Make the Transition: the importance of intermediate positions in Jiu Jitsu

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One of my Jiu Jitsu coaches, Matt, is the master of transitional positions. When we train Jiu Jitsu it seems we never follow the conventional pathways of positional progression but are often stuck in between the scored positions in a kind of grappling no-man’s-land. It can be frustrating, but exploring these positions has greatly helped my progression.  As Jiu Jitsu advances these transitional positions are becoming more important and are being utilized to a greater degree by the highest level competitors.

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Divided we Conquer  

A classic thought experiment in the field of geometry is to imagine dividing a solid object or distance in half. Each half is divided again and again. How many divisions are possible before no more divisions can be made? In Jiu Jitsu these divisions occur between common positions. Early in the development of Jiu Jitsu the half-guard was considered a poor position; it was half-way towards getting your guard passed. The half-guard is now a considered a position unto itself with an assortment of attacks. The half guard is commonly credited to Roberto “Gordo” Correra, who developed the position when, during purple belt, he suffered a knee injury that prevented him from playing closed guard. Presently, the half guard has been expanded to many other transitional positions: half butterfly, deep half guard, Z-guard, X-guard, tornado guard, 50/50 guard, quarter-guard and many more. Each time the position is halved it creates a new point for development and discovery.

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Abstract (Martial) Arts

But why would it be beneficial to continue the abstraction of Jiu Jitsu positions? Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was developed primarily as a self-defense art and many practitioners still view it that way. Esoteric guards and complex positions are considered limited or detrimental in a self-defense scenario. Even for mixed martial arts competition, it’s rare to see any positions outside of the standard Jiu Jitsu positions like guard and side control. The exceptions of course are Jiu Jitsu black belts like Fabricio Wedum, Wilson Reis and Antônio Rogério Nogueira who use uncommon positions like deep half guard to take advantage of their opponent’s unfamiliarity with the position.

And therein lays the value of transitional positions. Despite protests to the contrary Jiu Jitsu, like MMA, is a sport – and in any sportive pursuit the ability to surprise your opponent with a position, technique or strategy to which they are unaccustomed puts you at a distinct advantage.

A transitional position can be considered as any arrangement that:  (1) is between two scored positions, (2) can be maintained for an indefinite amount of time, (3) has multiple pathways into and out of it, and (4) is often a midpoint in an otherwise common Jiu Jitsu technique.

Conceptually, Jiu Jitsu positions act as a series of decision nodes. Something can be considered a position, in this sense, if you are able to take more than one pathway depending on your goal or your opponent’s reaction. A position can be considered dominant if you have a greater range of decisions than your opponent and control over what decisions your opponent can make. As Jiu Jitsu champions like Marcelo Garcia have noted, it is often during transitions between positions that you set up your submissions. Having more options in these in-between situations makes you a more dangerous Jiu Jitsu practitioner.

Many other familiar positions in Jiu Jiu can be considered transitional. Knee-on-belly is half-way between side control and mount, for example, and can be used for a variety of attacks and transitions. Take a look at three other less-common transitional positions that are increasingly being used in the highest levels of Jiu Jitsu competition:

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The Omoplata

An omoplata is either a weird Brazilian marsupial or a shoulder lock using the legs. It is considered one of the three major submissions from guard alongside the triangle and armbar. But the omoplata can be much more than that. Several Jiu Jitsu practitioners including Nino Schembri and Rafael Lovato Jr. are known for turning the omoplata into a novel position of its own. From the omoplata position it is possible to sit up to finish the submission or transition to a variety of other submissions and sweeps.

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Rafael Lovato Jr. – Omoplata

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The traditional omoplata sweep involved extending your body and hooking a leg to roll your opponent onto their back. Another sweep from the omoplata position that was made famous by Roberto “Roleta” Magalhaes is the backwards roll. If your opponent attempts to posture out of your omoplata you can use his momentum to roll over your own shoulder, completing the sweep.

When you are able to force your opponent to turtle but are unable to break him or her down for the submission it is relatively easy to reach around their back and transition to rear-mount. With a solid upper body control it is possible to let go of the shoulder and turn your opponent into you to get the hooks.

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Stephan Kesting – Omoplata

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Alternatively several submissions are readily available from the omoplata position as well. By reaching through your legs you can get a grip of your opponent’s gi and pull them into a triangle. The triangle choke is also available when your opponent attempts to turn into you to fight the shoulder lock.

The gogoplata is a fairly novel submission that is also available when your opponent pressures into your omoplata. It uses the shin across the throat to choke your opponent. Be careful with this one, though, as your lateral collateral ligament will be under a great deal of pressure.

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Rafael Mendes – Omoplata to armlock to back transition (versus Justin Rader)

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A number of armlocks are available from the omoplata as well. My personal favorite occurs when you release the leg triangle on your opponent’s shoulder and shoot your far leg through to the far hip. This turns the omoplata into a belly-down armbar. Rafael Mendes went a step further at the most recent ADCC and proceeded to take the back from this armlock position.

While often thought of as a submission, the omoplata is another one of those in between points where no points are scored but they offer a great deal of control and the ability to transition to many other positions and submissions.

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Rafael Mendes  – Leg drag to omoplata transition

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Leg Drag

The leg drag pass is currently one of the highest percentage guard passes in high-level Jiu Jitsu competition, particularly in the lower weight classes. The CheckMat and Atos teams, both of which split off from Brasa in the late 2000’s, are probably the best known developers of the leg drag pass. The leg drag pass leads to an intermediary position, which for simplicity we can also call the leg drag.

The leg drag position occurs when you’ve managed to drag your opponent’s leg across your body so that both of their knees are on the same side, being pinned down by your knee or your body. In the latter case, your knee is sometimes stuck through your opponent’s legs, controlling their bottom hip. I usually use my hand on the same side as my opponent’s knees to grip their same side collar for upper-body control.

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Mendes brothers – Leg drag pass and finish

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Martin Aedma – Estonian guard passes from hell (3 leg drag passes)

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It’s important to use this position to control your opponent’s movement by controlling their hips. Beginner students will inevitably rush to try to get side control, letting their opponent hip out and replace guard or turtle away to avoid giving up pass points. The leg drag pass offers control and takes away your opponent’s space to prevent their escape. Once you’re into the leg drag position your transitions will often be determined by your opponent’s reactions.

The easiest and most frequent transition is directly to side control by pressuring forward with your hips. Make sure to swim for your far-side underhook to secure the pass. Alternatively you can circle your knee into the knee on belly if you prefer to launch attacks from that position.

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Jiu Jitsu Laboratory – Leg drag pass to the back

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The mount is also available right for the leg drag position. Getting underhooks to pressure your opponent and keep their back to the mat, space become available to drop your knee into mount and swing your leg under your opponent’s like a windshield wiper to secure the mount.

The most powerful transition from the leg drag, however, is to the back. This can be accomplished at least two different ways. Some opponents will attempt to roll away, giving up their back in the process. Getting a seatbelt or collar grip should be your first priority before getting your hooks to complete the position.

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Jeff Joslin – BJ Penn’s smash passing

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In contrast, you can use the leg drag to force your opponent’s hips away from you beginning to expose the back. Getting a near-side underhook and using your chest to pressure your opponent forward will allow you to slide your body behind their, again getting your grips and your hooks to take the back.

Because intermediate positions like the leg drag are not scored under Jiu Jitsu rules it can be easy to overlook them in the rush to get your guard pass points. Make sure you control your opponents at all times and give yourself many options to transition to better positions. During most guard pass transitions it is also common for leglocks to present themselves, which increases greatly the breadth of our decision making tree.

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Rafael Lovato Jr. – Leg drag/smash pass from spider guard

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One Leg X-Guard

The one leg X guard was used before Marcelo Garcia began developing it, but no one has done as much to expand the position as Marcelinho. The one Leg X Guard can be thought of as a halfway point between butterfly guard and being mounted. It seems like only the knee sticking through the middle is all that is tenuously holding the attacking player at bay. Yet it is a surprisingly stable position and one that leads to a variety of transitions.

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Marcelo Garcia – One leg X guard

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The most common transition that can be used from the one leg X guard is to full X guard by pummeling the foot on the hip under the thigh and swim the overhooking arm under the leg. From X guard a variety of further transitions and sweeps open up. If your opponent is pressuring into you standing, however, it is often possible to torque your knees outward – sweeping directly from the 1 leg X guard.

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Rafael Mendes – One leg X guard sweeps

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Another transition from the one leg X guard is to the calf crush position. Victor Estima used this transition extensively during ADCC 2011. Extending the leg from the hip pushes the opponent’s hips away allowing you to set up a leg triangle below the knee. From here many who use the position attempt to get their arms around their opponent’s waist to either take the back to finish the calf crush submission. Of course if you’re allowed to do leg locks this position a simple straight ankle lock is there for the taking as well.

The one leg X guard can also be modified by dragging your opponent’s leg across your body to the reverse X guard. I’ve even had opponent’s do this for me thinking it would  help them escape. It did not. Instead, it puts you into a rare and wonderful intermediary position. This position has one primary goal – to sweep to the leg drag. I first learned this technique from reverse-engineering Ary Farias’s guard game and have been using it to sweep directly into the leg drag pass ever since.

The one leg X guard is a great example of a transitional position that has been developed to act as a position unto itself. There are many positional pathways to take from it that will take advantage of your opponent’s unfamiliarity with the position.

Rodolfo Vieira – Reverse one leg X guard

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Ricardo Almeida – Reverse one leg X guard to leg drag

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The omoplata, the leg drag and the one leg X guard are only three examples of transitional positions in Jiu Jitsu. By taking a look at these unique positions we can begin to find places to expand our control over our opponents and novel methods of improving our positions or submitting our opponents. This approach can take advantage of your opponent’s unfamiliarity with these positions. As you move from position to position take a mental note of the points where you have more control over your opponent than they have of you. Next, develop a systematic plan from each of these spots. It’s important not to rush into a position just to get your points in a Jiu Jitsu match. Total control and achieving the submission should be your goal. You can make this happen by implementing transitional positions into you Jiu Jitsu game.

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2 Comments

Filed under Jiu Jitsu Technique

2 responses to “Make the Transition: the importance of intermediate positions in Jiu Jitsu

  1. john gomez

    what can u say!? it’s the only martial art the continues to evolve! arriba jiu-jitsu

  2. Chad Morse

    as per usual.. awesome, awesome stuff, keep up the good work!

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