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Technique Talk: Ryan Hall and the future of the 50/50 position in mixed martial arts

Can an esoteric leg entanglement that's growing in the sport of jiu-jitsu and beginning to rear its head in MMA be a viable position to win in a fight? Ryan Hall - ADCC bronze medalist, black belt and master of the 50/50 - weighs in on its future.

Photo by Kinya Hashimoto

If there is a constant in MMA, it's that the techniques popularized and used to win are in constant evolution. While many high-level grapplers have said much of sport jiu-jitsu is useless for MMA, a curious adaptation could be happening.

The 50/50 position, a leg entanglement popularized and used in more recent years in sport jiu-jitsu, has been on display in two key MMA bouts. The first was between Rousimar Palhares and Alan Belcher at UFC on Fox 3. The second was a week ago at Bellator 81 between Marcin Held and Rich Clementi. Leg locks have historically been successful in MMA, but also carry significant risk in their application. 50/50 offers something new: less risk of punishment, but demands a higher degree of positional and leg attack acumen. It also requires a commitment to the position.

While it's too early to suggest this is the new frontier in leg attacks in MMA, the appearances of it are intriguing. They also force one to ask the very basic question: can 50/50 be a path for victory in MMA? Are these one-offs of the 50/50 or the start of something larger? What challenges are presented in the 50/50 in MMA versus jiu-jitsu?

To help answer the question and break down how it was used between Held and Clementi is Ryan Hall, a 2009 ADCC bronze medalist, Felipe Costa black belt and one of sport jiu-jitsu's most noteworthy 50/50 position savants.

Partial edited transcript below:

Luke Thomas: At Bellator 81, Marcin Held defeated Rich Clementi via toehold, but what was interesting was that a portion of that fight was fought in the 50/50 guard. For folks who many not know, what is that?

Ryan Hall
: The 50/50 position is ostensibly a neutral position that is, generally speaking, regarded as that way but in practice doesn't really work out that way. It's a neutral leg positioning where my right leg is hooked inside of yours and we are both vulnerable and have at our disposal a number of foot locks, leg entanglements, sweeps, things like that.

It's very similar to the over/under clinch on the feet and it's about as neutral as that. That would be like me tying up with Dan Henderson and being like, 'Yeah, we're neutral here' even though he's the Olympian and I'm not.

It's a great position because you can get there relatively easily because it is neutral the same way the over/under clinch works. A beginner and an expert can get themselves there, but so much of it has to do with who knows what they're up to in that position.

Luke Thomas: But it's a relatively new position not just in MMA, but in jiu-jitsu. Why did it take so long for people to get good at it?

Ryan Hall: I'm not really sure, to be honest. I certainly have been using it for a long time and definitely didn't invent it. It's definitely something that's only recently started to come around. It's caught a lot of heat in jiu-jitsu competitions because it's used for massive amounts of stalling, but I think of that as a shortcoming of the rules and a shortcoming in the lack of a stalling call more than anything else.

One thing I would say, though, for the most past is there aren't people who are good in it. There are a handful of people who I would consider legitimately good at the 50/50. Everyone else is kind of fumbling around at this point.

Luke Thomas: Who is good at it?

Ryan Hall
: I think Rafael Mendes is fantastic. Obviously 'Toquinho' [Rousimar Palhares] has had some success there. Dean Lister was the first person in competition that I'd ever seen use it in Abu Dhabi in 2003 when he submitted 'Cacareco' [Alexandre Ferreira]. [Masakazu] Imanari is fantastic. He's been using this position for a long time, but for the most part in jiu-jitsu people use it to latch onto each other and not do much. The guys from the Atos camp do a very good job of utilizing the position for sweeping in jiu-jitsu.I use it a lot myself.

Luke Thomas: Irrespective of the two noteworthy Marcin Held vs. Rich Clementi and Rousimar Palhares vs. Alan Belcher bouts, does this position have viability in MMA? How accessible is this for your typical MMA fighter?

Ryan Hall: I think it's an extremely valuable position, but like anything else it really depends on the hands of someone knowing what they're doing. It could be great. In the hands of someone not knowing what they're doing it could be disastrous for the person attempting to use it. I would just say it would depend on the level of skill. It's something you're going to see being used more and more over time.

Speaking personally training MMA, I use it all the time.

Luke Thomas: Aside from strikes, does 50/50 in MMA present any new hazards? Outside of that, are there critical differences between 50/50 in MMA and 50/50 in jiu-jitsu?

Ryan Hall: I would say the thought process of the aggressor and the opposition is definitely in mixed martial arts than it is in jiu-jitsu in a way I feel makes the position more effective. In jiu-jitsu you're dealing with people who three quarters of the time want to latch onto you, hang on for 10 minutes and hopefully win by advantage. It gets very lame. In MMA, because of the punches and because of the ability to attack your opponent in a variety of ways, I think it keeps them a little more honest and you're much more likely to see an aggressive battle in such a situation that allows for more attacking and aggressive opportunities.

You can always get punched in the head, but I would submit that the jiu-jitsu that's done in MMA is not high level. Most of the guys going for leglocks in MMA are not terribly good at them, which is why they get beat up. That's not to say someone with a very high level of skill in foot locks of jiu-jitsu couldn't get beat up, but it's the little differences. You put little gloves on Floyd Mayweather, I don't care who he's fighting, he's going to knock your freaking head off. It wouldn't really matter that the gloves are small because the level is so high.

The ability to hit something hard doesn't make a great striker the same way an ability to break a leg does not make a great leg locker. I think that's something that been seen thus far because you'll see a lot guys go kamikaze for the legs. As people get more and more used to the position and they're utilizing effectively they're jiu-jitsu and leg locks in MMA, you'll see them getting beat up a little bit less because they won't commit unless they are pretty darn certain they're going to get it.

Luke Thomas: There are armbar specialists or specialists for guys who can take the back. Why is it hard to find leg lock specialists?

Ryan Hall: I can take a stab at it. In jiu-jitsu, for instance, when I was coming up a very important tournament to win was Grapplers Quest. That was a tournament that allowed leg locks of all kinds once you get to the most experienced, expert divisions. As a result, all of the best competitors that were winning tournaments at that time had the option of using leg locks. Whether they used them, their opponent had the opportunity to attack them. And not just attack them in a specific way, but in any way one could attack a leg. What I think that allows for is development of that type of skill whereas I would say most of the tournaments now that are important to win in jiu-jitsu with the notable exception of ADCC, heel hooks are disallowed. Leg entanglements are disallowed. You're going to see fewer and fewer people over time having very well developed leg entanglement attack games simply because the rules don't reward them and penalize them, sometimes justified and sometimes not.

It's just something a little less common. It takes no more skill to attack a leg than it does an arm. There's also been a stigma in jiu-jitsu associated with it for a while: the idea that attacking a leg is somehow dishonorable. That was something I heard back in the day. As well as the idea that if I break someone's leg with a heel hook, I'm a jerk. But if I break their arm with an arm lock, they should've tapped. The leg doesn't really work that differently than the arm. In fact, it's a whole lot bigger and stronger.

It's more stigma associated with it that prevents people from working on it and learning the ins and outs of it rather than anything specifically mystical about the technique.

Luke Thomas: Let's talk about this Held vs. Clementi fight. Held locks up with Clementi and looks like he's going for an uchi mata. He then wraps his throwing leg on Clementi's nearside leg and rolls through to initiate leg attacks. Clementi appeared to be concerned with staying on top with heavy base. What is the thinking behind that?

Ryan Hall: Generally speaking, that is the notable distinction between sport jiu-jitsu or sport submission wrestling and mixed martial arts where you're allowed to hit me in the face. Once you can actually get up to your feet, you can game ahead if I'm not careful. That would definitely be in Clementi's interest as well as being able to keep his weight on his foot makes it more difficult.

I thought that Marcin Held did a good job of trying to deny that situation, which allowed him to attack the vast majority of the round.

Luke Thomas: Held then applied the toehold, but Clementi used the free leg to push off an break the hold. How would you characterize that escape?

Ryan Hall: I think that's a great idea, really. Anything that damages the structure of my hold is probably in your interest because if you think about it, Aikido works (laughs) if you let me go and grab your wirst and yank it in the wrong direction. That would certainly hurt. It's just the issue, let's say, one might have if one were to do that is the lack of body controls. If I grab your wrist and you can move, it's very difficult for me to put the torque in the joint necessary to injure you severely.

When you're talking about someone being wrapped up on the ground, it's a little bit more difficult for you to roll or twist or get yourself out of trouble. A good leg locker, generally speaking, is seeking to limit your movement or your ability to roll and rotate and take all of the pressure out of the lock.

It's a great idea to damage the structure. That was the right move at the time from Clementi.

Luke Thomas: Then they move to the 50/50 position. One fighter would try something, then the other would follow. How would you describe what happens there? When you saw that, what were you watching?

Ryan Hall: I thought Marcin Held was doing a good job of looking for the proper finish. Clementi went for the heel hook when Held has his legs triangled, which is an immediate indicator that he didn't know what he was doing in that position, really, because that will literally never work.

I thought he was doing a good job of attempting to fight the hands, fight the feet. He wasn't making Held's life easy by any stretch. In my mind, it was clear who the aggressor was in that situation and that was certainly Marcin Held.

Luke Thomas: From that position there are heel hooks, inverted heel hooks. Are there sweeps to get on top? Are there ways to take the back?

Ryan Hall: In my mind, the ability to equally manage all of those offensive options is what makes the skill of the position. You let anyone grab ahold of your foot and turn it the wrong way, they're going to hurt you. You see it in MMA all the time: someone who can put a hole in a heavy bag. That's not boxing skill; that's the ability to hit something very hard. The skill of boxing, I would submit, is the ability to move around the other person and hit someone in situation where they're unable to hit you back.

When you can also mix in the different sweeps and leg entanglements as well as the other foot locks as well as the back attacks, that's when you have a more diverse attack from the 50/50 that's more likely to give higher level guys trouble.

Luke Thomas: There were moments where their 50/50 entanglement appeared to be loose, but neither tried to escape the position. What's preventing one of them from doing that?

Ryan Hall: It's hard to say without actually being in there and feeling what's going on. They're both obviously experienced fighters. They've been in there for a long time. At the same time, they're not grappling specialists no matter how grappling specialist they seem for MMA. You put someone like that in there with Rafael Mendes and that match will last 45 seconds.

I can't really tell you what the feel would've been, but I did see a little bit of space in there as well and was surprised to see no one quite capitalize on it. Obviously Marcin Held has been phenomenally successful attacking the legs in MMA. I would imagine it was in his interest to keep that position as long as he reasonably could. With Clementi, I was thinking he should've been looking to disentangle.

Luke Thomas: Is 50/50 a tight position or is it reasonable to expect daylight in the spacing because competitors are moving around?

Ryan Hall: I'd say it depends, but I'd look at either of those guys and say neither is a 50/50 specialist by any stretch of the imagination. It really depends on what your goal is at the time and what you're looking to accomplish, but generally speaking, when you're looking to attack you don't want that much space. When you're looking to defend, you'd like to give yourself a little bit of room. The space is definitely not to the attack's advantage.

Luke Thomas: The fight eventually ended with a toehold. What is the optimum way to execute that? Does the leg need to be extended or can it be bent in?

Ryan Hall: I'm certainly not the greatest in the world with the toehold, but you want to think about putting my toe onto my butt and bending my leg as much as possible to shorten everything up. Not only does having the leg bent make it easier on you because your arms are closer to your body where you're more powerful, but it also puts extra torque into the knee which is exactly what we're looking for.

I think it's more on the leg, is a good way to think about it. You're much more likely to tear my shoulder when my arm is bent at 90 degrees than when my arm is out at 120. By bending the leg all the way in - certainly as much as Held was able to do - that's going to put quite a bit of pressure on the foot.

The only thing that's a little bit of a bummer on the toehold is some people just have that rubber foot where they will stare at you and check their watch while you're looking to break their foot off. Sometimes it can be a high energy, expenditure move and to have it backfire would be a bummer. In that case it worked out great. Marcin Held obviously has a lot of faith and belief in that position.

Luke Thomas: What about a high-level grappler in the UFC like Demian Maia. Does he have any relevancy as a top guy in the 50/50 position?

Ryan Hall: I've never trained with Demian. I know he's incredible. He was a great champion in jiu-jitsu. I wouldn't think that he would specialize in such a position probably because he has so many other things to focus his time on. [The position] rose to prominence as he was leaving the sport.

I'm sure as a great grappler in general he has a good deal of ability there. Just looking at a Demian Maia, you're looking at someone who is so many levels beyond a Rich Clementi or Marcin Held. Not to speak of them disrespectfully in any way. They're both great fighters. Just in terms of overall grappling ability, someone like a Demian Maia is just so far beyond them it's not even funny. I would imagine he'd be able to use that position with success no matter what, just the same way if you took Buvaisar Satiev and you're like 'Oh, he uses the single leg a lot. Does he have a good double?' Oh, I would say so even if it's not his go-to. When you're talking about someone at that level, he's by any normal standard fantastic at all of wrestling.

Luke Thomas: As it relates to you, you've left jiu-jitsu for MMA. What's your future: do you have a weight class in mind and any fight lined up soon?

Ryan Hall: I've already had one professional fight in 2006, so amateur is not an option for me. I'll be fighting in two weeks at an event called SLAMM-1 in Montreal with a bunch of my teammates from Tri-Star on the same card. I'm very excited. I've been training very hard and just looking to improve.

There's so much work that needs to be done and so many things that I need to learn that I'm very excited to have the opportunity to really take MMA as far as I'm capable of going. It's what I wanted to be involved in when I started martial arts and then I just got caught up in jiu-jitsu competition. I loved it for a long time and I don't anymore. I'm just very excited to be finally able to get the opportunity to fight for real.

My fight will be at 145 pounds. I'll be fighting someone that has 9 fights in my second, but I'm looking forward to it. I train with great guys, I have fantastic coaching and I just try to do what they say and do my best not to embarrass myself.

Luke Thomas: Is there a name for this opponent?

Ryan Hall: Phillip Deschambeault and he's from Saskatchewan. I don't know too much about him, but I'm sure he's a tough guy and just can't wait to fight.

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