Maybe you’ve seen a few MMA fights over the years, and instead of falling asleep after all the punching and kicking, you were intrigued by the ground fighting. Maybe you have a friend with funky ears who wrestled in college and now says he does Jiu Jitsu on Tuesdays and Fridays, and he always looks so happy in his gym selfies. Maybe you are just curious about this weird sport because you saw something like this coming out of ADCC, and thought it looked sweaty and fun.
Maybe you’ve tried to watch some grappling, but the mechanics of two ferocious hardbodies turning into one human sweat-pretzel was just too weird or confusing.
No fear, my friends. I’m here to explain the basics of my sport, submission grappling, which is really starting to take off as a pro sport separate from Mixed Martial Arts, as it’s practiced in say, the UFC or Bellator. This is partially thanks to bigger name promotions like The Eddie Bravo Invitational, RISE (RISE 26 is actually on Saturday, and I will be glued to my screen, thank you very much), Fight 2 Win, Polaris Pro, and the UFC’s own Kinektic, which is an American version of Japan’s hyper-entertaining Quintet. Submission grapplers, the best in the world, are elite pro athletes with followings and gyms and rivalries and sometimes terrible tattoos – and watching the best of the best is exhilarating, provided you know a bit about the rules and the flow of the game.
Here are a couple of fun things to know before we dive in. Its foundation, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, is both a competitive sport and a legit martial art with real-world self-defense value. One of it’s biggest draws is that a smaller or less athletic opponent can, if they are more skilled, positively wipe the floor with a bigger, stronger person. That’s not a load of crap, it’s well-documented and frankly, something I’ve used in my own life as well.
It has to do with simple, irrefutable facts about the human body: no matter how huge or strong you are, you have weak points. Joints are inevitably weaker so they can be flexible, and everyone has carotid arteries that are pretty easy to compress, given the right control and positioning. So much of grappling is about manipulating parts and applying the right pressure and torque, so, again, an appropriately skilled 95-lb, 4-foot-11 woman can have a 200+ lb, muscle-bound dude completely passed out in seconds. But those fun details are for another day! You’re here to learn how to watch the damned thing, so here we go!
From the Feet
Grappling tournaments start with both competitors on their feet, with a referee in the middle, and once they call for action, the match starts with some good old’ wrasslin! (Or Judo). This is the part that’s most approachable for new viewers, because it’s fairly easy to tell what’s going on and who’s doing well. The competitors will tussle about, both vying for position, and in a series of explosive motions, try to throw or drag their opponent to the floor. It looks a little like what you see in a pro wrestling ring, albeit without some of the fun special moves. But the best people make it entertaining to watch, I promise. Look at Garry Tonon, a smaller dude who full-on Raiden-from-Mortal-Kombat-flew into his opponent during ADCC last month. The guy has glorious hair and taste in rashguards, too.
View this post on Instagram
For no-gi matches (they’ll be wearing potentially wild-ass rashguard and board shorts, or maybe some fun tights, called spats), the stand up portion is mostly wrestling techniques. Fighters will try to make grips on the wrists or arms, or post on the head to control posture, then possibly shoot in on the legs. Or maybe they’ll go for a fun Greco-Roman style technique and flip their opponent on their side or trip to the floor, or even do a glorious fireman’s carry. I won’t get too far into describing the whole philosophy of wrestling, partially because I’m still learning it myself! But for our purposes, typically both people want to score a takedown and get into a good position on the ground. Position is everything in this sport.
They may try some Judo throws here as well, though that’s a bit more common in the gi (the funky bathrobe looking garment). Wildly, gi and no-gi grappling are pretty different, not in technique so much as in pace and control. A gi master can wrap opponents in their own clothes, submit them with their own jacket, and, just generally control the other person puppet-master style. It’s incredible to watch. Judo is very much it’s own sport—an Olympic sport, in fact—but it’s also incredibly useful here in submission grappling. The hip throws in particular are gorgeous and brutal.
Even though the action always starts on the feet, and sometimes stays there for much of the bout, it’s going to the ground in every match. Some grapplers are what we call guard players – experts in using their legs and fighting off their backs, and they may do something called pulling guard—refusing, essentially, to engage with all that wrestling bullshit and get right to their favorite position right away. There are a lot of choice words for these types at every gym, but hey, everyone has their game.
Once things go to the mat, they do get a little more complex. But I promise! It’s still fun to watch, once you know a few basic concepts. The key things to keep in mind are position and potential. Competitors are always thinking: “What can I do to get in a better position than my opponent? What are my options for offense and defense here?” It’s called human chess for a reason.
— FloGrappling (@FloGrappling) October 4, 2019
To the uninitiated, submission grappling on the floor can kiiiiinda look like a combination of terrible sex with clothes on or violent interpretive dance. Sometimes, honestly, it looks kinda goofy. But the steps to that dance are complex, with, as game people like to say, a rich possibility space for each move.
What’s essentially going on is both people are trying to advance their position to the point where they can control and submit their opponent, either by choking them or putting them in a joint lock (like an armbar!). They’ll do that to the point where the joint is in danger of breaking, and the opponent taps. This shit can be pretty brutal, but skilled opponents usually know when it’s time to tap (though they routinely go to sleep after being choked).
The key positions here revolve around the concepts of offense, defense, top, bottom, and guard. While there are approximately a million variations that the two bodies can be in, typically, one person plays top, one bottom. When there’s a switch between top and bottom, that’s called a sweep.
Unlike in MMA, where you can get punched in the face, top isn’t necessarily better than bottom. In fact, my personal favorite submission is a triangle choke (where you choke your opponent using your thighs around their neck) Which is most typically associated from playing guard from the bottom. There are various attacks from almost any position, but the most dominant ones are the mount (your legs are trapping your opponent’s torso and you have them pinned to the floor), taking the back, and from bottom, the closed guard (which is technically neutral, but good guard players are NASTY from here).
View this post on Instagram
The idea of guard has to do with whether your legs are in between you and your opponent. If they are, you can play solid defense: you can “play guard.” Closed guard is where you lock your legs around your opponent and can control their posture almost completely, since, in most cases legs = stronger than arms.
A good way to make sense of what’s going on is to ask where things are. Where are the defender’s legs? What joints are in danger right now? What can they do with the position they’re in, and scramble to create an even better one?
I like to think of it like this. One of the main reasons I personally train and compete in grappling is a sense of power and mastery over my own body: of constant improvement and pride in what I can do today compared with a month ago, or a year ago, or on my clumsy and hilarious first day. The reason I like to watch grappling is that, even though I only have an early blue-belt understanding (read: like 2.5 years of training, kind of the beginning stage of intermediacy), the things a master can do with this art and sport are incredible to me.
It’s a huge inspiration to watch talented athletes contort and strategize in sync, a sort of perfect blend of mind/body discipline and on-the-fly tactical decision-making. It really is human chess, and the competitors are both foot soldier and general (and everything in between) in the same.
So, now that you have some of the basics… here are a few of my favorite places to watch. UFC Fightpass has several of the promotions on live and in its mammoth MMA library, including RISE, the team-based Quintet and Kinektic, and Polaris Pro. Flow Grappling has weekly Fight 2 Win events and incredible coverage of IBJJF events and ADCC, which is commonly heralded as the “Olympics of submission grappling.” And you can watch a lot of tasty clips on social media, even if you aren’t ready for full events yet.
No matter how much you end up watching (or hell, even trying a class for yourself), I hope this primer was helpful. A sort of window into a sweaty, strategic, spectacular little world that I enjoy so much. Soon, you, too, will be getting a chuckle out of BJJ meme accounts and pontificating on the finer points of Gordon Ryan’s leglock game.