Kenny Robertson didn’t see Aljamain Sterling snatch Cody Stamann’s ankle and tap him with the old Suloev Stretch. Nor did he see Zabit Magomedsharipov turn the same trick later at UFC 228, when he extended Brandon Davis’s hamstring like he were human taffy. Robertson, the first man to land the move in a UFC fight, was in bed sleeping at his home in Illinois. A teacher by day at Eureka High School who is in the process of building himself a house, Robertson didn’t hear about those kneebar finishes until the next day.
“I’m pretty sure that mine was the first time,” he told MMA Fighting from his home in Eureka. “Somewhere in Europe they actually did it, but it was one where you rolled onto your back.”
In most cases, the Suloev Stretch is executed from back mount, as the opponent tripods to shake off the aggressor. In Magomedsharipov’s case, he had Davis in a “banana split” from which he was able to operate. Sterling was piggyback on Stamann, and methodically waited from the moment he could grab the heel and torque the leg. It was a thing of beauty.
As for Robertson himself, the Suloev Stretch — so named for the late Armenian fighter Amar Suloev, who landed it on Paul Calhoon in 2002 at a mixed martial arts event in Rotterdam — became a default move for him during his collegiate days while wrestling at Eastern Illinois. He used to use it a great deal during his junior and senior years on the mats.
“I’d always get too high when I was wrestling, I’d just reach out and grab the heel, and I’d get back points off of it,” he says. “Unfortunately there were a couple of cases where I hurt the kid. Actually, I hit it on Ben Askren, and I was winning 6 to 1 until late in the second period I got too high and I ended up getting pinned. That was my sophomore year, a long time go now.”
These days Robertson teaches electronics, drafting and construction for his high school courses, and tries to help coach wrestling when his schedule permits. Over this past summer, he kept busy doing landscaping work, “cutting down trees and stuff” to help get himself back in shape. That’s because Robertson, who last competed in MMA back in 2016 — a split decision loss against Roan Carneiro at UFC Fight Night 94 in Hildago, Texas — is considering a comeback.
“I want to take a couple of small fights and see how I do,” he said.
Robertson went 4-5 in the UFC during his run from 2011-2016. He was able to get Thiago Perpétuo with a rear-naked choke when he traveled to Brazil, but people most remember the Jardine submission. For fans of the sport, it was something new to appreciate in what can seem like a finite world of submissions. That’s why when Magomedsharipov and Sterling executed the move — which he caught the highlights of the next day — he couldn’t help but understand the impulse to take what is given in a fight. It’s what he would have done.
“You have both legs in, your heels are in the other’s guys boys,” he says. “He’s shaking you off, reach down and grab the heel and try to rip it up past his head. I think it’s more of a hamstring ripper, really, in my opinion. It works best when your arms are closer to your chest, than farther away. Use whole body to rip. If you legs are in there, you have your hips and your back, and those are a lot stronger than you arms.”
As for the technique? Robertson says that there are multiple ways to pull off the Suloev Stretch, and — aesthetically — they are equally easy to appreciate. Most are equally effective.
“I’m more of a ‘whatever works for you’ type of guys, so if that works for you, good,” he says. “There are different ways you can hit it. I like it with the guy underneath. You get a lot more pressure on the leg, because you’ve got your whole weight coming down on it, so you can really tear it. But I’ve done it in the gym where you get a really flexible guy, where I yank back and he’s flexible enough where I put it behind his head. I’m like, how are you doing this?”
Kneebars are extremely rare in the UFC, to the point that when you see one it becomes a kind of novelty. Yet at UFC 228 in Dallas, there were two in the same night. Because of that Robertson thinks we might see them more frequently, as MMA — just like all sports — is somewhat of a copycat league. Once you see something executed successfully a couple of times, the more it becomes something to look out for.
“That one is one of the easier ones to get,” he says. “I just don’t think that people practice it — or even know about it — until it’s been hit a couple of times. Now we see two kneebars in a row. The number one defense for some people when someone’s got their back is to try and shake them off. If you do that, you can get a kneebar there.”
Though he loves rolling around on the mats and improvising, Robertson isn’t a traditional jiu-jitsu guy. “I have a brown belt,” he says, “but it’s the one I’m wearing right now to hold up my pants.” But just seeing the move — and talking about it — makes him want to get back in there and do it again. Some “small” fights are on the horizon. Right after he’s done installing plumbing and electrical in his new house, he says he he’ll get back to it. The housework is fun.
“But it’s fun to get hit in the head sometimes, too,” he says.