How to Escape Kesa Gatame and the Headlock

Kesa Gatame is one of the most under-utilized positions in BJJ. Jiu-jitsu people tend to ignore this position but generations of judo players and wrestlers have proved that Kesa Gatame IS a powerful and effective way to pin someone. And – even worse for someone caught in it – Kesa Gatame is also a great entry into some very effective armlocks, leglocks, neck cranks and diaphragm chokes.

Let’s start our discussion with the inferior cousin of Kesa Gatame – the common side headlock…

If you’re training with big strong beginners who have little technique but lots of fighting spirit then the odds are pretty good that you’re going to get your noggin squished in a desperate, last-ditch headlock at some point. They’ll grab your head and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, determined not to let go and let you do that ‘BJJ stuff’ to them.

Now the headlock isn’t particularly high tech or effective, but if you don’t have an answer then it can be a very disconcerting situation (not to mention cauliflower-ear inducing). You’ll feel pretty silly if you don’t have an answer to the common headlock, so make sure you have a good strategy or two to escape from here if you happen to get caught by it.

Let’s inject the side headlock with steroids and tweak the arm position to make it much more effective, which will bring us to the full-fledged Kesa Gatame…

If you’re training with wrestlers or judo players then they probably won’t use the side headlock on you, but they might well slap an immobilizing Kesa Gatame on you. This is one of their bread and butter pinning positions, and they’ll hang onto it for dear life.

Like I said, it puts a TON of pressure onto your neck and body so you’ve got to have an answer or it could result in a quick tap out.

What if you train only without the gi? Are you safe from Kesa Gatame in submission grappling or MMA?

Not so much!

First of all, I often use Kesa Gatame in no gi sparring. Yes it’s a bit more slippery, but if you make a few adjustments and have some contingency plans then it really does work. Also I find that the surprise factor of this position, plus the Shooto and Combat Submission Wrestling techniques I’ve learned from Erik Paulson, lead to a lot of submissions!

And do you remember the pin that Ronda Rousey used in her UFC debut against Liz Carmouche? Yup, that was Kesa too. Guess you’re not safe in MMA either!

So if you grapple then you HAVE to have effective Kesa Gatame escapes.

And a side benefit having of good Kesa Gatame escape techniques is that you’ll also start to feel much more confident in your headlock escapes too.

However the sad truth is that most BJJ practitioners have terrible Kesa Gatame escapes, in part because they rarely encounter it in training. Which means when they do get caught in this position they’re pinned to the mat like a butterfly on display.

Some schools do teach escapes for this position, but unfortunately many of these techniques won’t actually work against a quality opponent determined to make you suffer on the bottom. And some of them can even get you tapped out!

In the following 8 minute video I start out by talking about headlock escapes, and then I share my very highest percentage way to get out of Kesa Gatame. Check it out.

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