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Technique Talk: Reilly Bodycomb makes sense of Rousimar Palhares' brutality

Photo courtesy Michael Bodycomb

Why is there still so much consternation over leg attacks in MMA and more specifically, WSOF welterweight champion Rousimar Palhares' history of them? Is the scrutiny about leg locks or is Palhares' use of them forcing an examination of the practice entirely? Do the MMA and grappling communities even have a fair view of leg attacks at all? Should these techniques be reviewed for use in MMA?

In the wake of the brutal kneebar submission of Jon Fitch at WSOF 16, MMA Fighting spoke with elite grappler (and new MMA fighter), sambo expert and leg lock aficionado Reilly Bodycomb. Bodycomb essentially argues there is a poor understanding of leg locks rooted in an indefensible aversion to them throughout the grappling community and that we empower competitors to make the same choices Palhares and other leg lockers face when applied to different portions of the human anatomy.

Moreover, while some of Palhares' history in holding submissions too long is worthy of examination, his behavior should be viewed within the context it took place. In Bodycomb's view, the idea there is even a problem worthy of being solved is a misplaced and overwrought concern born out of ignorance. Palhares' brutality is more a function of the cost of being a limb attacking specialist and his brutality, while extreme, is simply the cost of doing business under those terms.

Audio and a partial transcript of our conversation is below.


Tell us your background in martial arts, both training and competitive.

I compete primarily in submission grappling and sambo. I've also fought in MMA. I had my pro MMA debut last year. My main focus is submission grappling and sambo.

I've won the Dutch Sambo Championships, the Canadian Sambo Championships twice, and I medaled in the U.S. championships and the British championships. I was on the world team in 2008 in St. Petersburg, Russia for sport sambo.

As far as grappling goes since that's the most accessible thing in the United States - for the most part, sambo is something you have to travel for to compete if you're from this country - I do a lot of events, Grapplers Quest, NAGA. Things like that. My most recent thing was I did the ADCC 155lbs pro division in New York City they had a couple of months ago and won that.

Just a point of clarification. There are no belts in sambo. You're either a master of sport or you're not. How does attain a ranking of expert that is universally recognized?

There are no belts in sambo as far as universally recognized rank. Even master of sport is technically specific to the nation that it's from. For instance, when someone is a Master of Sport, they're usually talking about Russia. Russia gives a Master of Sport certification to anything. I think you can get it in tennis. It's not specific to sambo.

Some organization, notably FIAS, which is the largest governing body for sambo, will give Master of Sports based on competition achievement. It's kind of convoluted requirements, but usually it's competition achievement. You can get it for other things as well.

In the U.S., there's going to be very few people who have Masters of Sport. There's been a couple of times when the politics of sambo have gotten so complicated that the major organizations have split off and some of those split organizations were handing out American Masters of Sport, but that was in the early 90s. That doesn't really happen anymore, so there's pretty much no American Masters of Sport unless they got them from Russia.

To answer the question, the best way to determine if someone is an expert in sambo would usually be competition achievement or coaching achievement. That's the simplest answer. It's the same for wrestling or boxing or any other combat sports. There's no skill division in sambo, just as there's no skill division in wrestling. You simply win tournaments and based on what country you win them in, it states your ability.

Ok, let's look at the Jon Fitch-Rousimar Palhares fight. We can drill down to specifics in a minute, but from a broad perspective, what went wrong for Fitch?

I guess a broad answer would be a problem most grapplers have, which is a loose understanding of leg locks as a whole, not just specifically the heel hook or ankle lock or the knee bar, but the whole encounter when someone's attacking your lower body limbs is very complicated. It's very intricate. You zig when you should zag, things can go wrong, which is basically what happened to him.

I think the real common thing you hear from people when they're coaching escaping submissions against the lower body is they don't have nearly an intricate response to escape as they will when you hear someone talk about escaping, say, an armbar or a choke.

For instance, you'll hear, 'Oh, just start spinning' or 'Stiffen your leg' or whatever. Yet, when you have someone explaining how to get out of the rear naked choke or the back, it's a much more complicated, much more nuanced response because people understand it better. I think he probably didn't have the complete grasp of the animal that is leg locks that he could have. At the same time, he's going against someone who is incredibly good at it, vicious with transitions and has a lot of faith in his techniques. It was a bad person to be learning against.

The finish sequence. Fitch seemed fine when he had his hands controlling Palhares' separated ankles. There was no reapping leg. Palhares had the straight ankle lock, but wasn't threatening. From that moment where the ankles of Palhares were separated, what went wrong?

Palhares going around the ankle had nothing to do with an ankle lock. That's something that a lot of people might not realize. You talk about points of control in the legs. Let's talk about, say, a triangle choke. I've got my legs around your arm and your head and I've got my hands involved, maybe holding onto your head or elbow. If I have to make an adjustment for a triangle choke, then I'm going to hold onto your head or elbow with hands. If I hold onto your head with my hands, I can open my legs, I can post my foot on your hip, I can throw my hips out, re-tie my triangle to finish.

When Palhares lost control of the free leg with his legs, he laced an ankle lock-looking situation so he has full control of the leg. Putting your arm around someone's ankle doesn't mean you have any intention of finishing an ankle lock. It just means, 'Here's a point of control I've got while I hold onto this while I fix my leg entanglement.'

When he had the arm around the leg and is looking at Fitch with his legs exposed, not entangled, he's waiting for Fitch to make an adjustment so he can re-entangle his legs and make other adjustments. It's a complicated position.

What Fitch could've done is keep hands on both ankles and keep them in front of him. If you keep them in front of you, it's harder for them to re-lace underneath and behind your legs. Then try to stand and smash them down towards Palhares' chest. That would relieve the pressure on the knee. That's the approach I would take in that situation.

Realistically, though, against a really high-level leg lock person, one of the things you're also going to need is the ability to counter leg lock. That's something that a lot of people don't talk about. If I'm working against someone who is good at defending leg locks, one of the key things they're going to have is the ability to leg lock me back. If they can actively counter threat, it makes it more difficult for me to be so single minded.

A lot of people are afraid of this method. They're afraid that is they engage in leg locks, they're going to get themselves submitted. For the most part, you're going to get submitted, anyways, if you're just defending and pulling away. At least if you also learn some counterfighting techniques, you can make it an even game and make it a more complicated exchange for your attacker.

I believe Fitch briefly attempted this at one point when he was standing.

I would bet the amount of time that Fitch puts into attacking and defending the legs is less than 10 percent of the amount of time he puts into the rest of his grappling. If you're looking at the percentage of the human body we're talking about - roughly 50 percent - that's disproportionate. My suggestions on how to behave when you're being attacked and defending won't matter if you're not going to invest a lot of time into really understanding these positions and working them out.

Yeah, if you just want a heel hook over a floating leg, it's not going to matter. I definitely submitted people who tried to heel hook me back and it wasn't going to work and that sealed their doom. That's definitely true, but at the same time, when I go against guys who are higher-level grapplers, the counterattacks are generally one of the things that get me.

Let's talk about the position for just a minute. Why is the reaping leg of Palhares on the hip of Fitch so important to the position?

When you have your outside leg draped across the hip - from the outside, laced over, across the knee, across the hip - it forces your opponent to only roll one direction. And that direction is towards their hands, towards their chest, towards the mat, not facing you. It's a direction away from power punching, it's away from keeping you on your foot. That reap basically means your opponent can't keep weight on the foot you're attacking. That's the main point of the reap.

They can't keep weight on the foot you're attacking if their knee is bent in like that. They can't turn to hit you. They're forced to roll in that direction. Most of the times people roll together, connected, and they'll roll to the cage or they'll get lucky and get out. What happens in this situation is, he rolls and stops when he's on his hands. Palhares stayed in place and found himself with the knee right at his hip level, where he could throw on a really, really nasty kneebar, which is good reaction from Palhares.

Palhares has a history of holding submissions too long. Whether that's relevant or not, was he holding this particular submission too long?

You have two different types of situations. You have a situation in the gym and you have a situation in the cage, which are very different. A situation in a grappling tournament - let's say, NAGA or Grapplers Quest - you're going to have a situation closer to the gym environment than you do in the cage.

If I'm rolling with [friends and training partners], we know a lot about what's going on with leg locks. We know when we're safe, we know when we're not and when we're stuck, we tap. I have so much trust in their knowledge and their skill that we go really hard for heel hooks. We make sure we get them, we take them seriously. We don't do the 'catch and release method'. We make sure they're absolutely sunk in and we'll go until that person is totally stuck and that person knows, when we're talking about that level, to tap.

This is very different in a MMA environment. Especially at the pro level, except for chokes, submissions don't really stop people. Limb breaks stop people. There's plenty of arm locks that have been in place in mixed martial arts that would've gotten taps in submission grappling and probably injured elbows, but the person, after having their elbow injured, gets their arm out and continues to pound away.

Except for chokes, you can tough guy through the attempts at injuries and maybe you have a torn ACL or torn ligament in your elbow, but you're going to keep fighting. That's the problem with arm and leg submissions in MMA. One of the ways to combat that is to be really brutal when you apply them, to make sure you're applying them with such force there's absolutely no way or wiggle room that this person can tough guy through it.

I understand the mentality of attacking limbs to this degree when you're in the cage. In a submission tournament or the gym, you shouldn't have this mentality, but I do understand it in MMA.

Right, but wasn't Fitch tapping vigorously?

In MMA, they tell you it's when the ref grabs you, not when you tap that you let go. If the ref puts hands on you and you don't stop, I agree, that's negligent, but I totally understand the intent that's not stopping until they put hands on.

I've definitely seen situations where Palhares has someone in a heel hook, someone puts hands on them and they almost have to pull them off of the heel. I totally agree that seems excessive and negligent, and I'm not saying it's professional at all. I'm just saying this is one of the downsides of being a limb attack-based submission artist. You have to have this approach versus chokes where you can have a much more gentle approach.

So, to summarize, your argument is that this brutality is an inefficiency in the system. People have to go to these extreme measures given the way humans respond to punishment in this sporting context.

Unless you're going to let people fight to the death, which you're not going to do, you have to have this weird thing where we have concession and the concession is to tap. When you have strikes to the face, they either tap or the ref determines that if you keep going you're going to suffer irrecoverable damage, serious and life-threatening harm. Same with a choke. If you hold it too long, someone could die.

That's not true with arm locks and leg locks. They're not 'deadly', so to speak. The way certain fighters behave against them varies greatly. When I'm in an arm lock, for the most part I tap. I don't care enough about the fight to want to hurt my arm, but I know plenty of people who would call me a wimp for that, who'd say, 'When you're in a fight, you don't tap to arm submissions, leg submissions. You just keep fighting through it.'

When that's the mentality in MMA - and it's even the mentality in some jiu-jitsu tournaments, especially IBJJF I've seen a lot of people just not tap to anything until things get really bad at the black belt level - people are going to get hurt and you can't put all of that on one guy. It's the whole mentality of the sport that people aren't tapping to these submissions.

Look at Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. We have this armbar that's clearly past the point of hyperextension, but at the same time, Tate's thinking, 'If I get out of this, I'm going to keep fighting.' That's her mentality. That's behavior you don't see much in the gym, but you see that in fights.

So, from a rules standpoint, there isn't much we can do to limit this. Does that mean we're stuck here?

I have no clue. At the same time, is it a problem? We are talking about people fighting in the cage for money. Is it a problem? The fact that you're able to be injured severely in a sport where you're trying to injure someone severely, is that a shocker and is that a problem? That'd be my question.

We manage to such a good degree. It's a relatively safe sport compared to other high-impact sports like football. What are we going to do, ban leg attacks? This is the type of thing that would concern me, I guess. If you're going to be stepping into this level or arena, I think you're accepting some level of injury to your personal self. I think most people are OK with it.

Why is there seemingly more outrage about leg attacks or leg attacks perceived to be held too long? Palhares noted few cry when a fighter takes extra punches after being knocked out before the ref can save them. Why is there harsher condemnation for these types of finishes in combat sports?

There definitely have been examples of people going too far and not being punished, across the board for every type of finish. There's been examples of Palhares going too far, unquestionably. It's possible a lot of the ways he's being punished now is like retroactively. I think it's complicated in his case.

As far as outrage against heel hooks in general, that's a weird thing because this is not just in MMA. They're banned in jiu-jitsu, even at IBJJF at the black belt level [ADCC is not pure jiu-jitsu]. Even at IBJJF tournaments, you can't do them even at the highest level. There's this clear opinion about leg attacks and reaping that it is this terrible, terrible, horrible, horrible thing that shouldn't be allowed, which is so contradictory to the concept that we're all taught that BJJ is this end-all, be-all system that's supposed to be able to take on all comers. That was the whole purpose of it at UFCs 1, 2 and 3.

There's definitely a strange contradiction of, 'We want this sport to be accessible to everybody, but at the same time, we want it to be the most effective combat system'. That relationship that's happening right now that's very paradoxical is spreading into people's perspective on mixed martial arts.

People watch UFC at Buffalo Wild Wings, but when they go and train, they don't train MMA. Most people just train BJJ by itself. That's their in and that's the way they're getting their knowledge and it shapes their perspective. That's one of the reasons why people have so much hate towards heel hooks, I assume.

If everybody invested the amount of mental powers into understanding leg locks that they do the rest of their submission game, they'd have a much more enjoyable, much more refreshed and I guess clearer perspective on grappling in general.

How often are people injured with any kind of leg attacks in sambo tournaments?

This is actually a great question. One of the funniest things I point out to people is that straight ankle locks, which are legal in children's divisions in sambo. You can be 6 years old and you're going to reap the knee for the ankle lock. Sambo gyms are not full of people on crutches and wheelchairs. It's sort of absurd that you would think that this submission would somehow be that much more greatly dangerous than a shoulder lock.

The attacks on the legs are not inherently more dangerous than attacks on the upper body, especially if we're talking about straight ankle locks and knee bars, which are the same thing as armbars and wrist locks. Then you have the fact that reaping, which is a torque on the hip and knee, is not that different than the torque on your shoulder for a shoulder lock.

The submissions that can cause more damage, generally, tend to be inverted heel hooks and that has a lot to do with the amount of torque that can be applied when you get your whole core into it and you're on the heel and wrench really hard, but that's the same thing when you have mount and a kimura. You're head-mounted, you pick that kimura up, you're holding on and his fingers break free and the top person decides how hard they're going to wrench that hand behind the back. That choice the top person makes when they wrench the arm behind the back to be gentle or hard is up to that person and we seem to think that's OK. That's OK in grappling, but for some reason we feel giving that same choice to the training partner for the heel hook is not OK. That seems specious.

As for sambo, sambo doesn't have heel hooks in 99 percent of the competition. There's a couple of combat sambo tournaments run by the International Combat Sambo Federation that has heel hooks, but most of them - like FIAS, which runs sport sambo across the world - doesn't have heel hooks. Some don't even have toeholds. What is does have is knee reaping and straight ankle locks and kneebars.

I don't see an incredibly high injury rate. I don't see a high injury rate at all for any submission, but I'd say it has more to do with the fact that one thing I notice at the very, very high levels of sambo is that if I watch sambo competition at the world championship finals, people tap to things. I know that seems ridiculous, but that's what I'm seeing. If someone gets a kneebar, the other guy taps. Even at the world championship finals, people tap. That's what we're not seeing as much at the high levels of Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments. A lot of guys are getting hurt at the higher levels because they don't like to tap. That's kind of maybe a cultural thing. I'm not sure.

I've seen injuries, but I've never seen injuries from an ankle lock that was that severe. I've never seen an injury from a knee reap ever, not from reaping directly. I've seen injuries from heel hooks that involve reaping, but not the reap itself.

In the sambo you competed in, you wore shoes, right?


What's better for attacking leg locks: a gi where they can't slip away or the shoe?

Oh, the shoe. By far. I think the reason why the straight ankle lock - something that is not considered that important in most BJJ schools that I've been in - it's such a fundamental in sambo and I really believe the shoe is a huge part of that. When you're arm slides down and your elbow and armpit clamp around that shoe, it's really, really hard to escape and you're able to finish ankle locks from all kinds of imperfect angles. When you're talking without a shoe, your ankle lock has to be incredibly good. I think the reason why I'm comfortable with ankle locks is because of starting with the shoe.

You know how you can see guys who hit shoulder throws no gi? They almost always happened to have developed that skill with the training rules in the gi in judo or sambo. I think that's true for the ankle lock. Because I learned the ankle lock with the shoe, I can now translate my confidence in the move to an environment where I don't have a shoe, but it's so much easier with the shoe on.

The consternation over this issue never seems to go away. Is there an overarching lesson here?  If you could encapsulate what the takeaway is here about leg locks, what is it? What should people understand?

I'd say there's probably three lessons.

Lesson number one, we have to separate the man from these techniques. If you don't like the way Palhares applies leg locks, that he holds them for too long, you can't have that knock against the submissions themselves just as you can't hold someone's strikes too long after someone's hurt to no longer allow striking.

The second thing would be that if you were somehow limit the leg locks you could do, then you're getting further and further away from the sport that we like, which is the idea of seeing what the best way to win a fight is. That was the whole point. If every time someone steps into the cage, they're making an argument for what they're about to do. They're saying, 'Here's the way someone should win a fight and I'm about to demonstrate that and prove myself right or wrong.' Palhares says, 'I think I can grab a single, rather than finish the single I can sit to my hips, fall on a submission and win the fight in seconds that way.' If we start taking things away, you're actually no longer having a reflection of what is the best way to win a win, which is the thing we love the most about MMA.

The third thing would be that if everybody invested the amount of mental powers into understanding leg locks that they do the rest of their submission game, they'd have a much more enjoyable, much more refreshed and I guess clearer perspective on grappling in general. I think everyone would benefit from learning as much as they can about grappling as a whole. To take a whole section of the human body you want to avoid in grappling or fighting seems absurd to me. 'Oh, we're not going to worry about these submissions, these attacks. Everything's going to be from the waist up.' That doesn't sound right to me. That doesn't sound like a complete, holistic view of grappling. Everybody would have a better time if they were working it to some degree.

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