Transitioning from Gi to No Gi – and the Heel-Hook shaped Elephant in the Room

I’ve been training for something like 15 years now. I am definitely a hobbyist black belt, but a black belt nonetheless. I can hold my own with most grapplers (or at least make them work quite hard to submit me) – unless they’re particularly focused on competition, or really young, or really strong, or just really good. This is in the gi, of course. If we’re talking no-gi, then suddenly, the proposition changes.

No gi grappling has exploded in popularity in recent years, fuelled partly by professional grappling events like EBI and Polaris, as well as the “Americanising” of Brazilian Jiujitsu (tied directly to America’s strong wrestling roots). Added to that, ADCC has gone from an obscure, ‘Han’s Island’ esque invitation only wrestling tournament to the defacto world championships in no gi grappling, thanks in no small part to the luxurious production bestowed upon it by wealthy benefactor Mo Jassim.

ADCC is the tournament to win, and heel hooks are very much a part of it. As I progressed through my training, heel hooks were a dark art that was occasionally dabbled in. We knew there were some crazy Japanese dudes that were pretty good at them, like Masakazu Imanari. We knew that you basically trapped a leg across your body, stuffed the toes under your armpit, and wrenched the heel in the opposite direction, but that was about it. I lost track of the number of bad grapplers I rolled with who had no positional awareness but a mean heel hook and they were scuppered the second you passed their guard or had a strong position on them. But gradually, that began to change. The guards became harder to pass. The entries became more effective and harder to avoid. Soon, I realised that an entirely new game was developing, and it was passing me by.

It felt like a split was developing between gi jiujitsu (which traditionally bans heel hooks) and no gi jiujitsu, which had previously just been the same jiujitsu without the gi on, basically. On training trips to Japan, Masakazu Imanari and various other legends slapped heel hook after heel hook on me. In New York City, the same thing happened. But it wasn’t until Eddie Cummings came to the UK for Polaris that my eyes were truly opened.

With most of the heel-hook focused guys, I could at least get them to break a sweat on their way to the heel hook. Not so with Eddie Cummings. Eddie was getting some pre-event training in at a secret location near the venue, and I was lucky enough to get called up to roll. Once we were suitably warm, the intensity went up just a little. Eddie was still in first gear, for sure, but I was trying a little harder. Still very safely of course – Eddie was a guest, and this was the night before competition. Still, I thought I would try to at least make an attempt to pass his guard.

Everything I tried got me heel hooked. Every move I made led me deeper and deeper into a trap. I felt like a white belt on his first day in a new art, no word of a lie. There was literally nothing I could do. Eddie’s game completely and utterly nullified almost anything I wanted to do. Although our roll was, in the grand scheme of things, very short and very light, it was truly an eye opener. Eddie got me in “double heel hook” position multiple times in a short round (where both of my legs were completely trapped and both my heels were exposed for attack.)

I am now fully of the mindset that there are two styles of jiujitsu – one that has heel hooks as a part of its arsenal, and one that just doesn’t. A black belt in traditional gi jiujitsu has a very good chance, more often than not, of being submitted by his blue or purple belt counterpart when the gi comes off and heel hooks are in play.

The IBJJF has recently announced that it will begin allowing heel hooks in its no gi competitions. Up until now, the IBJJF no gi comps have basically been just the same as their gi counterparts – the same athletes and the same rules. Now, though, with heel hooks being added, a whole new generation of athletes may be able to begin imposing their game on traditionalists. This can only be a good thing for the art itself – once the novelty of heel hooks wears off, and people become more adept at defending and countering them, then the attacks will be absorbed into the mainstream and will take their rightful place as just another tool in the toolbox – rather than a secret, black-belt-slaying weapon.

If you’re interested in getting started in the dark arts, may we recommend our best-selling instructional by Tom Halpin:

What is the greatest no-gi grappling match of all time?

Jiujitsu and grappling fans often debate this question – what is the best grappling match of all time? You could be just trying to find the best match to watch on YouTube, or looking to introduce a friend to the wonderful world of grappling but not sure if they are into 20 minutes of two guys scissoring each other in 50/50.

There are a number of possible candidates, but as we have a close connection with the professional jiujitsu show Polaris, we have a slightly biased viewpoint. However, we think we can make a strong case that Garry Tonon vs Rousimar “Toquinho” Palhares, held at Polaris 3, is the greatest no-gi match of all time.

It currently stands at 1.7 million views on YouTube – an incredible feat.

The match took place in England at Polaris 3, on April 2, 2016. Garry Tonon was one of the hottest prospects in grappling at that time, submitting everyone. He asked Polaris if he could fight Palhares. Initially, the team at Polaris were hesitant. At that time, Toquinho had a reputation for injuring his opponents – wilfully. In fact, he had been let go from the UFC for exactly that reason. The man was big, strong, and dangerous. Garry had been very small for his previous Polaris outing against Imanari.

However, the team at Polaris managed to make the match happen, and from the second it was signed, the banter from Garry started. People could not believe the size of that man’s testicles – understandable. Palhares was – and remains – a formidable foe.

I was, in fact, matside for that event, and my heart was in my mouth for this match, almost literally. I was sweating and my heart was pounding. I had no idea what was going to happen. Palhares had cut a lot of weight to get down to the agreed upon 83kg, whereas Garry had been eating all the burgers he could find to get up somewhere near 83. 24 hours later and Palhares was looking absolutely monstrous. When he took off his Scramble hoody, the whole place erupted in ooh’s and aaah’s.

And then, the match started. I felt as if I was holding my breath the whole time, and the match did not disappoint. While Palhares was able to dictate some of the positions using his overwhelming strength and size, Tonon was not phased in the slightest, and transitioned smoothly from defence to offence, having the big man in a lot of trouble. It was my personal opinion that, had the match continued, Garry would have ended up with a submission on the little treestump.

When speaking to Palhares afterwards, he made it clear that he was on his best behaviour during that match. He was hinting that he had ‘held back’ a little, in order to make amends for his previous bad behaviour. Whether that was true or not, it made for an incredibly entertaining match.

See for yourself!

If you’re interested in some of the techniques exchanged in this match. the video from our library currently most suited would be Tom Halpin’s exploration of leg locks and modern jiujitsu:

Plus, you could take a look at the free Masakazu Imanari ‘Master of Leglocks’ video, which unlocks as soon as you open an account here on Techniqly.

Masakazu Imanari’s “Master of Leglocks” is completely free to account holders at Techniqly

We recorded an instructional with Masakazu Imanari, one of the most famous grapplers in the world. In it, he goes through some of his most deadly submissions and even shows the latest version of the Imanari Roll in great detail, step by step.

The instructional is fully subtitled in English and is available completely for free as soon as you open an account on Techniqly.

The video will show up here after you have created an account.

It’s fully worth the short amount of time it takes to sign up to Techniqly. The legendary no gi grappler and MMA fighter goes through:

Outside Heel Hook from 50/50

Imanari-style ankle lock

The Shocker

The Imanari Roll

Inside heel hook entry from standing

Inside to Outside Achilles Lock

Heel Hook from Saddle – details

Escaping the Saddle – details

This is just a taste of what’s to come, as we will be filming a full-length instructional with Masakazu Imanari later in the year.

Masakazu Imanari is one of the most well-known innovators of the leg lock game. For many years, he was a pioneer, using his ferocious and advanced leg attack game to decimate opponents in MMA who had no idea what hit them. He continues his MMA career now, but also competes regularly in professional grappling shows such as Kasai and Polaris. Now you can learn some of his best moves with this lean and mean instructional. Imanari is a man of few words, so the instructional is short, but the content is premium Japanese leg-locking goodness.