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: