How to Grapple Against Taller Opponents in MMA & BJJ

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Hello again folks and welcome back to our series on tips and techniques for dealing with a taller opponent.

In part one (which you can find here and which you should read, digest and apply in that order) we looked at stand up and striking approaches to fighting someone with similar proportions to the BFG. Today we are going to look at how to deal with a taller opponent from a ground game or grappling point of view.

For those less familiar with MMA or the grappling aspects in particular, it may seem at first glance that once a taller opponent is grounded theory main assets and advantages are neutralised. They are no longer able to use their massive reach advantage to control distance and their power advantage in striking will be minimised. This however, is not the case.

Look up any grappling or BJJ forum on the net and you will see reams of comments from people frustrated by the challenge of dealing with a taller opponent. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, with much longer legs the taller opponent can make it a nightmare to pass guard. Putting up an effective and difficult to negotiate barrier that prevents the smaller combatant from effectively using their weight or getting within range for the more effective submissions. It’s the horizontal equivalent of holding a little person at arm’s length

The other problem is the weight and leverage advantage that often comes with being tall. This makes bridging and pressing easier, meaning that usually advantageous top positions like mount and side control are much harder to control and maintain against a taller opponent.

Not to mention the fact that if they get on top, being under their side control is like trying to get out of a flesh alcatraz, whilst if they chose to extend the legs into a more traditionally mobile freestyle wrestling side control, the distance of their hips and toes from your hips will make shifting out virtually impossible.

So, taking these issues into account, how do we deal with taller opponents on the mat?

In our article on striking against the taller opponent we discussed the principles of inside and out, strategies for working at either extreme and controlling the distance.

For grappling, the overarching strategy will again be about controlling distance. Though this time we will consider three key ideas ‘top and bottom’, ‘near and far’ and ‘position before submission’. Let’s take the latter first.

Position VS Submission

Whilst it will be the submissions that win you the match in the closing seconds, you can’t jump to the top of a ladder and in order to get to that submission, particularly against a much taller opponent, the priority has to be getting and maintaining position first. This is where the other principles come in. We will get submissions and nasty tricks later.

Top and Bottom

For some the term ‘catch wrestling’ immediately conjures images of WWE performance wrestlers, in which the strategy for dealing with a taller opponent is simply to bodyslam them like Hulk Hogan did to Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania 3.

hulk

Firstly, trying that in an unscripted situation is likely to get you under the taller opponent being pancaked and secondly, whilst todays pro wrestling may have evolved out of catch wrestling, catch remains a legitimate and highly effective grappling art, that can provide interestingly different perspectives on common grappling conundrums faced by BJJ and Judo players. Just ask Dean Lister.

One key difference between catch and BJJ which can be useful against taller opponents is their reliance on maintaining and attacking from the top position rather than from underneath (I realise this is an oversimplification and some BJJ fighters have great top games, but in general, broad strokes…).

Considering the massive disadvantages of being underneath a big guy, trying to get into top position, particularly a sprawled side control or a scarf hold, is definitely preferable, especially as once you are past that long legged guard you can use weight to control the hips and in scarf hold, control the neck and shoulders neutralising their leverage advantage.

Pull, Pin and spin

Obviously, this is all well good but you have to actually pass that guard first. But how?Remember in your conditioning routines where you made to do planks for what seemed like an age? Well, that’s about to pay off.

When approaching taller opponents guard a great way to neutralise their advantage is pin the legs. One or ideally, both. In gi wearing BJJ this is a little easier, as with a gi, you can use the cloth of the pants for extra leverage. Grab the pants near the ankles, yank to extend the legs so they are straight out, and then essentially just sprawl out fall into the plank position as if you are about to do a push up, keeping your arms straight.

This then pins the taller guy’s legs and, because he is tall and his feet are so far from his hips, actually uses his length against him as his length means the legs become heavier and more difficult to move. All the muscles in those lengthy limbs that work against you are inert when the leg is at full extension.

This also works brilliantly if you grip at the knees, where the exact same mechanics apply. Pull, pin, spin.

Obviously in no gi, this involves getting a tight grip on the ankles and knees may be more reliant on speed.

The trick is then to think of a clock face. Imagine that the point at which you have pinned the feet or knees is the centre of the clock and you are the hands of the clock. You want to stretch out into that plank as far away from the centre as possible whilstvstill keeping the weight straight down.

Rotate around to either side as if you are the hand of the clock going through each number, (clockwise or counterclockwise depending on how you intend to attack and the position of the opponent’s hips), stay in plank and on your toes and you will pass the guard.

By staying in the plank position with your hips low and toes at the furthest point away from your opponent’s body you’re putting all of your weight into pinning those feet.

In full extension the taller fighter cannot use the muscles in his legs to withdraw them and with the weight stacked at the furthest point from his hips it is almost impossible to lift the legs. To see how this works, try lying on your back and placing a weight at different points on your legs, then attempting to lift them whilst straight. The further from your hips, the harder it will be to lift the legs. Once the weight is at your feet, it is incredibly difficult.

You can then fold into side control or drop one hip, secure the underhook around the head/shoulder and take scarf hold.



This does depend upon you being able to drag the opponents legs out flat and this is best done in one swift motion. If you try too many times the opponent will become wise to it, so try to make it a sneak attack in a single sudden burst.

This also works against one leg, but means you have to pass on the side of the pinned leg and can be done incrementally, cutting out the spin and trapping their legs with your own (Khabib Nurmagomedov is a master at this, and although he is taking on opponents of similar height, the same principle of trapping the legs that give the advantage still applies).

So remember, PULL the legs out, PIN the feet to the ground and then SPIN around to pass guard. Oh, and do millions of planks in training.

Check this visual tutorial

Low Hips and Busy Toes

Another subtle element from catch that can be overlooked, is the tendency for wrestlers to have low hips and busy toes.

What this will mean is that rather than operating in side control with the knees tucked up against the ribcage, wrestlers will often exploit leverage by having their hips low, but far away, sprawled out from the opponent. By keeping up on their toes, not allowing the shins, thighs or hips to touch the mat whilst doing this, they are able to move quickly and shift the hips, but also maintain an angle with the body that makes it much more difficult for the pinned opponent to get up. Though a tall guy himself, if you want to see this principle in action look at Josh Barnett grappling matches and see how that awful plank exercise can be a huge advantage.

Knees

I know this is a grappling section, but…

The other advantage of the ‘low hip busy toes’ side control position in an MMA scenario is that it allows the smaller wrestler to exploit the vulnerable space between the shoulder and hip much more easily and attack it with knees.

Look at Mark Kerr’s contest against poor old pitiful Paul Varleans and you’ll see that monster Mark (talking full advantage of the pre-drug testing era) maintains his advantage from this position and then uses it as a base from which to throw knees admittedly in this case, to the body and more devastatingly to poor Paul’s face. The same technique can be seen in the famously mismatched contest between the giant Hong Man Choi and the diminutive Ikuhisa Minowa. Pinning – up on the toes side control- knees.

3sfsrr

In terms of submissions from the top, pushing through to scarf hold is always a winner as this then opens up a veritable swiss army knife of submission opportunities from chokes to arm attacks, whilst also putting the weight placement at a point advantageous to the smaller fighter.

Bottom

If you do find yourself underneath a big guy who is trying his best to smash you or ‘smesh’ as Khabib might say, then it’s better to look to the masters of the bottom game, the BJJ players.

Here is where the other two principles of ‘near’ and ‘far’ come into play. At its most basic the idea is that if you are attacking you want to suck up space (near) and not allow your opponent any (which also works from the top) and if you are defending then you want to create space (far).

For BJJ players, the back and the guard operate as both a defensive and offensive positions and you can usually see the shift between the two mentalities by how much space they allow their opponent at the time.

If maintaining a closed guard on the defensive, try bridging. Straightening your legs, lifting your hips off the mat. Allow the opponent to take the weight of your legs on their hips and straighten out moving your shoulders backwards to avoid being stacked.

This alters the angle and creates further distance between you and the tall guy who wants all of the juicy submission opportunities up near your head, neck and arms.

When the opponent presses forward, continue to shrimp and scoot your shoulders backwards, maintaining distance and movement to stop the big guy being able to hold you in position. This should then end up looking like the taller fighter is pushing a wheelbarrow with your legs as the handles.

Often the weight will be pressing forward which then allows you to control when you let it come forward fully and close the distance. This you will do when you want to switch from defensive (far) to offensive (near) for example if you manage to trap an arm and want to switch to a triangle or, my personal favourite, the omoplata.

Attacking with a submission from the bottom

akebono

Look at Royce Gracie taking on Akebono (in yet another Japanese marquee freak show fight) and you’ll see the same principle in effect. Royce is unable to lift the hips due to Akebono’s massive weight advantage but remains constantly in motion on the bottom, scooting backward every time the big man advances and controlling his hips with foot placement (far) he only allows the distance to close and the giant sumo to bear down upon him (near) when he feels the submission, in this case an omoplata, is available. Position before submission.

But… When you do want to apply a killer submission, what are the effective approaches against taller opponents?

Submissions

Well, one disadvantage of having long limbs is their vulnerability to attack. If fighting from the bottom a-la the Gracie example above, then the omoplata is always a classic, especially against long limbed opponents who tend to let those limbs flail into dangerous positions whilst working for a better advantage

If maintaining top pressure a-la catch wrestling head and arm triangles and arm manipulations from scarf hold have a high level of effectiveness.

However, the one technique that constantly seems to pay off against taller/bigger opponents on the mat, but which is unfortunately banned in some grappling arts is the heel hook (though achilles tendon and toe hold variations also have a high level of efficacy and work on the same principle).

Whether its Frank Mir’s first contest against Brock Lesnar, Minowa against Ho Man Choi, or the seemingly indestructible Yuki Nakai against notoriously dirty fighter and UFC 1 finalist Gerard Gordeau, it seems attacking the part of the tall guy’s body closest to the ground is a good bet if the opportunity presents itself.

The advantage of this technique comes not just from the joint manipulation itself but from the leg grapevine that accompanies it. In most cases, your legs are stronger than your arms and two of your legs stronger than one of someone else’s.

Therefore trapping one leg between yours can help to take out one of a taller opponent’s main weapons. Though if you are going to attempt this from the bottom against a standing opponent, a-la Yuki Nakai, be aware of how vulnerable this can make you, as you don’t want to end up like the previously mentioned Frank Mir in his contest with Ian Freeman where blows are simply rained down upon you. Not a good look.

Grizzled Old Men’s Dirty Wrestling Tips

Whilst we of course would not condone any such tactics if you hang around some old timer catch wrestlers long enough you’ll hear one or two nasty tricks to use against taller competitors. We do not condone these in gym or competition, but they’re useful to know in case someone tries them on you…

If you are in the closed guard of a taller person and they use the lifting the hip and straightening out technique I advocated for you to use earlier than it can be a nightmare. With such long legs, getting close to anything worth having is virtually impossible. They can use the ‘far’ principle to create defensive distance. Unless…

As soon as you end up in closed guard place your head on the sternum elbows tucked by your ears like you are praying or salaming. Slip your four fingers up to the indent above the collar bone and dig in.

You now have a painful grip. If the opponent tries to push backward you’ll remain like a limpet. All the time putting pressure on the legs keeping you in closed guard. You can also use this horrible grip to then slowly inch your rounded back and hips backward to pop open the closed guard. Nasty, but effective.

Another variation, if you don’t want to do head to sternum and get that close (which in MMA you may not as it leaves you open to short rabbit punches, which can be bothersome and inflict damage and cuts) is to stop the taller wrestler breaking your posture by cupping your hands and instead of placing them on the hips, waist or stomach to stop your opponent breaking your posture, push them into the space under their ribcage. I know, right?

Push against this and again inch backward with your butt and spine You’ll soon pop out of closed guard. You can then move to pull-pin-spin and as the old timer’s would say ‘Robert’s your Mother’s brother’.

And there you have it. Stellar approaches to taking on a larger opponent. Do you have any tips or tricks that work for you in this scenario? Let us know in the comments and thanks for reading.