By successfully defending her title against Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 223, “Thug” Rose Namajunas cemented herself as the top strawweight in the UFC. Her unanimous decision win over the former champion put to rest any notion that her victory in their first bout was a fluke, or that her success in the sport is due to anything other than her high fight IQ and pure talent. Along with solidifying her claim to the belt, Rose’s second triumph over Jedrzejczyk showed her ability to thoroughly break down and understand the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent, exploiting the vulnerabilities while mitigating the strengths.
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While both of her victories over Jedrzejcyk can mainly be attributed to her dynamic striking style, striking was not the preferred tactic Namajunas utilized to carve her way through the formidable 115-pound roster. Before their first bout, the looming question was whether or not Namajunas would be able to take down Jedrzejcyk, as that was ostensibly the only way for her to have a plausible shot at victory. In fact, before knocking out Joanna in their first bout, Rose had yet to achieve a knockout in professional competition (this remains her only KO/TKO to this date).
Contrary to what recency bias may have us believe, Namajunas was never regarded as a formidable striker. Five of her eight professional victories come by way of submission (one armbar and four rear-naked chokes), usually after Rose wore down her opponent with a style of ground and pound that is equal parts intellectual and tyrannical. The success of this strategy is contingent upon Rose being able to get her opponent to the mat. It is the manner in which Rose approaches taking down her opponents that we see an incredibly high level of game planning and fight IQ that has allowed the Thug Queen (nickname I have just bestowed upon her) to carve her way through a roster of dangerous fighters, and dethrone the woman who was arguably once the greatest female strawweight of all-time.
The Ronda Rousey hangover
It is nearly impossible to discuss the current state of women’s MMA without mentioning the name Ronda Rousey. Her sudden departure from the sport has left the UFC brass in a bit of a crisis, unable to recreate the sensationalism that was once present in the women’s divisions. Business conundrums aside, Ronda Rousey’s influence on women’s MMA can still be seen in tactical decisions, all the way down to the techniques that are regularly implemented in competition.
Almost every female who currently fights in the UFC matured in the sport during the reign of Ronda Rousey. There is little doubt that they all studied every second she spent in the cage. She was the most dominant woman on the planet, and a victory over her would be the Holy Grail for an up-and-coming female fighter. Those who have followed in her footsteps likely watched every one of her exchanges, not just to learn how to stop her tactics in case they ever competed against her, but in hopes of replicating her success over other opponents. The two technical legacies we see from Rousey’s legendary career are an increased focus on the armbar, and the head and arm throw. Armbars are an important skill that in no way will be detrimental for fighters to learn and implement. However, the increased interest in the head and arm hip throw is a detriment to the female fighters who choose to use it, as the drawbacks of the maneuver are both numerous and consequential.
The drawbacks of the head and arm throw in mixed martial arts
At its core, a head and arm hip throw is a simple takedown. The thrower locks their hands around their opponent’s head and arm, lowers their base to get their hips under the hips of the opponent and then uses the headlock grip to lift them up and over their hips, landing them on their back with the thrower on top in what is known as a scarf hold position. Here, Ronda Rousey strikes her way into a clinch position against Miesha Tate, locks her hands around Tate’s head and left arm while positioning her hips in front of Tate’s. Then she lifts Tate off her center of gravity and throws her over her hips, landing in a scarf hold position.
The head and arm throw is a common occurrence in Judo and American Wrestling, where the rule sets allow for it to be incredibly effective. To win in Judo, all one has to do is throw their opponent on their back (called an ippon) or pin them. In Wrestling a head and arm throw can score points and lead to a victory by pin as well.
These rulesets fit perfectly with the inherent strengths of the throw while mitigating its disadvantages, which is not the case in MMA. In these particular grappling sports, the attacker can use a head and arm throw to win quickly (either by ippon or subsequent pin), and does not have to worry about the need to land strikes or transition to a more dominant position, which is essential in MMA.
The problems with the head and arm throw all stem from the fact that by obtaining the powerful headlock grip the thrower gives their opponent a deep underhook (notice Tate’s right arm above). This can result in a counterattacking technique such as a takedown from the double-underhooks body lock, or taking the thrower’s back post-throw. This disadvantage is inherent to any headlock based maneuver, a lesson that was learned in the early days of men’s MMA. Underhooks are crucial in clinch fighting, as they provide a whole host of options. The counter-attacker can slip their head out and to get behind their opponent, as Michelle Waterson did against Paige VanZant below. Waterson used this positional advantage to push VanZant to the fence easily.
Alternatively, the counter-attacker can change levels and attack traditional wrestling takedowns. Here Tecia Torres uses the deep underhook to attack a single leg on Michelle Waterson, using the threat of the takedown to open Waterson up to strikes. Notice how Torres’ left arm is unrestricted in grabbing Waterson’s right leg.
One can also take the preferred approach of Rose Namajunas when faced with a head and arm threat and achieve the coveted double-underhooks body lock, which is perhaps the most dominant clinch position. It should also be noted that the counter attacker’s underhook is still prevalent if the thrower is successful in taking the fight to the ground, where they will face similar threats. Once on the mat, the thrower has substantial control over one arm and the head, but minimal control over the hips or legs. This can lead to a back take like in Rousey’s bout vs. Liz Carmouche (shown later) or at the very least an unnecessary scramble that could have been avoided. Michelle Waterson, who frequently employs the head and arm throw, won this post-throw scramble against Paige VanZant by taking her back but lost it when she attempted the throw against Namajunas.
Where the scramble above lead to Waterson taking VanZant’s back and subsequently strangling her, the same scramble lead to Rose taking Waterson’s back, resulting in top position and delivering punishing ground and pound for the duration of the first round in their bout (this sequence is broken down below).
Gambles such as this should be entirely unacceptable for a high-level MMA fighter. Risking them is unnecessary, especially when there are much better takedowns available that don’t allow for them.
Ronda Rousey was able to overcome these inherent negatives of the head and arm throw, both on her feet and on the floor, but her success should be viewed as an exception. The reasons she was able to effectively utilize a head and arm throw are no secret. Rousey had been using this technique for well over a decade in Olympic-level Judo and grappling competition, while in MMA she was implementing it against relatively novice competition. She is also arguably one of the most naturally athletic individuals to ever enter the sport of MMA, which allowed her to use an unmatched degree of strength and agility to compensate for the flaws in the position.
Here is Rousey utilizing an awesome hop over maneuver after throwing Miesha Tate (this sequence directly follows the clip of Rousey throwing Tate previously shown). Notice how at the start of the clip, as a result of a head and arm throw, Tate has a deep underhook with her right arm which would allow her to escape her hips and take Rousey’s back. Ronda nullifies this threat by cartwheeling to the other side of Tate’s body, eliminating Tate’s escape and leaving Rousey with the coveted far side underhook (Rousey’s right arm is under Tate’s left arm at the end of the clip).
We have yet to see a comparable level of athleticism and technical understanding from any MMA fighter, male or female, that would make the risks of the head and arm throw worth it. Even Ronda Rousey, who might be the most talented head-and-arm-thrower in the history of Mixed Martial Arts, was not able to fully avoid the vulnerabilities of providing an opponent a deep underhook, as we saw in her previously mentioned bout with Liz Carmouche. Notice how in the clip below, even though Rousey has taken down Carmouche, she has virtually no control over Carmouche’s hips and legs. Carmouche is able to move her lower half at will, which allows her to turn to all fours and eventually take Rousey’s back.
The generation of female fighters currently active in all echelons of the UFC saw nothing but repetitive success with the head and arm hip throw at the hands of an incredibly gifted practitioner and naturally attributed this success to the effectiveness of the takedown when instead it should have been attributed to the athlete. Rose Namajunas is an outlier in this regard. She appears to have no delusions about the inherent flaws of the head and arm grip and has built an entire system of takedowns around exploiting this massive flaw in the meta of women’s MMA. As long as her challengers in the strawweight division continue to fail to see the fundamental design flaws in their technique, “Thug Rose” is going to be able to take them down at will, resulting in very few serious threats to her claim on the strawweight belt.
Rose Namajunas’ takedown blueprint
The vast majority of Rose Namajunas’ takedowns come from a clinch position that is known as the double-underhook body lock, or just as a “body lock” for short. A body lock is shown in the picture below. The wrestler in the black shirt has both of his arms under his opponent’s armpits, giving him the double underhooks body lock.
By obtaining a body lock, black shirt has dominant control over green shirt’s center of gravity allowing for throws and trips. Because black shirt’s arms are in the underhook position below green shirt’s arms, it would be relatively easy for black shirt to change levels and access the lower body for traditional wrestling takedowns. Rose has never found much success with traditional double and single legs, likely due to her relatively lean and slender build. The most prominent display of this inability was her fight with Karolina Kowalkiewicz, where she was unable to use traditional wrestling takedowns to get the much bulkier Polish fighter to the floor. Namajunas has had much more success with taking down her opponents with upper body trips and throws from the body lock, which doesn’t require the excessive level of explosiveness that lower body takedowns do.
Besides providing the ability to take down an opponent without utilizing an excessive degree of explosiveness, a body lock is an incredibly versatile tool. It can be used against as a counterattack against a head and arm throw as previously mentioned, or it can be obtained actively in a proactive nature. This adaptability allows Rose to threaten her opponents in all areas of the fight. If they attempt to clinch to shut down her in-and-out striking they risk get clinched and thrown, now forced to deal with Rose’s ever-dangerous ground game.
When Rose wants to actively take the fight to the ground on her terms, she has a few options to achieve double underhooks and take her opponent down. She can strike her way into a clinch and pummel for double underhooks, but that is less than ideal. This tactic will result in Rose having to out pummel her opponent, a constant, grueling battle that can lead to the opponent stalling or counter-attacking.
Instead, Namajunas typically enters the clinch in a manner that guarantees her the double underhooks, bypassing the pummeling battle and avoiding an unnecessary expenditure of time and energy. One way she does this is by entering the clinch from a single leg takedown position. Below is a clip of grappling aficionado Riley Bodycomb demonstrating how this transition works.
Riley enters using what is called a “snatch single leg,” which is done with a small movement from close range, instead of the big explosive shot from far outside. After obtaining a shallow single leg position, Bodycomb quickly wraps his arms around his partner’s body in a body lock position and then finishes with a back arch takedown. Note, in this scenario the single leg entry is only a means of gaining access to the double underhooks position. There is no intent to finish a traditional single leg takedown that requires a high expenditure of energy.
Note: All the clips of Riley Bodycomb in this article come from videos he uploaded to YouTube. His digital download “No Kurtka” is a fantastic source on back arches and clinch fighting in general.
And here we can see Rose Namajunas use this same tactic against Paige VanZant in the fifth round of their bout. Here, Namajunas catches one of VanZant’s kicks and moves to a single leg takedown position. Not wanting to finish using a traditional single leg, Rose moves to the body lock, then throws VanZant with a spiral trip.
While actively seeking the body lock from a single leg or clinch position is an incredibly effective way for Rose Namajunas to take down her opponents, the real strength of the body lock is how it perfectly counters a head and arm throw. As previously stated, women’s MMA has an unhealthy fixation on the head and arm throws, which is currently being exploited by the strawweight champion.
If her opponent chooses to attempt a head and arm throw Rose quickly establishes a body lock before utilizing one of two distinct takedowns to get the fight to the ground. The first is the most dynamic of the pair, called a back arch. Back arches are common in almost all types of grappling competition, most notably in Greco-Roman Wrestling and Judo (the throw is called an Ura Nage in Judo). Here we see Reily Bodycomb display this technique. Notice Bodycomb’s opponent has his hands locked in a head and arm position on the second throw, where he would be able to throw Bodycomb if he wasn’t countered with a back arch.
Rose used this throw to great effect against Paige VanZant in the second round of their bout. Paige grabs Rose’s head and attempts a head and arm variation of a Harai O Goshi, but Rose sinks her hips and launches Paige onto her back.
The other takedown Namajunas regularly utilizes from the body lock is a standard spiral trip. While a spiral trip follows the same principles as a back arch, it is much less dynamic. This takedown is executed from the same double underhooks position, but where a back arch utilizes a lifting motion, the trip utilizes a spiral twist in order to off-balance the opponent. This takedown can appear like the thrower has gently “lowered” their opponent to the mat, while a back arch is much more impactful and forceful.
While both the back arch and the standard trip are variations that are appropriate for different occasions, the mechanics are essentially the same. Achieve a body lock, then use the dominant control over the opponent’s hips to offset their center of gravity and take them down with either a high amplitude back arch or a subtler spiral trip. The clip below shows Roses utilizing a spiral trip against VanZant. Notice Rose’s right leg blocking VanZant’s left from basing out as she spirals.
It should be noted that back arches and spiral trips are not the entirety of Rose’s takedown arsenal from the body lock, just what she has chosen to use most often. She has also used Harai Ogoshi hip throws like in the first clip below. And if she can, Rose will use the dominant control of a body lock to muscle her opponents down to the mat.
Because all her preferred takedowns originate from the dominant position of a double underhook body lock, they both provide the same mechanical advantages to Rose that would be forfeited if she was to elect a more traditional takedown strategy of double and single legs. By choosing not to follow the standard wrestling path, Namajunas is avoiding the age-old predicament of having to lower her head into a vulnerable position near her opponent’s hips.
Anyone who is familiar with submission grappling is knowledgeable about the plethora of counter attacks that can be levied against an opponent shooting for the legs. By lowering their head for a shot, one has opened themselves up to counters such as guillotine and Darce chokes, throws, or the infamous Travis Browne-style elbow strikes.
These threats can be mitigated, but never fully eliminated. As a fight drags on into the later rounds, even the most proficient grapplers who have spent countless hours practicing avoiding them will become fatigued and make mistakes. Upper body throws and trips such as the ones utilized by Rose don’t require her to lower her head into a vulnerable position, effectively eliminating these risks. There are a plethora of counters and defenses to every takedown, but the ones Rose has to deal with are much less formidable and costly than the alternatives that would accompany a traditional wrestling game plan.
Along with these defensive advantages, back arches and outside trips allow the thrower to effectively bypass the opponent’s guard before it is ever established. This is a massive advantage for a fighter with the skillset of Rose Namajunas, as finishing her takedowns in side control allows her to immediately transition to the mount or back where she can unleash a deadly combination of furious ground and pound coupled with slick submissions. If she was to implement conventional double and single legs, or even a standard forward inside trip, she would likely land in her opponent’s guard where she risks vulnerability to a submission or being stalled out and stood back up. Instead, she elects to avoid this problem rather than solving it, which has provided her with phenomenal results.
Technical knowledge provides Namajunas with a failsafe
If worse comes to worse and Rose Namajunas is taken down with a head and arm throw, she does a great job of maintaining composure and finding her way into a dominant position. It is never ideal to be taken down, as being on the bottom will likely result in receiving damage and losing points on the judge’s scorecards. However, Rose’s deep understanding of the head and arm vs. body lock battle provides her with the ability to counter effectively. As previously stated, once a head and arm throw is completed and the fight is taken to the ground, the defender still has the deep underhook which allows them to escape their hips. Here are two examples of Rose using her underhook to counter a head and arm throw, ending up in a dominant position. The first sequence occurred during Namajunas’ April 2017 bout with Michelle Waterson.
This sequence starts with Waterson grabbing a head and arm clinch on Rose in an attempt to stop a barrage of strikes. As Waterson grabs her head, Rose locks her hands around Waterson’s torso in a body lock position.
Waterson steps her right leg out and puts her hips in front of Rose’s, giving her the leverage she needs to complete a head and arm throw. Despite being taken down, Rose still has the body lock.
Waterson completes the takedown and has control over Rose’s head and right arm with her headlock grip. Rose has established a back hook with her left leg and has a butterfly hook with her right leg. Her right arm is pulled in tight to her face, limiting Waterson’s control and protecting from strikes.
Over the course of 25 seconds from the previous frame, Rose has used her right leg to methodically scoot her hips backward and out from under Waterson. She is now almost completely free from the head and arm control. Notice how Namajunas’ body is entirely behind Waterson. Waterson has control over Rose’s head with her right arm, but can’t release her head and arm grip to throw punches.
Rose is able to thread her left hand (red glove) through and gain control of Waterson’s left wrist (blue glove). This is known as “barring the arm.”
Rose uses her left leg back hook on Waterson’s left leg and her grip on Waterson’s left wrist to pull Waterson to the left. This gives her the space to slide her hips out and establish her right leg in a back-hook position. Once she frees her head, she will have Waterson’s back.
Rose has crossed her feet to give her extra leverage and straightened her back to pop her head out from under Waterson’s right armpit. She now has Waterson’s back with her left wrist controlled, a terrible position for Waterson. Waterson would eventually escape but Rose would maintain dominant top position for the remainder of the round.
Viewing the full sequence will show how Rose remains calm and collected at all times. She understands that Waterson’s choice of technique has an inherent mechanical disadvantage, and she uses this knowledge to escape and emerge in a more dominant position than her attacker.
A similar occurrence happened in Namajunas’ bout against Paige VanZant. Notice how in the clip below, VanZant never was really on top of Rose. Rose was able to use her left leg and left hand to base out and prevent VanZant from dragging her over with the head and arm grip. Had she panicked and attempted to use her hands to break VanZant’s grip, she would have been muscled onto the bottom instead of ending up in mount like she did.
Long reign the “Thug” queen
While Rose’s takedown game has been expertly designed to exploit the glaring flaws present in the women’s strawweight division, it is only a portion of the skillset that has allowed her to seize and subsequently defend the championship belt.
It is beneficial to dissect the takedown techniques implemented by Rose Namajunas for their tactical value alone, and viewing them in a larger context gives us an indication of Rose’s intense commitment to thoroughly understanding the advantages and disadvantages of every technique currently being employed in MMA. She is not simply using unknown techniques or unmatched physical attributes to takedown and control her opponents; she has built an entire game plan around exploiting the flaws in the meta left behind by the sport’s pioneer. This shows what an incredibly talented and insightful fighter Rose Namajunas is, one who studies each of her opponents thoroughly, finding the best way to avoid their areas of expertise while attacking their flaws.
Specific tactical choices aside, the mere intellectual thoroughness of Rose Namajunas’ takedown game shows us how she is levels above the rest of the strawweight division and is likely to remain a dominant champion for quite some time.
I can't believe this sport is legal. But it is, so I'm here to write about it