Learn to defend leglocks. Even if leglocks are illegal in judo and in the lower belt categories of IBJJF competitions, most no-gi submission grappling competitions allow straight leglocks like achilles locks and kneebars. Some of them also allow the more dangerous twisting leglocks like toeholds and heel hooks. And in MMA it’s absolutely game on. If you train submission grappling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu or MMA, ignoring achilles locks, kneebars, toeholds, and heel hooks means leaving a massive hole in your game. Besides, any technique that can make Bas Rutten squeal like a little girl has to be good, right?
The first high-profile leglock was probably Ken Shamrock’s win over Pat Smith at the first UFC. Back in 1993 the huge majority of viewers had no idea why a tough kickboxer would tap out because of a little pull on the leg. Fast forward a few years and the most-viewed leglock of all time in MMA might be the kneebar that Frank Mir used to submit Brock Lesnar at 1:48 of their match at UFC 81, which was the ex-WWE behemoth’s highly publicized first appearance in the UFC.
Leglocks have been a major part of catch-as-catch-can wrestling, Russian sambo, the ADCC submission grappling events, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu competition for years with notable proponents including Gene LeBell, Frank Gotch, Erik Paulsen, Masakazu Imanari, Stephan Kesting, and many more.
So without further ado – three don’ts and two dos for for those who are going to play with leglocks:
1. DON’T just try to punch your way out of a leglock
Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Zelg Galesic – Dream 12
Zelg Galesic found this out the hard way in his Dream 12 fight against Kazushi Sakuraba. At about the 25-second mark, Sakuraba shoots a low single, transitions into an achilles lock and then spends two and a half minutes absorbing head punches (listen to Guy Mezger’s commentary, you can hear him cringing) while transitioning to a toehold and finally finishing with a kneebar.
Jim Miller vs. Charles Oliveria – UFC 124
The Jim Miller vs. Charles Oliveria fight at UFC 124 had a quick back-and-forth leglock battle. After blocking Oliveria’s kneebar attempt, Miller dove for a toehold and then switched to a kneebar. Oliveria, unfortunately, also tried “the punching defense”, landing three hammer fists to Miller’s left lat before finally tapping out.
The Jim Miller vs. Charles Oliveria leglock exchange:
Rener and Ryron Gracie break down the Miller vs. Oliveria battle in detail (keep watching for the breakdown of Mark Bocek’s triangle win over Dustin Hazelett)
2. DON’T just grimace and wait for a leglock to end
Kevin Randleman vs. Mauricio Shogun Rua – Pride 32
One of the least-advisable submission defenses is putting up with the pain and hoping that your opponent gets tired. That approach might have worked for Robson Moura against Ryan Hall at the 2011 ADCC, but it sure didn’t serve Kevin Randleman very well in his fight against Mauricio Shogun Rua at Pride 32. Shogun twisted the dickens out of Randleman’s leg by going from toehold to heel hook, back to toehold, and finally ending the fight with an ultra-nasty, foot-under-the-armpit kneebar that I can barely watch without wincing.
Shinya Aoki vs. Tatsuya Kawajiri. Dream 15.
When Tatsuya Kawajiri challenged Shinya Aoki for the Dream Lightweight title, he could have been better prepared for Aoki’s leg submission game. Once Aoki had Kawajiri’s foot secured and started working the achilles lock, it looked like Kawajiri just didn’t know what to do – although by the look of Aoki’s face after the match, Kawajiri did land at least one heel kick.
3. DON’T fight a heelhook without a damn good plan
Rousimar “Toquinho” “Paul Harris” Palhares vs. David Avellan – ADCC 2011
Palhares earned some infamy in the MMA world at UFC 111 when he beat Tomasz Drwal via heel hook but was then suspended for 90 days for failing to let go of the submission after the fight had been stopped. “Toquinho” (Portuguese for “tree stump”) took his heel hook to the 2011 ADCC submission grappling competition and went on a savage rampage that would have taken him to the gold medal spot in the under-88kg category if he wasn’t stopped by Andre Galvao in the final.
One of the more controversial grappling matches at ADCC 2011 was Palhares vs. David Avellan, which was stopped after the fight rolled off the mat and then restarted in a locked heel hook position. No real surprise how that match ended. May be hard to stomach for anyone who has recently had a knee injury.
Jason “Mayhem” Miller vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza – Dream 4
For an example of a (nearly) textbook heel hook in MMA, see Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza vs. Jason “Mayhem” Miller at Dream 4 (at about the 5:30 mark of the video). A heel hook is a twisting submission, so the primary line of defense is rolling in the direction of the rotation to take the pressure off the knee joint. Notice that Jacare’s right leg is laced over Mayhem’s left thigh and under his right knee to prevent Miller from rolling away. Jason Miller survived this heel hook attempt, although he ended up losing the match on a decision and apparently also lost his ACL in the process.
4. DO train leglocks with respectful partners
So leglocks can be dangerous – particularly the twisting ones like toeholds and heel hooks – but if you’re training submission grappling, MMA, or Brazilian jiu-jitsu then you need to know what’s up. So find some respectful training partners – who you can trust not to do anything stupid – and start playing. Two great places to start:
- Rener and Ryron Gracie explain defenses to the straight footlock / achilles lock.
- Gracie Magazine’s post about heel hook defense, which has videos from Dean Lister, Rener Gracie, and Relson Gracie’s HK Team.
5. DO tap early
Just like with all submissions, it’s always a good idea to tap early to a leglock. Twisting leglocks like heel hooks and toeholds are especially dangerous because by the time you feel pain, you’ve probably torn some knee ligaments or cartilage and there’s a good chance that you’ll be off training for a few months (or more) to do some knee injury rehabilitation. On the other side, if you’re working a heel hook and your partner doesn’t tap, don’t be an ass and send them to the hospital, just roll your eyes, let it go, and congratulate them on how incredibly tough they are.