10 Submission Holds and the MMA Fighters Who Did Them Best
The reason the UFC grabbed a hold of America's attention and never let go, despite the best efforts of politicians and the cable companies, is the artistry and elegance of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. The family's fighting art, honed in real-world combat for decades, was beautiful in its simplicity. It showed, beyond all doubt, the power of the brain, demonstrating how technique can conquer brawn almost every time.
Submission arts are what separate man from beast. All animals scrap. Go to your local zoo and see for yourself. But only man applies science to his violence, making us, as the poets say, the most dangerous game of all.
Although the stand-and-bang crowd may disagree, there's nothing more thrilling than a fighter applying calculated force to end a bout by submission. Watching a game of human chess beats watching two brutes swinging for the fences every time.
Fighting is brutal, yes. But it's a thoughtful and precise brutality. At its best, it's true art. Through the years, we've seen some great thinkers in the cage, athletes who, over and over again, put themselves in positions to succeed. These fighters use the art of submission better than any other, 10 masters of 10 unique holds who have set the standard for all to follow.
Triangle Choke: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
My favorite triangle choke was Royce Gracie's shocking submission of Dan Severn at UFC 4. None of the announcers, as new to the sport as any of the fans watching at home, recognized that Severn was in danger. Former Olympian Jeff Blatnick thought Gracie was looking to escape out the back door.
No such luck for Severn.
The real master of the submission, though, was former Pride champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. The key to his success had nothing to do with striking quickly or surprising his opponents. Instead, his was a success built on grip.
The unexpected power in his hands allowed Nogueira unprecedented control of his opponents. They felt secure on top, in control, right up until the second he locked on to them. Then escape seemed like an impossible dream.
It was illusory, a fantasy of fighters who hoped to wake up from a dream and find themselves in another fight, against a far less fearsome foe. There was no escape. The armbar or the triangle followed Big Nog securing his grip like night follows day.
Kneebar: Ken Shamrock
"I'm a brawler and a leg lock man."
Ken Shamrock's famous words were gently mocked by the online cognoscenti like Sherdog's Jordan Breen, but that made them no less true. In his prime, the nickname "World's Most Dangerous Man," didn't seem so laced in irony.
Shamrock was a threat, a submission-hungry beast always searching for a victim. Bas Rutten was a victim. So was Funaki. Even when he failed to finish a fight, like his legendary scrap with Don Frye, he exacted a horrific toll.
Shamrock was a leg lock man. Well past the point of their irrelevance. Leg locks were what Shamrock did. Who he was. As the sport evolved, he stayed true to his roots. And a tragedy is written.
Guillotine: Cody McKenzie
There's nothing special about Cody McKenzie, unless you believe looking vaguely like the masked protagonist from V for Vendetta is something worth celebrating.
He's not especially strong, skilled or fierce. He doesn't strike me as particularly articulate or smart. Lord knows if he can carry a tune.
What he can do is simple. He can wrap his arms around a man's neck and squeeze until they pass out. No one has ever done it better. It's a freak show of a skill, like watching a skinny man excel in a competitive eating competition.
It just seems wrong. But it's undeniable. Cody McKenzie is not a lot of things. More important is what he is. He's a man who will choke you silly.
Rear Naked Choke: Royce Gracie
Royce Gracie, despite his unspectacular physique and schoolboy good looks, was a very scary man. Such was the terror that he inspired that opponents would tap out just thinking about what he might do to them.
Gracie and his kin created modern mixed martial arts. No one, to this day, can compete successfully without training in, or to defend, the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And the most deadly hold in that art, the one that inspired fear in the hearts of his foes, was the rear naked choke.
The human body needs air. It needs blood to flow to the brain. When these things aren't happening, panic sets in. Royce Gracie got rich from this panic, the feral instincts that remind us that we are as much animal as man, the primal urge to breathe kicking in. Gracie reminded us that in the end, we are simply meat sacks, flesh and bone that he knew how to master.
Heel Hook: Rousimar Palhares
We, the Internet, had to make a goofy meme out of Rousimar Palhares. Collectively, we adopted the short hand "Paul Harris," equal part mnemonic device and deflection.
Because it was hard to look directly at Palhares, to even consider who and what he is. He is a scary man. In some people's hands, a submission hold is a sweet surrender. It's the opportunity to avoid pain and punishment, a gentle whisper that says "it will all be okay now. Just tap my leg and we'll go have a beer."
No so with Paul Harris. Paul Harris wants to hurt you, to cripple you. And so he does. And so we make light of him, turn him into a comedy bit. To do otherwise is to face your own mortality, to admit that this is a dark world, a world that can create a man like Rousimar Palhares.
Ankle Lock: Masakatsu Funaki
There are many variations of this hold, but the most literary is the Achilles lock, so we'll focus in on that. Achilles was a mythical warrior, so proficient that he seemed unkillable, even in the chaos of a fallen city of Troy. He withstood all sorts of punishment, only to be done in by a simple injury to the lower leg.
Of course, he isn't alone. All the way back at UFC 1 we saw tough guy Patrick Smith literally yell out in pain when Ken Shamrock twisted on his leg. No one is immune to it, which makes some announcer's dismissal of the Achilles as a mere "pain hold" and not a proper submission all the more ludicrous.
The Achilles, and all forms of leg locks, were mastered most spectacularly by the athletes in Pancrase, an early Japanese fighting promotion that made fighters compete with patent leather go-go boots and shin guards that went halfway up their legs.
The resulting look may have been a fashion win, but it was a huge loss for fighters who didn't want to have reconstructive knee surgery. The boots allowed additional leverage and grip and made the ankle lock the submission of choice for fighters like Masakatsu Funaki.
Armbar: Ronda Rousey
Ronda Rousey's knack for securing the armbar is uncanny. Hers isn't the gradual approach used by Rickson Gracie, that overwhelming combination of strength and technique, as inevitable as the ocean tides. Rickson was the ocean, enveloping you, nurturing you, and slowly but surely mastering you, wearing away your defenses and your ability to defend.
Rousey is the rattlesnake, all quick reflexes and fast-twitch muscles, a dangerous person in the guise of a dazzling beauty. There is no stopping Ronda Rousey's armbar. Ask her opponent. Which opponent? Any of them. All of them.
Neck Crank: Mark Coleman
When writers turn to sport, we look for nuance, for the little things that make one athlete succeed while another fails. For some holds, it's a matter of technique, the slightest discrepancy in position spelling the difference between winning and wearing out your own arms in a desperate battle against physics.
There is nothing subtle about the neck crank. Maybe that's why Mark Coleman gets the nod here. Coleman, a former UFC and Pride standout, was not a technical wizard. In fact, his best move was the headbutt. I guess that makes the neck crank the headbutt of submissions—and Coleman the master.
Arm Triangle: Evan Tanner
Evan Tanner was a puzzle, a man who, no matter how well you thought you knew him, seemed to be a different person every time you made contact. An enigma, friends say, shaking their heads sadly.
Before he was known as a cautionary tale, Tanner was a brilliant self-taught fighter. He cut his teeth in Steve Nelson's USWF, and by the time he got his shot on the big stage, first in Pancrase and then the UFC, he was ready.
A master on the mat, Tanner could beat a man in many ways, make him wish he had never been born. But his favorite way, his best hold, was the arm triangle. His long and ropey arms would tangle around an opponent's neck, and then he would squeeze with all his might, a might born of digging ditches and a lifetime of manual labor. It was scary to behold, scarier still to be on the wrong end of it.
Kimura: Kazushi Sakuraba
The obvious answer, of course, is Masahiko Kimura himself, the Japanese judo ace whose success with the hold inspired Helio Gracie and his disciples to rename it in his honor. But that would be too easy.
In fact, it was another Japanese ace who used the hold to plague the Gracie family who truly deserves to be known as the master of the Kimura. As a catch wrestling disciple, he might prefer to call it a double wrist lock. But no matter the nomenclature, Kazushi Sakuraba was the master of the hold. It made him a legend, and showed, lyrically and artfully, that history is bound and determined to repeat itself.