Gunnar Nelson’s UFC 286 victory over Bryan Barbarena was a prime example of what a high-level top game looks like in MMA. More importantly, it was instructive in how fighters should approach top control for MMA.
We’re going to take a look at the tactics utilized by Nelson to set up the armbar finish. The tactics we will be focusing on are frames and posts, the leg hook, and strikes. Before exploring those tactics, let’s examine what effective weight distribution is, broadly, in grappling.
Gunnar Nelson’s effective weight distribution
Weight distribution generally refers to how a grappler utilizes their body weight and positioning to control people on the ground. How a grappler can effectively distribute their weight is, oftentimes, misunderstood and under-explained—especially given how much of a factor it plays into using effective top control tactics. Gunnar Nelson’s performance gives us a thorough look at how his effective weight distribution was used to strike, pass, control, and submit Barbarena.
Nelson’s weight was heavy on the shoulder of Barbarena, pinning him to the mat. Lacking proper leverage, however, Barbarena’s grip on the wrist was too strong to break in this position. Nelson dropped his weight over Barbarena’s sternum, covering as much surface area as possible, expanding himself on top. He then posted his foot on the cage and drove forward, extending the arm. The arm hooked around the head of Barbarena helped turn the American onto his side. This prevented Barbarena from being able to retract and block the head, or move the arm away. Gunnar could then safely post his head, blocking the arm, and free his wrist.
When discussing effective weight distribution, we tend to see top game analysis focus on moments like Nelson’s chest-to-chest; smothering an opponent, making as much contact as possible, and using their bodyweight to maintain pressure and control.
Unfortunately that can mean that something like chest-to-chest is looked at as proper weight distribution in and of itself, rather than a tactic of proper weight distribution. Elite grapplers will distribute their weight in multiple ways—including the tactics we will explore below. Because they have more options with which to control an opponent, this opens up more opportunities for fight ending sequences, long periods of control, and openings to land strikes.
Gunnar Nelson’s frames and posts
Gunnar Nelson was able to land strikes, control Barbarena’s body, posture up, and pin Barberena at multiple points in the round using strong frames and posts.
When framing or posting, a grappler is creating an area with which they’re in control of the space within. The more space they have control over, the better. It’s a wall that opponents have to either break through, go around, or find a way to remove the frame or post itself. From on top, frames are effective tools for grapplers to safely commit body weight, even over a small surface area.
Think of them like anchor and stop points as well, giving a grappler more control over the space their body already occupies—much like the difference between creating a barrier and bolstering an existing one. They can be used to amplify the amount of force a grappler can generate when moving their body. Whether to increase or fill space, strong posts are often used in conjunction with frames. Once the space has been created, posts can be used as anchor points, bolstering the frame. They can hold something in place, be used to fill space and drive forward, or be used to expand the space and move away.
Nelson looked to establish some distance with Barbarena to land strikes. After disconnecting from Barbarena’s torso, he posted his right foot on the mat, which gave him the leverage to drive his weight into the leg controlling Barbarena’s hips. This forced Barbarena’s hips to point away, beginning to expose his back. He posted his left hand on the bicep of Barbarena, which pinned his right side to the mat.
This made it difficult to turn into Nelson, leaving Barbarena one direction to go—making the flow easy to follow. Barbarena tried to scoot his hips away, to flatten his back and turn into Nelson, as he reached up to control Nelson’s right hand. Barbarena then pushed the knee that was controlling his hips, to retain half-guard, while Nelson switched his frame from the bicep, to the wrist. As Barbarena pulled his wrist away, Nelson was able to lean his weight forward safely, landing the elbow as he came down on top of Barbarena.
Nelson’s consistent establishment of frames and posts allowed him to control the space over Barbarena’s upper body, limiting the responses Barbarena had available to him.
Gunnar Nelson’s leg hook
Hooks are most often associated with back control, for good reason. Especially in MMA, it’s rare to see hooks utilized in ways outside of that context. Hooking the legs is a tactic that can, and should, be utilized far more often than we see in today’s game. Gunnar Nelson’s usage of the hook in half guard is an example of the hook’s versatility in controlling the lower body and hip mobility of an opponent.
Reviewing the same video from above, readers will note that while Nelson used his frames and posts to control the upper body, he was largely controlling Barbarena’s lower body with the hook inside the leg. This killed Barbarena’s hip mobility and helped Nelson limit the amount of energy he had to expend to control Barbarena.
As Nelson looked to transition from his pass attempt to a postured position, Barbarena looked to control the hands and turn his hips toward his opponent. Nelson’s hook removed the mobility necessary for Barbarena to scoot his hips away, riding along with Barbarena’s body.
Nelson’s actions fed into one another, building on and supporting the previous action, while setting up the next one. He had to establish his frames and posts to land his strikes efficiently, and had to control Barbarena’s lower body to do so. The more control he could exert with his leg, the more time he had to set up his strikes. If he couldn’t do it with his legs, the time he had to set up those shots would decrease—as he’d be preoccupied with having to retain control through things like chest-to-chest. Hooking the leg allowed him to continue to work towards landing strikes, punctuating the sequence with an elbow.
To read the rest of this technique breakdown on the BJJ game of Gunnar Nelson head to Substack…
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