The Question: What Is the Greatest Submission in MMA History?

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterOctober 12, 2017

The Question: What Is the Greatest Submission in MMA History?

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    Demetrious Johnson (left) completes an armbar against Ray Borg.
    Demetrious Johnson (left) completes an armbar against Ray Borg.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Even if you didn't catch UFC 216 in person, by now you have likely seen or at least heard about Demetrious Johnson's mind-bending armbar submission on Ray Borg in the evening's co-main event.

    The flyweight champion suplexed Borg and on the way down jumped into position and had the armbar cinched in almost before they could settle on the ground. It was a pretty gnarly armbar too, and it helped Johnson set the UFC record for consecutive title defenses.

    You know a move is good when people rush to give it a name. Plenty of pundits dubbed it "the mouse trap." Johnson himself calls it The Mighty Wiz-Bar, which doesn't have quite the same ring to it, but hey, that's just me.

    The whole thing got the Bleacher Report MMA brain trust to thinking. What is the greatest MMA submission of all time?

    Obviously, there are different ways to approach the topic. It could mean degree of difficulty. It could mean historical significance. It could be influenced by the stakes of a given contest. And it could be a combination of factors.

    Several writers weigh in with their selections. A video is included for each one. They are listed in no particular order. We have Chad Dundas, Jonathan Snowden, Matthew Ryder, Jeremy Botter, Nathan McCarter, Steven Rondina and yours truly, Scott Harris. Let's get it on.

Royce Gracie Chokes Out Dan Severn, UFC 4, 1994

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    I was nine in 1994. I had little experience seeing special things and little development in my tiny child brain to understand when I saw them.

    But when I saw Royce Gracie stop Dan Severn with a triangle choke at UFC 4, I understood entirely. 

    Gracie was already something of a mythical creature, a man who had won two UFC tournaments and was ousted from his third only after one of early MMA's great wars sapped him of his ability to continue.

    It was in that third tournament, against the brawny Kimo Leopoldo, that a pattern emerged: Gracie would take a beating, lay in the cut, defend as long as required and then slap on a submission to secure a win.

    That game plan emerged again at UFC 4.

    Having already disposed of iconic groin puncher Keith Hackney and iconic old guy Ron van Clief, Gracie met Severn in the tournament final. A hulking wrestler known as The Beast, Severn had run through his side of the bracket with a pair of scary submission wins and looked like Gracie's kryptonite. 

    Their fight was a war of attrition, a grinding affair that exceeded 15 minutes and largely consisted of the gigantic Severn mauling Gracie from top position. In the end, as he had against Kimo, Gracie found his angle and locked in the triangle choke.

    Gracie never fought in a UFC tournament again and would be the only man to ever win three in a career. He did it with guts, gumption and style against the UFC's first true monster.

    It was special. I understood.

    I still do.

    —Matthew Ryder

Nick Diaz Shocks Takanori Gomi, Pride 33, 2007

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    It's easy to look back with 20/20 vision and act like the result was inevitable. However, that was not the case heading into Pride 33 on February 24, 2007. In fact, heading into the bout Takanori Gomi was a solid favorite against Nick Diaz.

    After all, Gomi was the exciting, dynamic Pride lightweight champion. Diaz was somewhat inconsistent. That Las Vegas night over a decade ago gave us a long-lasting memory.

    The two threw down as expected, and The Fireball Kid landed flush on Diaz. After the early blitz from Gomi, he faded. He whiffed on a punch at the end of the first round and was visibly gassed. Early in the second, Gomi shot in and Diaz worked for the gogoplata. Diaz's jiu-jitsu was on display as he had the submission sunk in before Gomi's tired mind could process what was happening.

    Gomi tapped, and the 23-year-old Diaz had a career-defining victory that shook up the lightweight world with one of the most exciting and rarest submissions in the sport. It remains extremely rare to this day, occurring only a handful of times in the UFC.

    After that fight, Diaz posted a 12-3 (1 NC) record that led to a Strikeforce welterweight title and two 170-pound UFC title shots. Gomi wasn't as fortunate, with an 8-11 record since that fateful night. The result would soon be overturned because of a positive marijuana test from Diaz, as MMAjunkie reported. But history will always remember that gogoplata.

    —Nathan McCarter

The Korean Zombie Puts the Twister on Leonard Garcia, UFC Fight Night 24, 2011

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    We've seen a lot of amazing armbars in MMA over the years. Ronda Rousey's 14-second armbar. Frank Mir's Tim Sylvia-destroying armbar. Rumina Sato's flying armbar. The list goes on.

    At this point in my life, though, I want something unique. Something different. Something...exotic. There are lots of unorthodox submissions out there, but there's only one that makes my skin crawl each time I see it: the twister.

    It's an exceptionally rare (and brutal) submission that functionally turns the backbone into a corkscrew, has only been seen a handful of times and has only been seen once under the UFC's umbrella.

    That one time came back in 2011, when The Korean Zombie Chan Sung Jung got revenge on old rival Leonard Garcia by advancing to his back, softening him up with ground-and-pound and, as Joe Rogan put it, "contorting his spine" until he tapped.

    Just on how it launched Jung into the UFC, it would have been special. The fact the fight ended at a buzzer-beating 4:59 of Round 1 certainly didn't hurt, either. The sheer sight of Garcia's knotted up body is what sticks with me, though, and what makes me think of this as the greatest submission of all time.

    Steven Rondina

Ken Shamrock Heel Hooks Pat Smith, UFC 1, 1993

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    No one knew what to expect when eight men entered the UFC Octagon for the first time on November 12, 1993. That was the beauty of the experiment. 

    Everyone had heard of sumo, watched boxing and seen karate dojos pop up in strip malls all across the U.S. We had an idea, we thought, about what fighting might look like, based mainly on movie fight scenes.

    We had no idea what we were in for.

    Royce Gracie and Brazilian jiu-jitsu revolutionized martial arts. But it was rival Ken Shamrock who first opened fans' eyes to what was possible.

    Gracie had earned the first televised submission from poor Art Jimmerson, a boxer who tapped out at the mere idea of a dangerous hold. Shamrock provided a crystal-clear realization that the threat was not just real but potentially crippling.

    The first victim of a submission lock in modern MMA history was Pat Smith. A kickboxer with an absurd record of 250-0, Smith bragged to the camera before his fight that he had "a resistance of feeling pain." 

    Shamrock would soon prove that a lie.

    He clinched at the first opportunity, took Smith to the ground and patiently waited for his opportunity. Shamrock, already a veteran of the submission fighting scene in Japan, was a master of leglocks. Smith didn't think they hurt. He was wrong.

    As Shamrock looked to secure an ankle lock, Smith fought back viciously with elbows to the shin and axe kicks. But as Shamrock shifted to a heel hook, all semblance of fight disappeared. Smith collapsed back on the mat, furiously tapping the mat and screaming in pain.

    Live in the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, no one was sure what exactly had happened. It was the first shot in the war for the future of martial arts. Padded records and dojo glory weren't going to be nearly enough in the UFC era.

    —Jonathan Snowden 

Demetrious Johnson's Mouse Trap Armbar, UFC 216, 2017

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    If there has ever been a rapturous mixed martial arts moment such as the one I experienced on October 7, 2017, it was long enough ago to allow the memory to fade.

    Maybe you have had one of those moments, the kind when you are reminded of the out-of-the-blue stuff that made you a fan of this sport in the first place. Maybe you just catch the big events these days. And maybe, on a good day, you recognize half the fighters you see on your television.

    But then you see Demetrious Johnson pick a human being up with his bare hands, give him a German suplex that would make Brock Lesnar proud and then turn it into an armbar in midair.

    When Johnson did this amazing thing, I was sitting in the living room, taking notes for my post-fight column here at Bleacher Report. My wife was sleeping fitfully in the bedroom. And when Johnson launched Ray Borg into the air and then snapped on an armbar before Borg's back even touched the canvas, let me tell you, friend, that was akin to a spiritual awakening.

    I've seen a lot of the damndest things in mixed martial arts. But I've never seen anything like this, and I kind of hope I never see anyone else pull it off. Seeing it again would take away from that moment of clarity.

    Seeing it again means it has become just another thing that everyone does instead of a thing that only the greatest fighter to ever step into the Octagon did one time, on a whim, to cement himself as the greatest champion in UFC history.

    —Jeremy Botter

Fabricio Werdum Submits Fedor Emelianenko, Strikeforce, 2010

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    Coming into this fight, Fedor Emelianenko hadn't lost in nearly 10 years. Plenty of people considered the longtime Pride heavyweight champion the best to ever do it.

    Fabricio Werdum was quite possibly the best jiu-jitsu fighter in the Strikeforce heavyweight division and beyond, but he didn't have nearly the resume or name recognition of Fedor. Emelianenko, at 33, was in the twilight of his prime years but still feared enough that he was a massive 1-5 betting favorite to defeat the Brazilian.

    Early in the first round, Fedor rocked Werdum with punches, knocking him to the mat. Emelianenko followed him to the ground and essentially jumped into Werdum's guard.

    That's not what you want to do against a jiu-jitsu world champion.

    Werdum threw on a triangle, then pulled an arm through for a triangle armbar. Emelianenko thrashed around, trying to shake loose of the hold. Werdum only torqued harder. When it became clear he wouldn't be able to escape the submission without injury, Emelianenko tapped.

    In 69 seconds, the entire sport had shifted.

    Werdum went on to compete in the UFC and capture the title there. At 40, he's still winning big fights. As for Emelianenko, that was the first of three straight losses. He now competes on Bellator's novelty circuit. He was still a great fighter, but Werdum shattered his mystique. He's still arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time and a massive figure in the sport. But because of those 69 seconds and that triangle choke, his career was never the same.

    —Scott Harris

Anderson Silva's Hail Mary Choke on Chael Sonnen, UFC 117, 2010

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    Taken out of context, there's nothing particularly astounding about the triangle choke Anderson Silva used to defeat Chael Sonnen at UFC 117 on Aug. 7, 2010.  

    It was a slick move, with Silva using a hard right hand from the bottom to disrupt Sonnen's posture and allow him to wrap his legs around the challenger's head and shoulders. As Sonnen attempted to scramble out of Silva's squeeze, the champion added an arm bar and cranked it, soliciting the tap out with one minute, 50 seconds left in the final round of the pair's middleweight title bout.

    The submission was pretty, but it was basically textbook stuff from Silva. What made it remarkable were the circumstances.

    Sonnen—a former UFC washout who had spent nearly three years away from the Octagon—crafted himself into an unlikely contender with a 3-1 run upon his return. He was making the most of his late-career resurgence too, transforming himself into a churlish heel who stretched the boundaries of good taste.

    In the months leading up to UFC 117, Sonnen publicly insulted Silva on nearly every front. On fight night, the heavy underdog shocked the world, spending the first 23 minutes of the bout backing up his outlandish statements.

    Sonnen landed 320 strikes on the previously untouchable champion, according to the official FightMetric statistics. Most of the punches came on the mat, as Sonnen took Silva down at will and punished him with high-volume ground-and-pound.

    It seemed as though the impossible was about to happen—that Sonnen was about to dethrone Silva via unanimous decision—until the champion locked up that Hail Mary triangle choke with under two minutes left.

    In so doing, Silva rescued one of the Octagon's greatest title reigns and also saved the UFC some embarrassment after Sonnen tested positive for steroids during the fight's aftermath.

    —Chad Dundas