique, strength, and grit. In many wrestling clubs and martial arts dojos, you must first work your way up to a certain level of conditioning prior to ever learning a technique. The first few years may just be on conditioning. I know many in the BJJ community are baffled when someone says, "I need to get in shape before I can start training." In many other arts though, that was a requirement before any technical training.

This was a tradition started in the Shaolin monasteries. Martial arts as a symbol of toughness, physical strength implying mental strength. Breaking boards was a way to show tenacity. Mental strength in BJJ was more about your ability to be calculating. The best proof of this is to be a technician rather than being tough or conditioned. BJJ is about putting aside your strength to better learn technique.

In BJJ as we all know, saying someone is strong is sort of an insult. The best example is to ask someone their weight after they beat you, to passively imply they only beat you because of size not because of technique. This was strange initially to me because prior, strength was a compliment. Even when you see Japanese or Russian fighters talk, often times the direct translation isn't about being the "best," it's about being the strongest. Then you have to think about where BJJ came from -- Helio -- who never had much strength as the story goes. So he relied more on positions and techniques to use the strength of his whole body versus his opponents limb or throat.

When Helio fought larger opponents; which is what he generally always did, even his whole body would have a hard time matching the strength of his opponent's leg. Grapplers and fighters tended to have strong necks. The joke about the wrestler is that they have no neck, their head and neck looks like a thumb. No matter how strong your neck is, it's still vulnerable to a blood choke or air choke. This is why you'll see these attacks more in other grappling arts and not initially in BJJ.

Helio would also lose position if he tried to go for a higher risk submission. He took a long time to get that position in the first place and he may not get another chance to get there. The basics of BJJ is very conservative, energy efficient, and low risk. It was designed by a small man to defeat bigger men. Rickson exemplified this in both of his matches with Rei Zulu.

Leg locks and neck cranks are effective under certain conditions

It's just that when you attack the leg, understand you are attacking your opponent's strongest limb. Not only that, you must often deal with them twisting and using their other leg. They can probably with one leg squat more than your body weight. Rousimar Palhares is especially known for his viciousness. Partially because of his unsportsmanlike conduct in the past, but also to attack the leg and have it actually work, you have to go strong, fast, and relentless. If you're not willing to do all that, you may have a low success rate. You have to be relentless because you have little positional control so you must chain the submissions. Finally when the leg lock is secured, it's already deep into the submission, it may be too late to tap.

Shinya Aoki Vs Tatsuya Kawajiri, Dream 15
Even with the straight ankle lock in BJJ competitions, as soon as someone gets it what happens? They crank, roll, and go belly down -- and usually it's a verbal tap coming in the form of a yell. Why is this basically the only way people are doing it now? Because it almost never works otherwise in competition. The opponent's leg is too strong and squirmy to fight otherwise.

With the neck crank, unlike other submissions it is very difficult to involve your legs. It's often a combination of arms, body weight, and back. There is also a risk of losing position. If you have the strength but lack the body weight to pin your opponent down as you torque the opposite direction, it is much easier for your opponent to reverse you or escape. This is often why a neck crank is considered a "big man" move. The big man may not consider it a big man move, because they may see "big man" as implying a strength move. It doesn't take much strength for a big person to do a neck crank because of the weight advantage. Can Jeff Glover neck crank Josh Barnett (who is an advocate of training your neck)? Probably not. If Jeff had full rear naked choke on Josh, could he choke him? Probably yes.

Two former UFC champions using the same submission
Two former UFC champions, same finish
Josh Barnett is a UFC heavyweight fighter, usually walking around at 252 lbs. Dean Lister fought two divisions below, as a 185 lb middleweight. During Metamoris, they both came in as heavyweights but Josh had the natural build of a heavyweight. When it came down to grapple, Josh dominated Dean. Josh Barnett is a master grappler and understands size and strength is a part of leverage. Then history repeated itself. Mark Coleman fought Dan Severn in a heavyweight superfight to crown the first UFC Heavyweight Champion. Former UFC Heavyweight Champion Josh Barnett fought Dean Lister in a superfight to crown the first ever Metamoris Heavyweight Champion. Both Josh Barnett and Mark Coleman submitted their opponents with the same move. I've heard this called a head and arm choke from scarfhold, a suffocator, Judo choke, and chest compression. 17 years ago when Mark Coleman did it, it was just called a neck crank. 17 years ago during the height of Gracie Jiu Jitsu, it was called a strength move. Today it's called a finesse move. Times have changed but physics hasn't. Whatever you call it, could Royce Gracie have done this move to Dan Severn in their fight? Unlikely. Could anyone on the Metamoris roster for that night have done this to Dean Lister? Also unlikely. Who's going to have the strength to bend Dean's bull neck while having the weight to compress his chest other than Josh Barnett that night?

Force is mass (size) x acceleration (strength)

Technique puts you into the situation, force creates the tap. Size and strength helps. This takes nothing away from this move. It's just not a move suited for all body and strength types. Just like spider guard is hard for people with short legs, just like people with long necks are susceptible to guillotines. There are specific physical requirements for certain moves. This move was tailor made for Josh Barnett to use in this situation.

Little known fact, I mentioned the powerhouse Mark Kerr above, who was a training partner of Mark Coleman. Mark Kerr was the first man to submit Josh Barnett. Just as Josh Barnett was the first man to submit Dean Lister. What did Mark Kerr catch Josh with? It wasn't an armbar from guard or a rear naked choke. It was a kimura from sidemount, and a nasty one at that. If you watch the whole match, it looks very similar to the Josh Barnett vs Dean Lister match. The bigger stronger wrestler dominating the smaller wrestler until he gets to sidemount then finishes him.

The lesson here is, there's always someone bigger and stronger. I think that was Helio's point in regards to his BJJ philosophy.

There is a squirm factor

The neck is not only strong but the cervical spine is also flexible and unfortunately this is also the reason why it's easy to injure. Like the heel hook, it's hard to know the damage being done until it's too late. This is why even in grappling tournaments that allow leg locks, neck cranks and spinal locks are often still illegal. As much as it sucks, we can still fix the ACL of the knee. There isn't much you can do for a neck.

There's also a lot of squirm factor in neck and leg attacks. Its the strength and speed plus the squirming which makes this submission so ugly, so brutal, and explosive. The person applying is being explosive and the person escaping is being explosive and there's just too much gap to hold the opponent in place. This can be a recipe for disaster. There's a time constraint, it's only a short matter of time before the opponent escapes, you have to submit them prior to that. This turns into a deadly spiral where either the person escapes or screams.

Troy Polamalu

There's this old story I heard about Troy Polamalu, one of the strongest, fastest, and athletic guys in the NFL. Before he was famous, he took a BJJ class and rolled with everyone. Even the black belts couldn't submit him. He was just too strong and too fast. Technique wasn't enough. You didn't have to be as strong or as fast as him, just enough to where you could apply your technique.

This is a good analogy for some of the scarier submissions. Scary submission attacks happen suddenly, you have to exert enough speed and strength just to even be able to apply your technique. The stronger the limb you're attacking, the more speed and strength you need. The more strength and speed, like a football tackle, the more violent it becomes.

Now imagine submitting 7'1, 420 lb, WWE wrestler The Big Show with technique alone...

No. All technique requires a certain minimum level of size, strength, and speed. That's normal. The more horsepower the move needs, the less control there will be. You don't attack a leg or beat a giant and make it nice.

In BJJ you can't get a blue belt unless you're at least 16. You can't get a black belt until 19. You can have the technique down, but the age requirement is so you will also have the adult strength and size to apply the techniques. BJJ is more technique oriented but is still centered around reality. A 7 year old black belt being able to apply their techniques against resisting adults is not reality.

Not a good position to tap

Hard to tap from a leg lock position
Palhares must rely on the referee to know Mike Massenzio is tapping
You ever had an armbar and your opponent had a really good grip on his gi, so you had to throw your whole back into it? But then his grip broke and you accidentally cranked their elbow? Why does this happen? Because them losing the grip happens faster than you can slow down the momentum of your armbar. Once the grip is removed, you will fall back at full speed. The smart grapplers tap prior to losing their grip. This is similar to most leg locks, you're accelerating so fast, it's often hard to stop when they tap. You hope they tap before full torque is applied. It's also harder to tap because we rely on tapping our opponent, it's safer than tapping the mat to let them know they have it. With a leg lock it's hard to tap your opponent because they're too far away, you tap the mat, they can't hear it, you tap their leg, they think you're counter-leg locking, and by then it's too late. You're screaming and you've already taken damage.

Rich Crunkilton's arm breaking against Hermes Franca
Rich Crunkilton let his arm break and finished the fight
With leg locks and certain neck cranks, you also end up facing away from your opponent, so you can't even see their face. There's a lot of room for error. If it's a match, you rely on the referee to jump in. In the picture above, there really isn't a way for Rousimar Palhares to know his opponent is tapping. He has to rely on the referee and there's always a human delay from the referee seeing that the opponent is tapping, to jumping in. With strikes, even if the fighter thinks they can keep going, they referee has the authority to stop it. With submissions, the referee can't act unless they think the fighter is submitting, and by then it's too late because the fighter will wait until the last possible moment. Sometimes fighters won't tap at all, then the referee will not intervene until you scream, which is considered a verbal tap. By then it already looks bad. If you pass out, the referee will also intervene.

Matt Lindland taps then denies it
Fighters have also learned from the past, Murilo Bustamante who happens to be Rousimar Palhares's coach, once fought Matt Lindland. He caught Matt Lindland in an armbar, Lindland tapped and Bustamante let go. Lindland denied tapping, referee John McCarthy didn't see the tap and had them restart from the feet. He told Bustamante to not let go until he stops the fight. This isn't the only instance this has happened but this was one of the more famous ones. Since then fighters will not let go until they are instructed by the referee, they are actually given this advice in the locker room. Palhares is learning from his teacher and also listening to orders. So... it's not just Palhares, it's also the situation. He just likes to attack the more dangerous locks so we will always see more screaming from his opponents. No different from Masakazu Imanari in Japan.

Sometimes the fighter will allow the joint to break and keep fighting. Rich Crunkilton let his arm break and finished the fight with Hermes Franca and Kit Cope let his arm snap to make it to the second round with his fight with Kenny Florian, only to be finished by a rear naked choke.

Once a referee jumps in, it's not an instant reaction to let go. There's a delay from crank to, oh the referee is grabbing me to stop. There's a lot of noise and adrenaline. Then there is the matter of Palhares holding submissions too long anyway -- but is it any different from knock out artists punching after the opponent is clearly knocked out or while the referee is yanking them off? The difference is, a knocked out person doesn't scream, they are just out. The visible pain, scream, and post agony is what makes it seem even more brutal and Rousimar's actions more unsportsmanlike. The other matter is, this is voluntary, the opponent is letting it be known they give up. If you keep holding, it looks like a disregard to the sportsmanlike agreement. To play devil's advocate, Palhares only holds seconds too long, and the opponent waits and fights before they finally tap, and from tapping to pounding the canvas and screaming happens within half a second. That's the nature of leg locks and neck cranks. Unlike other submissions like armbar or choke, you don't have much leeway. You have wiggle room with a choke, you can kind of see how deep it is, wait, tap, and no real permanent harm done. Armbars are a bit more dangerous but many fighters have waited until the arm is straight, wiggle around, and then tap with no permanent damage. You don't get that wiggle room with leg locks and neck cranks, you can't even tell it's being damaged until it's too late. Palhares can be dangerous, but leg locks and neck cranks themselves are inherently dangerous, no matter who applies them. The danger is built into the move.

Maybe a case can be made for fighters who prefer the more dangerous moves that may permanently injure their training partners or opponents. Maybe it says something about their personality. If you're willing to hurt me just to get a stupid win during training, there's something wrong with you, and everyone will avoid rolling with you.

Take any of your fingers and slowly bend it backwards, there's a lot of give and you can feel it slowly beginning to hurt, letting you know it's about to snap. If you slowly bend your finger sideways, it's a bit tougher, but you don't really feel pain, just resistance. That's because there's no give, and you'll only feel pain after it snaps. That's like a knee or the vertebrae of your neck. There's no gentle way to do it. Who's done a controlled gentle leg lock in MMA? I think every MMA leg lock that led to a submission, that I've watched, involved screaming. It's not as simple as people not being good at them or people not understanding them, the moves are just scary no matter who does them, even if it's applied by an expert. An armbar won't cripple me, a neck crank or leg lock will. We can't pretend the stakes are the same, the stakes are much higher.

I've seen Gokor roll with people and use leg locks, and make it look gentle. I've seen Sambo champion Igor Yakimov do it with students, Oleg Taktarov do it in seminars. That's not because the moves are gentle, that's because the students who rolled with them were so scared shitless of their leg locks, they rolled extra gentle, and tapped the moment their legs were even touched. That won't happen in a live fight or in a match. I've seen two Sambo experts go at it and one give the other a spiral fracture of their whole fibula (shin), one of the most disgusting sounds I've ever heard. They were trading leg locks and no one was going to give in to the other with a gentle nudge, you really had to go for it to get a tap, and one second it seemed fine, the next we heard that sound. He still never tapped, his pain was delayed a full minute, even though his leg was already dangling. Even the expert never felt it come and only knew it was damaged because of the sound, not because of the sensation.

We've been taught since white belts to use sensation, that invisible feel to know what's going on and when to tap. The sensation is usually void with the leg and spine, you have to be extra cautious. This inability to be able to tell is why so many people instantly tap the moment you go for a leg or their neck. No one can really tell, some people are just more durable -- or stupid.

With leg locks during training, many places have the catch and release policy. Get to the position but don't crank, just let it go and move on.

It's hard to gauge how much power is being used

WWE Mark Henry dunking a basketball
WWE wrestler Mark Henry dunking a basketball
You have to pull hard and fast just to start to slowly bend the spine or leg. Imagine a weightlifter maxing out on a squat. They're moving really slow because of the load. Now remove the load and have them use exactly the same force, they will end up jumping high into the air. It's no wonder former powerlifter Mark Henry at 400 lbs could dunk.

So much force has to be applied, it quickly becomes too late to tap. Sometimes it happens when the opponent stops resisting, but by then it's too late. You remove the load and the explosion happens.

I defend even while tapping just in case.

Today BJJ is more of a hybrid grappling art

Now it's common for BJJ practitioners to spend a lot of time conditioning and practicing every conceivable submission.

Dean Lister and Rousimar Palhares are two of many Jiu Jitsu players who have gotten exceptional at leg and spine attacks. There are many others. It works, it's just hard to make them gentle even when it's a BJJ practitioner doing them. You will also notice, rather than the spider like build of many grapplers, they have more of a powerful fireplug build. They are well suited for these types of submissions.

Think about this, you're attacking their strongest and most flexible limbs when you have the least control. A leg or a neck may be the hardest limbs to control. How do you do it controlled, gentle, and without explosion in a live fight? Asking why leg locks and neck cranks are dangerous implies you don't understand them. The better question is, why wouldn't leg locks and neck cranks be dangerous? The physics of the move is what makes it dangerous, the requirements make it dangerous.

Ronda Rousey armbar, Frank Mir kneebar
The mechanism is the same, the power and weight needed is what changes
You need a very large gun to take down a grizzly bear, and it'll be brutal but what other gun can take down a bear? The bigger gun doesn't work differently from a smaller gun, it's just more violent and has more force. The mechanism for a kneebar is the same as the mechanism for an armbar. The mechanism for a heel hook is the same as the mechanism for the omaplata. What changes is the size and strength of the limb you're attacking. The technique remains the same, but you must up the firepower. How can you submit a tree trunk leg or bull neck trying to buck you off, and do it nicely? Yes it's possible but if you are all about control, you may opt to go to the back or to mount.

When a bigger stronger person goes for a leg lock on a much smaller and weaker opponent is when I really cringe. Or when Palhares attacks leg locks on MMA fighters with skinny legs.

For me personally, I rarely attack the leg and since I only compete with the gi now, I have no reason to attack neck cranks. Psychologically, whatever I attack, my opponent will consider fair game. I don't want people attacking my legs (several knee injuries already accumulated), and the best way to do that is not to attack theirs.

Position before submission is also about learning order

Submission selection is also a key part of being a good grappler, I want the easiest path with the highest success rate. If you look up the statistics of every BJJ tournament and every MMA fight, the choke has the highest finish rate. You're whole body versus their small blood and air pathways. I like that. People will also like to train with you more if they feel safe with you, which equals more mat hours, which just works in your favor for getting better.

Don't get me wrong though, I'm saying this now as an older grappler. I still spent my early 20s attacking a lot of leg locks and neck cranks. It was only in my thirties did I understand how to frame, how to move my hips, how to sweep, how to pass. They say wrestling is the most important skill in MMA because it dictates where the fight goes. The same analogy can be made for sweeps and passes, it dictates where a grappling match goes. From experience, I believe it's better to understand how to dictate the flow of the match prior to focusing on any one submission. You look at Roger Gracie, he's not a master of the collar choke, he's a master of passing to mount. You look at Marcello Garcia, he's not a master of the rear naked choke, he's a master of taking the back. You master positions and the transitions to positions, the submissions are just your tools and are much easier to master.

Focusing and chasing submissions too early on in your grappling journey can delay your progress. You essentially have to give up some amount of position to go for a submission. You won't know then how to get to a position, how to hold a position, or to recover your position again when you lose it. You won't even see the value of positions, only the value of submissions. Often times you will be voluntarily putting yourself in a bad position, that's the consequences when a submission doesn't work. Against really good guys, you will be forced to ask yourself, do you really understand the basics? My answer was no. I'm still trying to master the basics. I was especially good at leg locks, but leg locks are also the highest risk in ending up in a bad position. Against elite grapplers, I was putting myself in bad positions and they were putting me in bad positions.

It's like winning the lottery when you don't know anything about managing money. It's why many lottery winners end up broke. It's why many athletes end up broke. If you learn dangerous submissions early, against beginners you're like a human highlight reel. I knew how to submit but I didn't know how to grapple. Times changed and it was only a matter of time before BJJ guys learned how to do leg locks and defend leg locks. Guys I used to beat were now passing my guard because I didn't have one, and sweeping me because I didn't know what any of their sweeps were. I had to change, and instead of trying to beat them, I decided to join them. Athletes need to learn basic money management and the value of money, and I needed to learn the BJJ basics and the value of positions. What would have been most optimal is to learn the basics first. This is not just true of money or BJJ, it's true of all things.

Position before submission isn't just a strategy or about getting to a good position before you go for a submission. It's also about learning order, you teach students positions first, when they have that down, you have them focus on learning submissions. That's the curriculum. On your first day, you probably want to learn a submission, just like I did. You're better off learning to hip escape. After your first month, you probably want to learn more submissions. You're better off learning how to sweep and pass. Submissions are easy, you make them tap after you've already put them in a bad position. How do you get them to that bad position? That takes more time to learn. There really are no shortcuts and I learn that more and more as I get older.

As you age, your speed and athleticism will slow down. Your body will ask you, do you understand the basics? Or have you always relied on size and strength? If you know the basics, you still have a very long and competitive adventure ahead of you. If you rely on your size and strength, just like the example of Mark Coleman, Josh Barnett, Mark Kerr, Dan Severn, and Dean Lister -- there will always be someone bigger and stronger than you. Hope you have the basics down so you can defend yourself against larger opponents.

Sam Yang from an early age has been obsessed with connecting the dots between martial arts and efficiency, health, mindset, business, science, and habits to improve optimal well-being. For more info, join his newsletter. You can also connect to Inner BJJ on Facebook and Twitter.

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  1. This is not just one of the best leglock articles I've read, it's one of the best grappling articles I've read. Was wondering if you also read the interview with Reilly Bodycomb at which also came out this week? You guys make a lot of similar arguments but you dive a little bit deeper into the whys/hows.

  2. Gotta check that one out. I've been meaning to write this for a while but my other blog's been taking up my time. Yeah this is using leg locks as a segueway to really explain some of the history of MMA and also the concepts of efficient grappling. Glad this is Terrence approved. I'm a fan of your writing as well.



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