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Technique Talk: Ricky Lundell and the ethics of heel hooking

Photo via Will Fox

In the wake of Rousimar Palhares third notable incident of holding a submission perceived as uniquely dangerous long after it was either advisable or even legal, new scrutiny has been shed on not merely Palhares, but about the heel hook and leg locks in general. Are they an unfair advantage? Are they too dangerous for MMA? Why do even competent grapplers sometimes have no ability to fend off submission attempts on their legs? Should they be banned from MMA?

Perhaps most important, a question of whether there a set of ethics among those who use them to apply them judiciously is being asked. Should those who have such incredible power be more responsible or is there no real mechanism is regulate them?

To help answer those questions, understand the issues in play and map out what the future of heel hooking or leg lock application might look like, MMA Fighting spoke to Ricky Lundell, a Pedro Sauer black belt and trainer to many top UFC fighters.

In this interview, Lundell explains why leg locks are considered taboo in wide swathes of the jiu-jitsu community, how sambo came to embrace the practice, why gi competitions have affected the mindset on leg locks both in jiu-jitsu and MMA and why he believes expert heel hookers must employ a special set of delicate ethics when applying their craft.

Full audio and partial transcription below:

For folks who may not have heard of you, could you briefly describe your background in martial arts and the combative sports generally?

I started jiu-jitsu at age 6 and trained under Pedro Sauer and was credited as being America's youngest black belt. I was lucky enough to be mentored in wrestling by Cody and Cael Sanderson and was recruited to go to Iowa State when I was 21 years old. That was quite the opportunity. 

I made three world teams for grappling and competed for the U.S. and won the FILA World Championships twice as well as the Pancrase world championships twice. I became King of Pancrase in 2010.

In terms of MMA, my understanding is you're a trainer to many MMA fighters. Is that correct?

Photo courtesy Will Fox.

I am, yeah. I've trained a lot of the UFC's top fighters. Fighters like Frank Mir, Joe Lauzon, Carlos Condit, Travis Browne, Forrest Griffin. I was on TUF 17 and 18. I coached Team Jones and Team Tate. There's more than that, but those are some of my career highlights.

Let's dive in here and take a stab at a broad question. In jiu-jitsu - both the sport and mixed martial arts - why are leg locks so controversial?

Leg locks have been viewed as taboo in jiu-jitsu for many years. It wasn't long ago that you would be basically booed off the mat for submitting your opponent with a leg lock or some of type of lower body submission hold. I feel that when people don't fully understand something, they discredit it. They become afraid of it. Because of this, they start to even create a false propaganda and try to strike fear into other practitioners and try to keep them away from leg locks.

As time goes on, I believe these leg locks will become less controversial as people get more understanding of leg locks. As of right now, not very many people out there train leg locks safely. They don't the transitions or how to move through them and because of that they tend to create a negative look on them and a lot of practitioners, including the group that I came from, made you afraid of leg locks before you even got to learn anything about them.

When did you start to notice a shift? By that I mean, is there a way to look back in the last 10 years to see when a shift began?

I think there was a large shift when Dean Lister took ADCC and really pushed through ADCC. When he did that, he was submitting everybody with leg locks and people started to see that this guy who wasn't necessarily a gi guy at all - he didn't train gi at all - was able to compete with all these guys who had this gi ability. He made the world know that leg locks were a great equalizer. 

Marc Laimon came onto the scene with Cobra Kai and they were very skilled at leg locks. I think that was the shift. Back in 2001, I believe, America started to branch sambo in with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. As the Japanese came in, Japanese had really good leg locks. People were looking at guys like [Masakazu] Imanari and seeing what people were capable of and how smooth transitions could be.

We started trying to be the melting pot for grappling. And by starting to connect those styles, you could see that we were really evolving in that area. As time ticked on, as time clicked forward, everybody started to use leg locks a little bit more. If you watch the last Abu Dhabi, you could see leg locks were almost the majority of submission hold that were actually finished. So, it's cool to see there's kind of an evolution occurring there.

Are leg locks today primarily taught by lineage? Are the best people currently using coming from lineages or is there a different way to analyze that?

I think a lot of leg locks, they have to come through a mind set, not so much a camp. There's still a lot of people maybe in the Pedro Sauer group that won't do leg locks. There's a lot of people in the Alliance group that won't do them. There's a lot of people in every group, so I really think it takes an instructor who wants to branch out that part of his game. 

Leg locks are considered 'dangerous' and so it takes an instructor who really cares. They want to watch over their students, teach them about the transitions, teach them about how to apply one safely and how to train them safely. A lot of instructors would rather just eliminate them completely from their school than take the time to really learn how to train them safely and teach people to train them safely. That's a lot of responsibility and I believe it's easier for a lot of people to just turn a blind eye and say 'You know what? These are dangerous. We're not even going to look at them'. That holds them back.

To the extent you've trained them and trained with them, how would you rate the leg locking game of UFC fighters? Would you say they had a proficient leg locking game?

Photo courtesy Will Fox.

Not all the guys I've trained have a proficient leg locking game, but I can say guys like Carlos Condit, Joe Lauzon, Frank Mir - those guys have incredible leg locks. If you let them touch your leg, then it will probably disappear. It doesn't matter if it's MMA or jiu-jitsu or out on the street, those guys are going to rip your leg off. 

But there's other guys that haven't developed that part of their game yet. They're working on it, trying to develop it appropriately and trying to develop it in a safe way that continues to make sure that they make to the top position.
A lot of leg locks can be detrimental in MMA because if you don't do them correctly, you could end up on bottom. That's usually why people stop doing leg locks is they're doing them incorrectly and leading themselves to the bottom when they miss them. A good leg lock game leads to the top, leads to another submission or leads to a sweep. If your leg lock game isn't doing that, it's not done right.

Let's talk about the heel hook specifically for the moment. Not saying it can't be trained or taught properly, but of all leg locks, do you believe the heel hook can be uniquely dangerous?

Yeah, I believe every submission can be uniquely dangerous when taught wrong. I have met a lot of people who are able to train heel hooks in a way that they've never been hurt and then I've met a lot of people who use it themselves training heel hooks because they have an ego, they don't tap, they don't know when they're in trouble and when they're not. Usually that comes down to bad coaching. I personally believe all submissions are dangerous, but they have to be trained the right way. If you let somebody lock in a heel hook, they'll break your knee. 

Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. The idea is that the ankle, biomechanically speaking, is flexible and bends easier. It takes time to develop a sensitivity to it that you don't really need as much for an armbar or kimura. You know pretty quickly when you're in trouble. With the heel hook, there can be a time where you just don't know. Is that true or false in your estimation?

I believe that is true if you haven't developed the sensitivity to it. That comes down to, like I said before, lack of coaching, lack of training, lack of time in those positions. 

There's a lot of people out there that are good grapplers that don't understand their legs at all. They don't understand when their leg is in trouble. They don't understand any of that because we've walked around on our feet our whole lives, just straight forward, one foot in front of another, and we've used our arms for everything else. 

So, you have to teach people about their legs just like you have to teach somebody when they're in any submission hold. How many people, the first time they've been put in an armbar, have gotten their elbow popped? A lot. If you are being put in a heel hook for the first time ever, you tend to get your knee popped. When we apply a submission for the first time ever, odds are, whatever the submission is, somebody goes home hurt. I've seen it a million times. I'm sure you have as well. If you're going to allow leg locks in your school, you have to make somebody understand those positions before you get in them. Just like you get a tough wrestler in the room and he gets put in armbar and he doesn't really understand when his arm is going to pop and when it's not, he's trying to rip arm out, his arm gets popped and then he's like 'Oh man, I think you hurt my arm.' Well, he didn't understand when he should tap or when he shouldn't have. But next time he's in it, he taps a little earlier, he starts to understand it. 

I don't think that's the right way to teach somebody. I think, regardless of the submission, walk them through it before people start applying that submission on them. 

Let's talk about Rousimar Palhares and what happened with Mike Pierce. In a similar vein, what happened with David Avellan and Tomasz Drwal. In your mind and experience, is it possible to not know when to release when you're in the middle of a submission like that, particularly if you're a guy like Palhares, who is a heel hook specialist?

I believe somebody could continuously try to argue those things. Palhares has been in so many matches and he feels it so much, I believe it's very difficult for him to say that he didn't understand when he felt it break or when the ref stopped it. He's developed a sensitivity to that move. He understands it, similar to when you saw [Anthony] Pettis fight Ben Henderson. Pettis spun underneath for an armbar, he knew that he had it, he even let go before the ref stopped it. He didn't have to let go. He could've cranked through his arm. The arm was caught up underneath. The ref hadn't jumped in, but he let it go, Benson said it was over, they both knew. There's a level of professionalism there and I think Palhares does know what happened there. He pushed through it.

However, to play devil's advocate on Palhares, I watched a thing a while ago - it was made a couple of years ago - and it's called 'Becoming Toquino'. He was talking about how he does leg locks in this video. This is years ago and he says in it 'When I am submitting somebody, I know it at the high level, great guys will not tap to leg locks. They will let them go. And so my attitude is that I am going to pull as hard as I can until the ref completely stops me because I need to make sure that these guys submit.' 

That's not the direct quote, but if you watch it, you'll get a pretty good idea of what he says there. That kind of look at Toquinho a little bit differently. Do I agree with him breaking people's legs? Absolutely not, however, he did state what his intention was a couple of years ago and how he thinks. I do understand that if you apply a submission lightly, they end up getting out. An example would be Toquinho jumping on [Nate] Marquardt's leg. He pulled out of it and, in turn, ended up winning the fight only seconds later. So, I do see how his brain evolved the way that it did, but I don't necessarily think it was right.

Circling back to the heel hook itself, do you believe, among high-level competitors, is there a submission that can do physical damage faster than a heel hook, generally speaking? 

If the heel hook's done right, I think it can do probably the most amount of damage the quickest. It will put somebody out for quite a while. It's very deadly and very dangerous when it is actually applied. That just gives more reason that if you are going to develop those in your game - we'll give it a little Spider Man quote: 'with great power comes great responsibility'. A heel hook is one of those things that's very powerful. You gotta be very responsible.

Let's say you're one of the top 10 best heel hookers, irrespective of weight class in submission wrestling or UFC. Imagine you're that guy. Do you believe if you have that power and you know you have, at least in that skill set, an advantage over your opponents, a certain set of ethics when applying them?

I do. I do. I believe that there is a code of ethics when applying heel hooks and you almost have more responsibility because right now everyone sees it as taboo. So, while the world sees it as taboo, you have to tread that line very carefully. You have to be very responsible with it. You gotta be very careful with it because people are going to cut you from the UFC if use it wrong.

Everybody's afraid of them. And because everybody's afraid of them, you better tread lightly.

How can it come to be that in jiu-jitsu, the dominant brand of submission grappling in the Americas, has a really hands off approach to leg locks and yet in sambo they seem to be quite comfortable with it?

You know, sambo is all leg locks. The game of sambo was based on leg locks originally. It was based that way because sambo was made for war time combat. Basically the idea was if you are fighting somebody in war and your weapon malfunctions and you somehow knock them to the ground, they fall back on their back and there you are in guard, right? You're standing over them. 

You can either try to pass their guard and get on top of them and work to a submission and then get stabbed in the back by a bayonet or you can try to grab the legs directly in front of you which have shoes on and try to submit them very quickly using their legs.

Now, if you break somebody's leg using a heel hook or a kneebar or something like that, the odds of them crawling all the way back to a weapon or back to their camp or getting somewhere to get help, it drastically is reduced whereas if you break somebody's arm - as you've seen with 'Jacare' Souza, Roger Gracie - you break his arm, he can still come back and beat you. 

Their take was: We need to attack the legs; we need to have takedowns and attack the legs as fast as possible to leave our opponents helpless in a war time situation. That's why you see them with the gi top and then shoes on.
If you look at how they started to develop, because that was the thought process, people became so proficient at leg locks. It started to become a sport and they started to really become skilled there. Over time, they started to develop huge amounts of dexterity with their legs, also their tendons and joints become stronger than people who don't do leg locks because they're constantly twisting on them and pulling on them and moving them. Just like you see somebody who is choked constantly everyday, what tends to happen is they get better at not being choked. They can hold chokes longer, they can do those things. Our body evolves and becomes stronger in the areas we train it in. I see that because jiu-jitsu guys have never been put in those leg locks because it's illegal - especially gi only practitioners or gi only competitors - they become very susceptible to these leg locks. 

Judo is another example. Judo doesn't allow leg locks at all. They are so susceptible to leg locks because of this because they are black belts at throwing you on the ground, black belts at armbars, black belts at triangles, but they are white belts at leg locks.

You take a black belt in jiu-jitsu who is a gi only practitioner, he may know a kneebar and a straight ankle lock and toehold and that's it. But if you start to put him in a transition where they have to go heel hook to toe hold to straight leg lock to a compression lock and back to a heel hook, he doesn't know where to go. This great black belt who has trained every day and he's great at upper body locks, he can't compete with somebody who just grabs onto his legs. He's a white belt in that area, similar to a wrestler who's trained Greco his whole life and then tries to compete in folkstyle or freestyle. Can't deal with the leg attacks. 

Is that why you see at grappling competitions or even in the UFC guys who know leg locks who are lesser grapplers beating what are ostensibly superior opponents? 

That is exactly why. I said it before, but just to reiterate it: you can be a black belt at upper body locks, but if you are a blue belt at lower body locks and you come up against a purple belt at lower body locks and a purple belt at upper body locks, if he gets ahold of your lower body before you get ahold of his upper body, he's going to beat you. You have to be a full, well-rounded grappler if you want to compete against these guys these days. 

I complete 100 percent, pro-evolution of grappling. I know a lot of people are pulling back on the reins and trying to hold it back, but guys, get out there and be at the forefront of the cutting edge. Develop your leg lock game, develop every part of jiu-jitsu so you can be the best you can be. 

Jiu-jitsu is at a crazy point right now. I don't think in the UFC we've ever seen a berimbolo. There's a criticism of jiu-jitsu in MMA because a lot of it just doesn't work, but the heel hook and the toe hold, these are very functional moves for no gi and MMA. Leg locks are a focus of evolution, yet it's applicable for self defense and MMA. Would you agree?

I agree 100 percent. I think it's very applicable and why you don't tend to see it amongst enough MMA practitioners is - in the world of mixed martial arts right now - a lot of people go out there and tend to find a guy that has trained gi forever and they go, 'Ok, this is my Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor because he caught me in three triangles and I can't escape it.' Well, the guy is great at upper body locks and he only teaches upper body locks. Now we get to a MMA match and somebody like Frank Mir grabs ahold of your leg and you don't know what to do because your instructor didn't know what to do and didn't know how to train you in those areas. 

It's important if you have an instructor that's an upper body submission-type guy or gi only practitioner, that's not a bad thing, but you need to seek out a lower body practitioner as well if you can't find one that has it all.

How much have leg locks in jiu-jisu and MMA changed jiu-jitsu or MMA where guys will play 50/50 guard with somebody because they can set up a transition to a final submission? Have these kinds of submissions, as the users have become more proficient, changing the way people grapple even at the highest level? 

It is definitely changing the way people are grappling, 100 percent. I think it also allows people to develop a stall game where two people are in the exact same position, 50/50, and they can kinda stall their way through a jiu-jitsu match. There's a lot of flack for the 50/50 position, two guys just sitting there, not attacking one another and I've seen it in MMA. Neither guy could hit the other guy, but they're trying to work that position. 

One scary thing about the 50/50 is you have to remember: you're both in 50/50. So, if you want to be the one who always comes out on top and always be the better grappler, you need to be the one that is in the dominant position. Hide your legs while you attack their legs. I've seen several cases where somebody has initiated a 50/50, they're good at it and they get submitted first. They're sitting in the position and bam, they lose it, and it's because you do leave yourself exposed in those positions. There are better ways to do it.

Palhares really doesn't spend a lot of time in the 50/50. He does a good job keeping the ankle on the other side, leaving his opponent very vulnerable while he's safe. The better leg lockers in MMA are the ones who know how to keep the ankle on the other side while they are submitting you, not leaving themselves vulnerable at the same time.
However, in jiu-jitsu matches, especially gi and since you can't heel hook, guys can just sit in there in the 50/50, they can just work in those positions, they can try to berimbolo from there and try to come underneath and do all these transitions that will never work in MMA because there's no way to climb the back from there. There's nothing to grab ahold of and you also leave yourself very vulnerable to strikes from the top position. Because of those things, it's separating the game. The highest level jiu-jitsu competitors, if you add in strikes, sometimes they can't compete and that's very frustrating for me coming from that background.

Let's predict the future. In five years, in both jiu-jitsu and UFC-level MMA, where are heel hooks and leg locks, generally? Does the taboo go away or is it a longer push than that?

I believe it will be a much longer push than that. Gi competitions, which is in control of a lot of the world's mindset right now, is going to keep leg locks out of the game. You can't even cross the belly with your foot on a straight ankle lock in gi jiu-jitsu. So, because you can't reap the knee, we're even farther back in regular jiu-jitsu.
Abu Dhabi, they're really pushing the boundaries and showing people what's out there. However, people have to take to that. People have to look at it and go, 'You know what? I'm excited about that. I want to learn how to do it. I want to learn how to do it safely and I want to seek out the right people to teach me how to do it safely.'

In MMA, there are guys that are on that path. There are guys that are showing those capabilities out there and could really push the MMA game to the next level. However, a word of caution: you have to tread lightly. After what Palhares did, people are really paying attention now. They're really checking on the heel hook, they're afraid of it. They don't like it. We were afraid of it before. If you're going to do it, be responsible and help grow the sport. Do it the right way. Don't just go out there breaking people's legs off. If you know you're going to submit, give them an opportunity. Don't just hurt guys out there.

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