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Johnson vs. Moraga: The Value of Posture

Throughout the Demetrious Johnson vs. John Moraga fight, we saw a few positions occur repeatedly with Johnson having the advantage: a top-side crucifix and a Kimura from on top of half guard or side control. Achieving these dominant positions eventually led to a late-fight submission victory for Johnson.

For as much as these positions were a result of Johnson’s positional awareness and sharp technique, the holes in Moraga’s posture made him particularly susceptible to having his arms trapped.

In jiu-jitsu terms, posture is the idea of achieving a position where you are strongest and safest. Defensively, good posture is generally some variation of tucking your elbows in and framing your hands near your neck (kind of like the kid from Home Alone or like the arms of a t-rex). Typically, the farther away from posture a fighter finds himself, the more in danger he is of being submitted.

Johnson-Moraga-1Johnson-Moraga-2

As you can see in the above stills from the second round, Moraga’s elbows are very far from being tucked tightly against his ribs. His left elbow is flared upward like the upswing of a chicken dance and his right arm is draped over Johnson’s left shoulder after an attempt to wrap Johnson’s head. This scenario repeated itself throughout the fight until it eventually led to Moraga’s undoing. In this GIF from the Zombie Prophet, you can see how Johnson exploited the weakness in Moraga’s positioning to pin an arm and to secure a top-side crucifix.

From a technical perspective, Moraga should be looking to use his left arm to frame off of Johnson’s right biceps or off of Johnson’s hips to begin creating separation for an escape. His right forearm should be framed under Johnson’s chin, acting as a cross face so that he can swim under Johnson’s chest for an underhook. Moraga does look for the underhook from time to time, but he often does so by looping around the outside, exposing his wrist for the Kimura grip. Kurt Osiander provides a great breakdown of this basic side control escape concept in this video and David Levy-Booth at the Jiu-Jitsu Laboratory provides a thesis-grade breakdown of escaping side control that also supports what we’re talking about in the context of Johnson vs. Moraga (if you’re interested in some extra reading).

This weakness in Moraga’s posture was apparent from the first round. This still, for example, is from Johnson’s first attempt to establish a crucifix from the top. Note how far away from his own ribs Moraga has placed his elbows:

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In the second round, Johnson gets a shot at a Kimura finish because Moraga places his left arm in a dangerous pocket. In the next image, note how Moraga’s left arm is between Johnson’s head and right shoulder. For a jiu-jiteiro, this is a sweet spot. With the arm in this slot, Johnson can use his torso to isolate the arm for Kimuras, Americanas, armbars, and inverted arm locks. A few seconds after this frame, Moraga attempts to scramble out of the bottom position. Johnson works to isolate the wrist for an Americana but transitions to a Kimura when Moraga tries a hasty transition to an underhook.

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In the third round, we see Moraga attempt to wrap Johnson’s head with his left arm from half guard, a position that can feel strong and safe for the bottom fighter but often leads to trouble. Johnson quickly hand-fights his way into wrist control and begins isolating the arm for another Kimura attempt.

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When Moraga does succeed in securing an underhook (a strong posture position for escaping the bottom of side control of half guard), he is able to create space, turn on to his side, and transition out of the inferior position.

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Admittedly, it’s easy to armchair quarterback a fight like this, and my intention is not to suggest that Moraga is a poor jiu-jitsu fighter. While there appears to be room for improvement in terms of his technique, a viewer should realize that jiu-jitsu in an MMA context is complicated by the additional variable of striking. Throughout the fight, Johnson forces Moraga to choose between protecting his position and protecting his head. When Johnson threatens strikes, Moraga moves his arms farther out of posture to avoid damage, a dangerous catch 22 where there does not appear to be an easy right answer, which is what makes positions like side control “dominant.”

In the final minutes of the 5th round, this catch 22 comes to a head even as Moraga’s corner urges him to get his arms inside and to secure an underhook. Desperate to escape, Moraga sets an extremely shallow underhook, which is further weakened by his lack of control over Johnson’s hips. Note how Moraga’s left arm is not framing against Johnson’s hips in the frame below, allowing Johnson to keep his hips tight, low, and heavy just before he secures a figure-four grip on Moraga’s right arm.

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And then Johnson finally finishes the submission that he had been hunting the entire fight. If you need your memory refreshed, check out the highlight from Zombie Prophet.

Grappling battles can often be viewed from the lens of posture. Each fighter is trying to increase the strength of their position by systematically breaking down and weakening the posture of their opponent. When a fighter finds himself radically far from good posture, whether through his own poor technique or the deliberate attacks and tactics of his opponent, he is likely to face significant threats, like top-side crucifixes and Kimuras.

As a spectator, when you understand what posture a fighter wants to achieve in each position, you can gauge the level of danger a fighter might be in based on how far he is from his ideal posture. When you have this understanding, you can see that in a fight like Johnson vs. Moraga an eventual submission was almost inevitable.

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A Spider’s De La Riva Guard: A Battle for the Hips

Before Chris Weidman sank the Anderson Silva showboat, he attempted a kneebar to heel hook combination. The particular entry that Weidman used is not terribly common in MMA, and I’ve seen a few fans commenting about how it seemed incredibly risky to spin into a leg lock against a jiu-jiteiro of Silva’s caliber.

While the kneebar attempt was a bit of a risk on Weidman’s part, the footage suggests that the kneebar was more of a reaction than a planned attack. In this situation, Weidman didn’t set up the kneebar. He didn’t bait Silva into it or cinch his way into position for the submission. Silva began to use a de la Riva hook to attack Weidman’s hips to off-balance Weidman, motivating Weidman to find a way out of an increasingly dangerous technical corner (watch the full sequence hereEdit: Special thanks to Zombie Prophet for creating the GIF).

At the start of the exchange, Weidman is standing over Silva. In the above still, Silva is beginning to thread his right leg around Weidman’s left leg. This is the beginnings of a de la Riva hook. In jiu-jitsu, a de la Riva guard is a powerful position for off-balancing your opponent that is primarily used for sweeps, but the position can also lead to submissions and back-takes.

The position derives much of its power by the way it compromises the strength and mobility of an opponent’s lead leg, which in turn limits that opponent’s hip mobility. When a de la Riva hook is set, the top person will have great difficulty rotating his knee outward, and stepping forward or backward is difficult because of the way the bottom fighter has threaded his leg. A tight de la Riva guard will exert a steady pressure, forcing the knee to collapse inward.

When Silva first starts to set his de la Riva hook note the space between Weidman’s left foot and Silva’s buttocks. Also note how Silva’s foot is somewhat below Weidman’s left thigh.

In this next still, Silva has closed the space between Weidman’s foot and his buttocks, he has established wrist control with his left hand, and he has angled his hips slightly to his right, giving him the ability to shoot his  right foot between Weidman’s leg and to the front of his right thigh. In sport jiu-jitsu, this is the beginnings of a back take because the de la Riva hook is exerting immense pressure on Weidman’s left leg, which his body naturally seeks to relieve by rotating the hips with the pressure rather than against. Because of the angle of the de la Riva hook, the hips want to turn away (circling to Weidman’s right), which in turn exposes the back (here is a kneeling version of how this deep de la Riva hook creates an opening for the back take).

With Silva’s de la Riva position growing stronger and stronger, Weidman needs to act to protect his base and his top position.

Weidman’s first choice is to peel the hook loose, which would be tricky even if Silva wasn’t controlling his right wrist, preventing Weidman from posturing up or reaching to fight the hook. Since he can’t unthread the de la Riva hook, Weidman would rather attempt to counter than risk getting swept. For the sake of clarity, I feel I should emphasize this: Weidman’s choise to attack with a kneebar was a signfiicant risk, but we do not know how compromised Weidman felt by the de la Riva hook.

So he steps backward with his right foot, turning Silva’s deep de la Riva hook into a kneebar opportunity. This counter is not unheard of (Marcelo Garcia teaches it on one of his DVDs), but it can be difficult to finish consistently because of its dynamic nature. At the high levels, most of the successful submissions we see occur at close quarters, the result of inching and inching into better and better position until a submission is a wrist flick or hip pop away. The more space that a fighter must close to finish a submission, the greater the likelihood of failure. The attacker can make mistakes, and the defender has more time to protect himself.

This is a bit like hitting a half-court shot versus a lay-up.

In this kneebar entry, Weidman must turn his back and then transition from a standing position to a sitting position if he is to successfully tighten the kneebar. In the above still, you can see that Weidman lands more on Silva’s face than on Silva’s hips. By overshooting the leg, Weidman leaves a great deal of space between his hips and Silva’s. Ideally, Weidman would have landed with his hips connected to Silva’s. In this position, Weidman needs to close that gap and extend the leg.

In the ensuing scramble, Weidman succeeds in extending the leg, but he fails to close the space. As you can see in the above close-up of referee booty, most of Silva’s thigh is exposed. With little control over Silva’s hips, Weidman is unable to stop Silva from rotating to relieve the pressure of the kneebar. To be clear, Silva is in some danger here. We have certainly seen fights end in positions like this. It’s just not ideal from a technical standpoint, and Silva knows enough about the ground-game to exploit the cracks in Weidman’s technique.

As Silva rotates out of the kneebar, Weidman looks for a heel hook, a common next-step after an attempted kneebar. With his legs triangled around Silva’s right leg, Weidman is pretty well attached to Silva. Weidman, however, again fails to control the hips. While a heel hook is primarily an attack on the knee, successfully finishing it often requires successfully controlling the “free” leg. If the other leg is free to move, it becomes a tool for attack grips and for changing positions (check out how a Sambo specialist addresses this challenge).

So even though Weidman is firmly attached to one leg, Silva still has a tool for escaping. Weidman should be looking to use his right foot to hook Silva’s leg to slow and stifle his ability to rotate by limiting the mobility of Silva’s hips.

But he doesn’t, and Silva is able to rotate out of the heel hook pressure and pull his leg free.

The lesson to take from this is the importance of battling the hips. Weidman’s initial kneebar attempt stemmed from Silva attacking his hips, and Silva’s subsequent escapes were a result of his hips having the space and mobility to change angles to avoid submission pressure.

Did you like this article? Check out the Artechoke in a Can installments in our archives for more technique, and download the free e-book copy of our new book, Don’t Wear Your Gi to the Bar: And Other Jiu-Jitsu Life Lessons.

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Artechoke in a Can: Basic X-Guard

Our half guard journey, specifically the focus on using a butterfly half guard to create space and movement when an opponent is particularly good at pinning you flat, has been moving toward one position: the X-guard.

X-guard is a natural next step when you play butterfly guard because your opponent’s attempts to ride out a butterfly sweep will often create the space that you need to swim underneath and establish the X-guard position. Though playing X-guard can fill a sizable hole in their games, many newer grapplers avoid the position because its apparent complexity is intimidating.

Like any position, the rabbit hole of counters and recounters can run pretty deep, but that doesn’t mean that you have to master the entirety of Marcelo Garcia’s X-guard system to make the X-guard a practical, effective part of your game.

In today’s lesson, we look at three basic X-guard attacks—counters to the most common reactions that you will encounter when you play X-guard. This is X-guard 101 for me, and it’s a simple way to expand your butterfly and half guard games. In this first technique, we look at how to sweep an opponent that postures up to maintain his base in your X-guard.

In this next technique, your opponent posts his hands on the mat to keep from getting swept. This is an incredibly common scenario, especially if you entered X-guard from a failed butterfly sweep. When you work this technique, remember to attack the single leg with a diagonal angle. You should be driving toward the shoulder of the arm you’re attacking as if you are forcing him to do a forward roll. If you try to move toward your opponent’s far leg, his base will remain strong.

If you wondered what to do if you couldn’t control the wrist in the last technique, this should answer your question. If your opponent’s far wrist is out of reach when his hands are on the mat, he is likely working to bear crawl away from your X-guard. Alternatively, he could backpedal to recover his posture, in which case his wrist will move into range, at which point you can use either the first or second technique.

At first glance, this kneebar may not look secure. In most cases, I’d agree with you, but this particular entry relies on your opponent to do most of the work for you. When your opponent tries to run out of the X-guard, his trailing leg natural extends for the kneebar, saving you the work of battling your way into position for the finish. If you latch on to the leg quickly and align the leg properly, you can skip quickly to applying finishing pressure. Remember to get your hips high on your opponent’s leg (your hips close to his hips) and to hug the leg tightly.

And that concludes our half guard module. Next week, we will start a module on the mount position.

Artechoke in a Can is the online version of Marshal D. Carper’s weekly no-gi class. Marshal is a purple belt under Sonny Achille at Steel City Martial Arts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he is the author of The Cauliflower Chronicles and Marcelo Garcia’s Advanced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Techniques.

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Artechoke in a Can: Butterfly Half Guard

To make our half guard dynamic and effective, we’ve spent the majority of this module developing the foundation for a butterfly half guard, which meant sharpening our half guard basics so that we knew when and when not to use a butterfly half while also honing our butterfly guard principles so that we would feel confident in using a butterfly half.

All of those lessons converged on this one, where we start to use the butterfly half to counter our opponent’s dominant position and uncomfortable pressure.

In no gi, the primary function of a butterfly half is to create space. You can potentially sweep from there and use the butterfly half as a bridge to X-guard, but those goals are secondary to relieving the pressure and control of an underhook and a shoulder-chin cross face. This is why our first technique emphasizes using the butterfly half to transition to a butt scoot position. This will sometimes turn into a scramble, which is why we also look at hitting the sweep when they dive back in to flatten you out.

In the next technique, we transition from the butterfly half directly into a sweep. As you’ll see in this video, my partner’s instinct is to post his hand out (the one that was previously controlling my head) to maintain his base. This will often kill the sweep, but it sets up my transition to the X-guard which we look at later. For this sweep to work, your opponent must maintain control of your head, and you will probably need to check his far leg with your hand or foot to collapse his hips. My preferred method is to check with my hand, but oftentimes your opponent will dictate what is best to use.

An important side note here: finishing this sweep will sometimes require a few extra bumps of your butterfly sweeps, which is why it’s essential for you to develop the habit of anchoring your sweep with a posted foot. If you dig your toes into the mat, you can “chase” your opponent with the sweep by using that posted foot to hop toward his hips.

And finally, we use the half guard to set up the X-guard. This transition is a huge part of my game, and I use it constantly. Because my opponent’s natural instinct is to post to defend the sweep, using the butterfly hook from half guard is a great way of tricking my opponent into exposing himself to an X-guard entry. Pay careful attention to my positioning details, as those details will be essential to making your X-guard sweeps powerful and reliable. We touch on a basic sweep here, but next week we will look at attacking form the X-guard in greater depth.

Next week, we will wrap up the half guard module with an explanation of the X-guard, exploring three of my favorite options from the position and the strategy for choosing between those three.

Artechoke in a Can is the online version of Marshal D. Carper’s weekly no-gi class. Marshal is a purple belt under Sonny Achille at Steel City Martial Arts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he is the author of The Cauliflower Chronicles and Marcelo Garcia’s Advanced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Techniques.

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Artechoke in a Can: Butterfly Guard Principles

Though our focus in this module is the half guard, a significant part of the half guard game I am sharing is the half butterfly guard. To have a powerful half butterfly requires a high level of confidence in your regular butterfly guard because the 50% reduced version requires a very precise technical application of the concepts that make the butterfly guard in general effective.

Therefore, to develop your butterfly guard for use in the half butterfly guard, this lesson is focused entirely on increasing your comfort with the principles that make the butterfly guard work.

For the first technique, we explore a slight variation on the traditional butterfly sweep. In this variation, we control the wrist instead of securing an underhook. In general, I prefer this version to the over/under version because I at no point give my opponent an underhook. Underhooks are bad mmkay?

In this next technique, we start to strip what we traditionally think of as a butterfly sweep down to the bare essentials: taking a post away and off-balancing to create the leverage needed for the butterfly hook to execute a sweep. This particular variation is one that Marcelo Garcia uses quite often, and I learned it from Jeff Rockwell. Admittedly, it’s still a work in progress for me, but in the short time I have been using it, I have found it incredibly effective and look for it all the time.

This last version of the butterfly sweep is more of an attempt to simulate attacking the butterfly sweep in a scramble than it is a specific technique that I would recommend hunting for (since your opponent has the underhook and is starting to work to flatten you out). The goal here is increase your ability to “feel” the opportunity to use the butterfly sweep, which is a big part of the butterfly guard battle.

With butterfly guard sweep principles beginning to set in, we’ll transition into half butterfly guard techniques next week, which is not-so-secretly a path to X-guard.

Artechoke in a Can is the online version of Marshal D. Carper’s weekly no-gi class. Marshal is a purple belt under Sonny Achille at Steel City Martial Arts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he is the author of The Cauliflower Chronicles and Marcelo Garcia’s Advanced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Techniques.