Bellator London might have been a shambles on the organisational end—with the card scattered through different channels and awkwardly staggered to appeal to different time zones—but it was all worth it for Rafael Lovato’s performance. It had a distinct flavour of Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza’s own fight against Gegard Mousasi a few years back but that is as much to do with Mousasi as either of those men: his guard recovery and retention have always been very solid and you could see these both in action extensively against Chris Weidman.
Generally we do not do much proclaiming that a certain technique or tactic is “the future” of an aspect of MMA, but there is fun to be had in examining trends and even trying to get out ahead of them and Lovato versus Mousasi demonstrated some interesting ideas which he likely didn’t invent but which haven’t quite caught on at large in MMA yet.
The Leite Hook
The most obvious example that we can point to is his guard pulling. Choosing to drag the opponent into your guard in MMA is generally seen as madness even for the very best grapplers. Shinya Aoki used to jump for flying closed guard pulls and that was incredible but he was very much an exception. Minoru Suzuki fell on the back of his head and knocked himself out trying the same thing when he couldn’t take Guy Mezger down. Vitor Belfort would pull guard when he ran out of ideas and this led to him being slapped about by Kazushi Sakuraba and murdered on the mat by Jacare. But the way that Lovato and Demian Maia pull guard is a million miles removed from more traditional guard pulls.
When Lovato ducks in for his opponents hips to attempt a takedown, it is almost guaranteed that they will throw their legs back and drop their hips to sprawl on him. Keeping a grip on them, he will sit through on his side and throw his top leg over their calf, establishing a half guard.
Lovato shoots and Mousasi sprawls (1), Lovato sits through and shoots his left knee inside of Mousasi’s left thigh (2).
Immediately after this Lovato throws his right foot over to create the outside hook / Leite hook (3), which he can use to drag Mousasi’s trapped leg back (4). This knee torque combined with the underhook significantly hampers Mousasi’s mobility and ability to pass or strike effectively. It also gives Lovato the ability to begin building up to his knees.
This outside hook half guard is one of the most useful sweeping positions in jiu jitsu because it allows the fighter to turn onto his knees while preventing his opponent from turning to face him directly. Up until now Demian Maia has been the only fighter of any note doing this in MMA, going to his guard off his single leg. Robert Drysdale teaches his fighters not to think about the half guard as a guard but as a single leg that needs completing and that is exactly the point here: you aren’t pulling guard, you’re pulling yourself underneath the opponent with an underhook and then building back up to take them down. Obviously, that is easier said than done: the fighter is still attempting a shot, going to bottom position and then building up again, so it is a pretty labour intensive way of achieving the takedown.
Most commonly this outside hook half guard ends up in what is often called “the dogfight”: both men on their knees, one man with the underhook and sitting on his opponent’s leg, the other man cranking down with a strong overhook (see below). Eddie Bravo famously built up to this position off his lockdown back in the day but Lucas Leite is the guy out there winning world titles in jiu jitsu with it. Leite’s five medals from the no-gi worlds should tell you how well this style of half guard works even without wearing pajamas made of towel.
Whether it is Leite, Maia or Lovato, the finishes are the same when the opponent jumps up to their feet. Often their trapped leg will be straightened up like a lever at this point and they can be toppled over backwards if the other leg is caught or blocked behind the knee.
Another Leite favourite is to chase his opponent up to the feet and throw in the far hook in order to attempt to take the back. By throwing in the far hook the fighter can make his opponent’s whizzer largely ineffective and rather uncomfortable. Lovato almost achieved this against Mousasi but where Leite will simply throw himself over the opponent and both men will crash to the mat as he completes the back take, Mousasi was able to prevent Lovato from completing the back take by pinning his right side to the fence.
While Lovato was able to consolidate on failed shots by sitting through into the underhook half guard, he also used a nice shot into outside trip—entangling the leg in the course of the shot. When Mousasi used a short uchi-mata type move to throw Lovato down off this trip attempt, Lovato was already in the half guard with the outside leg hooked.
Lovato shoots in on Mousasi, hooking the lead leg for an outside trip (2). This is a T.J. Dillashaw favourite.
Mousasi turns side on (3) and kicks back into an uchi-mata style throw (4). This takes Mousasi into top position (5) but Lovato still has his underhook, has hooked Mousasi’s leg, and Mousasi has extended his own leg to perform the throw.
The Frankie Edgar Knee Pick
On the subject of takedown attempts, Lovato had great success with Frankie Edgar’s favourite knee pick. Edgar will normally hide this with body jabs, then jab his open palm into the opponent’s shoulder and force their weight back to pick up their lead leg. Lovato didn’t body jab but did awkwardly superman feint his way into a couple of attempts. The first time that Lovato attempted this takedown he ran straight through the champion.
Lovato ducks in, driving his lead hand into Mousasi’s shoulder (2) to lighten his lead leg (3).
Later attempts didn’t yield the same easy finish, but Lovato was able to use the entry to pick up a single leg, which he finished by dragging the leg across his body and stepping through to sweep Mousasi onto his hands.
Lovato has the single leg with Mousasi’s foot between his legs, a fairly neutral position (1). He drags Mousasi’s foot to his left hip (2) and then steps through with his right leg to reap out Mousasi’s standing leg (3).
Strangely, despite Frankie Edgar’s success at two weight classes, this technique has never much caught on. It pairs so nicely with the jab that an effective striker can hide his entry, but a more timid and primitive striker can show the entry early and then use the threat of it to land good, hard jabs. It is also a less committed movement than a level change and shot at the hips and Edgar has used to pick up the leg and then drop it, just to set up a body kick or punching combination.
The Matrix / Calf Slicer
The fight was not one-way traffic though. Mousasi weathered a smothering and at one point in the third round wriggled through a body triangle to wind up in Lovato’s closed guard. Lovato has already shown some very interesting ground work in Bellator, especially using double wrist control which is usually considered dangerous when elbow strikes are legal. In this instance Lovato eschewed wrist control and got straight to work doing something smarter.
Lovato immediately posted on Mousasi’s left shoulder with his right hand—a cross frame which hid his chin from Mousasi’s right hand in the same way that any stiff arm or shoulder roll on the feet will. With his other hand he underhooked Mousasi’s right leg and opened his guard to get onto his side. This allowed him to turn his right knee downward (“inverting the knee” as John Danaher terms it). His left knee then came in front of Mousasi’s chest, creating separation and a control on distance as Lovato clasped his hands around the underhooked knee.
Lovato underhooks the leg, cross frames, opens his guard and gets on his side (1). This allows his right knee to slip inside of Mousasi’s right thigh and his left knee to come in front of Mousasi (2). The left knee can then be used to create space (3).
Getting the bottom knee inside of the opponent’s thigh is a huge part of this position, which you will see more and more top flight grapplers going to in no-gi competition. Once the knee is in the guard player has the chance to invert around that leg and threaten leg attacks. If some space is provided or the opponent stands, the bottom man can throw his outside leg in and start attacking the calf slicer position—this rarely ends in a calf slicer submission but often exposes the opponent’s back. The Miyao brothers have been using this against kneeling opponents for a few years now.
While the Miyao’s are spindly, flexible spinning tops, you can see other grapplers brute forcing submission attempts from the same set up. Aaron ‘Tex’ Johnson ran through the ADCC 2018 East Coast Trials with this technique. Once he has his inverted knee inside of the opponent’s thigh Johnson will often use his free leg to pendulum the opponent forward and lift them off the mat, exposing that same calf slicer attempt.
Lovato instead showed a classic Ryan Hall set up, using inversion to force his opponent to bury their head and then spinning back to guard and snapping up a triangle in the process. While Hall often used to use the inverted guard simply to bait conservative opponents in, Lovato is inverting to threaten the leg, creating a nice double attack.
Lovato is inverted, with his right knee inside of Mousasi’s thigh. He has brought his left foot across to threaten a leg attack (1) Because Mousasi is burrowing down into Lovato, Lovato can free his left foot and spin back into closed guard, attempting to trap an arm en route (2).
And returning to Ryan Hall, his excellent DVD series on the inverted guard emphasized that there are really two ways to be inverted. The first is the legs-over-head fashion that is familiar, but the second is a less strenuous position with the feet or shins on the opponent and the hips blocking their forward movement, but with the inverted man’s head facing away. After taking some good shots on the mat, a tired Lovato used the underhook on the leg to turn into this position, where Mousasi was forced to swing awkwardly over his back and could not land as effectively.
Bits and Bobs
Also worth mentioning was Lovato’s passing in this fight. Just as great ringcraft can only be shown against an opponent with good ringcraft of his own, Lovato’s passing looked terrific because Mousasi was doing well to keep squirming a knee back in. For instance, in the third round, Lovato was attempting to mount Mousasi and Mousasi’s left knee kept getting back in (1).
Having hit a wall, Lovato gave his left leg back into Mousasi’s guard (2). But it was a momentary retreat as Lovato tripoded up, dragged his knee to the other side of Mousasi’s body and began attacking a knee cut pass (3).
Another interesting note was that after Lovato lost his back control body triangle in the third round, he was a lot more diligent in retaining control of Mousasi when he took the back in the fifth. In one instance he used a body triangle, off centre of Mousasi’s back but with his right foot inside of Mousasi’s left thigh as a sort of hook. This was a favourite of Shinya Aoki and while it can make it trickier to finish a choke—your chest not being directly on your opponent’s back—it can be used to turn the opponent onto their side. At this point the grappler might get up on a hand, where he might land good punches provided he isn’t Shinya Aoki.
Rafael Lovato is now Bellator middleweight champion and though there aren’t a great many big names for him to test himself against, there are certainly some respectable challengers from Fedor’s team whose strong sambo might force Lovato to rely on his shots into guard pulls even more. Whatever the case, Lovato is doing some exciting things and serves as a good example not just to top flight grapplers entering the wild world of MMA, but to any fighter who wants to apply jiu jitsu without a gi and with the risk—nay, guarantee—of being punched in the face.