Lost Art: How Armbars Almost Went Extinct
In March, 2012 Ronda Rousey won the Strikeforce lightweight women’s championship via gruesome armbar submission of Miesha Tate. The formula was perfect: pre-fight hype, nonstop action, an epic finish, and a star’s emergence. That same weekend at UFC on FX 2, two more fighters (Pineda and Waldburger) also secured armbars. And while snapping arms is Rousey’s norm, armbars in general have actually been going extinct. Lost in the excitement and elegant brutality of Rousey’s submission was the revival of that technique’s place in MMA history. But to tell the full armbar story, we should start at the beginning.
The armbar submission made its UFC debut on March 11th, 1994 at “UFC 2: No Way Out” in Denver, Colorado. The inaugural UFC champion, Royce Gracie, won twice by arm locks that night on his way to a second tournament championship. The signature jiu-jitsu technique was made famous by the image of a straining Gracie in a ruffled gi, stretching the arm of a confused and panicked Jason DeLucia a moment longer than is comfortable to watch, before a young Big John McCarthy could intervene.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Fast forward to the end of 2011, with the UFC wrapping up its 191st fight card at UFC 143. Fighters have submitted to chokes, locks, cranks and other uncomfortable positions 470 times in 18 years of UFC competition. One of the clearest and most iconic submissions was the armbar, secured 74 times during these primordial years of modern MMA. The domination of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in the early years of MMA led to a rapid evolution of other fighting styles that dared to enter the cage with a trained submission grappler. And before the phrase Mixed Martial Arts was truly part of the sports vernacular, competitors understood that striking alone was insufficient in the Octagon, a realization that often took the form of a desperate tapout. Gracie’s influence on the sport was, in fact, the intention of the UFC’s inventors to begin with – to demonstrate the size independent superiority of jiu-jitsu over other fighting systems. But in any highly competitive system there’s fast learning, and other fighters did begin to train grappling to even the playing field.
Data provided by Fight Metric, analysis by Reed Kuhn
The competitive landscape finally got smart on jiu-jitsu as a pre-requisite for MMA, and there was a surge in armbar attempts and finishes at the end of 90’s while the fast adopters weeded out the old-school brawlers and wrestlers. But a funny thing happened as the Zuffa years kicked off: armbars started to disappear. As the UFC survived its dark, lean years and the explosion in popularity (and competitiveness) began, the “tap or snap” technique that solidified the Gracie claim of BJJ superiority declined in use. The riddle here is whether or not this was due to fighters getting better at defending armbars, or if they simply abandon the technique in favor of other moves.
Let’s dig deeper into the numbers to see how exactly armbar attempts have evolved in recent years.
Wandering but Not Lost
The risk in executing an armbar is giving up dominant position. Losing a hold of the arm sometimes means losing ground control, and thus sacrificing dominant time that could win the round. It’s possible that fighters with dominant control have transitioned to submission techniques that better maintain dominant position, such as arm triangles, or simply skipped armbar openings while continuing to advance position to secure the highest success technique of all: the rear naked choke. Regardless of why fewer armbars are attempted, another interesting conclusion from the analysis is that success rates of armbar attempts have not fallen. While fewer fighters are going for the arm, they continue to be successful roughly 20% of the time. The results are volatile due to small sample size, but a trend line confirms that since 2001, the average success rate has not declined significantly. The average success rate from 2001-2005 is the same as it was from 2006-2011. If submission defenses were forcing the extinction of armbars, we should see a steep decline in the success rates, but we don’t.
Hold for hold, the armbar is not the likeliest of submissions, with two common chokes having better chances of success. But it’s also not the riskiest either. Consider the Guillotine choke, which typically means a fighter will be put on his back; not locking that choke means plenty of time spent on the losing end of ground and pound. But from a dominant mounted position, fighters have more options. And they may be realizing that the 1 in 5 success rate of the armbar is too risky to sacrifice control, opting instead for continued striking or an advance to back control. From here, attempts for a rear naked choke are successful at almost twice the rate of armbars, and failed attempts don’t lose position, but rather may simply lead to another attempt.
Tim Burrill, one of the first American black belts under Carlos Machado, currently trains and corners a growing stable of professional fighters. He is an elite jiu-jitsu practitioner with the benefit of an historical perspective. From his school in Rhode Island, Tim reflected on how submission strategies have evolved in recent years. “There was a shift towards chokes because of the better control involved (i.e. not giving up top position) but guys continue to get wise to new strategies and their choke defense has improved. Lately, we’ve been going back to arm attacks because we feel that people are less skilled in defending them. The idea is to not compromise a superior position in order to attempt a half-baked attack. Managing risk with smart setups and giving yourself options if things go bad is essential.”
The evolution of the armbar came full circle in 2006 when Royce Gracie stepped into the UFC Octagon for the last time against Matt Hughes, then Welterweight champ. But for the first and perhaps only time, Royce Gracie was outclassed on the ground. After suffering a brutal arm lock by Hughes, Gracie ultimately succumbed to strikes. A year and half later, Hughes himself would tap (verbally) to an armbar by Georges St-Pierre, relinquishing his title once and for all. Arm locks played a critical role in these defining matchups of modern day MMA, and in many others. Yet in all of 2011 there were just three successful armbars on 19 attempts in the UFC; the armbar was being abandon. But as of May 2012, we’ve already seen five successful armbar submissions in the UFC, including one in the unlikely heavyweight division by Stefan Struve at UFC 146. Whether or not the trend continues remains to be seen, but armbars could be making a comeback.
MMA athletes have evolved since the early days of “no holds barred” fighting, and the evolution continues. The armbar is still one more gambit in the arsenal of human chess, and skilled fighters must always have a full repertoire of attacks should the right opportunities arise. Whether it’s an unlikely heavyweight giant like Stefan Struve, or the newest face of women’s MMA in Ronda Rousey, the art of the armbar is still alive and dangerous.
–The Fight Scientist