Kesa Gatame is one of the most under-utilized positions in BJJ. People in jiu-jitsu 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.
But let’s start our discussion with the inferior cousin of Kesa Gatame – the common side headlock…
Headlocks and Why They Matter in BJJ
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.
When a strong untrained person ends up on the ground, then nine out of ten times he’ll wrap his arm around your head and hold on for dear life. They’ll grab your head and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, determined not to let go and let you do that ‘BJJ stuff’ to them.
And because this is that untrained fighter’s ONLY strategy he’ll be ferociously single-minded about hanging onto the headlock. This determination in itself can make escaping the headlock quite difficult.
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.
Since you hardly ever encounter headlocks in BJJ class dealing with them can be awkward. You might not know what to do and won’t be used to dealing with that particular energy. And that’s why not training your specific headlock escapes is a HUGE mistake!
Now 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…
Kesa Gatame – a Legit BJJ Technique
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.
Kesa Gatame is a side headlock where you also control your opponent’s near arm.
This addition of arm control makes it much harder for your opponent to escape and 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.
How to Escape the Kesa Gatame and the Side Headlock
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.
P.S. Like I said above, the kesa gatame version of the headlock is particularly deadly. If someone skilled in this position catches you in it then you’re going to suffer… and quite possibly end up tapping out to a choke, an armlock or a leglock.
It works in MMA too: one of my training partners used it to win a fight in less than 30 seconds, and Ronda Rousey has used it in the UFC more than once.