Monday, 1 February 2010

The Submission: A dying art?

If you are a keen follower of the UFC you may have noticed in the last few main events the lack of fights won by submission. The statistical truth is actually more startling. In the last four fight cards, only one fight was finished by submission (Alan Belcher, UFC 93). Granted the UFC is not the final word on the state of the ever evolving world of MMA, but as the bastion of professional MMA worldwide is there a cause for concern? Or is this merely just one of those passing oddities and business will return to usual in the upcoming events? How would MMA suffer from a decline in the art of the submission? These are important questions to ask, particularly as the sport continues to find its feet in the mainstream market. Perhaps the art of submission is suffering from the lure of “Fight of the Night‟ bonuses and an emphasis placed upon fighters to “stand and bang‟. This appeals to a wider and less MMA savvy audience and quickly raises a fighter’s profile and fan base. Referees also seem somewhat quicker these days to make fighters break the clinch or stand up due to “inactivity‟, responding perhaps to the booing from a particular demographic of spectators, or pressure from the executives upstairs to keep it “entertaining”?
Has all this contributed to us regularly seeing world-class wrestlers and Jiu-Jitsu black belts choosing to stand up and exchange with kick boxing and Muay-Thai specialists, often to their detriment? I mean don’t get me wrong everyone loves a good knock-out, it’s an art in itself. However, is the emphasis being placed upon the glamour of striking starving contemporary MMA of one of its quintessential and truly cerebral elements: the art of the submission?

It has been said that MMA is the closest thing you can get to being in a real fight. This is what sets MMA apart from all other combat sports. Whilst the fighter’s safety is always paramount, essentially two warriors enter an enclosed cage with little protection and one warrior exits. This harks back to the old Samurai Jiu-Jitsu matches where there was a principle of “sudden death‟ designed to simulate the reality of battle. Although fights often had a time limit, they could be brought to an early end by one of the fighters by delivering a devastating throw, lock or choke, a “sudden death‟. This would mirror a situation which in real combat would prove fatal to the loser. It was this thinking that formed the concept of the submission. It was described by the Samurai as a kind of “symbolic death‟, a “one strike and you’re out‟. In real combat a mistake could be fatal and this needed to translate into competition. The symbolic death also symbolised a death of the ego. The word submission means to "lower, reduce or yield". These are words that fighters find very hard to digest. The “tap‟ not only says “my arm is about to break... please stop‟, it more profoundly says “I have been out smarted, out fought and now I honourably withdraw‟. You join any no-gi grappling or BJJ class as a beginner and the first advice you will be given is tap early. This goes against your every fighting instinct not to quit. However, it not only humbles and educates you; it allows you to withdraw with dignity and to fight another day (and to go to work the next morning). It was the technical execution of submissions that initially caught the world’s imagination in the early UFC tournaments. Seeing the smallest member of the Gracie family, a gi-clad Royce, submitting beasts with arm-bars and rear-naked chokes changed people’s perception of what it meant to be a fighter.

The art of the submission has evolved organically, having grown and developed within many differing fight systems. New submissions or variations on old techniques have come about instinctively in the climate of a fight, such as the ‘Kimura’, or in the gym in exchanges between students or masters. It was in a training session between Rolls Gracie and Bob Anderson, who has coached MMA wrestling behemoths Dan Henderson and Randy Couture, that popular MMA submission the “Americana” was born. Anderson was showing Rolls what he would do to get an arm bar when an opponent was rolled up in a ball. He did what they call in wrestling a “turkey bar”. This variation came to be better known as the “Americana”. Submissions have become a way in which fighters or fights themselves have become inscribed upon the pages of history. If we look at MMA today a number of chokes and locks continue to be synonymous with particular fighters. The D’Arce choke (also known as the Brabo choke) derives its name from Joe D'Arce, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under Renzo Gracie. Although not the inventor of the choke, D'Arce performed this choke often and with great success in many Jiu-Jitsu and submission grappling tournaments. Frank Mir submitted veteran Pete Williams (who had never been submitted before) with a shoulder lock in only 0:46 in the first round at UFC 73. The shoulder lock was set up from the open guard and has since been named “The Mir Lock”. We can see how the art of the submission has played a key role in the constantly evolving world of MMA. To watch a fighter debilitate an opponent from his back is truly a great sight. To witness a fighter slice through an opponent’s guard and seamlessly transition to a submission is a technically beautiful thing to watch.

Returning to my initial question: has the emphasis or pressure being placed upon wrestlers and Jiu-Jitsu black belts to “stand and bang”, been to their detriment and that of the submissions game in general? I think the reality is that as MMA continues to evolve, a good ground game alone is not enough. You need good stand up to live in the cage and if you don’t have it, it will be detrimental. Jorge Gurgel, BJJ Black belt, chose to slug it out on his feet for the majority of his fights in the UFC. Despite winning “fight of the night” honours in UFC 73, he was released by the organisation after a two fight losing streak. Gurgel is quoted as saying “… everybody asks me, 'Why don't you do jiu-jitsu? You'd be in the top of the guys in the weight class if you would do jiu-jitsu.' But I always get caught up in not being boring”. Contrast this with the exploits of Anderson Silva another BJJ black belt. Like Gurgel, we rarely get to see the extent of his ground game. However, the difference between these two fighter’s success is that Silva has ‘world-class’ boxing and Muay Thai at his disposal.

Muay Thai, if mastered, has proved to be the most devastating and entertaining striking system in MMA and a must have in any pro fighter’s arsenal. With new audiences to MMA often already accustomed to boxing, the influx of Muay Thai has made the mainstream crossover to MMA smoother. I mean ‘throw in’ a few elbows and some flying knees (Muay Thai is much more technical than this) and you’ve got instant mainstream appeal. To many it’s like ‘Bloodsport’, but in real life. However, the prospect of watching men roll on the ground vying for the dominate position and working for submissions is unfamiliar and unappealing to a wider audience. Perhaps submissions and the ground game in general are becoming victims of their own technical complexity. Also with the stand up game becoming increasingly prolific, are fighters thinking the ground is best avoided if the business can be done on the feet?
If we look at the styles of fighter’s Chuck Liddel and Thiago Alves, both are great strikers who have awesome takedown defence. This enables them to implement a game plan of keeping fights standing and making it difficult for ground based fighters with inferior striking to live with them. We are also seeing this emphasis upon striking infiltrate the evolvement of wrestlers within MMA. Wrestlers often already possess other-worldly strength in the clinch, terrifying cardio and the ability to take opponents down at will enabling them to dictate fights. Many wrestlers are currently showing a tendency towards striking rather than submissions or the ground and pound popularised by Ortiz and Couture. In the fight between Gray Maynard v Jim Miller at UFC 96, Maynard controlled the fight standing. He used strength and size to overpower Miller and used takedowns to score points at the end of the round or when in trouble and ground out the win. He didn’t finish Miller but used cardio as a factor and his athletic wrestling pedigree to grind out the decision. Both fighters were wrestlers, but interestingly Maynard chose to keep it standing throughout. Wrestling pedigree and excellent striking is proving to be a very formidable combination.

Where does this leave the submission game in MMA? Is the obvious need for strong striking in contemporary MMA starving the sport of the art of the submission? Maybe the situation is not as dire as we think. If we scour the weight divisions of various organisations the world over, we find a wealth of exciting submission tacticians both young and old. These fighters are bringing a much needed injection of life, executing dynamic and exciting submissions. In the UFC 22 year-old Welterweight Dustin Hazelett has been creating a buzz with his technical and slickly executed submissions, along with peers Joe Lauzon and Nate Diaz. Demian Maia continues to make his assault on the middleweight division, with four of his five fights in the UFC earning him the submission of the night. Many would like to see how Anderson Silva would deal with his Jiu-Jitsu if the fight went to the floor. Japanese fighter Shinya Aoki, in his often ridiculous choice of tights, is notorious for his ability to execute breathtaking submissions. Aoki demonstrates a difference culturally in the way he goes for submissions from the Brazilians. The Brazilian way is generally slow, steady and inexorable, while the Japanese style is about catching your opponent off guard and snatching the submission. This style has earned Aoki has earned him the nickname "Tobikan Judan," meaning "master of flying submissions”.

In reflection, perhaps the future is not all that bleak. The submissions game has been continually evolving as the sport continues to make great strides. As MMA grows as a sports industry hopefully the understanding and knowledge of its audience in relation to submissions will increase. Nevertheless, the majority may remain ignorant until it really goes mainstream, which is where the sport is inevitably heading. Remember this is a very technical and highly skilled professional sport, and this is displayed equally in the stand up and submissions game. The two extreme means of defeat: the ‘tap’ and the ‘K.O’ are what separate MMA from all the other pretenders. It could be argued that the “flying submissions‟ of Shinya Aoki are as exciting as a Rampage left hook. However, I do not think this is the point. The very essence of MMA is the emphasis on the “mixed‟. It’s about variety, about taking the best of every discipline and fusing them together to produce the most complete fighters in the world. This has been aptly demonstrated in the very well rounded or “mixed‟ game of Georges St Pierre. The reality is that the sports future champions will be the warriors that can kick you in the head, control you in the clinch, and take you down or arm-bar you just as easily. Perhaps the most technical and beautifully executed submission will never attract the same hype and fan base as a Chuck Liddel knockout or a Cro Cop kick to the chops. However, there are no doubts the submission plays an integral part in the cage, it is one of the reasons true fans love MMA and the sport would not be the same without them.

By: K.G McGlade

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