The world is made of probability. If you make consistently good choices, you have much better chances of getting good results. If you make consistently bad choices, you will probably end up getting submitted.
Numbers can guide us on what choices are better than other choices. If you ask a human being what the best technique for you to learn is, that human being is going to give you an opinion — and you should carefully consider the weight of that one person’s opinion. But while all humans have bias based on their own experience (I am much more likely to encourage you to learn the moves that I know, am good it, and have good experiences with), data is cool and rational and, if you have enough of it, going to give you a broader perspective. It’s not going to reveal everything, of course, but the more quality information you have, the better you’ll be able to make informed choices.
That’s why, with the help of U.S. Grappling, I analyzed data from more than 4,000 submission-only matches since the beginning of 2015. I wanted to have a clear and comprehensive picture of what worked most often in these true submission-only environments, with no points, advantages or time limits.
When I did a more limited survey of 2015 tournaments, people were interested in learning more, so I wanted to take on this more ambitious project. Besides, the bigger sample size we have, the more likely we are to have truly accurate results — and results that can help guide us in training better and smarter. This post is a summary of the results, and you can hear me break them down in detail on next week’s podcast.
A few points to keep in mind when interpreting the data: not all submissions are legal at all levels. Some of these submissions are uncommon simply because they’re low percentage (gogoplatas, for example), and others are less prevalent because not all experience levels can do them. The prime example here is the heel hook: it barely misses the top 10 in terms of submission frequency … but it’s also only legal in adult advanced no-gi.
Some of the data here are also judgment calls — to name one example, I combined finishes that were listed as “Arm Triangle” into one single category together with “Side Choke” & “Head & Arm Choke”, but I put those listed “D’arce” and “Brabo” into a separate category (even though all of these moves are technically arm triangles). I also listed “Kimura” and “shoulderlock” separately, figuring the more generic shoulderlock category could catch non-Kimura attacks on the shoulder.
There are also limitations based on the way the data are reported. Referees and table workers write these down by hand, so sometimes expediency in finishing a bracket outweighs clear reporting (for one thing, 46 matches finished by “choke,” so that doesn’t slot in anywhere specific). Some of the reports were clear enough to make a good guess — others weren’t and needed to be discarded. Positional information is also not usually reported, so we don’t have much of any idea how many collar chokes are mounted, how many come from guard, etc. Ditto for armbars.
There is a plus side to having the referees and table workers report: sometimes their descriptions of match endings are hilarious. Hence, I offer up first …
THE FIVE BEST WAYS A MATCH ENDED THAT ARE NOT LISTED ON THE SUBMISSION FREQUENCY CHART
1. Tight package
2. Sore Nose
4. Double Punch
5. “Crazy Ass Choke” — Sean Kennedy
Now, I’m not sure how a match ends by “tight package” unless it’s a wrestling match that ends by small package. And I do hope you envision “Double Punch” as two white belts knocking each other out, because I damn sure do.
Further down in this post is complete list of the submissions, from most popular to least popular. For ease of use and sharing purposes, though, here are the 20 most common submissions used at U.S Grappling sub-only tournaments:
There are many immediate takeaways from this graphic, no? First of all: the armbar is king. About one in four submission-only matches ends by armbar. One in four. Twice as many matches ended by armbar than the next-most common submission, the triangle, and the armbar was more common than submissions three, four, and five combined. Practice your armbars, folks!
Second: the basics are best. Every single one of the top 10 submissions is probably on the fundamentals curriculum at your gym, with the possible exception being the Ezequiel choke. If you’re a blue belt, you should know every one of these (yes, even the heel hook, sapateirophobes).
Third: both chokes and jointlocks are important. While there’s not a completely equal distribution in the top 20 with 12 of the 20 being chokes, in terms of total numbers, the distribution is shockingly close, with just over 1,900 submissions by jointlock and 1750-plus by choke. (The rest of the finishes were by injury, exhaustion, disqualification, or the aforementioned unclear reporting).
Want to see where your favorite submission ranks on here, and don’t see it in the top 20? Here is a complete list, in order, of how matches finished:
TOP SUBMISSIONS AT SUB-ONLY TOURNAMENTS
Ankle lock: 185
Collar Choke: 162
Bow & Arrow: 130
Arm Triangle: 104
Heel Hook: 76
Cutter choke: 41
Baseball choke: 35
Lapel choke: 29
North-South choke: 29
Loop choke: 22
Toe Hold: 22
Clock choke: 11
Punch choke: 4
Bulldog choke / headlock: 4
Single wing choke: 3
Banana split: 2
Calf slicer: 2
Estima Lock: 1
Bicep Slicer: 1
Razzle Dazzle (Bagels): 1
Texas Cloverleaf: 1
If you teach, you can feel free to use this data to tell white belts this: “Statistically, you are more than 300 times as likely to win by armbar than by gogoplata. So stop asking me to show you the gogoplata. Go drill armbars, triangles, and kimuras. And shouldn’t you be shrimping?” It’s accurate and defensible by research!
Some interesting tidbits I noticed in the data: Of the 15 taps to pressure, two were listed specifically as knee on belly pressure; of the 159 wins by guillotine, two were listed as “arm-in guillotine,” but I’m sure more were not noted as such; of the 130 wins by bow & arrow choke, I think 129 were by one of the Corbe brothers; there were two matches that were listed as ending by “cramps,” and before the sexist jokes come out, both of these were men’s matches; only three slicers total over the entirety of these events, making them equally likely as a twister; I was pretty surprised that a wristlock (44) was nearly twice as likely to finish a match as an omoplata (24); I bet those four “smother” finishes were pretty unpleasant after some long, tiring matches.
The bit about the Corbe brothers is not actually in the data, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
On another note: Everyone who is new to true submission-only asks the same question: how long am I going to be out there? It’s a fair question, but knowing is half the battle. The other half is harder — actually enduring the match.
We can actually give you a pretty clear picture of how long most matches go, though, with this to-scale information graphic:
There is no time limit, but the average time of one of these matches is about eight minutes, and the majority of submission-only matches are under six. You’re about 60 times more likely to have a match that’s under three minutes as you are to have a match that lasts more than an hour.
It is a bit of a surprise that there are only 21 matches that crested the 60-minute mark, given the significant number of matches. We must say, though, having an epic match is its own reward: I can probably name you 5 of these matches off the top of my head. You probably won’t have one of these titanic struggles, but if you do, you’ll approach legendary status.
Does this have you itching to compete? If it does, I have some good news: Submission Only Charlotte is March 4. Regardless of whether you compete, though, the numbers tell a great story for your training: you can never be too good at the basics.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this post omitted the ankle lock by mistake. Thanks to footlocker extraordinaire Cody Maltais of Elevate MMA for catching the error!