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Eddie Cummings on why he's a 'scathing indictment' of how jiu-jitsu treats leg locks

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Photo courtesy Jeff Chu

If there's any name that's taken the grappling world by storm in the last year, it's Eddie Cummings. The John Danaher-black belt has torched competition and won superfights not merely with a complete game, but with specialization in leg locks that exceedingly few have been able to handle.

After winning the fourth Eddie Bravo Invitational and on the eve of ADCC 2015, Cummings spoke to MMA Fighting about why his leg locking system has been so successful, who in MMA has the best leg locking game and why his success underscores just how poorly the jiu-jtsu community has treated the task of training and competing with leg locks.

Partial transcript and full audio below:

Star-divide

You have a complete game, but you're making a name for yourself with wins via leg locks. Is your success a rolling indictment of the way in which jiu-jitsu has treated leg locks? Is your success partly attributable to the myopia of how the sport has viewed the necessity of leg submissions?

I absolutely believe that 100 percent. I think the techniques that John Danaher taught me, in terms of leg locks, he was very frustrated with the state of leg locks in grappling for a very long time. I'm just very lucky he decided to open up and started teaching me and  Garry [Tonon] the details of his game.

The general jiu-jitsu community just hasn't accepted it yet or didn't accept it at the time, but they're starting to accept it now as we see the efficacy of the techniques.

Yeah, I do. I like that. It's a scathing indictment on the way they've been training over the past decade or so.

A friend of mine who is a black belt told me he had success at tournaments when he was a lower belt against higher belts in no gi because he had a developed leg lock game. When did it occur to you in competition that your leg locking systems gave you a considerable advantage in competition?

I think when I was a blue or purple belt. I had a match against a guy named Mark Ramos, who was not only a black belt, but he won the ADCC trials, twice I believe. I think he even got an invite this year. I submitted him in 15 seconds with a heel hook. Not a very good heel hook, to be honest.

At that point I sort of realized, 'Huh, there is something to these leg lock things.' At the highest level of competition, even. That really solidified my belief in the leg locking system.

How many years ago was that?

That was probably two or three years ago. It was in the summer. It was at a Grapplers Quest. World Series of Grappling, I believe.

If you're a world-class blue or purple belt, there's still a huge breadth of knowledge to acquire from elite schools all over the world to help grow. But if you're a leg locker at your level, are you the one creating the best practices? Where do you go, at this point, to get better except where you already are?

John Danaher. That's exactly it. There's really nowhere else to go, I think, to get these sorts of deep insights into the leg locking game.

I think other people might be doing interesting stuff here and there. The Japanese leg lockers have always been really creative, but in terms of a controlling system that's in line with the jiu-jitsu philosophy of controlling positions before you move to attack, I don't think there's anything else out there on this level at all, to be honest. I've studied every instructional, every tape. I've watched every leg locking grappler. I'm consistently watching tons and tons of tape. There's just nothing close.

They say everything old is new again. Are you doing something new with leg locks or are you just re-popularizing older best practices that were left by the wayside?

Here's really the truth of it in grappling. You're right. Most movements have been done before. Are we the first people to figure out that you twist a foot this way and the knee goes? No, I'm sure grappling's been around forever and people have figured that out many, many times.

The real insights come in the subtle details of the modifications of the movements that make them more efficient. The set-ups, the way you control them, the way you integrate them into your game. I think where Eddie Bravo, for instance, needs to be praised is not so much in inventing the wrestler's guillotine, but figuring out a coherent system from the back using what he calls the 'truck', and figuring out that whole coherent game and the set-ups to position and how to control and hand fight in the position to get there. That's where the insight is. That's really where the technique is perfected.

I could put on one of the old Gokor [Chivichyan] instructionals and even in that instructional you'll see every leg lock you can imagine, but the details are way off on a lot of them. The set-ups aren't there, there's no insight. He doesn't say, 'Look, here are the three or four key moves you should focus on for a coherent game.' That's really where the insight and innovation comes from. Not so much the vulgar technique itself, but the subtle details in how you set it up, how we control.

In terms of the growth of jiu-jitsu, you could say two things. You could say the breadth of it has grown as it's more popular globally than ever. You can also say the depth has grown as techniques have evolved. In terms of leg locks, where can they go from here?

There's still a lot to be done in the leg locking game. A lot of connections with leg locks, moving from upper and lower body submissions, moving from leg locks to upper body submissions. That's a very unexplored area. There's a lot to be gained there.

Garry's actually been exploring that even live in competition. You can see him coming up with some very creative solutions to some of the opponents he's faced, going for kimuras out of leg locks, for example.

I think we'll see a lot more of that, transitioning from the legs into upper body controls much more seamlessly. I think you'll see people, once they start understanding the meta game, so to speak, of leg locks, when they secure them correctly they'll expose upper body controls, passes, back takes off leg locks. That's certainly a direction it'll go. I think we're going to get more and more skilled at finding breaking pressures in leg locks. The counter leg lock game, as people learn and catch up, is going to pick up more and more.

There's a lot of very interesting things that are going to happen in the leg locking game, in particular. Plenty of room to evolve, in my opinion.

Do you feel like your success - and that of other leading leg lockers - is beginning to change minds about what  things should be trained or what's possible?

Absolutely. As people see them being used more and more as an effective technique, people want to train them. They see them working at the highest levels and they say, 'Hey, we should learn how to train this. It's an effective submission hold.'

The 'dangers' of them are being debunked as people train with them as they become more and more familiar with them, they realize they're no more dangerous than an armbar or strangulation that we do. If they're applied dangerously and without control or knowledge, yeah, they're devastating and can hurt your training partner, but if you're all aware of what's going on, they're no more dangerous than any other joint lock.

Do you feel like were it not for some of these other pro submission grappling events' open rule sets, it would be much harder to convince people about leg locks?

Absolutely, absolutely.

Do you feel like your participation (and others) and success is putting real-world pressure on IBJJF to change?

I don't think the IBJJF feels too much pressure from anyone, but I think the jiu-jitsu and grappling communities, in general, is taking note. When you allow heel hooks, it opens up a very wide range of controls and submissions that are very exciting and very useful in grappling and jiu-jitsu.

I don't think they feel necessarily pressure, but these open tournaments are definitely putting on display what grappling with leg locks looks like. That's a good thing overall for the community. I don't see the IBJJF changing their rules at any point to allow heel hooks. That would be admitting a large error and I don't see large organizations doing that often. I don't ever see them allowing heel hooks, necessarily. I think they should. I think most high-level black belts agree they should, but I don't see them changing their rules.

Have the pro grappling events found the right format? It feels like everyone is tweaking their rule set to find the 'right' format. Has one organization found the right one or is there still room for ruleset innovation to convert jiu-jitsu from participatory to spectator sport?

I might say something a little controversial here. I don't believe jiu-jitsu is going to become a spectator sport the way, say, baseball or football or cricket are. I think it's a very cerebral sport, it's very intricate. You can even be a black belt and watch a high-level match and not clearly understand the position or the grip sequences.

It's more in line with chess in the sense that the few times they've gotten chess on TV, if the match is important enough, people will watch it for that reason, but you're never going to bring the average man who's just flipping through the channels to be very interested in jiu-jitsu.

These open rule sets are certainly more exciting for these participants or if you're training jiu-jitsu to watch and learn from. They're more exciting even to lay people, but I ultimately think that trying to find a rule set that's going to appeal to the average man is sort of a bit futile. It's a complicated sport. There's a lot of entanglements that are very detailed. If you're not an educated fan, you won't understand that.

I think you see that with the UFC a lot. People understand the striking a lot more than they understand the grappling. You'll hear crowds periodically boo when the fight goes to the ground.

Are these rule formats good and in the right direction? Yeah. The Eddie Bravo rule format is terrific. I actually enjoy training for it. The overtime rules are bit controversial, but it's the best overtime rule system I've seen so far in terms of allowing it to be decided by jiu-jitsu as opposed to wrestling or point fighting.

I do like sub-only format, no time limit, but the logistical constraints of that are very challenging, although I still feel that in needs to have a place in the grappling world because it's a very, very pure format.

That said, even if there's a limit to what's reasonably attainable, is there a tweak to a rule set you'd like to see absent sub-only, no time limit?

As someone who just won the Eddie Bravo Invitational, I'm very happy that the winner got all the money, but I think it does discourage everyone else from working for submissions. If you awarded even $500 per submission to everyone in the tournament, I think that would motivate everyone in every individual match to work for a submission.

Ultimately, you don't get the big tagline of $20,000 for the winner, but the truth is, in these tournaments, a lot of guys know, look, they're not going to be able to submit the guy they're going against. If they can just survive, maybe they get to roll the dice in overtime. But if you rewarded them a grand for submitting a person, they might open up a bit more.

On top of that, I've heard the Glover-Lister rule system where you awarded points and the first to 15 points and you have to win by two and there's no time limit but you have a point constraint, that's interesting, but I could easily still see having no time limit, people just stalling each other out. If you get two wrestlers against each other, no one wants to give an inch, they're just going to circle each other for an hour and half, which I've seen before in no time limit matches. It's awful.

You don't do a lot of competing in points tournaments, but I'm curious to get your opinion on two proposed changes. The first is if you watch collegiate wrestling, they're very aggressive with stalling calls. But the number of positions in collegiate wrestling are fairly static. How could you really have that kind of aggressive anti-stalling calls and penalization in sport jiu-jitsu?

Here's the real thing because I actually agree with you 100 percent that stalling calls make college wrestling so exciting, or international wrestling for that matter. I watch a ton of wrestling and those matches are really exciting even to lay people.

The problem is that refereeing needs to be aggressive in stalling calls and the referee needs to be highly educated. To be an international wrestling referee for the Olympic Games, I believe there's an intense educational requirement. It's not like you can just show up and be like, 'Alright, I took a two-hour referee course. Let me ref.' They have to go through a lot of training to become a referee. They're very, very in tune with the sport and they're tested a lot at the local level before they're elected to the Olympic Committee.

The problem is the education of the referees. You're giving a lot of power to the referees and in a sport like jiu-jitsu as we continue from the IBJJF, that is a very dangerous thing to do. You need jiu-jitsu or grappling refereeing to become a profession. It's hard to tell in jiu-jitsu when someone is stalling. I could be in 50/50 guard and attacking violently. I could also just be clearing my opponents grips. Who's to say which is which? You need to have a very, very sharp eye to determine that in jiu-jitsu.

Ultimately, it comes down to educating the referees in grappling and the sport's very young. We just don't have a lot of highly-trained referees in the sport to do something like implement aggressive stalling calls. That would easily be a mess if you had IBJJF-caliber referees with that kind of power.

What about a tech fall, also borrow from wrestling? I've seen matches where the score was 24-4 with several minutes left. People, however, always point to someone's minuscule chance of a submission as a reason to not have a tech fall.

Yeah, I agree with you on that, absolutely. That's sort of line with the first to win X amount of points wins, but yeah, a tech fall in jiu-jitsu, that's a natural thing.

But I don't know how many scenarios that covers. It definitely keeps a flow in a tournament moving. If you're up 20 to nothing, let's call it. I can certainly get behind that in a points tournament, but I don't think that happens often enough for it to be relevant.

The scenarios that are particularly boring that we need to deal with are someone getting up an advantage or two points and trying to look busy while not actually being busy. Most matches are decided by that. Those are the ones you really gotta eliminate.

Leg locks in MMA are effective. Instances of that are innumerable. But do you feel like the technical acumen of leg locks in MMA is declining or roughly the same as it has always been?

You basically have three big-name leg lockers in mainstream MMA, not counting all the Japanese guys. You have [Rousimar] Palhares, Marcin Held and Ian Entwhistle. Now that Palhares is banned and has his own issues, there's just not a lot of people trying them in MMA. There's not a lot of highly-skilled leg lockers in MMA yet.

I actually recently cornered a training partner in an MMA fight. He finished a beautiful inverted heel hook 30 seconds into his fight. I just think the level of technique is not there yet for people to be confident going for leg locks the way they are for triangles or armbars in MMA.

I also think the whole, 'Two hands on his leg, he's going to punch you in the face', you know, if you try to punch a good leg locker in the face, it's actually a lot harder. Go put boxing gloves on, have someone put you in an ashi garami position and just play with your base, try to hit him in the face. It's hard.

Garry did a famous experiment, we always quote with his students. We had students put boxing gloves on, average white belts and blue belts, and the people on bottom put the guy on top in an ashi garami position. The goal for the person on top was just to hit the other guy in the face as many times as they could in five minutes. The results of the experiment was pretty impressive. The guy on top was having a hard time hitting the person on bottom. That being said, you certainly can't go for sloppy leg locks in MMA.

I actually think the reason you don't see more submissions in MMA, in general, is because of how MMA fighters train. As someone who has trained with gloves on a few times, being the submission guy on bottom is rough just in training. Like if we trained together in MMA and you're on top of me - I'm playing closed guard - even if I catch you in a triangle, I probably ate a bunch of punches on the way there. Over the course of training everyday, ultimately I think people are conditioned to just play a safer game on bottom, not necessarily going for submissions because they're eating punches all day if they do that. You're going to eat a little bit here and there. I think it's the same with leg locks. MMA fighters have a lot of things to concern themselves with. Leg locking is very intricate and time consuming to learn. That's why I think you don't see them doing anything else. You're going to eat a lot in training if you're going for submissions and on top of that, it's just a very large barrier to entry to developing that skill to finish a leg lock.

If we discount Palhares' issues, is he the best leg locker in MMA?

Yes.

Why?

Because he can finish those outside heel hooks very, very well. You see Held go for submissions. Held can finish leg locks, but he has some hard times with the guys willing to take pops and breaks. He has a hard time following through on those breaks. Palhares' breaking mechanics are the best in MMA, by far. We've taken a lot of our game from his breaking mechanics.

In MMA, people aren't going to tap. In the high levels of grappling, people aren't going to tap. It's just understood. If you don't have the actual mechanical ability or intention to severely damage the leg, you're not going to be able to finish people. Palhares has those breaking mechanics and you definitely need that. He has them more so than anyone else.

But yeah, he's got other issues and his actual leg lock game isn't as sophisticated as we initially thought after watching the Jake Shields fight. We trained with him a bit for the Palhares fight.

What do you mean?

[Palhares] didn't have the transitions. He didn't have the entrances. He has a good finish, but if you challenge him on the transition after defending his initial attempts, he really doesn't have good answers for that at all. He doesn't have any answer whatsoever. And he has some core set-ups, but that's all he has. He doesn't have an understanding of how stuff works. With that Shields' fight, he really showed us that.