"I'm really looking forward to experiencing your holds some day. In your experience, what makes a guy good at withstanding a hold? I'm hoping that by the time I can arrange a trip, I'll be able to take quite a bit so you can enjoy it. Any tips on how to prepare myself for that?"
A novice wrestler wrote to me recently and asked these questions which in some form or the other most of us will have thought about a bit – probably when we began wrestling. I think it is quite an important one.
Can you remember the first few times you were caught in a painful submission hold? First time in a well-applied Chicken Wing with choke? Or maybe it was just a well applied shoulder lock? Or when you first wrestle a guy bigger and stronger than you and he has you in his side body scissor and you think your ribs are gonna crack and you can’t breath? And what about some of the seriously painful holds…a properly applied Camel Clutch can crank your neck and really stretch your pecs as well as impede your breathing let alone break your back for you. Nice huh? Of course as you probably know already, my view is that a full Boston Crab (or maybe even just the single leg version) is just about as agonising a wrestling hold as there can be if the guy applying it knows just how to play it. But holds like Indian Death Lock or the Twister are fairly testing too! And personally I just love combination holds where you are either applying or suffering from a variety of holds, all in place simultaneously. My five-in-one is great because I can control the pressure of each hold or just work through each one in turn (= five submissions of course hah hah!) before telling my opponent that now I am going to turn them all on at once, and asking him if he wants to give up first. And what about the first time you were choked or smothered in a match…how did you avoid panicking then? I can vividly remember the first time I was smothered totally by a very good wrestler who was also much bigger and heavier than me. I thought I was going to die under him (but, embarrassingly I then discovered just how exciting that was too!)
So what advice would I give a new guy on how to endure/withstand a hold? First thing I would say is don’t panic! The guy you are wrestling should be controlled and he should be able to calibrate how much torque to put into any hold. The big wrestler who smothered me, first with his chest and then his abs, knew exactly when I really had to gasp a breath and was thrashing around starting to panic, and he played with my ability to take his smother very expertly! It’s stupid to really crank up a hold on a new guy who is starting to learn what wrestling is like…it may put him off wrestling altogether and then a potential opponent is lost. The hold should be applied on you evenly without any jerking and with time for you to stretch, or get used to the feeling of the hold, before the pressure is gradually increased. (Always warm up and do some stretching before you start – it’s good to do that together helping one another to do stretches…good ice-breaker action!) The most dangerous guys on the mats are the very enthusiastic but inexperienced ones who have seen stuff but haven’t yet been on the receiving end of what they have seen – so that when they get to apply a hold they really don’t have much idea of how it really feels. If you are a new guy who would like to dish out the punishment, I think it’s essential you get some experience of what it is like to be put in the holds. Then you’ll have a far better idea of what you are doing to someone else when you use some of the potentially really tough holds.
Always make very clear arrangements with your opponent about how you will submit and what signals mean. For example, if you say, ‘I submit’, do you mean that you give up and want him to let go…or do your mean that the pressure at that moment is too much for you and you need him to back it off for at least a while? Similarly, you can decide what tapping your opponent or the mat means. Have a clear understanding between you about what you mean when you say stuff like ‘Yes! Yes!’. That can be misunderstood! Always have a ‘safe word’ which effectively means stop the hold and release immediately. ‘Break!’ is good, or maybe ‘I quit!’. Doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as you both understand what the safe word is. One guy I loved to wrestle with used to use ‘Red!’ which had the advantage of being a very short and clear signal, hah hah!
Secondly (after, don’t panic), remember when you find yourself caught, don’t forget to breath! It’s quite natural when you get shocked by suddenly being trapped in a really painful hold to hold your breath, but don’t! Of course, if you do hold your breath you really aren’t going to last long and you are going to tire out in the match much more quickly than you otherwise would. So, when you find your opponent on top of you with a well hooked hold say to yourself ‘breath….breath….breath’. Shift if you can so that breathing is possible/easier.
Third thing…you have to decide pretty quickly whether you think you might be able to escape or break the hold, or are you trapped in one of wrestling’s many holds which are extremely difficult to escape. If you think you are really caught try to relax and don’t let yourself totally tense up…that is going to make the hold probably more painful. Keep saying to yourself calmly ‘I can take this.’ Count down from 50 slowly to distract yourself and keep control of how it feels that time is passing. (Five seconds of an excruciating submission hold can seem like two minutes!) If you feel you can resist the pressure, what part of you needs to be tense to do that? If a guy has you in a well-applied scissor across your abs then of course tense your abs to resist…you may be able to outlast his ability to apply his maximum pressure. But if a guy has managed to get you into a Twister hold and is turning up the heat on you it’s probably going to be better for you to relax as much as you can so that you become more flexible…that might just cause enough looseness in the hold for you find a way to slip out. Or he might get bored with stretching you (…well, he might…maybe…!?!). Concentrate on your breathing and trying to stay as flexible as you can.
If you enjoy a bit of the pain of submission wrestling (or maybe even you have agreed to ‘job’ for someone - so you agree to be put into submission holds) it’s a good idea to give some clear signs of what level of pain you have. That helps guide the man submitting you so that his application of the hold remains within your ability to take it, rather than him simply cranking it up to the level that he wants to inflict. This means maybe using your voice and short phrases to keep him informed of how you are doing in there! Some guys are very clear by the way they moan/groan and you can tell as their voice goes up and becomes more compressed in the sound just how near to giving up they are. But this could be more active…if you say stuff like ‘Aaagh! No, no please no!’ the guy giving you trouble knows you are finding it tough (or you are a great actor and should be on TV not on the mats!!). Even a simple ‘Fuck, oh fuck!’ tells me I am getting to my victim and should maybe keep the pressure of my hold on him steady for a few moments to see how he copes, before I make him suffer even more.
One guy I wrestle quite often is extremely stubborn about submitting in some holds and can be totally silent whilst he concentrates on distracting himself from the pain. He is quite a challenge to ‘read’ when I have him in a good hold. But even he gives out small grunts and noises, and I know he is sensible enough to tap when the hold reaches his maximum endurance point. Of course it is the responsibility of the man applying the hold to ensure the safety of his opponent, so he should ask his partner if he is ok, and whether he wants to submit often and clearly. Better too much than too little. And he can then tell his opponent that he is going to increase the pressure. Its fun to play with your opponent’s mind a bit. I do this both ways, so sometimes if I am in a hold and it is really challenging me and I can see it’s an effort for the man applying it, I might say ‘Have you started yet? Is that all you’ve got? C’mon give me more man!’. This might just make the man applying the hold think that he is not going to get anywhere with that hold so he let’s go to transition to something else. Conversely if I am applying a hold, I love to smile at my victim and say ‘That’s about half pressure…you wanna try 75% now? Shall I really turn it on now?’ That may persuade the victim to tap, when I was running out of steam and would have had to stop soon anyway.
Do not take risks with joint locks or chokes. A straight arm bar properly applied against the elbow joint is not a hold to try and be very brave in. You may not be able to fight for a few days or even longer if you get that kind of thing wrong! A good wrestler or BJJ fighter knows how to put on a lock relatively lightly and give you the opportunity to acknowledge that he has defeated you with that position and so you should tap. Same with air chokes – which are not much fun to be on the receiving side of. You should agree what your limits are before the match and be prepared to stick to them. Same with sleepers holds…some guys are ok with being put out and many are not. And anyone doing the sleepering needs to have been in those holds themselves to know very alertly when to release. That’s a whole big subject on it’s own really…especially as so many BJJ submission moves can put a guy out, (eg triangle with legs, arm triangle, north-south choke, Brabo/Darce chokes, guillotine choke, anaconda choke etc etc). One of the most dangerous locks is the heel-hook where the guy applying it gets your heel trapped by the lower blade of his forearm and starts to twist so that the knee is cranked. This is extremely precarious for the receiver because it has been established that for many guys the pain does not come on until damage has already been done to the knee joint. If you are rolling with a BJJ guy you should always agree to tap out from a heel-hook as soon as he shows you that he has it on and without much/any pressure being applied.
Lastly both guys need to be really aware that if the man taking a hold does decide to try and escape, he is likely to cause his opponent to firm up the hold even more. So both need to be aware that in the ensuing struggle there may come a point where the guy taking the hold suddenly cannot resist any further and therefore the wrestler applying it needs to be ready for that moment so that he does not accidentally then snap on a massive increase in pressure as the opponent’s resistance stops. Maybe a good example of this is when I have turned my opponent into a full crab and have just started to squat down onto his mid back so that he is getting arched back as I sit down with his ankles caught under my armpits. Some guys will submit even before I complete sitting down. But others may start to try and push out of the hold, pushing themselves up on their hands and trying to flip me off by straightening their legs. This means that I have to resist their pressure as I continue to try and apply the hold. I will put more weight down on them and maybe start to pull their legs back more. If the guy underneath keeps this up strongly for a few seconds there will be a lot of counterbalanced force going through the pair of us. If he suddenly stops his resistance (because he can’t keep it up) there is the risk that I will fall back suddenly and heavily on top of him continuing to pull his legs back. That is going to be at the least extremely painful for the man underneath and potentially dangerous. It is my responsibility to be very aware of that. Better to lose the hold and not injure my opponent.
Don’t be discouraged at all by any of this. Being in trapped in a submission hold is part of the extraordinary exhilaration of wrestling. Your will against mine. Taking the pain will release floods of chemicals in your system and you will get high on them…don’t overestimate what you can take because of that. Do enjoy challenging yourself and your opponent in matches which you should be able to walk away from and think…yeah that was great! Whether you win or lose. For me it’s never about win or lose. Maybe it was just a bit when I first started wrestling. Now, it’s about, ‘did my opponent have a good time?’, and of course did I enjoy it as well. You will get calmer and better at taking the pain from your opponent and the range of submission moves as you get more experience. And remember that level of pain which is exciting fun for one guy may be horrible and unpleasant distress for another guy – enough to make him puke. Always get to know your opponent!
One of the greatest pleasant surprises I have had on the wrestling mats in recent years was when I was wrestling a guy who I had not wrestled before and who had not been in a Boston and said he wanted to try it. He was an excellent wrestler who could beat me in competitive stuff (lighter and younger than me than me he is strong, athletic, quick, great technique and a dedicated cross-fit trainer with incredible cardio) and so I really put him through some very hard Boston action, bending him hard and deliberately, in the end making it very tough for him – including some single-leg versions too. He must have taken it for about 4 minutes and at the end of that when he said ‘stop!’, and I let him go, the first words out of his mouth were ‘That was fun!’ I was really surprised, but I was also very pleased. That’s what I think wrestling should be about. Fun. Serious Fun.
Pic is me suffering in a tight Guillotine - should I tap, endure or escape? My opponent was determined!