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FightNoob Vol. 8 – Keep Your Joint Locked Down

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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 eighth edition. Previous editions can be found right here.

Alright, so I got my indulgent "back to work" column out of my system and Strikeforce: Miami isn't until this weekend. Seems like the perfect time to get back to school, doesn't it?

In my next two columns, I'd like to focus on better knowing the submission game in MMA. Although "submission by strikes" is as valid a win condition as any, I feel submissions break up more naturally into jointlocks and chokes/strangles – so that's how we're going to approach them. This time around, we'll look at immobilizing (and painful) jointlocks, and next time out we'll focus on ways to impede the proper function of an opponent's neck.


Eventually, Fedor got sick of hearing all the Chris Jericho jokes.

Volume 8: Joint Lockdown

Where Physics Meets Anatomy

To really understand why jointlocks are so effective, you need to have an understanding of basic physics. When a fighter applies a jointlock, he's creating a lever: one of the six simple machines of physics.

When you use a crowbar to open a door, you're using a lever to convert a small amount of force on a wide area to a much larger amount of force over a smaller area. This magnification of force enables you to do things that you wouldn't be able to do with just your bare hands.

"But Matt," you say, "all a fighter has is their bare hands!" That's partly true and partly false. Yes, a fighter has no tools in the ring, but their body can be used as a levering tool. Most jointlocks do not succeed without a fulcrum, the pivot point that turns a humble plank into a mighty see-saw. Armbars fulcrum over a hip; leglocks frequently use a forearm in the middle. Kimuras and some other locks utilize a twisting motion, but the idea is a same – apply large force to a vulnerable spot.

Let's look at a very basic submission hold that uses the lever concept brilliantly: a simple armbar. And of course, when we need an armbar illustrated, we turn to the master.

See how Fedor gets the arm over his hip? By pulling back on the arm, he applies force over a distance. The fulcrum amplifies that force over a smaller area – the opponent's elbow, which hyperextends. (He's even nice enough to use the magic physics word.)

And the human body generally reacts the same way whenever a large force is applied to it over a small area – it experiences pain, and lots of it. (That, of course, is the body's way of telling the brain that "hey, this is not fun, bro.") A properly-secured jointlock is extremely difficult to escape before the pain becomes too much to handle and the fighter has to tap out. (More on that later.) In addition to the pain, a jointlocked fighter has one less limb in their arsenal to break free with – making it a very hazardous technique to be on the wrong side of.

Points Of Attack

Jointlocks have an advantage over chokes in that they permit many avenues of attack, as opposed to just going for the neck, which tends to be meaty and easier to defend (both instinctually and because it's a smaller area that can be covered by the chin). In contrast, joints are exposed every time a fighter attempts to strike, improve position, or even defend themselves.

Although which joint an aggressor attacks is largely a result of opportunity and which techniques they've mastered, there are a few principles governing the attack. The first is that, as we should remember from lesson 3 (you DID read the Unified Rules, right?), small joint manipulation is illegal. No attacking the fingers or toes, as they break much quicker because of their size.

Size does still matter, however. Armlocks are much more common than leglocks because legs are much stronger than arms. Although elbows and knees hyperextend in much the same way, it takes a greater force to attack a knee to the point where a fighter needs to submit.

Also keep in mind that most fighters can't snap off any submission from any position. Certain positions lend themselves more easily to some jointlocks than others. A fighter pulled tightly into his opponent's full guard, for example, would have to first escape the guard to easily attack a leg. Trapped in full guard, however, the shoulder becomes a much more fruitful submission avenue.

Common Jointlocks

We've already seen the armbar, a staple of the submission fighter's offense. It’s quick to apply, attacks a weak joint, and makes the other fighter focus on stopping it rather than hitting you. It's a simple move, but for a jiujitsu pro, a tremendously effective one.

The kimura is a pretty common submission hold as well. Although it requires very close range to lock around an opponent's shoulder, it's a tremendously versatile hold – you can apply it from top, bottom, north-south, or even a standing position. Once the arm is exposed, a kimura can follow quickly and wrench the shoulder to the point of no return. Check out this fight in PRIDE between Fedor and Kevin Randleman to see Fedor attack the arm, isolate the shoulder, and get a decisive finish.

Moving to leglocks, there are three common types: the kneebar, the anklelock, and the heel-hook. Attacking the legs is a tricky business – to focus on a leg, a fighter must usually neglect defending the opponent's upper body. That's a dangerous decision to make even without worrying about a kick to the teeth, which is what a leglock is liable to get you. Still, well-rounded submission fighters who pick their spots well can catch unexpected submissions from these positions.

The kneebar applies the same principles as the armbar to get a tapout; however, more leverage is necessary since the knee is a much stronger joint. Here's Frank Mir showing how he blemished Brock Lesnar's record in their first fight. There are a variety of ways to apply an anklelock, but the two keys are to hyperextend the foot (usually by trapping it between two arms, or an arm and the body) and apply compression to the Achilles' tendon (usually by trapping it against the bony part of the forearm). This is a good primer on anklelock from open guard. Finally, the heel-hook is a dangerous submission (banned in BJJ competition, but allowed in MMA) that applies major torque to the ankle and knee by twisting the foot, usually by locking it within an armpit. One of the most famous heel-hooks in MMA history is certainly Ryo Chonen's scissor variation that handed Anderson Silva his third career loss.

Tap or Snap?

As anybody who's been surrounded by meatheads at a bar can tell you, there's a thin line between "tough" and "stupid". While it's relatively easy for a referee to step in when he spots a fighter unconscious, a jointlock is usually up to the fighter to stop (unless the ref hears or sees a joint pop). While some fighters seem to have a Gumby-like tolerance for pain (see: Royce Gracie all-time, or from last year either Ben Henderson against Donald Cerrone or Randy Couture against Big Nog), the mark of an experienced fighter is generally knowing when a lock is on so tight escape isn't feasible. Don't be convinced that a fighter who won't tap until it snaps is showing bravery – they just may not recognize inevitability when they're trapped in it.

Photo from ExtremeBJJ.com.

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