Archives for category: Private Lessons

I arrived at my private lesson with Eduardo Rocha with his school curriculum in hand.  I knew where my holes were, and my goal was to plug some of them up with this private.  However, he looked at the list and, to my surprise, put it aside.  “I have something better to show you.  You can learn this stuff [meaning the curriculum] by coming to class.  But, people who come from other jiujitsu schools don’t know this.”  For the next hour, I would learn that the “this” he referred to was the concepts behind his pressure game.

My Conceptual Takeaways

The very first thing I noticed when I first rolled at Prof. Rocha’s school was how heavy everyone felt – regardless of belt level and regardless of actual weight.  Being on the bottom was exhausting and discouraging.  Here are five concepts I took away from my private on how to feel crushing on top.

  1. Let your opponent carry your weight at all times.  Let gravity assist.
  2. Do not disperse or dilute the effect of your top pressure by placing any part of your body on the ground unless it is necessary to do so.
  3. Do not disperse your weight across the entirety of the opponent’s body.  Rather, focus applying pressure to the person’s hips or to the person’s shoulders to maximize pinning effectiveness.
  4. While not incorrect, do not grip your hands while in side control when possible.  While it might help you hold down your opponent, it a) fixes you to the opponent thereby limiting offensive opportunities, and b) it diminishes your ability to base should you get bucked, bumped, or rolled.
  5. Connection is vital.  When transitioning from side control to knee-on-stomach or to mount, do not allow for space or lose the connection of your hips to their hips.

An Illustration

In the video below, at 0:49 you can see the side control position Eduardo favors and teaches us at his school.  The only difference is that even the rear knee is off the ground, concentrating downward pressure from your hips to his hips.  The ensuing drill Xande teaches is identical to the drill Eduardo taught me during our private as a counter to a person’s reaction to the hip-to-hip pressure, which is to bump and try to get their knee in.


Christian Montes at what will soon be the “old” Ronin Athletics location, standing proudly after his twentieth or twenty-first armbar on me. I lost count after a while.

Christian Montes, a purple belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu, is the owner and head coach at Ronin Athletics, a Brasa affiliate under black belt Felipe Costa.  Despite sharing the jiujitsu market with powerhouses Renzo Gracie, Marcelo Garcia, and Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro, Christian has amassed a large, diverse, and loyal following of students.  This is due to many factors, not the least of which is his ability to convey jiujitsu concepts and instruction with a high level of articulation and detail.  Other factors include the care and passion with which he coaches everyone, and, he might have you believe, his passing resemblance to Dean Cain.

I’ve known him for over a decade and trained at Ronin for three years before moving to Oakland this past July.  I made it a point to visit him today for a little catch-up,  a private lesson focused on fine-tuning pin escapes, and some rolling.  I left the session with a valuable framework and strategy for escaping various incarnations of the pin.  Techniques are essential ingredients, but having a framework accelerates learning, retention, and application.  As Christian put it, if techniques are puzzle pieces, then the framework is the completed puzzle picture on the box, which allows one to see how everything is supposed to fit, reveals gaps, and provides hints for closing those gaps.

Overall Framework and Strategy for Pin Escapes

Once stapled to the mat and cross-faced, everything becomes exponentially more difficult.  Thus, the strategy consists of moving dynamically so as to never have one’s hips flat on the mat and defending the cross-face at all costs.

To defend the cross face, establish a thumbless grip on the bicep/bend of the opponent’s cross-facing arm with your near arm.  The far arm then establishes a secondary frame with the right forearm digging into the opponent’s arm pit of the cross-facing arm.

To prevent being “stapled” to the mat, avoid having your hips flat on the mat.  Endeavor to stay on your side, with the foot of your top leg placed behind you at such an angle so as to prevent your opponent from pushing your top shoulder to the mat.  Your foot’s connection to the mat and angle with respect to your opponent reinforces the frame and inhibits their ability to flatten you out.  The foot on the ground is key and is the power behind the frame.  See the video below from 0:22 to 0:55 for an illustration of this principle.

Once these things are in place, elbow placement can be the key to escaping.  When an opponent is trying to impose a pin, whether cross-side, kesagatame, or an untrained headlock, the escape begins with you tucking the near elbow close to your body, with the aim being to establish a frame against your opponent’s hips, and in certain cases, trying to get your elbow to the mat.

Christian emphasized an additional strategic element  for me because he would like to see me exhibit more assertiveness on the mat and mount counter offensives in the course of an escape.  He recommended I focus on getting to my knees instead of always opting to replace guard.

Pin Escape Technical Concepts

What follows are notes meant to jog my memory and will thus fall short of being instructive in many instances.  However, I hope that some of the key details will be valuable.

Schoolyard Bully Headlock Series

  • The progression begins with an attempt at getting your hips adjacent to theirs and inserting an overhook with your top leg.
  • Sometimes, this first hook allows you to initiate the escape by pulling on their leg with your hook, turning your hips down and pushing with the toes of the other foot, posting, and driving the opponent’s head in the direction where they do not have base.
  • Other times, the person’s far, second leg is spread out in such a fashion so as to distribute the person’s weight evenly and preventing a loss of balance.  In this situation, you will have to overhook this second leg after establishing the initial hook, pulling it back until you compromise the opponent’s base and can take their back.
  • There will be times where your opponent runs away from your attempts at overhooking.  In these instances, begin to move in the opposite direction.  This creates the gap into which the opponent unwittingly falls into when you scissor your legs, go flat on your stomach, and pull him/her to the mat.
  • There may be times, especially when the opponent is very strong or is holding on for dear life that even with hip connection, and an overhooked top leg, it may feel difficult to come to the back.  In these cases, you must slide your second, non-hooking leg between their outstretched legs, which facilitates your getting under their center of gravity, and bridge to reverse the position.

Key points:

  • I thought I knew how to utilize the frame on the opponent’s jaw when in side mount position after reversing and coming on top to force them into releasing the headlock.  Tip: Instead of pushing on their jaw by outstretching your arms, maintain the distance in the frame from your forearm to your chest and rather lean the entire weight of your body onto the contact point with your opponent’s jaw.  Pushing on the jaw with your arms employs strength inefficiently.  Using the entire body on one fragile part of the body is much more efficient.
  • When inserting the hook for the escape, Christian recommends bringing your own knee to your shoulder and establishing the hook from this entry point as opposed to just throwing your leg over in an arcing fashion.

Kesa-gatame Escape

  • To prevent having the trapped arm put into a lock, look for your opposite hand and establish a strong grip/hug either low on the opponent’s waist or high up by their armpit.
  • Once this is established, walk your hips quickly until they are right up against the back of your opponent’s hips.
  • The bridge escape has two distinct phases.  The objective of the first is to bridge with the objective of having your opponent’s head land at your “1:30.”  Once here, the opponent should feel very light, and you complete the bridge to the side.
  • If the opponent’s reaction is to base with their arm, take advantage of the release of your arm to bring it close to your body, elbow in, and firm frame connected to your opponent’s hip.  Now, other escapes are possible.

Interesting note:

  • Christian showed me a variation of the Kesa-gatame hold that is very, very difficult to escape from.  The variation comes in how the bottom person’s arm is trapped.

Escape from Cross Side Pin Where Opponent’s Hips Are Facing You.

  • As with all pin escapes, tuck your elbow in and establish a frame against their hips.  The opposite arm posts or stiff-arms the opponent’s top arm at the bicep/bend.
  • Instead of bridging or shrimping, move your hips away from your opponent in an arc.  This creates a gap that will disrupt the top person’s balance, causing a) them to fall back to the mat, reversing positions, or b) causing them to change their hips to account for the shift in balance, which opens up possibilities for other pin escapes.

Key point:

  • Beware not to get your arm dragged across your opponent’s body and caught in the armbar pictured below.

Getting to the Knees

When you’ve established your frame, you can facilitate getting to your knees by withdrawing your bottom shoulder.  See the video below starting at 4:14 for an application of this principle.

Closing Thoughts on the Private

I cannot recommend Christian and his team enough. (Erik Ryerson, a brown belt, is also a resident gi specialist.)   He is one of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable instructors I have come across.  If you are or will be in New York, I highly encourage you to check out a class at Ronin and/or reach out to him for a private session.  You can get information on the new location (they are moving) and more by emailing

Odds & Ends

The Gracie Diet Phase-In // Update

I am strong into the second week of The Gracie Diet phase-in.  Here are some observations so far:

  • While, physically, it has been increasingly easier to wait 4.5 hours between meals (especially with coconut water), it has proven to be challenging to coordinate lunch or dinner plans with friends or loved ones.
  • I am also avoiding desserts and sodas, which is the focus of the 2nd week of the phase-in.  This has not been as hard as I thought it might be during the Christmas season.
  • I am posting a photo of my dinner from last night at Caracas Arepa Bar in the East Village.  While my dinner is not Gracie compliant (next week, when I focus on avoiding two starches in any meal, this would be a no-no), it is characteristic of the great food to be found there.  Many of the options served at Caracas would be Gracie compliant.  What’s more, the staff is friendly and warm.  The only drawback is that it is always packed (even, it seems, after a blizzard), which sometimes makes for a long wait.  Otherwise, go check them out!!!

Plato Pabellon: Ropa vieja, white rice, black beans, maduros, and cotija cheese. The plate on the right is the arepa version, which my friend Sol had.

The Photo That Didn’t Make It

Christian tried to take a “serious” photo to convey his toughness.  Judge for yourself.  It’s hard to play tough when you are one of the nicest guys around.