Years ago, when Ricardo Almeida was a teenager just starting out in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under one of its originators, Carlos Gracie, he received a memorable lesson. The sage Gracie, who was already 90 years old, began speaking about past experiences in grappling with Japanese fighters. Then, he doled out his advice.
“Always look for chokes rather than locks,” Gracie told him. “The Japanese, they won’t tap.”
Almeida, now a UFC middleweight who has since become one of the premier submission artists in the world, is one of many fighters who value a tapout above a knockout. And though a common complaint about MMA is that it has become more stand-up oriented, according to recent Sherdog.com stats 46% of fights end in submission while only 31% end in KO/TKO.
There are many ways to make an opponent submit. Rear naked chokes are the most common method, followed by armbars. Chokes are much less likely to result in any long-term damage, while joint locks can cause serious injuries.
THE BLOOD CHOKE
The basics behind any choke are compression of the carotid arteries, which stop the blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain. As soon as the goal is accomplished, the brain shuts down and the fighter goes limp – if he hasn’t tapped first.
“As long as the moment of low oxygen is short, there is no long-term effect and not a lot of risk,” says Dr. Alex Constantinides, who has been a ringside physician in Colorado for six years and also recently made his MMA debut. “If a guy goes out and the referee stops it in a normal time frame, you rebound quickly as soon as oxygen comes in.”
When a fighter is choked out, the ringside doctor comes into the ring with the priority of protecting the fighter’s airway. When the brain shuts down, the muscles completely relax and sometimes the airway physically closes, so breathing is restricted or cut off completely.
“You just fight until you can’t get out,” says UFC welterweight Anthony Johnson, who has separated several of his opponents from consciousness with his fi sts but once tapped to a Rich Clementi rear naked choke. “You usually know when you’re in trouble and try to fight it as long as you can. It’s just a bad feeling. He had it in tight, and I didn’t want to go out like a punk.”
If a choked-out fighter is unconscious for more than 30 seconds, it indicates that something else has gone wrong — a sign for the doctor to go into crisis mode and search for a new cause. Luckily in MMA, such an event is extremely rare.
Joint locks are different in that fighters are almost always conscious throughout, but face tissue and bone damage if they don’t tap in time. Locks aim to hyperextend a joint to where tendons and soft tissues are stretched, causing enough pain to force a submission.
“As a general rule, smaller joints are more at risk of fracture,” Constantinides says. “For armbars and kneebars, you’re dealing with large joints and ligaments that have a lot of stretch to them. The joint will give way before bone breakage. When you get into wrists and ankles, it’s bony anatomy. The overlapping soft tissue may not fully give way, so there’s a higher risk of fracture.”
But even though they’re dangerous, fighters can’t hold back from applying them full-force, lest they give their opponent a chance to escape. “That’s why we have referees and doctors,” Almeida says. “Especially with the speed of MMA now, sometimes you don’t even feel the tap, or maybe the tap is on the mat and not your leg. I’m going to squeeze until the referee tells me it’s over. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I have to go 100 percent.”
When a fighter is submitted due to a joint lock, the doctor’s first job is to ensure that the joint is physically in place. A dislocation could lead to artery compression and a lack of blood fl ow to the affected extremity. If a dislocation has occurred, time is of the essence in relocating it, because as muscles begin to spasm, it gets more difficult.
Constantinides, who says he began working out to gain a better insight into the fighter’s mentality, says that although submissions make more people squeamish than the stand-up game because of seeing the body bend at unnatural angles, repeated blows to the head pose much more danger. “That’s why I’d do MMA but never box,” he says.
HOW WILL SUBMISSIONS EVOLVE?
Almeida points to Demian Maia, who he says applies jiu-jitsu to MMA better than anyone ever to fight in the UFC. “I think the new generation of submission guys will be more dynamic,” he says. “The way they use groundwork is less defense and more counters, more offensive. Like Maia, they will use it efficiently and effectively without sweat and without much risk.”
It would be easy to say that a loss is a loss, but it is clear that whether by knockout or submission, audiences demand conclusive fi nishes. Fighters, however, know which defeat they’d rather avoid. “If I’m going to lose, just beat me up like you’re supposed to,” Johnson says. “I’d rather be straight-up beat down than submitted. It’s like being spanked on the ass.”