This article was written by Leigh Remedios, who is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Traditional Ju Jitsu and Tae Kwon Do. Leigh is a prolific competitor and has competed internationally in martial arts, including the UFC and Polaris. He has won several prestigious competitions, including the NAGA United Kingdom Grappling Championship belt and European IBJJF no-gi gold medals. Leigh runs a Jiu Jitsu and MMA Academy in Wiltshire, UK.
The 1990s were a very interesting period. The Cold War had just ended, the World Wide Web had emerged, and the UFC was created. With the development of MMA as a combat sport, it became very clear that grappling as a skill set was critical if one wanted to be a well-rounded martial artist. So, when I had the opportunity to attend my first Jiujitsu class in Vancouver in January 1997, I jumped at the chance. I learned the difference between guard and mount, I experienced what it was like to be strangled, and then we got the part I was waiting for: sparring.
I had done a small amount of Judo and Greco Roman Wrestling as a kid and even a small stint in Professional Wrestling. I was an athletic lad with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, so I could bring a scrap, but I couldn’t deal with the control and technique of the more experienced students. It was exhausting but fun… until my ankle popped. I was caught in an ankle lock and instinctively tried to roll out, but it was no use. There was a CRACK, followed by a scream, followed by a dressing down from the coach to my training partner.
Fortunately, I was ok. I was back at training the next day, a bit ginger about putting weight on my ankle, but I was sold. And I realised I needed to learn how to leg lock. Heel hooks were incorporated into our training just like any other submission. In fact, when I returned to the UK and did drop-ins at other Jiujitsu gyms, I was shocked that no one else practised leg locks. I couldn’t understand how these grapplers had become so good at armbars and triangles yet just stared at me when I entered the legs. People started to consider me a bit of a leg lock specialist, but that wasn’t (and isn’t) true; I just considered them a regular part of my grappling game.
As the sport of Jiujitsu grew and separated itself from MMA, some reasons for dismissing heel hooks became apparent. The main reason was that twisting leg locks were banned in Brazilian Jiujitsu competitions. Heel hooks were also getting a bad reputation in MMA. They were predominantly used by Japanese fighters, having been introduced by the Lancashire Catch-As-Catch-Can wrestlers. Japanese MMA events were keen to put on spectacle matches, and we often saw smaller Japanese fighters trying to leg-lock larger American fighters, getting pounded unconscious in the process. Yuki Nakai famously submitted Gerard Gordeau with an outside heel hook but lost sight in his right eye in that fight. It seemed that learning heel hooks wasn’t worth investing time into.
However, leg locks were being used successfully on Japanese fight circuits such as Shooto and Pancrase. Against fighters of similar size, heel hooks became much more viable. If done poorly, there is a risk of losing position and/or being punched, but that’s true of any submission. When professional submission grappling events that allowed heel hooks started to appear, it became clear that they were viable techniques. Frank Shamrock submitted Dan Henderson very quickly by heel hook on The Contenders in 1997, and Elvis Sinosic was the first athlete to win an ADCC match by heel hook by forcing Clarance Thatch to tap in 1998. Heel hooks have been prominent in ADCC ever since, as well as in other professional submission grappling events such as EBI, Metamoris, Polaris and many others.
Since these professional grappling events have become more popular, the amateur events have also started introducing heel hooks. NAGA has always allowed them, and now even the IBJJF has introduced heel hooks to brown and black belt NoGi divisions. If you want to compete in NoGi events, at some point, the ruleset is going to allow reaping and heel hooks. Even if you don’t intend to compete, your training partners will. They will be rolling with heel hooks. Avoiding NoGi classes or just tapping any time your partner goes near your legs isn’t a productive strategy. A far more rewarding approach is to learn to heel hook and enjoy holding your own with your peers or having an advantage over those who refuse to learn them. I strongly disagree with the idea that people don’t need to learn leg locks until brown belt; imagine ignoring armbars until then and thinking you can learn the skill in time for your next competition. People who have been training leg locks their entire career will have a HUGE advantage over you.
I understand the argument that people can become reliant on leg locks and neglect passing, but again, that argument can be applied to anything else. Do you ignore triangles because they’ll cause you to neglect sweeps? Of course not; you build a well-rounded game to attack from the guard. Similarly, leg locks simply form part of your arsenal; they don’t replace it. We still see passing at brown and black belt, even though leg locks are legal. It’s up to you to manage your skill set adequately, but omitting an entire chapter is not the way to do that.
How have heel hooks worked for me? To repeat, I’m not a heel hook specialist; I’m a former professional MMA fighter and Jiujitsu black belt who includes heel hooks as part of my regular training. I’ve used heel hooks successfully in amateur and professional MMA, as well as submission grappling competitions and professional Jiujitsu. I’m not afraid to compete in a ruleset that allows heel hooks. I used them every day in rolling, as do the other coaches and students in my gym, and we allow them from white belt. They add a big dimension to my game, both when using and attacking the guard, and make rolling much more fun. We have had no heel hook injuries at our gym, and we’ve been running since 2006. Can heel hooks cause injury? I refer you to the second paragraph of this article. However, at 47 years old, I have no Jiujitsu injuries, and I attribute that to sensible training, which anyone can do.