MMA is always changing. It wasn’t all that long ago when TJ Dillashaw first shocked the world with frequent stance-shifts, and Benson Henderson won a world title by throwing weird kicks below the knee. Nowadays, fighters restricted to one stance are commonly at a disadvantage, and at least one bout per event sees one athlete hobble another with calf kicks.
The changes are sudden and their consequences immediate. Once athletes en mass realize a new strategy is working, everyone adopts that line of thinking. It doesn’t even have to make sense or add value to an individual’s game for a fighter to co-opt the newest trend! That’s simply the reality of a sport in its youth, one without decades or centuries worth of experimentation.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is similarly young; the most prestigious jiu-jitsu tournament hosted by International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJFF) started in 1996, for example. Jiu-jitus competition has seen similarly rapid changes. For the most part, trends come and go, some more fun than others (any longtime BJJ fan can detail how horribly boring it was when 50/50 guard was in vogue).
In recent years, however, leg locks have completely taken over. Previously something of a fringe and looked-down-upon aspect of the art, mastery of the various leg entanglement positions is now mandatory if one is to win the advanced bracket of even a local grappling tournament. The amount of positions, finishes, counters, and overall technique in the leg lock world can be overwhelming; the rise of leg locks — and specifically, the heel hook — is something of a divisive issue.
Like it or not, they dominate the grappling world. Based on recent fights, leg locks seem to be on the rise inside the cage too.
There were two leg lock finishes last night. I’m not one of those stat guys who can tell you what UFC event had the least punches landed by fighters from the red corner, but there’s a real chance that’s a first or at least ties the record. A few nights ago, there was no leg lock finish, but Ryan Benoit, a striker not known for his grappling, managed to make veteran wrestler Tim Elliott squirm and grimace from a kneebar.
Back to last night, in which both leg locks taught valuable lessons. In the co-main event, Kelvin Gastelum countered a takedown attempt from Jack Hermansson beautifully. Gastelum may have wanted a kickboxing match, but he opted to stay in top position, because hey, free punches, right?
Instead, Hermansson reaped the knee, taking his leg and drive it across Gastelum’s thigh, forcing his knee inward. With his other leg, he locked the position in, hooking Gastelum’s far leg as well. Gastelum was forced over, and Hermansson cranked on the heel hook until his foe tapped.
First lesson: a leg lock can end even the most difficult opponent in an instant. Hermansson was not a huge underdog to Gastelum, but the generally accepted path to victory for “Joker” involved a lot of exhausting wrestling and probably surviving a few big shots. Instead, Hermansson barely took a punch and earned a first-round finish over a former title challenger!
Also on the main card, Ariane Lipski kneebarred Luana Carolina. Carolina went for a heel hook similar to Hermansson’s from her back, but when Lipski attempted to spin away, Caroline sunk her shin behind the knee joint and grabbed at the hips. She was attempting a calf slicer, similar to the one Charles Oliveira once nailed Eric Wisely with many years ago.
Unfortunately, Carolina didn’t quite know how to finish the move. Instead, Lipski sensed opportunity, grabbed her foes leg, and cranked away from a strange position.
Second lesson: leg locks are DANGEROUS regardless of technique. Lipski pretty much made up her own knee bar position, but the core ideas behind a kneebar (i.e. using the knee as a fulcrum and bending it in the wrong direction) were supported. Not only did it work, but it tore Carolina’s knee! On a similar note, Hermansson’s finish showed better technique overall, but his grip on the ankle was technically incorrect.
Leg locks may be a dangerous game to play (as Carolina found out), but there is still so much unused potential, particularly when defending takedowns. If every positional exchange along the fence carried with it the chance of a torn ACL, wrestlers may not be so willing to grind for takedowns. If caught kicks become leg entanglement entries, the striking game changes as well. Getting picked apart? Jump on the leg!
Will any of that happen? Hard to say, as there have always been leg lock specialists, but they’ve never taken over the fight world. Regardless, leg locks are trending upwards, so fighters who like their limbs had best get acquainted with these positions.
For complete UFC Fight Island 2 “Figueiredo vs. Benavidez 2” results and play-by-play, click HERE!