The Best Leglocks in MMA

A fan recently posted a great question on the Grapplearts Facebook Fan Page (click here to visit the Grapplearts Page).

Q: “Hi Stephan. Will you analyze Palhares’ sick heelhooks and combinations or is it more thanks to his bull strength that he’s so successful. Or maybe do already you teach that in your leglocks DVD. Thanks for all your stuff and for responding my previous mail! Jonathan”

A: Thanks for an interesting question Jonathan!

UFC fans might be familiar with Rousimar Palhares because he recently showcased his skills in UFC 142, tapping out Mike Massenzio with a slick heelhook in round 1.

This is a relatively common occurrence in Palhares’s fights.  In fact, he has 14 MMA victories, 7 of which are by leglock.  And he’s not limiting his exploits just to MMA either: in 2011 at the most prestigious submission grappling competition in the world – the Abu Dhabi Combat Championships – Palhares finished 3 matches in a row with heel hooks!

So his leglocking credentials are impeccable.

As you point out he is an absolute bull.  In fact, his nickname in Brazil is Toquinho, which is Portuguese for “little tree stump.” He’s covered in slabs of muscle, and could probably compete successfully in bodybuilding if he wasn’t ripping people’s legs apart in MMA.

Both Palhares’s physique and his single-minded pursuit of the submission are evident in the highlight video below:

The idea of someone as powerful as Palhares using all his strength to twist your leg, shredding the tiny ligaments that hold your knee and ankle together, should send shivers down your spine.

We’re talking serious, permanent, damage here folks…

(At this point I have to belabor the obvious and point out that heelhooks really are dangerous.  But if you want a relatively safe way to get better at heelhooks, first work on the basic ankle lock!  Doing this will build your heelhooking foundation, because it teaches you how to control your opponent’s foot and leg in a relatively safe position.  Once you’ve mastered the ankle lock, upgrading your attacks to the heel hook will require only relatively small modifications.)

OK, so now we’ve talked a little bit about Palhares.  But there are actually TWO currently-active MMA fighters changing the game with leglocks…

In fact, you can’t discuss leglocking in modern MMA without also talking about another leg locking master: Masakazu Imanari.

Fighting mostly in Japan, Imanari has 24 wins in MMA, 9 of which come from a dizzying variety of leg locks attacks.

He has an insane ability to jump onto someone’s legs and then relentlessly pursue the leglock finish. No wonder that his nickname is “Ashikan Judan” which, in English, means “10th Dan of Leglocks”

For a quick taste of Imanari’s fighting style (and some fantastic leg locking combinations) check out the highly entertaining video below:

So there we have the two undisputed best leglockers active in MMA today: Palhares and Imanari…

Isn’t it interesting that these two fighters have such different body types?

Palhares, as I’ve said, is an absolute powerhouse who could probably do well in bodybuilding contests.  Imanari, although obviously fit, is much slimmer and lankier.

Two entirely different body types.  One identical, relentless strategy.

The fact is that heel hooks work for all kinds of bodytypes, physiques and strength levels.  Palhares’s athleticism and ability to benchpress 400 lbs certainly doesn’t hurt his ability to finish the heelhook, but it’s NOT the major thing he’s got going for him…

It’s technique!

Some people write off leg locks as not being lowbrow techniques and not very technical…

But clearly, both Imanari and Palhares are ultra-technical.  They both use basic leg lock entries as the foundation of their game, and then build on that to apply some truly spectacular spinning, jumping, upside-down leg lock attacks from unexpected angles and positions.

If you’re a grappler you’ve GOT to be familiar with the most common lower body attacks (ankle locks, toe holds, heel hooks and kneebars).  You don’t necessarily need to be an expert leglocker, but you’ve got to have played with them a bit, understand the mechanics, know how to counter them, etc.

First of all, if someone attacks you with a leglock you don’t recognize it, and don’t know how to counter it (or even realize that you should be tapping out) you could be in a world of hurt…

And also consider this: heel hooks are the great equalizer.

Strength and power are nice to have of course, but you DON’T need much strength to finish larger, stronger opponents with a heel hook.

In fact, if I was facing someone 100 lbs heavier than me I’d be thinking about two main submissions: the rear naked choke, and the heel hook!

Before I wrap up I have to throw in an important caveat!

The sad fact is that when it comes to submitting much larger opponents, not all leglocks are created equal.

I love the kneebar.  But if your opponent is a LOT bigger and stronger than you, then kneebars might not be the best submissions to use.

With the heel hook you’re mainly attacking the small and vulnerable cruciate ligaments of the knee.  Even someone as large as Brock Lesnar is still going to have relatively small cruciate ligaments, making the heel hook a perfect tool with which to bring down a Goliath.

But to apply a kneebar you have to overpower a relatively larger muscle in your opponent’s leg: the hamstring.

Most of the time this isn’t a problem, because if you do the kneebar correctly you end up using the power of BOTH your legs AND your body against your opponent’s one hamstring. These are pretty good odds, and that’s good enough to finish the kneebar on 90% of the opponents you’ll encounter.

But if someone is much stronger than you then you’re going to run into the upper limit of kneebars…

Consider one of the most exciting fights in MMA history, Antonio Nogueira’s epic battle against the Bob Sapp in Pride.  Nogueira was outweighed by at least 100 pounds, and at one point he spun under Sapp, getting into the kneebar position.   Mainly because there was such a big strength and weight difference, Bob Sapp basically ignored the kneebar and then punished Nogueira with a huge drop knee to the face.

You can see that ill-fated kneebar attempt and Sapp’s Neanderthal counter just after the 11 minute mark of this video here:

Nogueira’s inhuman toughness and tenacity not only allowed him to survive this fight, but eventually earned him one of the most tenacious victories of all time (watch part two of the fight here).

To wrap up, looking at both Imanari and Palhares competing in MMA leads you to a few different take-home messages…

The first take-home message is that leg locks are just as technical as any other aspect of the sport.  It’s NOT just about grabbing someone’s leg and twisting!  There are specific techniques, drills, principles, counters and combinations that you need to know if you want to get good at leglocks, just like any other submission.

Secondly, there are a lot of leglocks – heel hooks in particular – that can be a devastating part of your arsenal, regardless of your body type.  Short or tall, muscular or lanky, strong or weak: the heelhook can finish just about any opponent.  This makes it a must-have technique, an ace in a hole that can instantly finish just about anybody in a submission grappling match, an MMA fight or a street self defense situation!

Stephan Kesting

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