Leg Locks and The Basics

I’ve gotten really good at finding leg locks recently. They’re once again everywhere. In practice I’m taking the setup and then releasing the lock to see where we go if I can’t finish it. I’m not even trying to finish them mind you, so there’s a lot of practice to be done on actual execution once I get into the correct position. I’m still trying to work the basics instead of leg locks. In my experience they’re the easy way out – most people of my skill level don’t know them or how to defend them. Having them is a boon in competition.

So, the basics… You know that moment when you tell a black belt that you’re having trouble with X, they have you show them how you do X, and then they tell you the most obvious advice that makes you feel like a complete idiot? Yeah… Sweeps from open guard – I wasn’t popping them forward with my legs first so I was always trying to fight their arms using only my hands. It’s one of those first week details that I really should have known, but it’s the difference between grip fighting until I get passed and an instant flower sweep.

Inverted De La Riva guard and Berimbolos may be nice, but when you’re having problems with closed guard and mount there are simpler concerns which are much more pressing.

It’s good to be in an environment where you can bring up a problem you’re having and any of five black belts will jump in to help, none of them judging your for not knowing.


Matt and Tim recently went to a coaching clinic in Milwaukee and came back with the explicit interpretations of the rules that will be used in USJA and USJI tournaments in Wisconsin. We’ve been discussing the rules and trying to work within their confines, but to be honest, no one likes these new rules. AAU judo and AAU freestyle judo become more appealing every time I learn about something else I can’t do.

I like to joke that judo is heading toward Collar-and-elbow as far as the gripping rules go – you’ll have to start gripped and won’t be allowed to break the standard grip unless your opponent absolutely forces you to in which case you must catch any grip you can and throw from there. What’s pretty cool about that analogy is that the techniques the new rules are pushing to encourage are actually the techniques most common to styles like Gouren and Collar-and-elbow. This brings up a topic that I’ve covered a lot, but is always worth going over again – the rules matter.

Let me spell it out – the rules dictate which techniques are allowed and within the allowed techniques which ones work best. Those techniques which work best will be the ones people continue to learn, teach, and use. The sport will evolve around that set of core techniques and something different will come out of the crucible than what you put in. Probably most interesting is that rules and culture can fuse to create the approach individuals will have. It’s no secret that styles of play in judo are regional and that the leg grab rules were very biased against Eastern European teams who were winning by leg grabs. It’s also no secret that there is an American style of judo, the traditional Japanese style of judo, and a Russian style of judo (among others). Each of them contains slight variations on the same techniques and an individual will be described based on their approach and variations. For example, Mike Swain is often credited as having a very traditional Japanese style of judo compared to other Americans.

Training in different rules will give you different perspectives. It’s not even as cut and dry as the “turtling is okay because the ref will stand me up” stance that leads judoka to have their backs taken when they first get into BJJ. Half-guard gets a little closer – to a judoka it’s a stalling position, but to a jiujitsero it’s a viable attacking position. In judo you’ll learn to pass it, reguard, and even a few submissions from it, but the general stance will be that it’s just a stalling position. It’s certainly allowed in both rule sets, but in BJJ you can spend all day there and in judo you’ll get stood up in 3-5 seconds (if that because the position generally means the ground work is going no where).

Chokes are a great example. Freestyle wrestling doesn’t have them. BJJ does. The result is that a wrestler and a jiujitsero have different approaches to how someone is to be taken down, what should be done once they are on the ground, and how to react when someone has your back. The style of play is completely different. Fundamentally sports are implementations of the use of grappling techniques to gain a superior position and win a match from there. Implementation-wise the introduction of submissions changes everything.

Rules matter. They determine the direction a sport will take and how it will evolve. Viability against other similar sport styles matters. The fact is something won’t always be in vogue and being able to easily adapt to another rule set will mean you can keep playing long after the name of the sport has changed.

My (old) new obsession

When you’re training you go through phases. There’s like a 3-4 month period where this thing, this thing guys, oh my god guys this thing. Phases are perfectly natural and they add a ton to your game. I went through my rubber guard phase, half guard phase, leg lock phase, try-to-be-simple phase, sweeping phase, only playing the top phase, shots instead of throws phase, and wrestling phase. I’m sure there’s been more, and before you start totaling them up and wondering, yes, you are always in at least one phase, and yes, some of those have overlapped.

Lately my phase on the ground has been half-guard. I’m actively putting myself there and it’s a position I want to get good at. I’m slowly trying to wean off of it and go back to a just-the-basics phase where I work a few submissions/sweeps from closed guard and just try to work well from the top. That’s not really my obsession though.

The obsessive phases are the ones that end up permanently scarring your game. For me they were wrestling, leg locks, and flying attacks. The wrestling obsession greatly shaped my judo. Even though I can’t sprawl worth a damn anymore (accursed judo practices), I still love the arm drag and have to use the knee-tap if I’m going to throw someone much bigger than me like Tanner. Leg locks will always be a part of my game and when we did them on Saturday I was being hugely critical and modifying what we were shown to go to the Sambo leg knot instead of just threading my leg to keep them from rolling out. I haven’t gone for an earnest flying armbar attempt in a long time, but even dicking around I can still usually get them.

My new obsession isn’t really new. Not for me, not for anyone. It’s the concept that there has to be a smooth transition from standing to the ground. Butt flopping isn’t smooth – it’s an abrupt transition that happens with no regard for your opponent or bringing them into a position where you can truly dominate. Most judo throws aren’t smooth. People will toss someone and stay standing then think about how to go to the ground. When I throw I’m always trying to sacrifice. Whether it’s ouchi gake, osoto gari, or tomoe nage my goal is to be on the ground with uke at the end of the throw. This is a concept that shouldn’t be alien to anyone in the sport world. It’s a huge no-no in the self defense world, but I don’t live there anymore. I live in a world where going to the ground is a boon.

That’s not to knock judo. You see some individuals who get the throw and immediately are in a good position on the ground. Really, that’s what sport judo should be. You should have the submission before the referee has a chance to give you the point for the throw. It’s also not to knock BJJ. Some people do a phenomenal job of transitioning to the ground without having to plop their ass down and give up on using the advantages of being on their feet.

What I’m talking about though is absolutely smooth transitions directly from standing to submission without pause. Rolling knee bars, flying arm locks, and spinning inverted heel hooks. The transition has to be perfectly natural and it has to go somewhere. My new obsession for sacrifice throws is that when I mess up I will immediately switch to the flower sweep or tuck my knee in and switch to attacking the leg while they’re still standing. They’ve already stuffed the throw and if you give them a chance they’re going to stuff the sweep and pass the guard so it has to be immediate. It’s high risk while I’m working on it, but I’ve already started to see a high reward for it.