Leg-Locks are an Effective Violation of Trust

There is an ongoing debate in submission grappling regarding the legitimacy and efficacy of leg-locks, including foot and ankle locks, as a method of submission. Leg-locks are certainly not my specialty, but whenever a certain technique or entire set of techniques is considered controversial, I begin to ask why. Unlike other submissions, leg-locks seem to be a major point of contention amongst submission grapplers, especially in the Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) community. There are many different reasons as to why this is the case, but I think that most, if not all of the explanations given skirt around the real issue which is never really discussed.

At certain schools, leg-locks are considered advanced techniques, not to be taught until a person has developed a solid understanding of what are considered to be basic techniques. At these schools, there is a generally held belief that leg-locks are a sort of shortcut around the system of BJJ, a way to defeat opponents without learning the fundamental techniques and principles of the art. If a person learns leg-locks too early, these people claim, they will never learn how to properly pass the guard and are thereby short-changing themselves and their partners. Learning how to pass the guard to get to a dominant position is essential in a fight, whether in an MMA or a self-defense scenario, and learning leg-locks too early may hinder the student’s progress in this regard. If a person is training to win at submission grappling, not for self-defense or MMA, however, this argument has little validity for that particular student.

At other schools, lower body attacks, especially the twisting locks like heel hooks, are seen as dangerous and more likely to cause injury than many of the more commonly taught upper body attacks, such as arm locks, shoulder locks, and strangles. This argument is a double-edged sword because one of the primary dangers of any technique is in not knowing how to defend against it or when to tap before injury occurs. The less the techniques are taught or trained, therefore, the more dangerous they are. Heel-hooks, the most commonly vilified of the leg-locking techniques, are considered dangerous because the twisting pressure they force on the knee is not painful until it has passed the point of injury. Again, this seems, to me at least, to be a better reason for exposing students to the technique in a controlled setting, so that they know how to protect themselves from it. Ignorance may be bliss, but it can also get you hurt.

Even in competition there are disparities in the rulesets regarding leg-locks, with all or certain leg-locks being allowed or disallowed at different levels and with different regulations for competing in the gi vs in nogi, the jiu-jitsu gi being the traditional uniform worn in BJJ (a carryover from Japanese judo) competition. At some competitions, no leg-locks are allowed in kids’ divisions or within the low ranks of the adult divisions. At others, only specific leg locks are allowed at certain ranks. In many competitions, the positioning of the legs during leg attacks is regulated in an attempt to create a safe environment for all competitors, but this is also taken advantage of by a few people, forcing themselves into the receiving end of these illegal leg entanglements so that their competitors are disqualified. More leg-locks tend to be allowed in nogi competitions than in gi competitions, but I have yet to hear a logical argument for this that is worth repeating.

Finally, there are the schools that specialize in leg-locks, schools that have either embraced this aspect of grappling as it becomes more popular or who have helped to revolutionize and normalize the leg lock game through success in competition. It appears that these leg-lock focused schools have hacked the submission grappling system of take-down, guard pass, secure dominant position, and submit, by bypassing it altogether and attacking the legs. These seemingly elite, specialized schools have brought leg locks to the forefront of submission grappling to the point where a school not teaching leg locks is not keeping up, especially in the competition circuit. It should be noted, however, that the coach of the most famous and successful of all leg-locking schools, Renzo Gracie black belt John Danaher of the infamous ‘Danaher Death Squad,’ has stated that all of his athletes are required to have learned and mastered the basics, the fundamentals of Brazilian jiu-jitsu before moving on to the more specialized techniques.

Leg locks win competitions. Why then, if leg locks have proven as effective in the sport time and time again, are they still frowned upon inside certain schools and by certain people? For better or worse, right or wrong, there is an implicit agreement, unwritten and unspoken, between two grapplers that each one will try to defeat the other with more dominant and more strategically placed forward pressure, angles, and leverage until these forces are too great or too masterfully applied and a submission is the inevitable result. Mutually agreed upon forward pressure results in a face-to-face engagement wherein both competitors must battle each other head-on until one wins the battle of angle, leverage, or timing and the other can no longer successfully defend. Leg locks violate this agreement by bypassing the fight altogether. They allow a person to avoid the forward pressure battle and to win by moving away from the fight instead of into and around it which is, incidentally, one of the reasons why leg-locks can level the playing field for smaller grapplers competing against larger, stronger opponents. For many people, this bypassing the system feels like cheating and like a violation of trust. That is why leg locks are often so unpopular, except with leg-lockers. Even if I do not particularly want to focus on them, I am happy to train with people who do.

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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