Checkmate. One word captures the elegance of chess, where the goal of the game is to take the opponent’s King but the final move is never played. Rather, players maneuver their enemy into a position from which there is no escape and accept their surrender.
In submission grappling the tap fills that role and gives grappling a similar nobility. Rough men and women strive submit one another, and once a hold is applied and a tap occurs the hold is released. Both competitors are often uninjured and able to spar again if necessary. This is reflected in how grappling has historically been viewed in the martial arts world. The naming traditions speak volumes; in Japan the prefix “Ju” is applied which can be translated as “gentle” or “soft”. It is paired with “Do” or “Jutsu” to form Judo, meaning “Gentle Way”, and Jujutsu, meaning “Gentle Art”. In Europe, Submission Grappling held many names but one of the most well known is the English “Catch as Catch Can Wrestling”, “catch” referring to the act of applying a submission hold while giving an opponent the chance to submit.
But these names belie the violence that exists within these arts and occasionally we are given a glimpse of that final move beyond the checkmate. At their core, submission holds are a collection of the most efficient ways to cripple or kill another human being with bare hands. It is sometimes easy to lose sight of that when training, it quickly becomes an enjoyable game and the seriousness of the holds can be forgotten at times. But just about every grappler has an experience that drives home how powerful the holds can be; perhaps by accidentally causing an injury, getting injured, or witnessing an injury.
Thus a large part of training in grappling is trust. You must trust your opponents and training partner to respect a tap. Without that, grappling gyms would be home to nothing but broken bodies. Experienced grapplers helping someone on their first day of training often feel a twinge of anxiety when allowing themselves to be put in a submission hold for practice, because they don’t know the person and don’t have an established trust.
In the gym, grapplers often err on the side of caution, preferring to release a hold rather than injure a teammate. In competition, this idea of trust is pushed right to the edge.
The etiquette in sport grappling is straightforward: when you have a lock, apply it. The speed at which you apply the hold varies depending on submission and position, but the general concept is to apply it as quickly as possible while still giving the opponent a chance to submit. If there isn’t a tap then the hold is finished and the opponent is either choked unconscious or has a joint broken.
This is actually a critical point, in professional competition, be it grappling or MMA: athletes will not tap simply to pain. Some will even allow joints to hyper-extend to a point before tapping. What draws out taps are near perfect submissions that result in extremely tight chokes, that themselves will result in imminent unconsciousness, or in joint locks that threaten the athlete with career altering damage. There must be a will to follow through on the threat. And in this way it is up to the athlete in the submission to protect his or her own self by tapping. If there is no tap then he or she must accept the consequences. Two famous examples of this in sport grappling would be Roger Gracie breaking Jacare Souza’s arm at the 2004 Mundials and Michelle Nicolini breaking Tammi Musumeci’s arm at the 2014 Mundials.
That idea though, also puts a responsibility on the person applying the submission hold to release the hold. Otherwise the system doesn’t work. In sport grappling, it is not uncommon for the grappler applying the submission to release the submission on the first tap before the referee even signals the fight is over.
Here are two of many examples of athletes halting on a submission immediately after a tap and before referee intervention. First is leg lock wiz Eddie Cummings finishing a heel hook and the second is Kron Gracie at Metamoris I.
The culture around tapping in MMA is a bit different. The idea of “ghost tapping” or tapping and then attempting to fight on, after the opponent released the submission, is much more common. Something Ken Shamrock attempted to do at UFC 1 against Royce Gracie, it’s history is a storied one. So, the general rule in MMA for submissions is hold the submission until the referee ends the fight, often by physically touching the fighters. Once a referee has declared a fight to be over, the hold must be released, refusal to do so is considered a foul under the Unified Rules, as it constitutes “Flagrantly disregarding the instructions of the referee”.
In the course of applying a submission there is a very defined difference between adding pressure to increasingly tighten a hold to force a tap, and then holding the pressure steady after the tap while waiting for the referee to end the fight. This distinction is not written in the rules, but is one generally followed by fighters. It follows that basic premise that, if an athlete doesn’t tap he accepts the the damage that follows. But if he taps, then his opponent must then respect the tap. These are professional athletes, their bodies and well being are critical to their living, and there is generally an understanding to not unnecessarily endanger each other’s ability’s to put food on the table.
There is perhaps no better example to point to than that of Frank Mir when it comes to walking the line between the willingness to go past checkmate and the ability to stop when an opponent taps. Mir is more than willing to take a hold to completion, having broken both Tim Sylvia’s and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s arms in addition to choking Cheick Kongo unconscious.
One of Mir’s most famous submissions is the kneebar of Brock Lesnar at UFC 81, and it will serve as a case study in picture perfect submission application in MMA.
In the fight, Mir grabbed the kneebar from open guard and once Mir had the leg secured he started flexing his hips in to put pressure on Lesnar’s knee. Referee Steve Mazzagatti was slow to recognize that Lesnar was in trouble, and didn’t even stop the fight when Lesnar tapped the first time. It actually took until about the fifth tap for Mazzagatii to step in, but once Lesnar started tapping Mir stopped adding pressure to the knee. Mir maintained a tight kneebar, but was no longer seeking a break and actually turned his head to locate Mazzagatti to check if the fight wass being stopped.
Above is a screen capture of the moment before Mazzagatti halted the fight. Lesnar is in a tight kneebar tapping with his left hand. Mir is maintaining the lock but has turned his head to watch for when Mazzagatti will step in. As soon as Mazzagatti waved his hand to end the fight Mir released the kneebar.
This would be considered to be the perfect submission from the perspective of Mir. He had firm control of the hold and had full intention of breaking. Once the tap occurred Mir backed off the pressure but did not give Lesnar a chance to escape and then plead that he did not tap. This clearly can’t be the case every-time. Some submissions are caught in far more fluid positions and must be finished quickly but this provides a good study on how the stoppage of a submission win should work.
So is Rousimar Palhares doing something wrong?
Putting aside the eye gouges in the Jake Shields match, which are indefensible, part of the issue is that Palhares’ submission game is built around joint locks. To be an effective joint locker at the professional level you have to be ready to mangle the limb that you are attacking.
Athletes will explore the stress limits of their joints when pride and money are on the line, and taking some pain and even some injury is totally acceptable. In 2001 at the ADCCs, Vinny Magalhes played a very dangerous last ditch defense against Fabrico Werdum. Maglahes was caught in an armbar and through some clever positioning, hand fighting, and black magic kept it so Werdum could only slightly hyper-extend his elbow and not turn it inside out.
Werdum attempted to break the arm a few times, but in a search for greater leverage he gave Magalhes the space he needed to escape. Part of what makes Palhares such an effective submission fighter (one of the best in MMA history going down his resume) is that when he joint locks he does so with the intent to cause damage. But it’s clear, at this point, that he cannot rein himself in once the match has officially been stopped.
Let’s take a look at his most recent fight with Shields. Below is a gif of the finish made by Zombie Prophet.
Palhares rolls Shields with a kimura and once he stabilizes on top begins to start cranking Shields arm up towards his head. Shields begins tapping almost at once, and Palhares continues to pressure Shields’ arm up towards his head in an effort to break it. This is most certainly a breach of tapping etiquette, but it is not expressly illegal. It certainly makes the case for Palhares being a dirty fighter, but it is not something that is really punishable.
The real problem occurs when Mazzagatti, who is badly out of position, finally steps in. Mazagatti first touches Palhares with both hands, then begins slapping, and then has to physically undo Palhares grip. The fact that Palhares generally does not heed referee instruction is, at this point, just about indisputable. It’s something he’s demonstrated on several occasions.
In 2007 against Helio Dipp Jr, a referee had to physically undo a rear naked choke Palhares had locked it. Later in 2007 in a match with Flavio Luiz Moura, when the referee attempted to pause the match to reprimand Moura for using kicks on the ground Palhares injured Moura’s knee with a heel hook. Palhares’ match with Tomasz Drawl, where the referee again had to physical break Palhares’ hold. In sport grappling he ignored a referee command at the 2011 ADCC’s and kept attacking a heel hook out of bounds on David Avellan. And then finally he was cut from the UFC for continuing to attack after referee contact on Mike Pierce, which left Pierce with an injured knee and torn ligament in his ankle.
It is this ignoring of the referee that is the real problem with Palhares. It is also clearly illegal and should warrant a heavy punishment from the regulators of the sport. Some might say that in the heat of the moment, Palhares cannot always be expected to react to the first command, but this is not something evidence generally supports. Ronda Rousey is one of the most aggressive joint lockers in the entire sport, a trait she picked up in Judo where athletes only have seconds to find a submission on the mat. And yet in Judo, referees will never make physical contact with the athletes, the competitors are expected to release submission upon a verbal command only.
If Palhares finds himself banned from MMA due to this most recent incident, it is likely he will not find many friends in the Submission Grappling scene considering the number of injuries he caused at the 2011 ADCCs. The grappling world is one of low pay and frequent competition, and reckless submission causing injuries have a significant impact on an athlete’s ability to make a living.
While it seems counter to idea of training to fight, respecting the tap is what supports both training in grappling and constructing a competitive sport around those ideals. Not punishing or taking action against Palhares here and now would publicly undermine the entire point of having the ability to tap in the first place.
About the author