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FightNoob Vol. 7 – The KaMMA Sutra

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FightNoob is a recurring series on Single Blog Takedown where we help new fans and neophytes understand the sport of mixed martial arts. This is the seventh edition. Previous editions can be found right here.

Well, I didn’t think it could get any worse than my Rua pun last month (cause it’s pronounced “hoo-ahh”, you see, like “who”… like “who’s on first”… yeah it’s still atrocious) but thankfully loyal reader and excellent grappler Jim came through with this week’s title. Blame me, my friends, or my pun-adoring editor: your call.

Anyway, some more FightNoob today and then next week we’ll try to make sense of the craziness of this month in MMA, including Fedor, Couture/Vera, Jose Aldo Jr., and everything that happens in and around UFC 106 this weekend. Which I’m in front of a TV for! For once. Should make a nice warmup for my Survivor Series tickets the next night. (That’s right, WWE. DON’T JUDGE ME)

Volume 7: The KaMMA Sutra

For fans without a background in a grappling discipline like jiu-jitsu or wrestling, one of the harder MMA concepts to understand is positioning. When the fight goes to the ground, beginning fans commonly see only “who’s on top, who’s on bottom” without knowing how good a position one fighter is in over the other. In reality, different styles of fighter like different positions… and being on bottom might not be as bad as it seems.

Grappling positions are volatile. Good offensive fighters can transition from a less dominant to a more advantageous position on the ground, while excellent defensive fighters can stuff transition attempts and constantly work to escape positions – or score reversals. And remember, grappling positions can be adjusted by the referee (if neither fighter is engaging, the ref can stand them up) or by the timekeeper (fighters are saved by the bell in MMA). Keep the goal in mind: while improving positions scores you points on the judges’ cards for effective grappling, the real focus of improving position is to reach a point where you can stop the fight.

Pop quiz: which fighter is in dominant position? If you screw this one up, you need more study.

Guard: We dealt with the most basic ground position in the last edition of FightNoob, so head there if you need a refresher. If you’re watching MMA, guard is the most common position and remember that it frequently favors the fighter on bottom – especially if they’re good at jiu-jitsu.

The fighter on bottom will attempt to keep guard and try to sweep and reverse positions attempt a submission from guard (the kimura, or shoulder lock, is a popular one). The fighter on top will either try to posture up and strike or transition through to half guard and then either mount or side control. A good guard keeps the fighter on top close and controlled.

One point I didn’t make as strongly in my last article is that even though a fighter on top will often attempt to move to half guard, half guard is still a relatively advantageous position for the fighter on the bottom. It used to be considered a very weak position, but as MMA has evolved and fighters have gotten better at BJJ, more and more are taking advantage of the aggressive possibilities that can be used from half guard.

Mount: From a distance, mount looks like guard, but the fighter on top is truly on top, with their legs over the opponent’s torse instead of trapped within their legs. With a mount, you’ve taken away the defense of a fighter’s legs and put them squarely into desperation defense. This article’s photo gives you an idea of why you don’t want to find yourself on the wrong end of a mount.

If you put the ground positions along a spectrum, guard is on one end and mount (or back control) is on the other. Guard is the position most favoring the fighter on bottom, and mount is the best position for a fighter on top.

The fighter in mount usually will exploit their advantage with ground and pound, slamming shots into the opponent and forcing them to guess if they’ll be going high or low without fear of getting hit themselves. Submissions are also easy from mount. Here’s a great video from EliteCageFighting.com showing one of the more basic ones, an armbar from full mount.

Meanwhile, if you’re on bottom, options one, two, and three are get out of there. You can’t effectively strike under a mount and submissions, aside from the occasional fortunate armbar or kimura, are rare. Out of desperation, mounted fighters will sometimes attempt to roll out, giving up the back and leaving themselves in a different but equally rough position (although enabling them to turtle.)

Side Control: For the dominant fighter, side control is much better than being in guard, although not quite as powerful a position as the mount. It is, however, somewhat easier to get to from guard than a mount is since you’re attacking one side of a fighter’s body instead of taking them head-on. Here’s an illustrative picture of side control; you can see that it’s pretty much as it sounds.

Side control is a powerful offensive ground position for a muay thai fighter because the opponent’s side is wide open to slam in big knees and elbows and weaken their base. It also exposes the arms of the fighter on bottom, leaving submissions open, and can be used for leglocks as well (although not nearly as much as say, an open guard). A fighter in side control will sometimes also look to get their legs directly over the torso, transitioning directly to mount.

Another option for a fighter in side control is establishing the crucifix position, which opens up the head for striking by using one arm and the body to control both the bottom fighter’s arms. If you saw the Kimbo Slice/Roy Nelson fight earlier this year (a reminder, from mmablog.pl), that’s exactly what Roy did to dominate Kimbo on the ground.

Much like mount, the top priority for a fighter underneath side control is escaping it, usually by sweeping the legs and resuming half or full guard.

Back control: A cousin to the sprawl, back control is an even more dominant position. You can’t hit what you can’t reach, and that generally means the man giving up his back is in huge trouble. From Submissions 101, here’s a good shot of back control with an underhook.

For the aggressor, option 1 is to try and sink in a choke, usually of the rear naked variety. If the fighter in control can’t get a submission, however, they have striking chances. You can’t strike the back of an opponent’s head or spine, but you can land unanswered hooks to the side of the head or the side of the body. Knees can be used against the back of the leg, and if the fighter on back is a good wrestler, can transition to side back control and slam huge knees into the opponent’s gut. Body control and unanswered strikes are a great way to get the ref to step in and end it.

A fighter caught in back control can try to power to their feet and use the cage or a back slam to escape, but both are risky as movement gives their opponent the chance to get their arms around their neck. With loose back control, a fighter can try and use elbow strikes to escape and power out or, in a loose grip, try to flip over and transition to guard. More commonly, however, the fighter will turtle, stopping the fighter above from hitting them with any strikes. Turtling is best used against a fighter with weak ground and pound. An experienced fighter will attack the turtle and force the referee to call the bout, making it a risky gambit on bottom.

Sprawl: Sprawl is generally what happens when a fighter loses their footing stuffing a takedown or flips over and tries to power up from north-south (see below). Officer.com illustrates the position here.

Sprawl is generally a transitional position, somewhere between standup and the ground game. While the fighter on top has the opportunity for chokes and both fighters can land relatively ineffective side strikes, generally the fighter on top will attempt to turn around from sprawl and gain back control or close distance, grab a leg, and finish the takedown attempt.

Defending from sprawl isn’t a particularly dangerous position if you can get hooks and control your opponent’s body. There’s not much you can do from that defense, however. Without a solid base, returning to a standing position is difficult, so generally the fighter on bottom will attempt to establish a base by closing the distance and returning to standup. The bottom fighter can also give up on the sprawl, hit the mat and turtle – but that will generally give the top fighter an easy opportunity to gain back control.

North-South: North-South is basically an inverse sprawl brought to the ground (look at the picture here, from Submissions101 for illustration).

It’s a tricky position to engage offense from; in a street fight a north-south position would be perfect for knees to the head, but those (to a downed opponent) are illegal in MMA. The top fighter does have more leverage for striking the side of the body, though, and the neck is open for cranks and chokes.

More commonly, however, both fighters will immediately attempt to transition from north-south. The fighter on top can move to their side to establish side control; the fighter on bottom will frequently attempt to turn over to sprawl and power to their feet.

Summary: Grappling positions are fluid and will change many times over the course of a grappling-intensive MMA match. Order them in a spectrum in your head, and look for effective transitions and transition defense. Keep in mind who’s maintaining dominant position and for how long and you’ll be prepared to know who won the ground war if the fight goes the distance.

Photo from OCMMA.com.

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