Jose Aldo and Renan Barao are the current flag bearers for one of MMA’s top camps, Nova Uniao. Headed by Andre Pederneiras, the camp has an interesting lineage. Luis Franca, studied directly under Mitsuyo Maeda and created a lineage of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu without a single Gracie in it. Wendell Alexander, co-founder of Nova Uniao, hailed from this lineage of grappling, while Pederneiras came from the very MMA-focused Carlson Gracie fight team.
Together they have created a Jiu Jitsu academy that turns out premier MMA and grappling competitors on a regular basis. Pederneiras primarily handles the MMA fighters, and he sticks true to his Vale Tudo roots, turning out fighters with an old school Brazilian style of fighting.
This style of Jiu Jitsu is not the finesse guard playing many fans envision when they hear Jiu Jitsu fighters. Instead, they fight with a blend of muay thai striking and aggressive, physical Jiu Jitsu grappling that is the Jiu Jitsu equivalent to the blend of karate and grappling that is Combat Sambo.
Some Nova Uniao fighters favor striking, such as Aldo, Barao, or Marlon Sandro, while others prefer grappling like Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro or Thales Leites; they all share some stylistic similarities. One such similarity is the usage of the arm triangle submission. While not uncommon in MMA, just about every professional fighter out of Nova Uniao has at least one victory by arm triangle on his record.
So let us take a look at what makes Nova Uniao fighters so successful with this simple and yet underused submission in MMA.
First, let us understand what makes up an arm triangle. At the most basic level, an arm triangle is a head-and-arm choke that works on the same concept as the regular triangle choke, the D’arce choke, anaconda choke, and any other head-and-arm choke. The choker uses his arm to stop an artery and then drives the victim’s own shoulder into the other.
For a quick introduction to the basics of the arm triangle here is Stephan Kesting, a staple in the BJJ community for doing quick introductions of techniques. As I will not be discussing the details on finishing the arm triangle, focusing more on catching it, consider this video required watching if you are unfamiliar with the finer points of making people tap to chokes.
How to do the Head & Arm Choke (Kata Gatame) from Mount (via Stephan Kesting)
The trick to the arm triangle is getting the opponent’s arm across his body, because once the fighter attacks for an arm triangle both arms are committed, and he will be unable to try to manipulate the arm. So everything needs to be in place before the choke is locked up, setting up an opponent is vital to this choke.
Let’s take a quick look at the one of the most basic arm triangle attacks.
Above is a match between Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro and Eddie Yagin at WFA 3. Ribeiro is striking from the open guard, and Yagin brings up his forearms and makes a slight turn to his right to try to avoid the strikes. Above, circled in red, is Yagin’s arm, extended and across his body, trying to prevent strikes and in position for an arm triangle attack.
Ribeiro then sneaks his head down below Yagin’s elbow, allowing him to trap the arm in place (top picture). Ribeiro slides his head down and, as he does that, slides his left arm under the head of Yagin and then locks up the arm triangle, with Yagin’s arm already in the proper position for the choke.
Here is a gif of the full submission, watch how the strikes thrown by Ribeiro force the action of Yagin and how he then transitions to the arm triangle. Ribeiro is able to finish the choke from the half guard, but he still gets into that same low, spread finishing position.
This basic set up with strikes on an opponent who is flat on his back is the one Jose Aldo used to earn his lone arm triangle win against Luiz de Paula in Shooto Brazil 7 back in 2005.
You’ll notice in the gif below that Aldo uses his chest to trap de Paula’s arm, which is a perfectly legitimate way to attack for an arm triangle as the arm ends up in the same choking position. Overall, if you watch the full sequence, the set up is a bit more forced and takes longer to actually be finished, but considering Aldo was a fairly green fighter at this point, just three matches into his career, it is expected that his finish be a bit less artful.
The concept of trapping the head and arm in a choke can be done from a variety of angles, with different grips. Expert head-and-arm chokers are excellent at seeing openings not obvious and using rotation to slide victims right into their choke of choice.
To look at one of Nova Uniao’s favorite attacks, we will look at Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro’s arm triangle finish of Joachim Hansen in Shooto in 2003.
Hansen is one of MMA’s premier strikers at lighter weights, and excelled at escaping from the ground and getting back to his feet. Above, Ribieiro has Hansen down in side control, Hansen shoots an underhook to clear space and begins to turn to his knees. (1)
As Hansen tries to get up, Ribeiro drops his hips and weight, forcing Hansen down on to his shoulder, and continues to try to fight to get to his knees. (2)
During the struggle, Ribeiro swims in for the under hooks and dives his arm through, under Hansen’s neck, circled in red above. Ribeiro now has Hansen’s head and arm encircled, but Ribeiro does not have the choke yet. Hansen is in trouble at this point, if he continues his turn he could end up in a D’arce choke, so Hansen hips out and tries to establish his half guard.
Ribeiro is waiting for this and dives his head down to the mat.
As you can see in the gif above, Hansen’s attempt to turn away from the D’arce choke leads him directly into the arm triangle that Ribeiro was setting up. Ribeiro sinks his hips down, cracking open the loose half guard Hansen had grabbed, and passing over to the correct side to finish the choke.
This attack on an opponent turning into the top man is a common arm triangle set up among Nova Uniao fighters. Thales Leites used it on an overwhelmed Rico Washington in 2010 during his time away from the UFC.
Marlon Sandro caught Matt Jaggers at Sengoku 7th Battle with the same set up. In the gif below, you have the perfect camera angle to see Sandro diving his left arm in and trapping Jagger’s head and arm in the choke. When Sandro is unable get his weight down on Jaggers, he follows him up and finishes the choke standing.
This submission catch works with the rotation and reaction of an opponent and is a wonderful example of some of the three dimensional chess being played in MMA. Another excellent example is when Renan Barao used this same catch in his first Interim UFC Bantamweight title defense against Michael McDonald.
Above is Barao on McDonald’s back after a failed hip throw attempt by the challenger. Barao has the back, but both his hooks are not in as the left leg has not managed to find a home. However, Barao does have an underhook with his right hand, circled in red. (1)
Barao’s trap is set, and McDonald begins to turn away from Barao, free to move because Barao’s left hook is not in, but as he turns Barao shoots his under hook deeper. As McDonald is getting to his side you can see Barao’s right hand just peaking out from behind McDonald’s head, thus encircling and setting up the arm triangle. (2)
McDonald then makes a dramatic turn in towards Barao, spinning right into the arm triangle Barao had been setting up. It is also highly likely McDonald recognized he was in danger of an arm triangle, but did not want to give up his back again. So he hoped that a quick turn would give him space to sneak his arm out of the choke, but Barao was ready and clamped down too fast.
From there, Barao flattens into that nice finishing position and gets the tap, full gif right here.
What is important to understand is that Nova Uniao is not doing anything revolutionary here, this is not a new technique. The arm triangle is, in fact, a very old choke. It is present in both Judo/Jujutsu, where it is known as the Kata Gatame, and in Catch Wrestling, where it is called the side choke. Both those arts developed over centuries, and it is fair to assume the the arm triangle choke is quite old.
Rather Nova Uniao has clearly dedicated time to learning and drilling specific situations and entries to a single submission in an MMA context. Just about anyone with any training experience will tell you that knowing a technique is one thing, but to apply it in a competition or live context in any sort of reliable way takes hundreds or thousands of repetitions to commit the movement to memory.
Clearly at Nova Uniao the work is being put in, and it is something many MMA fighters could learn from. Nova Uniao fighters have a diverse set of skills, but each fighter has a core set of techniques that they can apply in a variety of positions and situations and they can rely on those techniques in competition. Clearly one of those core skills in the eyes of their coaches is the arm triangle and a variety of entries for that simple submission.
To help convey the depth of technique when it comes to submission attack entries and just how in depth the different training drills can become, here is a video of BJJ black belt and now MMA fighter Ryan Hall discussing and demonstrating some of his favorite tricks for the arm triangle.
Ryan Hall Arm Triangles – Positions, Theory of Choking, Openings, Finishing, Troubleshooting, Drills (via WorldMartialArts)
Special thanks to the gif guru Grappo for the gifs you see embedded and to Chris Nelson for the Marlon Sandro one, made for a different article.
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