Rodolfo Vieira: The Passing Machine – Part II

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Rodolfo Vieira is the most feared guard passer in Jiu Jitsu today. In Rodolfo Vieira: The Passing Machine – Part I we became acquainted with Rodolfo and a selection of the guard passes that he uses to dominate his opponents on the tatame. Now the Jiu Jitsu Laboratory is pleased to present a step-by-step guide to how Rodolfo approached each of his most famous matches and how he used his guard passing combinations to deal with a variety of opponents and attacks.

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Rodolfo Vieira vs. Antonio Braga Neto (Pan Ams 2011)

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This is the match people picture when they think about Rodolfo Vieira’s guard passing. Although less than a year old, Vieira’s destruction of Braga Neto has become an iconic performance that has redefined guard passing in Jiu Jitsu. Keep in mind Braga Neto won the world championships in 2008 and again in 2011, two weight classes above Rodolfo; he’s no pushover.

Rodolfo’s opponents don’t stand long with him. Some are taken down quickly but many are aware of his reputation on his feet and choose to pull guard. This is a big part of Rodolfo’s success. Those who don’t have the ability to fight for the dominant position have to accept pulling guard, which is not a good place to be with Rodolfo on top of you.

A common theme in Rodolfo’s matches is that he doesn’t let his opponents get to their preferred position.  As in the upcoming matches, Vieira’s opponents are unable to close the guard (except Cobrinha). This is what happens when Braga Neto jumps guard, as Vieira drives his knee forward and closes his elbow tight.

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Toreador Pass – X Pass

With a belt grip and pant grip Rodolfo performs his signature toreador (bullfighter) pass, which was demonstrated by Andre Galvao in part I of this series. Jumping past Braga Neto’s guard Rodolfo switches his grip from the belt to the bottom pant and pressures forward. As Braga Neto attempts to pummel his leg over to reclaim guard Rodolfo again jumps over for the pass. Rodolfo hops back and forth, redirecting his opponent’s legs until he is able to create space for the pass.

Braga Neto is able to push up to defend and reclaim guard. This sets up back and forth X-passes. The main difference between a toreador pass and an X-pass is the grip and the characteristic kick-back of the X Pass. A toreador pass is performed with grips on the pants, redirecting the legs. An X pass is usually performed with a lapel grip and pant grip and is performed by moving yourself around your opponent by kicking one leg up and pushing your opponent away as you move past the guard. They are very similar passes and Rodolfo combines them almost into a single pass.

In this series of passes Rodolfo performs what I would characterize more as an X-pass, specifically a variation taught to our gym by Rafael Lovato Jr. (which Lovato called the “black swan”). Rodolfo leaps over Braga Neto’s leg then kicks his trailing leg back to make room for Braga Neto’s now straightened leg. He then does the same thing the other way, kicking his leg passed and continuing to straighten out Braga Neto’s leg with a pant cuff grip as we will see many times in other matches.

This match could be a nightmare to score (do these quick passing attempts count as an advantage? Did he control enough to get points both times he passed?), but fortunately for the referee Rodolfo’s last passing combination forced Braga Neto to turtle, exposing his back and setting Rodolfo up for the quick bow and arrow submission.

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Take away points:

  • Train Judo and wrestling. The more grappling you know the more dangerous you are.
  • Be aggressive but don’t force a position if it’s not there. Redirecting the legs back and forth to create an opening is what allows Rodolfo to pass even the toughest guards.
  • A successful guard pass can be a combination of different passes and passing strategies so long as it gets you past your opponent’s legs.

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Rodolfo Vieira vs. unknown opponent (World Pro Gi 2011)

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The match starts out with the mystery opponent pulling guard. Again, Rodolfo’s posture doesn’t allow the opponent to fully close his guard. Rodolfo gets a grip on his opponent’s knee and lapel. This is important, since this position will come up over and over again. The lapel and pant grip is a staple of the smash pass/leg drag pass and is a gripping style often used by Rodolfo.

The cameraman has a mild stroke as Rodolfo straightens his opponent’s leg in between his own legs as he pressures forward as if to do a knee slice pass. His opponent wraps his right arm with a leg lasso, which is very common from the lapel grip, forcing Rodolfo to release his control. Later we’ll see how Rodolfo usually deals with the leg lasso, turning it into a passing opportunity.

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Leg Drag Pass (left)

At 1:38 Rodolfo quickly grips his opponent’s leg with both hands, pressuring in with both legs to keep his opponent’s legs elevated. Rodolfo quickly pulls his opponent’s leg around his body and grips the belt. His butt is still up in the air and his legs are almost straight. This is usually horrible posture, but for the leg drag pass actually prevents his opponent from being able to angle his knee out, stopping the pass.

In classic leg drag fashion, Rodolfo pulls the top leg straight back as he drives his knee through his opponent’s legs. He rotates his right leg behind his opponent using a “windshield wiper” motion as he keeps pressure his his head low, gripping the gi at the lower back, completing the pass.

Rodolfo’s opponent only has to turn away a fraction of a degree and Rodolfo uses the knee on belly/back to prevent him from turning back in them immediately throws his top leg over to get his first hook. As he dives for the back Rodolfo releases the pant leg and shoots his arm through for an underhook.

To get his second hook Rodolfo sits his opponent up, adjusts his grip on the collar deeper and lies back. He ends up in deep half guard for his trouble since his opponent stubbornly kept his back to the mat. Rodolfo escapes and after a brief flurry of guard pass attempts, he finds himself in his opponent’s sit up guard.

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Step Back Pass (left)

Rodolfo uses the step back pass (AKA Terere pass) to flatten his opponent out as he attempts to take the back at 3:08. Pressuring forward with his knee Rodolfo set up Terere’s signature pass by gripping his opponent’s back with his left arm and low on his opponent’s pants with his right. Dropping his head low Rodolfo spread his opponent out wide, forcing his opponent to turtle.

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Take away points:

  • Many Jiu Jitsu players pull guard; practice defending the guard pull.
  • The leg drag can be performed horizontally or vertically. Pressure in with your hips to elevate your opponent’s legs for the vertical leg drag pass.
  • Practice switching your hips to remove your opponent’s hooks.

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Rodolfo Vieira vs. Cobrinha (World Pro Gi 2011)

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Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles has one of the most difficult guards to pass in the world, which is why this match is so impressive. Even as a featherweight, Cobrinha’s guard presents significant problems for the heavyweight Vieira. Rodolfo tosses Cobrinha around, forcing the smaller fighter to jump guard. Rodolfo breaks the closed guard with a sleeve and hip grip from standing.

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X Pass (right)

When Cobrinha attempts to use his de la Riva hook on Rodolfo’s right leg, Rodolfo sprawls hard removing it. As he gets back to his feet Rodolfo is stuck in Cobrinha’s spider guard. Without being able to remove Cobrinha’s grips on his left sleeve Rodolfo nonetheless is able to get his right hand on the pant cuff and throws his body to the right forcing Cobrinha to turtle to avoid the pass. Cobrinha must let go of Rodolfo’s sleeves to defend, allowing Rodolfo to obtain a left lapel grip and a right grip on Cobrinha’s pant cuff – one of Rodolfo’s favoured grips. Keeping Cobrinha’s leg straight with his right hand, Rodolfo drops his knee on it for added control. Cobrinha is able to roll back to guard but Rodolfo gets an advantage for the near-pass.

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Knee Slide Pass (right) – Leg Drag Pass ( left)

Here’s where things begin to get exciting. At 2:44 of the match Rodolfo sets up a classic high-posture knee cut pass with his customary right pant grip and left collar grip. Predictably, Cobrinha defends by attempting to wrap the arm that is gripping the lapel with his leg lasso. The leg lasso with the knee pointed out is a fantastic way to control your opponents arm and create space. However, Rodolfo keeps his elbow tucked tight and turns his shoulder in, forcing the leg lasso across his body.

With both of Cobrinha’s legs pinned to one side, Rodolfo releases his grip from the bottom leg and grips the inside knee of the top leg while maintaining shoulder pressure, the lapel grip and the knee cut. As he gets his grip though, Rodolfo is able to circle out of Cobrinha’s sleeve grip. This is more difficult than it looks.

What seems to allow him to break the grip is the pressure he’s putting on Cobrinha’s leg, preventing Cobrinha from flaring his knee and isolating Rodolfo’s hand. The pressure also keeps Cobrinha sandwiching his own hand between his thigh and hip, not allowing it to follow as Rodolfo circles out. Breaking the grip allows Rodolfo to grip around Cobrinha’s back. Rodolfo also switches his inside knee grip to his opponent’s pant cuff, right where he likes it to stretch out his opponent. By acting on the very end of the leg, Rodolfo has the leverage to control even a very strong leg with just his arm.

Getting the pass, Rodolfo grips inside Cobrinha’s legs, controlling the hips. Rodolfo only got an advantage for this as Cobrinha eventually turtle out, even though Rodolfo held the pass for more than enough time to warrant three points.

From this turtle Rodolfo was able to take Cobrinha’s back then establish mount after Cobrinha turned to defend the bow and arrow choke. Rodolfo finished with a beautiful cross choke from mount. This again demonstrates the important relationship between combining guard passes and the ability to take the back. If you don’t practice this transition daily it could represent a significant hole in your game.

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Take away points:

  • The lapel and pant grip is a combination with which you should be intimately familiar. It sets up many different passes like the X pass, knee slide and the leg drag pass.
  • These passes can be linked together on both sides. Make sure to practice combining your passes to the left and the right.
  • Use your opponents’ predicable responses against them. Many of Rodolfo’s opponents attempt a leg lasso against the lapel grip. If your opponents are countering you the same way over and over you need to find a way to counter this the Rodolfo way: with tons of pressure and fast transitions.

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Rodolfo Vieira vs. Diogo Araujo (World Pro Trials, Brazil 2011)

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This match is fun because we get to witness Rodolfo’s passing at its most dynamic. Right off the bat Araujo pulls guard, but can’t get to his closed guard due to Rodolfo’s tightness and posture. This is something we saw in previous matches. Rodolfo makes it difficult for his opponents to achieve closed guard by keeping his knees forward underneath him (not bent only at the waist like many competitors. As his opponent’s pull guard he pulls his elbows in creating a wall against his opponent’s guard. It’s much easier to pass when your opponent is unable to get to their desired position.

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Toreador Pass – Leg Drag Pass (left)

Right from the failed guard pull Rodolfo gets a left pant grip and a right lapel grip, opposite from his usual gripping configuration. He postures up tall, then with a double pant grip hops over his opponent’s legs to the left. He quickly switches his grip to cupping his opponent’s upper thigh, controlling his hip while driving his knee between his opponent’s legs. He is now in a leg drag position, which allows Rodolfo to push his opponent’s knee under his elbow as he grips the lapel with his right hand. Pressuring down hard, Rodolfo grips the back of Araujo’s collar, pulling him into side control. Again, as his opponent attempts to turtle Rodolfo puts his knee in his opponent’s back, preventing him from turning back in. This knee naturally slides to knee on belly when his opponent does finally turn back in.

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Toreador Pass – Knee Slice Pass – X Pass

Funnily enough he does a toreador pass to leg drag again on the same side right after the above-described pass. This time however the toreador puts him in the knee slice as an intermediary position. Like in the Cobrinha match, Rodolfo is able to turn the knee cut into a leg drag. This time by gripping opposite – with the right hand on the lapel and the left same side pant grip. Rodolfo stands and jumps over Araujo’s leg, pressuring it away with his left hand. He falls automatically into the leg drag position and reaches around his opponent’s back for the lower back grip he uses to such great effect.

The penultimate pass Rodolfo performs is from a low knee slice position, where he hops over his opponent’s legs with the top leg wrapped. Some would attempt to push forward for the pass, despite his opponent’s knees and both arms in the way. Rodolfo simply squares up with a grip on the bottom leg, and then jumps over his opponent’s leg for the pass.

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Toreador (right) – Toreador (left)

Another toreador combination finishes the match, as Rodolfo gets double pant control and jumps to the opposite side. One of the details that makes this and Rodolfo’s other passes so effective is he is always using the grip on his opponent’s pant cuff to stretch them out. Another signature feature of Rodolfo’s passing is quickly switching sides to force an opponent to commit fully to defending one side then jumping to the other.

This second toreador pass allows Rodolfo to get knee on belly, push to mount than finish with the same beautiful cross collar choke from mount that he used to finish Cobrinha. Shallow right hand lapel grip, palm up followed by a deep left hand grip. The latter is set up by getting the thumb in the collar with the forearm across the mat, which is then circled around onto the throat as Rodolfo drops his hips and puts his head to the mat. Classic unstoppable technique.

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Take away points:

  • This match demonstrates how the toreador, or bullfight, pass can be linked with the previously described guard passes. All of these passes work better when you stretch out your opponent’s legs with a pant cuff grip.
  • Get your opponent to commit to defending the pass on one side than switch your pass to the other.
  • Always be looking to take the back from the pass.

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Rodolfo Vieira vs. Mario Reis (Campeonato de Mundial de Jiu Jitsu 2010)

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I can’t imagine being a featherweight and having to face Rodolfo Vieira in a gi. Here, Mario Reis quickly finds out why that usually doesn’t work out very well. As Reis sits guard Rodolfo flicks his foot out gaining two points. I’m still surprised every time I see this scored – it really doesn’t make sense. What happens after makes all too much sense, however, as Rodolfo’s passing dominance is once again on display.

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Toreador Pass – X Pass

Right after the “takedown” Rodolfo grips both of Mario Reis’s knees and lifts his leg high out of their path as he redirects Reis’s knees away. The grip is common to a toreador pass, but kicking back the leg is a signature of the X-pass. Whatever the name, this guard pass allows for two important things to occur: Rodolfo controls the hips with his grip and redirects the legs away.

He immediately switches his bottom arm between the legs – a control point Rodolfo uses a great deal to pin his opponent’s hips. He will usually slide his knee tight under his opponent’s leg, using the pressure between his knee and elbow to lockdown his opponent’s hips.

The back of the collar grip once again comes into play as Reis turns his back, allowing Rodolfo to get his hooks and a quick bow and arrow choke.

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Take away points:

  • Redirecting your opponent’s legs away from you is a great way to initiate a guard pass.
  • Control your opponent’s hips when in side control by gripping between your opponent’s legs and locking your elbow to your knee.
  • The back of the collar grip can be used from the guard pass to control your opponent’s upper body and pull them into a back take.

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Rodolfo Vieira vs. Bernardo Faria (Absolute final, Worlds 2011)

Alternate at Sapo.pt – Rodolfo Vieira vs. Bernardo Faria (Absolute final, Worlds 2011)

Many of the matches we’ve seen so far demonstrated Rodolfo’s open guard passing. In his four matches with Bernardo Faria we get to see how Rodolfo passes half guard. And not just any half guard, Bernardo Faria is one of the most acclaimed competitors from the position. The two had met previously at the Pan Ams in 2011 with Rodolfo taking wins at weight and in the absolute. They had also clashed at heavyweight at the 2011 Worlds. In their four meeting at the absolute finals during the 2011 World Championships, Faria vowed to get his revenge.

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“Dope Mount”

In a previous entry on the Jiu Jitsu Laboratory we took an in-depth look at BJ Penn’s guard passing, specifically his use of the “dope mount.” For lack of a better term this technique is a half guard pass based on the same principals as the leg drag. First, check out a video of Rodolfo performing this technique no-gi, than watch his application of it in the gi. We’ve seen Rodolfo’s excellent use of the leg drag and smash passing technique so it’s no surprise he can also smash half guard, even one as accomplished as Faria’s.

The action picks up around the five minute mark, as Bernardo gets his signature half guard, gripping the lapel around his opponent’s leg to increase his control. To defeat this Rodolfo brings his free leg inside, effectively putting himself in a loose full guard. This allows him to pressure forward freeing his trapped leg by sliding it over Faria’s outside leg. Rodolfo uses a high grip on the back in lieu of an underhook and a grip around Faria’s head to keep him from sitting up.

From the half guard without the leg trapped Rodolfo achieves the underhook and pushes to quarter guard on the opposite side. This puts his trapped leg and underhook on the same side. The underhook allows him to push to mount, from where Rodolfo racks up his pass and mount points for a score of 9-0.

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Reverse Kesa Gatame Pass

Near the end of the match Rodolfo also uses a different half guard pass strategy, sitting to his hip to reverse Kesa Gatame. From this position Rodolfo is able to grip Bernardo’s far leg on the outside. This was interesting to me as I always grip inside the knee from this position. It looked like the outside grip gave Rodolfo a more efficient way to extend Faria’s leg straight, not pushing back like I have been doing. With the leg straight Rodolfo is able to free himself from half guard but time runs out before he can consolidate position. Rodolfo Vieira has just become the new absolute world champion.

My favourite part of this second pass is when Rodolfo’s supporters begin chanting for him before the match is over, causing him to release his grip and quiet his team before going back to passing one of the best half guards in the world.

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Take away points:

  • Rodolfo usually doesn’t let his opponents get to their best position but when they do he has a well-practiced strategy for it.
  • Using the underhook from half guard isn’t just to keep your opponent from turning into you; it can be used to create space for you to slide into mount.
  • Rodolfo’s humbleness shows no bounds as he silences his supporters (and critics) in the final match.

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Rodolfo Vieira vs. Rafael Lovato Jr. (Worlds 2011)

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At the 2011 Abu Dhabi World Pro No-Gi Rafael Lovato Jr. beat Rodolfo Vieira. It was a back and forth match that saw the American’s wrestling and use of the rolling guillotine sweep make the difference in the finals. The 2011 Worlds were payback.

Asked how he responds to defeat Rodolfo told GracieMag, “When I lose, the truth is that I get kind of afraid of facing the opponent again. But I forget all that come fight time.”

I’m not sure if that’s true considering the domination on display in this match. Rodolfo was clearly out for blood. If you are short on time this video is all you need to watch to get a good overview of the various passes that Rodolfo uses for each type of guard.

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De la Riva Guard Pass

Again combining two highly effective passes – the toreador and the X-Pass – Rodolfo doesn’t really get into the swing of things until the two and a half minute mark. First Rodolfo controls Rafael’s knees and swings over to the right than when Rafael responds Rodolfo is already kicking out his leg and hoping back to the left, leaving Rafael exposed for the pass. The lapel and back grip combination have worked for Rodolfo many times and are seen in his completed pass here as well.

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Spider Guard Pass

At 5:30 Rafael Lovato Jr. is able to achieve spider guard, a position from which he is usually very powerful. To pass it Rodolfo postures hard, breaking Rafael’s grip on one side. With one pant grip still in place Rodolfo throws his body to that side, straightening his arm. This action rotates Lovato away from him as Rodolfo sprawls into side control. It’s a deceptively simple pass but hours of practice are needed to use it to pass a spider guard as dominant as Lovato’s.

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Half Guard Pass

Using one of the same half guard passes that he attempted on Bernardo Faria, Rodolfo switches to his hip and attempts the reverse kesa gatame pass against Lovato’s half guard. Again using his grip on top of the knee to straighten the leg (instead of inside the knee to push away like most people), Rodolfo is able to kick his leg out and achieve side control. He doesn’t switch his hip as much this time, just enough to create an angle to kick his leg out easier. A key point to this pass is the shoulder pressure that he uses with his other arm around Lovato’s head to prevent Lovato from bridging into him. This pass starts around 6:55.

For the record, Lovato does manage to sweep Rodolfo in the closing moments of the match leaving a final score of 20-2 for the Grapple Fight Team standout.

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Take away points:

  • The first element of great guard passing is being difficult to sweep. Practice controlling your opponent on top and preventing the sweep by keeping your base low and wide and thwarting your opponent’s grips.
  • Many different types of guards can be passed with the same approach. Always insist on taking the fight to positions from which you are dominant. Says former-opponent Antonio Braga Neto, “[Rodolfo] has an absurd amount of determination; he goes with a position till the very end, never gives up.”
  • The last point is actually from Lovato’s performance: never allow yourself to be counted out. Rafael kept competing never letting himself believe he was beaten, even when down 20 points. Lovato is also very good at learning from his opponents – make sure to study those who beat you and come back next match with a plan to defeat their techniques.

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Rodolfo Vieira vs. Davi Ramos (World Pro no-gi)

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While Vieira hasn’t had the success without the gi as he has with it, his no-gi game is very impressive and based on the same principals as his Jiu Jitsu in the gi. Rodolfo’s guard passing in this match is all about handfighting, getting low and pressuring forward. To break guard Rodolfo gets a two on one grip on Ramos’s hand and arm and begins to stand. Ramos kicks him away to regain space. Rodolfo keeps pressure walking forward, not allowing his opponent to stand. As they reset, Rodolfo immediately drops his weight looking to pass around Ramos’s bottom leg like a two-on-one pass. Throughout this match Rodolfo only passes to his right.

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Two-on-One Pass  (right)

As Ramos creates space Rodolfo tries to redirect his legs, controlling the ankles and keeping them elevated. When Rodolfo controls the ankles he keeps the near ankle high and the far ankle pressed to his opponent’s butt. In this configuration Rodolfo is able to redirect his opponent’s legs and jump around them – low and to the right, with an underhook on far leg. He uses shoulder pressure to prevent Ramos from turning into him instead of the underhook on the far arm. This frees up his arm to pressure Ramo’s knee downward to open up space to create the pass. Once Rodolfo’s hip is past his opponent’s knee he then overhooks the far arm to prevent Ramos from turning in. The pass is similar to the jumping pass mentioned at the beginning of this feature.

When the position is secure he switches to conventional side control. Instead of high underhook Rodolfo keeps his elbow low pinning the hips. This allows him to get a grip around the waist as Ramos turtles. With his hands locked, Rodolfo rolls to the side, getting his hooks and taking the back. While this post isn’t covering back control it’s fair to say that Rodolfo’s back control is insane.

 

Conclusion

Watching Rodolfo’s competition successes and letdowns as a young purple, brown and black belt gives us an insight into the development of a champion. Early in his career Vieira could be susceptible to sweeps and was occasionally forced to give up his back. As his Jiu Jitsu evolved, however, Rodolfo learned to prevent his opponents from achieving their desired positions through better implementation of grip-fighting, posture and tightness. He learned to always fight to implement his game no matter what.

As a guard passer Rodolfo uses a surprisingly small number of key techniques and strategies. For example, his primary guard passing strategy uses 3-4 passes that can be linked together on either side of his opponent’s body. Some opponent’s are better at defending to the left and right, and linking techniques on either side gives Rodolfo a method of seeking out an exploiting his opponent’s weaknesses.

To use Rodolfo’s techniques and strategies effectively a Jiu Jitsu student should be practicing performing his techniques on both side and learning to chain together a series of effective passes based on their opponent’s reactions. Working hard to implement this strategy can make any Jiu Jitsu student a black belt hunter of their own.

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6 Comments

Filed under Jiu Jitsu Profiles, Jiu Jitsu Stuff, Jiu Jitsu Technique

6 responses to “Rodolfo Vieira: The Passing Machine – Part II

  1. Tom D

    Thank you for the indepth almost chess-like analysis. It is great to read such a breakdown of one of the best passing games out there. This is my fourth read and i’m sure i’ll keep coming back to it over the next few months.

  2. Bocajr

    Thanks man I really did need this.

  3. Saif

    This is really interesting and extremely helpful.
    Thanks a lot!!
    Your effort is highly appreciated.

    Best,
    -Saif

  4. Damn son, you analyse passes like a crazy motherfucker. (In the most positive sense.) Great post.

  5. Thomas

    excellent analysis. Incredibly helpful.

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