One of the first lessons taught to a new practitioner on his/her first day of training is the position hierarchy of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Almost immediately it will be engrained in him/her that the back position is at the top of the hierarchy, therefore that is where he/she should always aim to be. The supremacy of back control is one of the most important theories of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, repeated over and over by coaches until their students have it internalized.
While it is necessary to know how to take the back and finish from there, it is equally as important to understand why the back position leads to success, as understanding these principles will result in further skill development. In an effort to explain why the back position is the most coveted of all the dominant positions, we are going to break down the mechanics that make it so powerful and effective.
1) Primacy Of Strangles
While Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s mantra of relentlessly pursuing the back is one of the most fundamental philosophies of the art, another principal philosophy is the superiority of strangulation submissions over joint lock submissions. This is due to the fact that occasionally, tough opponents will simply choose not to tap to joint lock submissions, taking the consequences rather than admit defeat. While the decision to not tap to joint locks is one that few will choose to make, the decision not to tap to a stranglehold is a choice that does not exist. When a stranglehold is applied correctly, the victim has two options. They can either tap out, remaining conscious but losing the match, or they can not tap and be rendered unconscious, which will also result in a loss. It is for this reason that very early on in BJJ’s development, the sport’s founders and pioneers greatly emphasized the superiority of the strangle.
Where this leads into our discussion of the back position is that the most powerful strangle, the rear naked choke is the primary attack available from the back position. While there are options to enter into arm lock and leg lock submission systems, they pale in comparison to the power and security that is offered from the rear naked choke. Not only is it a superior submission, but the RNC does not require the attacker to abandon the back position as an arm lock or leg lock would. The combination of the most powerful strangle (the rear naked choke) being applied from the most secure position (the back) is a match made in grappling heaven. It is no coincidence that the effectiveness and practicality of strangleholds greatly add to the supremacy of the back position. If the primary submission from the back was an arm lock, it is hard to say that the back would be regarded in such high esteem.
2) The Back Is The Most Secure Position
As mentioned above, the back position is by far the most secure position in the sport of BJJ, requiring the most effort to escape. While some may believe other positions create more opportunities for submissions, there is little dispute that there are positions more secure and stable than back control. This is for a few reasons. First, humans are not well suited to defend attacks from behind. All of the major muscles that would be used to throw someone off of the mount, such as the chest and arm muscles, are virtually irrelevant once the back is taken. The second reason is that once the back is taken, the attacker has the ability to “close the circles” around their opponent, locking them in place. The classic “seat belt grip” (sometimes called the over-under) latches the attacker on to the defender, stifling movement and preventing any meaningful escape attempts. When combined with a tight body triangle, these grips seal the opponent into place, requiring the opponent to break them open before they can mount an escape attempt.
While the ultimate goal of a BJJ practitioner should be to submit his opponent, first he must be able to control him. Solid control is the first step to achieving a submission, and there is no method more effective at controlling an opponent than taking his back.
3) The Back Provides The Ability To Leave At Will
While the back is by far the most secure position, this does not mean that the attacker is stuck there. If a grappler has his opponent’s back, it is safe to surmise that that is where he wants to be, as he has the ability to simply leave whenever he sees fit. Having your opponent’s back allows one to transfer to other positions, such as mount and side control with minimal effort or risk.
This capability to leave the position at any time provides several benefits, most notably the ability to change tactics if the back is not leading to sufficient submission attempts. In the context of a grappling match, this ability allows the attacker to give the defender a different set of attacks he must now defend against, increasing the likelihood of a successful submission. While this is a great tactic to implement in submission grappling, in a mixed martial arts bout this advantage is crucially more important. If the rather cumbersome 4 oz. gloves worn during an MMA bout are making the rear naked choke difficult to secure, an effective tactic is to switch from back control to mount and start laying on some heavy ground and pound.
While the back position is spectacularly secure, it is not immune to escapes. It is highly likely that if your opponent escapes your back control, he will end up in top position. Instead of accepting the opponent’s escape and being stuck on the bottom, it is a much better tactic to recognize the escape is coming, and initiate a position change to side control or mount, avoiding being trapped on the bottom.
While many positions will offer one or two of the advantages stipulated above, none beside the back position offer all three simultaneously. It is for this reason, the combination of security and flexibility, along with the relative inability of the opponent to defend against the attacks (primarily the powerful rear naked choke) that creates the back position as the most dominant position in all of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and effectively all of martial arts.