Much to the chagrin of the “stand them up, ref!” sector of the MMA fanbase, the grappling arts like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, catch wrestling, and sambo are as inseparable from mixed martial arts as ugly t-shirts, ring girls, and fights in the stands over spilled beer. Some of the most spectacular wins in MMA history have been by submission and this article looks at a few of my personal favourites.
Way back in 1993, Royce Gracie’s performance in Ultimate Fighting Championship laid waste to the popular image of the ideal martial artist. To the utter amazement – and disappointment – of many, the most effective approach to a hand-to-hand combat situation involved grabbing onto your opponent, dragging them to the mat, and either strangling them or twisting one of their limbs to the breaking point. It was a messy, sweaty affair completely at odds with the high-speed, clinical striking that audiences had been conditioned to expect by the martial arts movies of the time.
20 years later, things have changed… a bit. Submission grappling skills – whether from BJJ, catch-as-catch-can, judo, or sambo – are essential, but most fighters have become way more skilled at defending takedowns and submissions, which makes it that much more satisfying to see a fighter bring home a slick submission.
Note that this is by no stretch of the imagination my “Top 10 MMA Submissions of All Time” list. I came up with these off the top of my head and they’re just nine of the submissions that I’ve really enjoyed watching in my years as a mixed martial arts fan. Notable absent fighters include: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Ikuhisa “Minowaman” Minowa, Masakazu Imanari, Rousimar “Toquinho” Palhares, Megumi Fujii, Shinya Aoki, Frank Mir, Jim Miller, Karo Parisyan, Ronda Rousey, Chan-Sung Jung “The Korean Zombie”, Jeff Monson, Kazushi Sakuraba, Fabricio Werdum,… and so on.
Royce Gracie vs. Dan Severn
UFC 4: Revenge of the Warriors. December 16, 1994. Tulsa, Oklahoma.
This is an obvious place to start. Royce Gracie pulled off a hell of a stunt when he submitted Dan “The Beast” Severn with a triangle choke (or sankakujime for the judokas out there) at 15:49 of the first, and only, round. I couldn’t track down a video of the whole fight, which is definitely worth watching, but here’s a highlight that shows the finish at about the 4:15 mark.
Frank Shamrock vs. Jeremy “Gumby” Horn
UFC 17: Redemption. May 15, 1998. Mobile, Alabama.
Frank Shamrock is a true MMA legend who has never been shy about voicing his opinions on Dana White and the UFC, so it’s no surprise that his UFC fights are exceedingly hard to track down online. Revisionist history lite, perhaps? At any rate, Frank Shamrock’s battle against Jeremy Horn at the UFC 17 Light Heavyweight Championship was a straight-up war. It was mostly a grappling match, which ended when Shamrock caught Gumby in a kneebar at 16:28. If you can find UFC 17 on a download or at your local pawn shop, I’d highly recommend doing so. Other notable happenings at the event: Dan Henderson vs. Carlos Newton, and “Judo” Gene LeBell’s appearance as a judge.
Demian Maia vs. Ed Herman
UFC 83: Serra vs St-Pierre II. April 19, 2008. Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
You have to feel sorry for Ed Herman during this fight. Demian Maia looks like a cat playing with a disabled mouse. Honestly, go to 0:26 of the video and watch the sequence from the inverted omoplata. Who does that kind of stuff? It’s silly. When Demian pulls that heel hook, Herman’s body language is clearly saying, “oh for fuck’s sake!” When Maia ends the fight with the triangle the audience breathes a sigh of relief.
Dustin Hazelett vs. Tamdan McCrory
UFC 91: Couture vs Lesnar. November 15, 2008. Las Vegas.
And here we have some crazy tight omoplata control by Dustin Hazelett, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under George Gurgel. At the 3:45 mark of this video, Tamdan McCrory takes Dustin down with a single leg and it’s the beginning of the end. Once Hazelett gets the omoplata on, he holds onto that thing like an octopus, rolling and adjusting until he finally finishes with a reverse armbar.
Vinnie Magalhaes vs. Igor Pokrajac
UFC 152: Jones vs Belfort. September 22, 2012. Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
BJJ wunderkind Vinnie Magalhaes throws down in this fight against Croatian fighter Igor Pokrajac. About 35 seconds into round two, Pokrajac takes down Magalhaes, who immediately goes for a triangle before transitioning to an ultra slick armbar (aka jujigatame). The plot thickened after the fight when Pokrajac tweeted: “If I wanted to do a grappling match I would go on a grappling tournament , this is MMA and UFC fans want a fight” and was immediately lambasted by the fans. A couple of days later he changed his mind, saying, “Sorry to all MMA fans on my fast tweet after the fight, was pist off because of my mistake i lost the fight. Vinny did his best”
Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen
UFC 117: silva vs. Sonnen. August 7, 2010. Oakland, California.
What can we say about this that hasn’t already been said? Chael Sonnen beat Anderson Silva’s ass mercilessly for 23 minutes before getting sloppy with his ground and pound and being caught in a classic punch-through triangle. Sonnen uses one of my favourite 11th-hour triangle defenses (foot in the armpit) but it’s no use. Silva’s triangle-armbar combo is on and Sonnen is done. A beautiful example of how Brazilian jiu-jitsu can be used to salvage a really bad situation.
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Kevin Randleman
Pride Critical Countdown 2004. June 20, 2004. Saitama Super Arena, Japan.
This fight in the quarterfinal of the PRIDE Heavyweight Championship has a few classic MMA moments, starting with the staredown. Kevin Randleman looks crazed, while Fedor’s expression is more reminiscent of an annoyed housecat. The action starts right away. Randleman scores a double-leg takedown and Fedor gives up his back, leading to what might be the most terrifying suplex in MMA history (though Dan Severn’s double suplex on Anthony Macias was pretty scary too. As was Bob Sapp’s piledriver vs. Minotauro Nogueira). Unbelievably, Fedor does not die from a severed spinal cord, but bounces back within seconds to submit Randleman with the classic kimura (udegarami) armlock.
VIDEO: Fedor Emelianenko Vs Kevin Randleman (Pride GP) by blackburnman04
Renzo Gracie vs. Ben Spijkers
World Combat Championship (WCC) 1: First Strike. October 17, 1995. Charlotte, North Carolina.
The World Combat Championship was my first exposure to the legendary BJJ crazyman Renzo Gracie. In the first of his three fights for the night, Renzo faces Dutch judo champ Ben Spijkers. After throwing a few comical front kicks, Spijkers takes Renzo down with a pretty nice duck-under but can’t get anything done in Renzo’s guard. Renzo uses a beautiful overhook / butterfly escape to get to his feet, takes Spijkers down, and gets down to business in classic Brazilian jiu-jitsu style. We’re talking headbutts and elbows to the back of the neck before sinking the rear naked choke and leaving Spijkers out cold. And as if that weren’t enough, Renzo proceeds to step on Spijkers’s neck and then grab his arm and roll him face up like a piece of meat. If you’re interested in the backstory of this fight, there’s a (likely biased) recap in The Gracie Way: An Illustrated History of the World’s Greatest Martial Arts Family (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu series)
Jerry Bohlander vs. Scott Ferrozzo
UFC 8: David vs. Goliath. Feb 16, 1996. Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
And once again, a fight that I really wish I could have found online. As the name of the event would imply, the fight between Scott Ferrozzo and Lions’ Den fighter Jerry Bohlander was a classic “big guy vs. little guy” match. Ferrozzo clearly has the size, strength, and weight advantages, which he uses to try to crush Bohlander through the fence like a piece of Play-doh. However, Jerry Bohlander is a crafty little guy. He even spends some time choking Ferrozzo with his own singlet. There’s one great sequence where Ferrozzo rushes like a bull at Bohlander, who calmly blasts him with a big right hand before being smooshed into the cage again. The fight ends when the ever-agile Bohlander scrambles into a guillotine position and gets the tap. UFC 8 also featured the Ken Shamrock vs Kimo Leopoldo Superfight.
So that’s that for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down MMA submission memory lane. I obviously missed a bunch of great ones, so I’d be interested to hear about everyone’s favourites.