A “Submission of the Year” can come in many shapes and many sizes. A year’s best tapout may stem from an impressive technique that ends a major high-stakes fight, or perhaps it is a visually impressive high-flying act that drops the jaws of even non-MMA watchers. Fabricio Werdum’s triangle choke on Fedor Emelianenko and Rumina Sato’s flying armbar on Charles Taylor do not have much in common other than their obvious greatness.
Somewhere in between those extremes, there are submissions that don’t happen in five-round classics and others that won’t blow your mind to see them in an animated .gif. They’re simple creative, crafty techniques that teach you a little something about fighting, even if you’re a grappling stalwart. They’re the kind of holds that can school and educate even a 20-year combat sports veteran and former Ultimate Fighting Championship titlist. Which brings us to Ben Rothwell teaching Josh Barnett -- and the MMA world -- all about the gogo choke.
It’s not that Rothwell beating Barnett on Jan. 30 was any kind of major upset in and of itself. “Big Ben” was only a +120 underdog by fight time and was coming off of impressive wins over Alistair Overeem and Matt Mitrione, while Barnett had fought just once in over two years prior. Keep in mind: We’re talking about heavyweights here. If you had told someone prior to UFC on Fox 18 in Newark, New Jersey, that Rothwell was going to beat Barnett, even if they disagreed, they would still probably shrug and entertain your thesis.
No, what made Rothwell’s submission so fantastic was that he submitted Barnett, one of the finest heavyweight grapplers in this sport’s history and a two-decade veteran that had never actually been tapped with a submission hold in his entire MMA career. Sure, Rothwell had used the exact same choke to tap Mitrione just seven months prior, but this was Barnett. On the heels of “The Warmaster” being flagged for a banned substance by the United States Anti-Doping Agency -- if upheld, it would be an unprecedented fourth drug test failure for Barnett since 2011 -- you may have some fiery opinions on the man, his career and his legacy. However, even the staunchest anti-Barnett campaigner could never deny his skill, technique and even surprising athleticism in the grappling department.
When the bout began, it certainly didn’t seem like the kind of fight that would produce a “Submission of the Year.” For the first eight minutes and change, Barnett diligently worked his jab, bloodied Rothwell’s nose, controlled distance and forced the Wisconsinite to load up on heavy strikes while chasing Barnett and eating jabs just to land glancing blows. As the second round heated up, Rothwell’s aggressive charges started to pay off; he began landing harder right hands on Barnett that made the former UFC heavyweight champ think that taking the bout to the ground would be the best course of action. That thought would be the beginning of the end for Barnett.
Even as he ate jab after jab, Rothwell simply kept swarming Barnett until his opponent opted for a lazy single-leg takedown. From there, it was hardly instantaneous. Rothwell defended and then dropped to his knees. Barnett pulled his head from the outside into the middle of Rothwell’s chest -- hardly ideal takedown form -- and from there, Rothwell set to work on what has become his trademark submission. Once he got his proper 10-finger guillotine grip, he whipped Barnett to his left and settled on top in half guard, choking his foe and cranking his head and neck at a nasty angle. Just when it seemed Barnett may spin out and scramble to his feet, he tapped.
Joe Rogan’s exclamatory “Wow!” spoke volumes, even for a broadcaster whose style is predicated on loud exclamations and hyperbole. Barnett couldn’t believe it, either, as he laid on his back, not just defeated but seemingly humiliated, putting his hand over his face and quietly shaking his head in disbelief. While the Barnett win may have cemented the connection between the victor and the gogo choke, Rothwell spent his post-fight interview with Rogan extolling the virtues and genius of his jiu-jitsu coach, Luiz Claudio. To hear Rothwell tell it, the gogo choke is Claudio’s invention, and he is merely a disciple.
“I’m very proud to be representing with Luiz, because Rickson Gracie is a renowned black belt [and he] made Luiz a black belt,” Rothwell said at the post-fight press conference. “When Rickson Gracie asks Luiz, ‘Show me this gogo,’ that’s something special. To watch Luiz become a master, to create his own things that are so effective, I feel like my submission skills are like a cheat code out there right now. Guys don’t know what I’m doing.”
So what exactly is Rothwell doing when he hits the gogo choke? In reality, it is simply a variation on a 10-finger guillotine. Just don’t tell Rothwell that.
“I’m not going to show the technique, but it’s obviously the hand grip,” Rothwell said. “I hear people say things like, ‘10-fingers,’ ‘squeezle-diesel’ [and] different variations of guillotine. It’s none of those, if you watch what they do with their hands. Luiz and I shake our heads. It’s something very unique.”
This claim is debatable. The gogo choke for all intents and purposes looks much like a 10-finger guillotine, and if there is a distinction to be made, perhaps it is on emphasizing crushing the opponent’s Adam’s apple -- “gogo” in Portuguese slang, hence the name, as well as the term gogoplata. With that said, even if you’re a gogo choke truther, it’s not important in this case. What makes Rothwell’s choke on Barnett the Sherdog “Submission of the Year” is the strategic and technical context and implications.
Firstly, as mentioned, Rothwell used it to choke out a historically excellent grappler who had never been tapped in MMA competition with a submission hold. On top of that, because guillotine chokes are perhaps the most standard of submissions, there is a tendency to dismiss their efficacy in high-level MMA; Rothwell bringing the gogo choke to the forefront highlights the fact that the most basic, elementary maneuvers can still be sudden, devastating fight finishers, especially if there is a slight physical permutation.
More than that, Rothwell tapping Barnett underscores the importance and value of the front headlock position in modern MMA. Because of the Unified Rules prohibiting knees to the head of a grounded opponent, casual wisdom suggests that the front headlock is not as useful in the contemporary UFC as it was in Pride Fighting Championships, where Heath Herring and Kevin Randleman could jump in the air and drop patellas on their opponent’s skulls. Supposedly, the best course of action is to turn the corner and take your opponent’s back, lest sacrificing position with a guillotine and winding up on your back. However, year by year, we see more guillotine variations -- five-finger, 10-finger, figure-four grips, prayer chokes and so on -- not to mention Peruvian neckties and brabo and anaconda choke variations. All of these techniques and their popularization have made the front headlock an infinitely more dangerous position in this sport and reaffirmed the peril associated with going for a sloppy takedown.
In its essence, Rothwell shockingly choking out a fighter like Barnett with a twist on an old favorite from a position many dismiss is what MMA is all about. If you’ve got the technique, the grip and the squeeze, you can tap anyone inside the cage if you just go for it or, in this case, gogo for it.
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