Opinion: Do Modern Leglocks Have A Place In MMA?

In the lead up to Polaris 12 Luke Rockhold fanned the flames of the on-going debate as to whether leglocks have a place in Jiu Jitsu, simultaneously suggesting that leglocks weren’t a good idea for self defence situations and that a leglock-based game wouldn’t be suitable for MMA.

“I think sport Jiu Jitsu has gone down a bad path. When I started Jiu Jitsu, Jiu Jitsu was based off protecting yourself; it was always based off self-defence. Jiu Jitsu now has become pretty petty. A lot of the new guys play off their backs and they go for the leglocks and if you try to do that in a streetfight, you get stomped in the face. I don’t appreciate that style.”

– Luke Rockhold

The comments were undoubtedly a dig at Rockhold’s opponent at Polaris 12, as he was facing Nick Rodriguez, who fights out of the famous Renzo Gracie Academy in New York. Renzo’s is know for churning out high level leglock specialists, with notable competitors from the blue basement including Garry Tonon, Eddie Cummings, Nicky and Gordon Ryan. These men have been among those spearheading a leglock-heavy approach to grappling, often favouring no-timelimit nogi competition rules.

Advocates for the no-timelimit nogi ruleset often argue that this is more realistic compared to the classic IBJJF position orientated ruleset, which stands in contrast to Rockhold’s notion. On the flipside proponents of IBJJF-type rulesets argue that positional dominance are of greater importance when strikes are allowed and point to MMA as evidence.

However, the question remains, are we seeing more positional-centric groundwork in MMA because it is more efficient? Or is it simply because this is the more widespread approach?

The Imanari Roll

Despite the recent surge in leglocks, the use in the higher echelons of MMA has been fairly limited. In the past a few standouts have had regular success with leglocks in MMA; the notable exceptions being Masakazu Imanari, Rousimar Palhares and Ryan Hall.

Masakazu Imanari was a pioneer and among the very first to develop a game that centered around leglocks and he has been trying to rip off legs in MMA since the early 1990s. The gold standard for rolling entries into leg-entanglements, and his trademark entry, bears his name: the Imanari-roll.

This entry was on the receiving end of heavy criticism for many years, but in more recent years it has become a staple for leglock enthusiasts. It is also almost always what people point to, when discussing leglocks in MMA, as there are numerous examples of this entry working. Connoisseurs will recall that Ryan Hall performed a modified Imanari-roll into a leg-entanglement and heelhooked the ghost of BJ Penn earlier this year.

The Imanari roll has become a widespread and familiar entry, both in grappling as well as in MMA, and fighters like Rory MacDonald and Tony Ferguson have both rolled for that entry in attempts to catch a leg.

The Dangers of Leglocks In MMA

Back when it all began it was takedown, dominant position, top position wins. If you watch fights not too many are being successful off playing the bottom game, not against the top competitors. No one exists. You play that game and a punch hits your face it’s twice the force. So, I don’t like that new game.”
– Luke Rockhold

The main point of criticism, when it comes to leglocks in MMA is that many of the entries into leg-entanglements, require the fighter to sacrifice position. This in turn means that if the fighter doesn’t manage to pull it off, they’re now significantly worse off than before. The risk is therefore higher than attempting to simply pass guard and end up in a guard if you fail. In addition it’s often argued that staying in leg entanglements for prolonged periods can be a risky, as the positions often allows opponents to deliver punches.

This has also been one of the reasons why the Imanari roll has been among the more popular leglock entries, as it allows fighters to roll deep into the Ashi Garami position avoiding exposing them to punches in the process. However, as with anything there is still a risk. The risk of the imanari-roll is in being caught midway.

In recent memory, leglock aficionado Marcin Held got caught with a powerful knee by Damir Hadžović as Held attempted the Imanari roll.

Distance Management

The past few years the leglock game has evolved significantly. The early scrambling entries and poorly controlled leglock finishes of yesteryear has been replaced by a positional hierarchy to lower body control and a focus on distance management.

Spearheaded by people like Ryan Hall, Eddie Cummings, John Danaher, Garry Tonon, Gordon Ryan, Craig Jones and Lachlan Giles, the leglock game now has distance management at its centre – making it much more applicable for MMA.

While Rockhold’s statements on the risks of using leg locks in self defence situations and MMA may largely have held true in the past, the new generation of leglockers seem far more nuanced and better at distant management. While the new approach may therefore much better suited for MMA, it remains to be seen if it will transfer successfully into MMA beyond Tonon, Held and Hall.