Do “Pain Moves” Hold Value In Competitive Grappling?

Image Source: Kitt Canaria for Jiu-Jitsu Times

Pain used in jiu-jitsu is often treated less than respectfully. Is there value to “pain moves”? Some grapplers build careers around inflicting pain and being “rude” in their grappling style (Vagner Rocha is the most successful of these). Most, however, decry pain and “pain moves”, and I think they may be missing out.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of videos of “bullshido” martial arts instructors showing ridiculous mount escapes involving pressing on the “bladder 47” pressure point or whatever. People love making fun of these videos because the nomenclature used is obviously complete nonsense, but I think there may be more to it than what many people think.

First off, a bit of background on my mentality on this matter: I started training in the late 90s, and a lot of the technique I was learning wasn’t as refined as it is today, but a lot of it worked because I was so focused on pain. I was learning from someone who was learning from someone who was/is a student under Relson Gracie. One thing I always found fascinating was that the Gracies would use open hand strikes to open people up for their signature chokes and arm locks. To the best of my knowledge, though, the Gracies weren’t known for knocking people out — they were known for submitting their opponents, using those strikes to create the openings needed to then submit their opponents. Isn’t an open hand strike just a pain move?

When I started training again in 2011, I found that the culture of my local jiu-jitsu scene was one that would shy away from pain moves and was even told by one of my instructors, “You shouldn’t cause pain if you can avoid it.” Eventually, though, I found my way to an MMA gym with a long history in shootfighting and several instructors with non-BJJ grappling backgrounds (Sambo, Judo and most importantly, catch wrestling). It was here that I rediscovered my love of and the value of pain in a grappling setting.

So what’s the strategy?

The Gracies knew that an opponent intent upon keeping their limbs tight to their body and their chin tucked to their chest would be far more difficult to submit. They also knew that nuisance strikes will eventually draw a reaction.

“But Emil, you can’t hit someone in a grappling tournament!”

No, you can’t, but you can annoy the hell out of them by driving your wrist bone into their face, or by subtly rubbing your knuckles on their ribs and other sensitive areas of their body (out of sight of the referee if such behavior is illegal in your competition). You can do all sorts of awful things with your elbows, your shins, and even your chin. I have one training partner (purple belt masters world champ Michael C. Williams) who has found a delightful way to dig his chin into the hip while passing the guard.

I recently had the pleasure of training at Vagner Rocha’s academy (though Vagner himself wasn’t there), and I got to roll with one of Vagner’s black belts, Adrian Benavides. Adrian successfully used headbutts inside of my guard to get me to open up — He’d place his forehead on my sternum, load his weight on it, tense his neck, and then drop his weight. I was absolutely amazed by how effective this was! Experiencing it in the gym and learning how to deal with it effectively was extremely valuable.

No, no one worth their salt will tap to a “pain move,” but a pretty decent cross-section of our population will react to these moves. The options of HOW they react can be planned, mapped, and drilled for. I’ve beaten high level opponents with reactions to their reactions to my “pain moves.”

For these reasons I’d say that these nuisance moves — these “pain moves” — are not only important to learn, but important to experience. One of my favorite training partners, a tough second-degree black belt name Joe Langford, will often do knuckle rubs when in top side control so that I react and he can set up submissions. But here’s the thing: the more he does it, the more I get used to it and the less severe and unintelligent my reaction is, so really, he’s just inoculating me against having that happen in competition. But many practitioners have never experienced these things, and if you run into someone who has and who does them, you might be at a disadvantage.

So do pain moves work? Eh, you’re not going to tap anyone with them, so don’t bother doing them… Or maybe you should do them because people will react, and you can plan for those reactions and use pain moves to make things happen when you want them to, while at the same time toughening yourself up to them when they’re done to you.


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