4 Principles That Changed My Grappling Game


Lately, I’ve been working hard on understanding how the great fighters think.

In the past, I’d watch them spar or fight and inevitably they’d catch their opponents in some nifty little hold and that’s what would grab my attention.

For the next few weeks, that’s what I’d be working on. That reverse Omo-Plata or that new half guard trick, you know the drill. And of course, brick by brick, move by move, I felt like my game would improve.

Later on, at the behest of my Instructor (Khuen Khru Will Bernales), I took a step back and began to look at things from a little bit wider perspective.

I started trying to look at “games” rather than just a single technique. He was always telling me to work on my side cross escape “game” or my guard passing “game”.

Using this mindset improved my grappling at a much faster pace. I was seeing more pieces of the puzzle at a time and as a result could begin working on entire chunks as opposed to hunting for a single piece at a time.

Instead of studying a technique, I began to study how a technique related to it’s brother and sister moves within a series designed to handle a particular position or situation.

And this lead to the next step. Another step backwards. I started looking at concepts and principles. I started looking at how the great fighters were thinking.

I tried to understang their minds which was a giant leap from looking at their finishing moves which were really only the result of an number of maneuvers which, I realized were all governed by a set of simple rules and bylaws.

The following are by no means a complete set of these rules, but they are the ones I have been able to extrapolate and have begun to digest and understand. They have had the greatest impact on my game in recent times.

He who controls the arms, controls the means by which his opponent will try to control him.

He who controls the arms, controls the means by which his opponent will try to control him.

control their hips
control their head
control their posture
maintain your posture


Over time, I had heard these objectives from many qualified and accomplished instructors. All made perfect sense but for whatever reason found a way to escape my abilities… Until one night when I was swept repeatedly by one of my BJJ instructors Mike Diaz, a Pedro Sauer Black Belt and masterful butterfly guard practitioner.

I asked him what I was doing wrong, why I couldn’t stop his sweep, and what technique I could use to defend his attack. He smiled and said, “I could sit here all night and try to teach you a counter to all the different sweeps that I use. Or, I could give you the simple answer.” Eager to understand my situation better, and being lazy and somewhat dim whitted (I knew there was no way I was going to remember all the techniques he could teach me), I opted for the simpler answer, to which he replied.

“You’re doing pretty good with most of the other stuff, but what’s making the difference between you defending and me finishing the sweep is arm control. You let me control your arms and that is why I succeed and you fail.”

I took this lesson to heart and worked diligently for the next few weeks at that seemingly simple suggestion. Don’t let your arms be controlled and control your opponent’s arms as much as possible. And sure enough, the sweeps diminished noticibly. And even more noticibly, my game improved from the standing clinch, in the takedown department, pretty much everywhere you go hands on in MMA. And then it hit me. The arms are the means by which we control the head, the hips, the posture, or the means by which we defend these things.

Control the arms, and the rest begins to fall into place.

When you're out of position, under fire and on defense, use your tools and faculties to fortify those defenses rather than digging yourself deeper into the hole.

When you're out of position, under fire and on defense, use your tools and faculties to fortify those defenses rather than digging yourself deeper into the hole.

Another night after numerous weeks of being dominated on the mats by my BJJ Black Belt Instructors, I expressed my frustration. “Man, I don’t expect to tap any of you guys out, but for crying out loud, I’m always on the run from you guys. I’m always fighting just to keep my head above water and survive.” I said. This time, both Coach Diaz and my primary instructor Khru Will were present and sitting before me. Almost in concert, they explained

“Sometimes all you can do is play defense… And sometimes all you SHOULD do is play defense. Jiu-jitsu is a Self Defense Art.”

I sat and thought about this for a moment. Reading the confused look on my face, they both began to point out that even though I had exhausted myself, escaping this submission and fending off that sweep and then scrambling to get out of beneath this or that position, that in the end I had made it pretty difficult to submit me. They went on to explain that if you could defend yourself against bigger, stronger, more experienced fighters, that was a pretty nice accomplishment. This made me smile. They were right. Over the years of working with Khuen Khru Will I had pushed my defensive capabilities from a few seconds of survival, to minutes and sometimes even tens of minutes. And beyond this they explained that sometimes it’s just a matter of surviving until an opportunity appeared or the guy on top made a mistake.

I then realized that most of the time, when I got submitted, it was because I was frustrated about being on the run for so long and decided to push my luck by attempting a low percentage submission or sweep from out of position. These were the times they were talking about. The times when all I should have done was play defense.

Ever since then I have paid a lot more attention to when it is best to fortify my defenses and when an opportunity arises to make a calculated move and this has helped my game immensely.

Use chained attacks and escapes whenever possible.

Use chained attacks and escapes whenever possible.

Beginners think one move ahead, more advanced practitioners think two and three moves ahead.

Since the beginning of my training, this idea has made sense to me from the offensive perspective. The Triangle sets up the Arm Bar which flows to a sweep, etc. etc. etc. These submission chains are nearly everywhere. But much more difficult for me to grasp was the idea of a progressive, chained escape path.

So many times, I’d be underneath someone, trying to escape, using an appropriate escape technique just to have the guy on top of me transition into a different control position… ON TOP.

Finally it occured to me, that knowing the escape was not enough. Knowing the escape and where the guy on top would most likely transition, and having my second escape ready to go, half way through the first escape was the key to getting out of under their tyranical reigns.

Never stop fighting for top position. Never conceed the guard or bottom.

Never stop fighting for top position. Never conceed the guard or bottom.

Fight to be on top and when you can’t get on top, fight for top some more!

This was an epiphany I had after watching the Black Belts roll with each other over the course of many many months I realized that they would always fight like dogs for top position. Even when out of position on bottom they would fight to get to their knees and reset vs. working for guard. And when they did try to get guard the guy on top was practically passing it before it even fully materialized.

After watching this, scene unfold, time and time again I asked my instructor Khru Will when it was that he determined when to fight for top and when to start working the bottom game techniques. His answer was simple.

“If you have gas in the tank, it should be used to get to the top.”

This has been one of the most difficult concepts to make part of my game, especially since it is so physically demanding. But what I have discovered is that while employing this mentality, I can prolong the amount of time it takes for my seniors to trap me on bottom and finish me off with a submission. And sooner or later, that extra time is going to equal an opportunity. And when it does… I’ll be ready.

These four principals have done more to improve my game recently than anything else.

What principals have uped your game and made your life easier on the mat?

14 replies
  1. Sterling
    Sterling says:

    Very helpful post Dr. Sick. I agree that internalizing a concept does way more to change my game than learning a single technique.

    Especially the fighting for top game. I’m way out of competitive shape now and grapple only occasionally. When I find myself with way bigger or stronger training partners, the only way I can hang is to get my chubby ass to top side-control position and catch my breath for awhile while they wear themselves out trying to get out from under me.

    I think the other concept that helped me a lot was using my elbow nub to pry at my opponent instead of using my hands. It makes you look like a preying mantis or t-rex, but it sure helps keep you safe.

  2. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    Khru, your entry is a wonderful description of becoming a master and how the mind assimilates information. While I was reading the book MASTERY by George Leonard, I thought of you often and how willing you are to take a step back and look at the long term mastery of your art. THE ART OF LEARNING by Josh Waitkins is also a book you would love- he was a push-hands martial arts guy (which is kinda lame) but he came to it after being a child prodigy chess master. Thanks for your posts- they are not just about MMA, they are about being excellent and going beyond the ordinary!

  3. Dr Sick
    Dr Sick says:


    I am totally stoked to read “The Art Of Learning”!!! I don’t think push hands is lame. It’s all sensitivity in the end. Also Waitkins is training BJJ with Marcelo Garcia. That’s a scary combination really. I’ve just got to finish the book I’m on right now “One Man’s Wilderness” great read!

    You are excellent and are far beyond ordinary!

  4. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    Hi forgot that Waitkins was training BJJ. I remember reading that. Seriously, you’ll love this book. I’ll check out “One Man’s Winderness.” Thanks for the recommend and for the compliment. All the best to you Khru.

  5. naturalbornfighter1
    naturalbornfighter1 says:

    Hey Brian, That was one of the best posts I have read, Thanks so much for that. I got it in an email from submissions 101 and I think it thoroughly deserves to be read by everyone on their mailing list. I too live by concepts on the ground rather than the actual submissions themselves. My concepts are not as advanced as the ones in your post but simple things such as breaking down the opponents posting hands and legs helps me. Or when i aim to trap one arm while trying to catch a submission or GnP similar to the way Bj Penn hooks an arm with his leg when attempting a rear naked choke or the way Brock Lesnar controlled Mir in his half nelson on the ground while striking with the other arm. I also like to trap the opponents head on the ground with my shoulder from side control or half guard, keep moving while on the bottom, stuff like that helps me to gain advantages. The more you train using principles, the more they become second nature and you can work on other things while your principals are already on autopilot. Hope you know what i’m talking aboout, I’m not very good at explaining it.
    As you stated in the article you can know every submission in the book but if you know the principals you’ll be far more successful. I agree with Rebecca’s post about going beyond MMA. Very few places will detail combat sports in this way. Great Blog, keep up the great work Dr.Sick!!!

  6. Dr Sick
    Dr Sick says:

    WOW! Thanks so very much for the kind words naturalbornfighter1! I know exactly what you are talking about.

    When I watch the new guys roll at our gym and they’re getting a little overwhelmed while in someone’s guard I’ll tell them something simple to do like to just make sure that their hands are always on the other guy’s body and never on the mat. This keep’s his hands and arms from being targets and ensures that they are being useful as tools to help control the other guy. It’s one of the smallest little adjustments but they can immediately feel the difference it makes.

    Breaking down the opponent’s posting hands is HUGE. There are no small or simple concepts, just small or simple players.

    Thanks again naturalbornfighter1 and if any of you guys out there reading this ever want to see some sick @$$ MMA clothing. Make sure you check out: http://www.naturalbornfighter.co.uk

  7. naturalbornfighter1
    naturalbornfighter1 says:

    You’re welcome man, I love the way you present your unique viewpoint of MMA through your columns and video’s.

    Yeah, thats the stuff I’m talking about, also stuff like T-rexing the arms so you don’t leave openings for your opponent, thats another one, haha.

    I think it would be a real cool Idea if you could do a series of these type of fighting principals through video’s and columns, I’d love to see all the stuff you guys would come up with.

    Thanks for the plug for my site, nothing is up for sale yet cos i’m working on a couple of things that will hopefully make it huge. I’m not all that interested in just selling t-shirts for the money, I’m working to make it more of a project that will hopefully make the fight world a better place for fighters. It’s nt easy but when I manage to get it to the right level I’ll be sure to let you guys know all about it. Thanks again buddy, and keep up the great work!!!!

  8. chad f stack
    chad f stack says:

    I’m new to your site and have really enjoyed what I’ve seen so far.

    Loved your column. Concepts are far more important than individual techniques because concepts reveal the reason WHY, techniques reveal HOW. If you know WHY you do something you can often times adjust a HOW on the fly.

    Two other general concepts that I have payed attention to over the years are “Local Superiority” and what I call the “Spiky Ball” principle. You know them. Everyone who trains has run into these things its just whether or not we conceptualize them.

    Local Superiority is simply having more of your body working against a smaller portion of his, or cutting his forces down. This is used in positions as well as submissions. The mount and guard both cut an opponents defences in half. In general he does not have his legs and hips to help defend and his movement is limited. The person on mount or using guard has his whole body to use to attack or defend.

    Spiky Ball principle is when you are in a disadvantaged position, never letting your opponent be comfortable or stable. If he is constantly trying to maintain his position or remove a “spike” (something uncomfortable for him to base on, i.e. elbow, knee, hip, head etc.) he has far less time to devote to his attack.

    Again thanks for the cerebral take of your original concepts. Usually I keep my thoughts to myself but really likes the thread of this blog. Thanks again.

  9. Dr Sick
    Dr Sick says:

    @chad f stack,

    Thanks for stopping by. Please feel free to share your thoughts anytime. We love to hear there. We also have a forum if you’re interested.

    I like your “local superiority” idea. I use it quite a bit when we use what we call “T-ing” a guy up in a clinch situation. By getting to one side of your partner, you can use all 4 of your limbs while they can only use two. Thus, resulting in a competitive advantage. Good stuff!

  10. mick
    mick says:

    i look at it this way if you look at the body like a big capital ( I ) you will notice to hold any position
    (1) you need two points for any attack or defense or anything related you need two points.
    Draw a stick man but add the joints and arteries and then take it too the gym and work on two points all the way threw your game and watch wot happens… this is my way and I’ve been competing and fighting for over 9 years and i find my self not learning any Technic but just adhering to my own lessons threw trial and error

    But i really like all the ideas and ways you think but try my idea and please post back i would appreciate feed back……


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Technique: An Expression of Self” and my student Chris Huntsaker who commented on our “4 Principles That Changed My Grappling Game“. These guys got me back on track and inspired me to try my hand at it […]

  2. […] See the article here: 4 Principles That Changed My Grappling Game | Damage Control – MMA … […]

  3. 4 Principles That Changed My Grappling Game | Damage Control – MMA …: I asked him what I was doing wrong, why I … http://bit.ly/b7t9pC

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