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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.

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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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