Unless you’re training in a Gracie Barra gym, or a self-defense oriented BJJ gym, you most likely do not pay a lot of attention to headlocks. Or, should I say, headlock escapes. That’s not a good idea./ The moment a high-level Judoka walks through the door and gets to a scarf hold (and they will) you’ll instantly regret not having BJJ headlock escapes in your arsenal. They’re not just there for self-defense reasons, but actually have a large application in Jiu-Jitsu, both on the ground, and standing.
Headlocks in BJJ are not a go-to position. The above example of a Judo scarf hold (aka Kesa Gatame) is probably the most widely used headlock variation in the sport. Or is it? When it comes to intentionally looking for BJJ headlocks, the scarf hold tops the list. But, what happens when we’re wrestling on our feet, or dealing with the turtle, or even trying to pass the guard? In most of these situations, albeit unintentionally, we do use a lot of headlock variations. Conversely, headlock escapes are a must if we want to avoid scrambles, and most of those Guillotine choke taps.
The Ultimate Playground Fight Position
Headlocks are a position that comes naturally to people. If you take a look at playground fights, kids usually go for it without even knowing what they’re doing. If 90% of fights end up on the ground (I completely made up that number), then 99% of them involve a headlock of some kind. This is as true for adults as it is for kids, and is just as true for the streets as it is on playgrounds.
Headlocks come in all shapes and sizes, and as such, are based on one basic human instinct – control someone’s head. Since we imitate a lot of movement and momentum with our necks, we instinctually like to control someone’s head when we’re in a fight, be it a street fight or a combat sports match. Of course, with trained people, getting to a headlock is difficult and achieving something with one, even more so However, when trained people start using headlocks, it doesn’t matter how much grappling, or any martial art you know. If you do not have headlock escapes ready to sue, you’ll not just end up on the ground, but suffer along the way as well.
That said, BJJ headlock options go further than most other sports. Front headlocks (like those in wrestling), side headlocks (think Judo), standing headlocks( think Blood Sport), and even rear headlocks are a part of the game. Moreover, they are not just available both standing and on the ground, but also with and without a Gi. In all honesty, a headlock won’t offer too much offense, depending on the variation, given that usually both arms are involved. However, it will pin you and restrict your movement. In certain situations, like front headlocks, they’ll also open up chokes as well.
Standing BJJ Headlock Escapes
On the subject of BJJ headlock escapes, let’s start standing. It is not as much a thing of self-defense, although we’ll cover one such version, bot more of dealing with headlocks when they arise as a result of the standing grip fighting game that we all use to set up takedowns. In that sense, standing BJJ headlock escapes are not just useful, but mandatory.
For starters, the most recognizable standing side headlock defense. Why do you need it? Simple – try using a duck under entry to a rear body lock takedown, and you’ll immediately notice why. Some takedown exchanges, although more than worth the risk, will place you in a difficult spot, like a side headlock for example. The solution here is not difficult, though: look towards your opponent’s torso (to ease pressure on the neck), hug their waist with one arm, place the other arm behind their knee. You can now finish the rear body lock with a block finish, ending up on top, and even getting a shot at an armbar.
The front headlock is another position you’ll often end up in, whether it is BJJ or MMA, and even in self-defense scenarios. While this one can be taken directly to the ground, three’s also a way to deal with it early, while you’re still standing. The key thing is to create distance, by placing one arm on the opponent’s hip. Make it a point to use stiff-arm so that you get a frame. The frame will stop all attacks whether it is takedowns or a Guillotine choke, and allow you to create enough space to pull on the head locking arm and get your head free.
Headlock Escapes On The Ground
BJJ headlock scape options on the ground are available in more varieties, given the heavy focus of the sport on ground fighting. The front headlock makes an appearance here, mostly from the turtle position, as it is different in comparison to the standing front headlock escape. And the movement used is something you’ve been doing for ages in BJJ warm-ups and as part of drills. It is the wrestling sit-out. The movement involves holding the head locking arm with both your arms, and exploding into a sit out, that you then use to switch direction and get the back, or spin out and get a front headlock of your own.
Headlocks on the ground, apart from the front headlock have to do with the Kesa Gatame or scarf hold position most of the time. Escaping from there will require you to have more than one option, though, given how widespread the use of this position is. One simplest option is rolling the top person over like they do in Judo. The trick is in trapping their arm (which you do by gluing the back of your head to the mats), and in bridging. For the bridge, you want to lift up both your hips and shoulders, so that only your head and feet touch the ground. A body lock grip ensures you have a sufficient connection to roll your partner over and acquire a top position.
Another opportunity would be going to the back. This happens when an opponent is holding you down tightly, not allowing you to frame the head. The key moment is getting the elbow of the arm trapped in between you, to the ground. Once that happens, you’ll be able to move your hips, get a hook over their hip and start transitioning towards the back. In most cases, you’ll get mount instead, but that just opens up a direct route to the armbar, give the arm positioning, so why not?
BJJ headlock escapes are something that is undertrained but comes in more than useful in both sports and real lie situations. It is not just prudent to know how to defend headlocks for the needs of Jiu-Jitsu. The principles work perfectly if you apply them the other way around, in holding headlocks, and preventing people from escaping, or knowing when to transition. Simply put, have fun with headlocks, and at least master how to avoid and counter the front headlock, if you’re not going to go deeper into that area. You’ll thank me one day.