Combat Sports

Unbreakable – 3 of the Best Defensive MMA Grappling Moments

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Grappling highlights in MMA are usually either slick submissions or huge takedowns. Today though, I’d like to highlight another aspect – defensive MMA grappling. This is all part of my series highlighting under-appreciated aspects of MMA, and this aspect is less appreciated than any other, so read on and check out some of the slickest, toughest, and most table-turning defensive MMA grappling moments. 

Alan Belcher Vs Rousimar Palhares – Playing With Fire 

Palhares is one of the most infamous figures in MMA. The man was (and is) a leg lock specialist well before that aspect of the game was ‘cool’ in BJJ, and one of the very few people who employed them frequently in the UFC. That’s not what made him infamous though.

Palhares had a tendency to hold submissions too long, for seconds after the ref would come to break up the fight. Now that might not sound like a big deal to the uninitiated, but consider that heel hooks are notorious for ripping apart ligaments, tearing ACLs, and leaving lasting damage. Whereas normally submissions should be the way to avoid long term damage (versus the alternative of being knocked out) with Palhares there were no such guarantees. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Palhares inspired real fear in opponents. 

Belcher opened for this fight as a serious underdog. Not only that, but Palhares was a grappling specialist and an ADCC veteran, taking second place by merit of his leg locks. It was a shock then, when to counter an early takedown Belcher immediately went to the truck position and began attacking the twister. That was his first piece of excellent defensive MMA grappling.

That wasn’t the end of it though. Palhares managed to roll on one of Belcher’s legs, but Alan was clearly experienced enough to defend that, shutting down each of Palhares’ attacks before he could properly progress. Belcher came loose at one point, and Rogan expected him to jump to his feet and back away but no, he continued to engage on the ground, shut down Parhares’ guard game, and won with ground and pound.

This was technical excellence, limiting the game of a dangerous opponent in every aspect, and winning where nobody thought he should. It was a brilliant piece of technical, defensive MMA grappling. 

Frank Mir Vs Minotauro Nogueira – The Perfect Counter 

Both of these gentlemen are well-known heavyweights, and neither one is a stranger to the gentle art. Mir looked hurt, taking shots and being trapped in an arm-in guillotine, but it was Mir’s counter that won its space on this defensive MMA grappling list. Initially, he managed to flip positions, rolling big nog until he took the top, and then beautifully countered Minotauro’s sit out and back-take attempt with a kimura.

The kimura is one of the most diverse and versatile of submissions, and this was a perfect example. The way it can be used not only as an attack in its own right, but also as a defence to a back take and a transition to many other positions, it should be in everybody’s arsenal. It might seem cheating to include a submission on this list, but the moves running up to the finish are what really impressed me. This was an excellent counter and a brilliant piece of grappling. 

Georges St-Pierre Vs Dan Hardy – They Don’t Come Tougher 

This is one that you could well have seen. Hardy at one point developed quite a reputation for being a wildman, and this fight demonstrated well the lengths he would go to. First, was the armbar. It came in round one and looked horrendous. My elbow just hurt looking at it, and though I’ll admit it wasn’t quite the bone wrenching armbar of Olivera vs Fergusson, it was the second submission that really won this fight a place in the article.

Round four, Georges St-Pierre takes top position and locks in the kimura with almost two minutes to go. The submission doesn’t start off nicely. The arm is torqued, Dan is clearly in pain, and still, he doesn’t tap. Deep in the submission, GSP pauses and then yanks on the arm. Still, Dan doesn’t tap. It doesn’t seem like GSP can believe it either, and appears to look at his corner in disbelief. This is a real testament to not only the mental toughness of Hardy but the toughness of his shoulder also.  

Where the other two on this list are technically excellent, either shutting down the game of an opponent or countering a technique perfectly, this is a celebration of the grit and stretchy ligaments of Mr Hardy. It’s not got the technical prowess (although there certainly were technically defensive skills in the bout) but it’s my personal favourite defensive MMA grappling moment. 


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Training martial arts since I was a fat child, Muay Thai since mid-2013, BJJ since mid-2015, and MMA since start-2016. Competing when I can, I'm more interested in the martial arts side of MMA, and write everything from style breakdowns, to highlights of martial arts culture, to concept pieces about what we learn from combat sports.