Martial arts are transient by nature. Each new development builds upon an established foundation forged throughout decades, if not centuries. Everything in life is constantly changing. Jiu-jitsu itself is not immune to this immutable truth. Built on the basis of judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu was developed by the Gracies and the Machados into the quintessential ground fighting art. While still in its infancy, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is developing at an exponential rate and this is no doubt aided by the sport’s association with mixed martial arts.
While loyal MMA fans will recall BJJ fighters fighting in their kimonos, it was apparent early that the jiu- jitsu gi was not conducive to good MMA grappling. This realization led to many athletes dropping the gi and focusing on grappling without it. No-gi grappling immediately caused rapid changes for jiu-jitsu players. No longer were grips abundant; collar chokes were completely gone. A grappler must now rely on his frames and his wrist controls. Everything changed.
The establishment of the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships, the premier proving ground for grapplers, brought us an interesting sight. No longer was jiu-jitsu alone enough to be dominant. American wrestlers like Mark Kerr were dominating world-class BJJ players, and the jiu-jitsu world realized it had to adapt. Though incorporating other disciplines was not new to BJJ players, the emergence of wrestlers in the no-gi realm forced all athletes to incorporate wrestling into their training or develop ways to nullify the wrestlers’ skills. This period ushered in development at an unrivaled rate, one that has not been topped until the last five years.
Leg locks are not new. Sambo and catch wrestling have numerous leg locks in their sports, but the rapid adoption of systematic approaches to leg locks in jiu-jitsu is something that can be traced back to a few people, one of whom is Eddie Cummings. He will make his long-awaited return to the mats at Kasai Pro 2 on Saturday in Brooklyn, New York.
Before we delve into Cummings and the Danaher Death Squad, we must first acknowledge the forefathers of the modern leg lock game. Dean Lister is arguably the greatest American submission grappler ever, and his contribution to leg locks cannot be understated. In his formative grappling years, he made a name for himself on the burgeoning California grappling scene as a straight ankle locking machine, winning upwards of 100 matches by the hold. As Lister broke into his black belt days, his leg lock of choice changed to the heel hook, and during his ADCC runs, he showed just how devastating the submission can be.
Another American who was pivotal in the leg lock movement’s development was Reilly Bodycomb, a sambo practitioner who popularized a number of varied leg lock entries in his highly influential instructionals and through stellar tournament performances. Without Lister and Bodycomb’s influence, it is unlikely we would see the emergence of dominant leg lockers like Cummings, Craig Jones, Garry Tonon and Gordon Ryan.
On his recent appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience, John Danaher, head coach at the famed Renzo Gracie Academy in New York, spoke of how Lister piqued his interest in leg locks after a brief conversation. Having noticed Lister submitting a number of people in the academy with leg locks during a visit to the gym, Danaher remarked on how he never incorporated the techniques in his own game, to which Lister responded, “Why would you ignore 50 percent of the human body?” From that discussion onwards, Danaher’s philosophy regarding leg locks began to develop. As far as martial artists go, there are few as analytical and systematic as Danaher. In the years following Lister’s visit, Danaher developed a system of leg entanglement, control and attack. An important emphasis on Danaher’s system was placed upon control. This varied from many leg lockers of the time who were primarily submission-orientated.
No success happens in isolation. Every success is developed in tandem with others, whether it be through building upon prior concepts or through working directly with another person. Danaher needed someone to embody his concepts and show their efficacy through real-world application. When a blue belt named Eddie Cummings showed an eagerness to specialize in leg locks, Danaher found his man. Cummings is not the greatest grappler of all-time, but without a doubt in my mind, I can confidently say that Cummings is the greatest leg lock specialist to walk this planet. Through his application of Danaher’s system, his own unparalleled creativity and technical prowess, Cummings almost single handedly brought ashi garami, inside sankaku and heel hooks to the fore in jiu-jitsu.
Through his Eddie Bravo Invitational and ADCC trials wins, Cummings showed how a well-tuned leg lock game can control and dominate even the most well-rounded grapplers. Soon Cummings would help hone the skills of his teammate, Garry Tonon, who would further fly the flag for leg lockers worldwide. In the years following Cummings’ initial exploding onto the scene, the world of no-gi grappling grew undeniably different. You cannot watch a grappling show without seeing the influence of Cummings and Danaher on display. Every elite-level grappler in the world is now forced to be well-versed in leg locks, and it is my opinion that would not be the case without Cummings.
Unfortunately, Cummings’ greatest adversary of his professional career has been himself. Over the years, Cummings has battled a long list of injuries, which have seen him miss last year’s ADCC and pull out of a number of events. When he makes his return to the mat against Renato Canuto, he will be facing one of the most difficult test of his career, a test in which he has the opportunity to show that he still has what it takes to compete and further cement his legacy as an innovator.
In the co-main event of the card, Cummings’ teammate, 16-year-old Nicky Ryan, who is a seasoned leg locker himself, will face 10th Planet star Geo Martinez in a match that will without doubt excite fans.
Kasai Pro 2 goes down at the Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York and will air live and exclusively on Flograppling.com.