Judo Chop: Ben Saunders, Eddie Bravo, and the First Omoplata in the UFC

This past Saturday at the UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs Dos Anjos, Ben Saunders became the first fighter in the UFC to finish an…

By: T.P. Grant | 9 years ago
Judo Chop: Ben Saunders, Eddie Bravo, and the First Omoplata in the UFC
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This past Saturday at the UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs Dos Anjos, Ben Saunders became the first fighter in the UFC to finish an Omoplata submission against Chris Heatherly. The rarity of the omoplata in MMA has caused many MMA fans to decry the submission as a waste of time, and in some ways it is a self-fulling prophecy.

MMA fighters only have so much time to train and often invest time in positions and techniques they intend to make use of, and in the case of the omoplata, it is so frequently viewed as useless that many don’t invest the time and don’t develop the feel for the submission. Ben Saunders, however, has clearly invested the time in both his closed guard, a position similarly neglected by many fighters, and his omoplata.

What is an Omoplata?

The omoplata is rare enough that it likely should be explained what exactly is going on with the submission. To put it simply, the omoplata is a name for a shoulder lock done primarily with the legs, known in Judo as the ashi-sankaku-garami and the coil lock in Catch Wrestling. If done to completion, the omoplata rotates the arm behind the back and around past the breaking point, destroying the shoulder.

For a quick breakdown of the basics, here is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt and former UFC Champion Frank Mir teaching it with the MMA girls.

The opportunities for omoplatas are often plentiful when playing the closed guard, but the reason you don’t see them often is they are devilishly tricky to finish. The omoplata tends to be something more of a transition position and used more often as a sweep than a submission in no gi grappling.

The position is difficult to maintain and it can take some time to breakdown a strong or particularly skilled opponent, especially without a gi on, which can be gripped to help maintain the position. Many things can go wrong, so for a quick rundown before we get into the details here is Stephen Kesting on four common mistakes and how to fix them.

Saunders use of the Rubber Guard

A big part of Saunder’s success in this case was how he entered into the omoplata. A BJJ black belt, Saunders has always been willing to play an aggressive closed guard and make heavy use of the high guard, so it was a natural move for him to turn to Eddie Bravo as a grappling coach. Bravo is the founder of the 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu academy, a network of schools that focus on no gi grappling and is famous for his variation of the high guard known as the Rubber Guard.

In his match Saunders made use of a fairly standard Rubber Guard progression, with a slight variation. So here to teach that progression is the man behind 10th Planet, Eddie Bravo.

Now let us look into how Ben Saunders applied it in the Octagon.

Above, you can see Saunders starting to establish his Rubber Guard against Heatherly. The first step is to break Heatherly’s posture, but Heatherly has already done that for Saunders, playing low in the guard is a common tactic in MMA. Saunders shoots up his left arm to underhook his right ankle. Underhooking the leg is a key detail that separates the Rubber Guard from the standard high guard variations, it provides excellent posture control at relatively low energy cost to Saunders.

Above, Saunders establishes his Rubber Guard and Heatherly’s posture is firmly broken. From here, the Rubber Guard progression begins, which was developed to provide maximum posture control while exposing a limb for a submission.

Saunders then progressed to what Bravo calls Crackhead Control, where he locks his ankles behind Heatherly’s head. In this position Heatherly is firmly controlled, he is unable to posture up, his arms are useless at this point and he cannot strike.

Today most people who have grappled for more than a few months are at least somewhat familiar with this basic Rubber Guard progression, and have either attempted it or had it attempted on them with varying degrees of ability level. When in Heatherly’s position, a very common reaction is to do nothing. The control from this point is so difficult and dangerous to fight that many elect to wait.

What they are waiting for is often the “Kung Fu Move,” and in that moment they look to explosively posture up and get out of danger. This tactic is fairly common among grapplers who are familiar with the progression but don’t train with Rubber Guard players on a frequent basis.

Saunders, however, employs a fairly new wrinkle in the Rubber Guard sequence, he triangles his legs with both of Heatherly’s arms trapped inside.

This position, pictured above, is known in 10th Planet nomenclature as “Dead Orchard”, a nod to 10th Planet Black Belt Nathan Orchard who makes heavy use of the this transition. Below is a gif of Orchard using it for the first time in competition. Note how it affords continued control of an opponent’s posture while allowing for attacks on the arms.

In this case Orchard is able to finish the armbar from the “Dead Orchard” position, and Heatherly detects that threat and devotes effort to sliding his head out of the position

Above, you can see circled in blue that Heatherly successfully slips his head and right arm out of the grasp of Saunders’ legs. But Killer B is one chess move ahead, already preparing his move to the omoplata, with his right hand, which will become critical as he enters the submission.

The Finish

There have been fighters before Ben Saunders to get their opponents in the UFC Octagon into omoplatas, but Saunders was the first one to actually finish the submission, so what did he do that sealed the deal?

First, Saunders was able to get his weight on his left elbow and then get to his left hand, sitting up very quickly. This allows his right leg to get very heavy and force Heatherly to lean forward, stopping him from sitting up. Saunders’ right arm is draped over Heatherly’s hips; this effectively shuts down the forward roll escape.

From here, Saunders’ goal is to flatten Heatherly out on to his stomach, which is basically a death sentence in an omoplata. Normally a fighter would scoot his hips away from his victim to get this result. But in a bit of omoplata savvy, Saunders pushes off the mat and moves counter clock wise, as if he is trying to scoot behind Heatherly. This was a trick shown to me by omoplata assassin Clark Gracie, and it is a far more effective way to break down someone fighting an omoplata than the normal scooting out.

At this point Heatherly only has one real escape left to him, he would post his left leg behind Saunders, grab his own shorts with the arm, and attempt a sit through bridge that would basically roll Saunders over the top of him and plant him face down on the mat.

In this gif, you can see Saunders making that counter-clockwise movement, but as soon as Heatherly posts his leg Saunders stops and lowers his base. It is unclear if Heatherly was attempting the escape described, or if it was simply an attempt to power his way back into a sitting position, but it clearly didn’t work. Heatherly, seemingly at a loss, attempts a half-hearted forward roll and at that point his arm pops out, which seals his fate.

Saunders’ success was mainly based in solid posture control, and tightly controlling the transition from the closed guard to the omoplata, never allowing Heatherly to regain control of the situation. It was a historic bit of grappling.

So for those of you that stuck it out this far, we will close with the Jiu Jitsu Laboratory’s awesome highlight of omoplatas in grappling competition, which will feature Clark Gracie heavily. Just remember, no matter how much you train your omoplata, you will never look as good as he does while doing it.

The Omoplata Game | The Jiu Jitsu Laboratory (via TheJiuJitsuLab)

For more MMA and Grappling analysis, history, technique, and discussion be sure to follow T.P. Grant on Twitter or Facebook.

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