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Technique Talk: Dave Camarillo on judo in MMA and the challenge of Ronda Rousey

Photo by Esther Lin

With news that UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey would be hosting season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) opposite Miesha Tate due to Cat Zingano's injury, some of the MMA community protested with outcry.

Many suggested Tate was undeserving because she was defeated by Zingano and therefore coming off of a loss. Others worried the fight would be non-competitive given Tate's previous loss.

The reality, however, is that it's not really clear what the blueprint is to defeat Rousey since no one's ever come close. Why is Rousey so far ahead? More specifically, what does it say about her application of judo in MMA that no one can seemingly keep up? Why haven't other judoka outpaced their competition quite like her?

Dave Camarillo, a former coach at American Kickboxing Academy, is a black belt in both judo and jiu-jitsu and has developed a style known as 'Guerilla Jiu-Jitsu' that incorporates the best aspects of both sports. I decided to speak to him to help understand how judo fits into modern MMA, why so few judoka have crossed over into our sport, how it differs from wrestling and jiu-jitsu as a component of MMA, what explains Rousey's success in using judo where others have failed and what could be a blueprint for defeating her.

In short, what is the role of judo in MMA and understanding that, could that help any future of opponent of Rousey finally challenge her?

Full audio and partial transcription below:

Let's start from a central point. Practically speaking today, how related are sport jiu-jitsu and sport judo?

It depends on your perspective. If you're new to the sport, they look similar. If you train both intensely, they look very, very different. The rules dictate the behavior, so BJJ rules allows people to pull guard, allows people to stay on the ground longer.

Judo tends to be the opposite. They have more room for standing, they may want the fight to be standing or grip fighting. They recently changed the rules, so you can't grab the legs. It's all upper body, much like Greco-Roman wrestling. I think, generally speaking, you will find that judoka are stronger, faster because they don't have much time to work. They have to keep going, going, going whereas jiu-jitsu is a little bit more technical and more slow going and methodical.

To what extent are submissions properly trained to have a competent grappler on the floor among judo schools today?

In reality, a judoka - to make it big, world level - you don't need very good ground. All you need to do is be able to survive, wait for the referee to call mate. Mate is a halt to the match, which happens when there's no progression on the ground. In reality, you can just play defensive ground tactics and not really excel as a submission-based grappler in the art of judo. In jiu-jitsu it doesn't work.

Let's talk about Ronda Rousey. Can you give me, from a judo perspective, a sketch of Ronda Rousey's judo game?

I think she's a standard judoka. Judoka are traditionally very aggressive, they're in shape, they kind of bully their way in. They are definitely technical, but if you compare them with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, you're going to have that contrast of a bully: someone who just gets their grips, smashes their way in, only halts if the referee stops it and goes in again.

You see that in her fighting style. She brings that into the cage. I think that's why she's overwhelmed so many opponents in the first round, because she bullies through that first round and a lot of people can't just handle her athleticism, her brute aggression and her technique.

Speaking of her technique, does she favor anything in particular or generally have a well-rounded judo game? Any proclivities that stand out to you?

Like we talked about earlier, the race to submissions, she's goes after the armlocks and you see that in her fights. That's very judo. A lot of good newaza ground guys and female competitors are really good in the position she's good at, what we call juji gatame, which is 'cross body'. That's how she wins most of her fights. That's her forte. I think that's really working for her in MMA.

If judo doesn't typically have a strong need for newaza at the world level, why does Rousey seem to have a strong game at the elite level? Why does her game seem to be developed in that particular area?

To be honest, I don't know. For me, I just like going after arms. I train both jiu-jitsu and judo. But I think there's a spectrum no matter what are you take.

I've trained with Flavio Canto, probably one of the best mat guys I've ever rolled with in my life and he was not a jiu-jitsu stylist. He was a judoka. I think there's something in someone's training where they maybe did a couple submissions during randori in practice and they start developing in their mind a belief that 'Maybe I can finish this thing on the ground'. They excel at it.

Many judoka do not. I've trained with gold medalists that I had no problem with them on the ground, but once we started standing, they were throwing me all over the place. I think it's just a thing where you kind of stumble upon it. I don't know, I haven't looked into her take on it, why she's a submission specialist because many judoka are not. But I think it's awesome.

I want to tell you something I heard. I'm not in a position to evaluate the truth of this claim, but I wanted to share it with you to see what you think about it. That is, a very high-level grappler talked to me about Rousey's game, and they were saying certainly Rousey was very good, but relative to Kyra Gracie or Abu Dhabi-level medalist, she is not on par with that. Is there any way to evaluate the truth of that claim?

I don't think she's an elite-level ground tactician. Here's how you do it. There's a lot of hype surrounding many things, especially with MMA because we see it, kind of the finished product. And we see them against a certain opponent that we don't understand their strengths. For example, if I haven't rolled with her opponent or I don't really know much about the sport, I'm not going to get a clear picture.

To understand, [Rousey] comes in with a lot of athleticism, which you gain in judo. And I've had first hand experience with that. That's why when I started transitioning to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it was so easy for me. In reality, it's not that I was very technical. It's just I was faster, my situational awareness was good, meaning I could see things coming. I was very good at judging what an opponent would be doing at a certain time and being able to counter that.

When I watched Ronda Rousey's fights, I think she's a phenomenal fighter, but she definitely has a lot of holes. For example, when Liz [Carmouche] had her back, she basically came in kind of with the wrong head and arm for MMA. You generally don't want to do that because people can take your back. I think that was a technical mistake on her behalf.

Now, why didn't she lose the fight? She fought out of it and that comes from how tough she is individually and also the sport of judo. That's displayed in her fights. You're seeing not just a technical stylist on the ground, but you're seeing somebody who just will fight out of anything you put in front of them. She's been able to do that.

Will that last? That's the question. With all due respect, I tend not to succumb to hype. I hear all these things or I watch fights and I know that she plays a huge role in women's MMA, but at the same time I would look at her skills as a fighter and I would have her do more jiu-jitsu so that she can get more technical on the ground and accomplish the same things with less energy expended, if that makes sense.

There's some technical things I've seen her do in a fight I think she can do better. There's some things I thought were brilliant. She does a few things. She goes with a juji gatame. She lost the position in that fight, went back to her guard and then, swept her again, never losing control of that arm. In the last ten seconds, got the wrist control, pulled the arm straight. It was brilliant. I think there are things leading up to that position wise that she can definitely improve on, so that's the take of whoever you're talking about giving information of 'Is she a high-level, elite-level grappler like the women of today in Brazilian jiu-jitsu?' I would say no, but remember she's not fighting in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. She's fighting in MMA and in MMA right now, she's doing phenomenal.

I haven't seen this with Rick Hawn or Yoshihiro Akiyama, but I have seen it with Rousey and Karo Parisyan. With head throws, they leave themselves open to the back-take because there's no farside underhook preventing that. Is that something that is prevalent to judo no matter how good the practitioner is or is that the risky style Parisyan and Rousey play?

When you're in judo, number one you have a gi on and I know that's obvious, but that does play a factor that people need to understand. If I throw you with a harai goshi and I have a high grip, which is essentially a head an arm control but with the gi, and I throw you, I have the gi to keep you away from taking my back. Even though I will be giving it up, a good jiu-jitsu guy is going to get your back anyway.

When I see her fights, she goes right to that and honestly, it's like 'I know I'm good in this position, so I'm going to go there even though it's not a technically sound position'. I think her aggression fights through an opponent who may be more technical on the ground as far as position wise. Perfect example is that [Carmouche] fight again. She gave her back away, which was very dangerous. It looked really bad. She fought out of it. She showed brilliant resilience, but I'm a tactician. When I train fighters, I'm like, 'Everything's ratio. We need to protect ourselves at all times while putting our opponent where we are strong'. She doesn't seem like she cares about strategy. She's going in there, getting that opponent in her favorite head and arm and just keeps fighting till she has a good position.

And when she gets in that juji gatame, it's all over because she's brilliant. I think there's a few hand positions you can change to avoid that, but I think a lot of judoka, they haven't had to change their style because they have been faster, more athletic, they've been quicker to the punch.

For example, if she got finished in that fight, we'd be looking at a different Ronda Rousey. She'd probably be adjusting. You always learn more in your losses than you do your victories. That's happened almost every single time I've ever trained a fighter. Fighters who just keep winning are going to keep making a little bit of those mistakes, so at times it takes a loss. Right now it's working really well for her.

You believe the way in which she fights is not just a function of her style, but a function of how she perceives the threat currently in the women's 135-pound division?

Is there a threat right now? Every time you go into the Octagon, there's a threat. Guaranteed. Anything can happen. But right now, she's so far beyond athletically and with experience in her judo, so far beyond the competition that the point is this: I've been there. I've had guys who knock guys out right away, six fights, seven fights. And they don't make adjustments because they're winning. I'm not saying she's doing this, but there's a potential for that to happen because you're on this high.

It's intoxicating. You keep winning and then your coach is like 'Yes, you're winning, but I really need you to clean this up and this and this and this.' Fighters have trouble hearing that because they actually become like they' have a lucky rabbit's foot. Their style is that lucky rabbit's foot. 'I don't want to change it because I'm winning'. Well, once you take a loss, you let go of the lucky rabbit's foot and you go back to 'Ok, you're right, I need to go back to the drawing board'.

This is early in her career and she's incredible. She's putting judo on the map. She's putting women's MMA on the map or she's continuing its legacies right now. At the same time, if I was her coach, I would definitely be refining and really looking at those wins and seeing not the win. You gotta see her break it down and see where you went wrong in the fight even though you ended up on top at the end.

As a whole, the MMA community is better at taking elite wrestlers and turning them into elite fighters, at least relative to 10 years ago. I don't seem to see that in judo, at least not nearly to the same degree. Am I wrong in that perception?

No, I think it's right. It's very simple to the reason why. Count how many judoka are actually decent in MMA. Then count how many wrestlers. And then look at all the coaches and just look at to the ratio, who they're exposed to, they're exposed to more wrestlers. So, they know how to work with wrestlers. You get a judoka in there and let's say they understand Greco, they're going to be like, 'Ok, keep doing that'.

There are some things that I think are universal, like underhooks. Underhook, you don't really do that in judo a lot. I mean, you do it, but not a lot because underhooks get beat by whizzers. But underhooks are good in key positions in MMA and wrestling and things like that. Especially against the fence, I would say she could be doing more underhooks.

But again that goes against her style. When you go against somebody's style, it's not just the value of the actual technique you're looking at, it's their style. And when you take someone out of their style, they might not perform because they might not believe in it yet. So there's all these factors that really come into play for a coach and a fighter and a fighter that keeps winning.

Why don't we see more judoka in MMA? We've seen some really good ones. Rousey was a medalist, Makoto Takimoto, Akiyama, Rick Hawn was an Olympian, but there doesn't seem to be the same level of matriculation. Why is that?

I think it's a situation of culture. I've known a lot of wrestlers in my life, especially with MMA fighting. I obviously grew up in the judo scene and judo, it was never about 'fighting'. There's no real culture of fighting. For us, it was the martial arts. When you say martial arts, you wear a gi. You're bowing. You have a sensei. You're part of a lineage. That is a different culture than wrestling in high school and Division I college. It's just different.

They don't bow on the mat, that's one difference. Well, that has an effect psychologically. When I grew up, we didn't get in fights. We all were accountable because our parents understood that it's a martial art. That really helped parents really raise their kids. It's this connection of 'We don't do this, we don't do that'. Now, in wrestling, it's like, definitely good people, but there's not this - whatever it is - boundary that keeps them from wanting to fight. In judo, you see it.

I've seen so many judoka in my career that I thought would do incredible in MMA and they never once thought about it. I would even ask them. 'Oh no, I don't like MMA'. I think it's culturally. You ask a wrestler and they're like 'Yeah, yeah. That's awesome!' There's so many wrestlers coming in, but in the United States there's actually not a lot of judoka. Most of them are in Japan.

And that's another thing. Most of what we're accustomed to seeing is Americans. So, Ronda Rousey is number one, a woman, doing incredible things for women in MMA and the sport of judo. Definitely we're seeing two things that are coming together. And that's why there's so much talk about. I think it's awesome.

What do you make of this claim that 'wrestling always beats judo'?

Well, obviously it's ridiculous. It's the individual to an extent. There's so many variables to what wins fights these days.

I had a lot of success when I would be sparring with some of the fighters with my judo, but at the same time if I didn't learn wrestling, I wouldn't have a chance because if a wrestler shoots in, you're going to defend the takedown. And you're going to be fighting more wrestlers than judoka, but if we got ten wrestlers and ten judoka to go at it no gi, the wrestlers will win. There's just used to the no gi'; single legs, double legs, and they're not grabbing a gi. They'll have an advantage.

How does that transition into MMA? We don't have enough material to analyze it. There's not enough judoka in mixed martial arts, but I think they're amazing. I think they're some of the most amazing - obviously, I am biased - martial artists I've ever seen.

If I can play devil's advocate and look at the three most submission-oriented combative sports that make up MMA, is it necessarily true that all three translate equally well to MMA? Could it be that others just naturally lend themselves to it more?

I wrote an article - this was awhile ago - but, wrestling is best background for mixed martial arts. And I think it is. I think there's no question. Most all the world champions are largely wrestling based. I even mentioned GSP in that. He didn't have that as a background, but he controls the fight. He puts it where he wants it because he can out wrestle everybody in his weight.

Jon Jones, started in wrestling. Cain Velasquez, worked with him personally. DC (Daniel Cormier), the list goes on and on and on. There are a lot of good BJJ stylists that start with BJJ, but they have to make major adjustments. Like a wrestler as well, but I started with judo and then I went into jiu-jitsu. And the last grappling art that I got accustomed to and really drilled and learned from was wrestling. And I will still back up wrestling any day of the week. I would rather work with ten wrestlers than anybody else and make them into mixed martial arts champions because I've done it so many times. It's so easy.

If you had to take ten judoka, some of the best, and you wanted to get them ready for elite MMA. When you look at judo and if you had to distill something out of it to make it ready for MMA, what would you get rid of?

I probably wouldn't mention anything. I think most everything can be utilized. I even used a tomoe nage in MMA sparring, which is, you go to your back and flip them over like a sweep.

I think one of the major mistakes is a lot of people, I would say, is not a single technique. Going back to Ronda Rousey and Karo Parisyan and all these really good judoka who came into MMA and did well...I, myself, when I'm sparring, I use those head and arm throws, but it's how you land.

There's a point to which you load your opponent up, you're executing the throw and you got their weight basically in control because they're off the ground. And then their weight starts to dip and fall to the ground. Right there you need to put on the brakes yourself. Meaning, if you continue to crash with them, you end up in a bad position.

Granted, Ronda Rousey makes that position work, but if we're looking at ratios in all of MMA, that's not a great position to be in, which is that head and arm. It's a judo pin. I would say not an actual takedown or technique or throw, it's more of how you end it. It's more of the transition into good, proper ground control, so that you can do either damage or submission or both.

Is there anything for the reverse? Which is, what about judo is really accessible and high percentage stuff you can teach to MMA fighters?

Right, I think the foot sweeps and the inside leg trips and things like that work really well in MMA because if I don't land it, it's not like a single leg. I don't get exhausted and I'm reset right into my Muay Thai. I'm actually teaching a lot of Muay Thai these days and I think it's very similar to judo because they have a lot of those trips and they're so fluid, if they do get it, that's fine. There's no energy wasted.

All of that clinching and the inside leg trips and things like that, and foot sweeps, are phenomenal because they transition so well with going right back into damage.

I'm glad you brought up the foot sweep because that leads me into Steve Mocco. He's got an amazing wrestling base and a judo background. He uses foot sweeps in wrestling. How rare is that: to find someone who is that good of a wrestler and good enough to incorporate successful foot sweeps?

You kind of hit it on the head. I don't know too much about him, but I'll just say that when someone has a certain skill, say, they have a really good single and all those transitions, and a double. And they do it in competition and it works very well for them, they may never accidentally stumble upon a foot sweeps. Because I know wrestlers do foot sweeps. They actually have wrestling foot sweeps. It's not just judoka. But I know a lot of wrestlers who don't do foot sweeps.

It's almost like, it's the chimpanzee, when they're searching for those insects where they lick this little leaf thing, they stick it in the thing, and bugs get caught to it and they pull it out and they're eating them. Well, certain tribes of the same species have not learned that. And I think that's all it is. They may have even seen it happen in the gym, but they just never tried it.

People have tendencies. They kind of stumble upon certain things. And I've seen wrestlers who use foot sweeps really well with their wrestling. You go to maybe even genetics: how open minded is the fighter? Are they willing to try new things?

We're doing a 360 going back to Ronda Rousey and I think that's what needs to prove the test of time: is she going to make the adjustments that may be needed if she's not so overwhelmingly strong and powerful and good facing an opponent that can actually give her a decision? You put aside coaching because everyone's like 'Well, didn't you coach him to do that?' Well, I tried. Sometimes it's a failure of coaching. Sometimes it's a failure of open mindedness. That actual individual has to be open minded to try new things and drill new things and step outside themselves.

This goes back to Tiger Woods. He changed his swing when he was on top because he wanted to be the greatest ever. He switched a tiny little detail in his swing to be the greatest ever. To an extent, it comes down to the character and personality of the individual.

I often hear that sport jiu-jitsu isn't just full of bad athletes, but that is doesn't lean on a competitor to be a superb athlete for success. The opposite is certainly true of wrestling and judo. Is that a fair or accurate criticism of jiu-jitsu in your judgement?

It's not a shortcoming, it's almost like are the mountains a shortcoming of Colorado? No. It's just part of Colorado.

But wouldn't jiu-jitsu be better served by a greater emphasis on athleticism?

It's going towards that a little bit, but it's the nature of the beast. Remember, rules dictate behavior. For example, 15 years ago when I started jiu-jitsu, you could stall and get away with it. You can score your two points and stall for 8 minutes. I've seen it. It's happened to me. Over and over again. Well, if you can stall, there's less scrambles. If there's less scrambles, there's less development of athletic movement and quick movement and situational awareness.

Judo has scrambles all over the place. Wrestling has scrambles all the time. When those people are scrambling, that's a type of stamina you need to win a wrestling match. These are natural tendencies.

Now, things are changing in jiu-jitsu, but it's kinda the nature of the beast. If you're not doing anything standing - it's almost all ground - you're going to develop a guy who's just as athletic, generally speaking, as a wrestler.

If I were in a street fight, I'd much rather fight a jiu-jitsu stylist than a wrestler who's going to double leg me through a window, you know what I mean? It's the nature of the beast. Rules always dictate behavior.

Let's circle back to Rousey as the focal point of the discussion. What is the blueprint for beating Rousey? Is it someone who is a high-level jiu-jitsu grappler or would it be something else?

Just look at her fight. The fight's almost always over when she gets the clinch and takes the opponent down, gets her to where she wants her, finishes her. So, you gotta out-clinch her. Yeah, good footwork would be awesome, but you're going to get in the clinch. Well, you've gotta out-clinch her. You have to break free, get her tired. Once she's tired, who knows what's going to happen? A lot of fighters who keep winning, they get punched in the face and then the second that doubt enters the mind, that's the experience.

It happened to GSP, it happens to everybody. Once they have a 'Man, I can't get ahold of this person. This is not how I envisioned it last night when I went to bed. I thought I was going to get my hands on them, put them to the ground and armbar them'. Once you disrupt that, you have a chance, but if you're not equipped with the proper tools or athleticism or training, then it's going to be very, very difficult because she's so far ahead.

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