Is It Becoming ‘Taboo’ To Treat Leg Locks As ‘Taboo’?

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A new wave of criticism met the IBJJF after this years’ World Championships. While the majority of matches were battled out without incident, there were questionable examples of referee decision-making amongst a few of the matches, notably a high-profile match at the Black Belt level leaving many to scratch their heads as to how the rules, particularly advantages, are enforced.

While advantages continue to be a consistent theme amongst IBJJF detractors regarding the rule set, so too is the conservative stance on leg locks. Kneebars, toeholds, and calf-slicers are legal only at the brown and black belt level, whereas heel hooks are banned completely. Traditionally, this stance has been in place as a matter of safety. With the advent of the submission-only movement, as well as greater knowledge availability there is a growing sentiment amongst practitioners that leg locks ought to be taught early-on in the journey.

Having trained at schools that are highly IBJJF-compliant, as well as several schools far distanced from these rule sets, I have seen both sides of the coin. At one such IBJJF-compliant school, I was taught an Estima Lock variation by the lead instructor and was encouraged to safely go for it against training partners during sparring. As I applied it to a blue belt during their attempt to recover open guard, wrapping my arms around their foot and holding it without squeezing, my training partner nearly exploded.

“HEY! You can’t do that! I’m a blue belt!”

Admittedly, I was caught off guard. I was unaware that I had done anything wrong and profusely apologized, not bothering to bring up the fact that I had been encouraged by the head instructor to search for it while I roll. This occurrence unfortunately led my training partner to consistently whine before our rolls:

“Can you not go for those leg locks on me? It’s not cool because I have to compete at blue belt and they’re illegal at blue belt.”

“No problem, wasn’t going to anyway.”

This would not only make the vibe of the entire roll more tense than it needed to be, it also created a watering down of our mutual expression of the art.

Now, I certainly understand the perspective of practicing within the rule set that you will be fighting. At the same time, this particular training partner continued to leave his foot lingering thus making him highly vulnerable to the Estima Lock. I certainly would not attack it again for the expectation that he would snap once more. I was torn. Do I have an honest, forthcoming conversation about the danger of leaving his foot dangling for future reference? Or do I let it slide and let them have it his way?

I left the academy that night admittedly disheartened at the tunnel-vision that was displayed by this particular training partner. Perhaps my frustration stemmed from my inability to communicate effectively. I understood his perspective, but felt increasingly dissatisfied that he was less concerned with improving his jiu jitsu than playing to a rule set. This came shortly after I had a conversation with a black belt I deeply respect whom stated that a good training partner ought to go with the flow of a roll, not whine if someone went for an ‘illegal’ move on them, encouraging conversation and discouraging hiding behind an arbitrary rule set of merely one of many governing organizations in the jiu jitsu landscape. My overall impression of the entire situation is that while my communication could stand to be more assertive, this example is representative of an all too common problem seen amongst jiu jitsu schools.

This particular school had more leg lock injuries within a three month timespan than a nearby leg lock friendly school in the area had in two years. All in the name of “safety.”

The larger problem was not the attitude of this particular training partner, rather I see it as a culture of treating leg locks as a ‘dirty’ submission. I have found that there are no ‘dirty’ submissions in jiu jitsu, only dirty actions. At a grassroots level, it is important for training partners to understand each other’s goals, communicate, and be certain about how they would like to proceed. One instructor I know advocates a ‘gentleman’s rule’ regarding leg lock submissions, stating that the IBJJF rules remain in effect at the gym mainly for new guys and visitors but no one would be condemned for going above their belt grade between two consenting training partners. Be sensible, be safe, have nothing to prove, and you could go for it.

The explosion of the leg lock game, the availability of the Danaher principles, and the shift towards more submission oriented events support the notion that leg locks firmly be brought out of the shadows. We cannot continue to hide behind rulesets for an arbitrary competition and allow that to define our jiu jitsu, particularly for a ruleset that is continuously under fire from some of the biggest names in the sport. In this manner we water down our art and become less well-rounded, all in the quest for a medal at a tournament in the name of “prestige.” This write-up should not be taken as an invitation to start leg locks tomorrow if it is against the rules at your school, but rather consider having a conversation with your training partners and/or instructor regarding how these can safely be incorporated into the training protocol.

The times are shifting. In the spirit of jiu jitsu, it’s time to evolve our approach.

Guest Contributor
Arman Fathi is a guest contributor for the Jiu-Jitsu times. He is a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under the Redzovic family in Chicago. He is a recent transplant to Southern California and currently trains at CheckMat La Habra and Gracie University. He can be reached on Instagram @RealArmanHammer.

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