On Guard! Eddie Cummings Talks Grappling Philosophy


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By T.P. Grant

On September 12, the European based Submission Only grappling promotion Polaris Pro hosts its second event live and on-demand right here on FloGrappling.com. The event is playing host to some of the world’s premier leg lockers including the likes of Garry Tonon, Michelle Nicolini, Reilly Bodycomb, and Masakazu Imanari. On the card and counted among the elite when it comes to leg locks is Eddie Cummings.

A student of Danaher, Cummings is a fast riser on the jiu jitsu scene cutting through competition with an amazingly detailed leg lock attack. He was good enough to sit down talk about his grappling game and evolution as a grappler.

What is your personal philosophy on grappling?

My personal philosophy is that grappling is the study of control of another human being that leads to submission. Our goal is ultimately to control, but not simply to control them, control them in a manner that allows us to climb off on a limb or the neck and apply a hold that forces our opponent to give up for fear of suffering bodily harm or going unconscious. So that is how I approach the sport, everything is about the submission. 

Your game is geared towards submission and your game really starts at your guard. What lead to you becoming a guard puller?

When I was a white belt, like all white belts, I watched the Eddie Bravo documentary detailing his quest to ADCC, read his books and all that. I admit it, I read all the 10th Planet books. And he actually did make a really good point about pulling half guard. In tournaments you look to pull half guard just to get the jiu jitsu going right away. And you’ll see this in tournaments time and time again guys circle each other for six minutes. It’s not even good wrestling, and people are always saying ‘we need to see more wrestling, we want to see wrestling’. I love wrestling, it is a beautiful sport to watch, but their stalling calls are so much more aggressive than they are in jiu jitsu. And jiu jitsu people circle each other and stall, sometimes for a whole match on the feet. I just want to get the jiu jitsu going in the most efficient way possible. And I actually think the guard player has a disadvantage but I’m willing to take that bottom position. I’ll take that disadvantage to get some jiu jitsu going; let’s grapple, let’s engage. And just prefer to send the tournament time doing that rather than circling against people trying to look active but who aren’t actually being active. If we instituted very strong stalling calls on the feet as well, I think the art would change a lot for the better. I think it would be really interesting to see people be forced to engage on the feet, but once I sit down it forces my opponent to come and engage in some way. I can scoot towards them and chase them around the mat and it's clear who is stalling there. As opposed if we are both on the feet with neutral ties, you can really stall someone out for a while. So that is why I like playing guard more than anything else. 

What drew you to the butterfly, shin-on-shin, and other sitting guards?

Honestly I didn’t play butterfly guard until I came to Renzo’s. My first instructor was certainly an advocate of butterfly guard and open guard in general, but I was actually a fun of De La Riva and Knee Shield Guard initially when I came to Renzo’s, however when you walk into a room full of people attacking your legs you learn quickly that this a recipe for disaster. And being a smaller guy I couldn’t really stop anyone’s leg entrances from those positions on me. So it forced me to adapt a more conservative guard where my feet are on the inside of their legs to prevent them from easily attacking my feet, and it evolved from there.

Now you have a well-rounded game, but why did leg locks become the centerpiece of your offense? 

The first off leg locks, the heel hook in particular, is the strongest joint lock we have. In the sense that allows me to apply maximum breaking leverage to the weakest joint, relative to the other joints we know joint locks for. 

For instance an armbar, I’m bridging and yes I’m applying that to the elbow but I’m not applying it to one or two elbow ligaments in a twisting fashion, I’m applying it in a straight fashion. The elbow is a lot more resistant there. And it also scales in size, you get a really big guy, his arm and ligaments there are going to scale appropriately, where a lot of the ligaments in the knee, or the ankle for that matter, do not scale with size. So [leg locks] enable the smaller person to really embody the jiu jitsu philosophy of using leverage on weak points in your opponent’s body. So I do feel like [the heel hook] is the strongest joint lock, I can apply very strong bridging forces, if it is done correctly, to weak ligaments in my opponent's body. So I think that is why I gravitate towards it more than anything else, it really embodies the beauty of jiu jitsu for me. 

While leg locks have always been part of the submission grappling scene, they suddenly have become very trendy. The jiu jitsu community is famous for getting caught up in trends, do you feel like leg locks are “in” right now?

You have to keep in mind up until about six months ago I competed but not at a very high level and I wasn’t a full time grappler. So I was much more of a fan, and felt like I had my finger on the pulse of things a little better. But when you start competing a lot and you’re really in it you no longer really have the luxury of being a fan, you have to actually compete against these people you're a fan of, so hero worship doesn’t really play and you have follow people in a technical manner rather than get an overall sense of what people are doing. So I feel like I’m very much in the middle of the leg lock group, so to speak, in the sport. So if they are becoming more popular I don’t think I’ve noticed, they certainly are becoming more popular at the gyms I train at and the competitions I go to. 

But I also do think it is the rule sets of the competitions that are changing, more than anything else. Like the Eddie Bravo Invitational, Polaris, and Metamoris allowing heel hooks. There are more and more high level tournaments where heel hooks are allowed, where maybe 5-10 years ago you had NAGA and Grapplers Quest and that was it. And in the big, IBJJF tournaments they were completely banned, so it is understandable why people didn’t necessarily studied leg locks. Without heel hooks and reaping leg locks lose a lot of their positional control and attractiveness. So I think it is the tournaments that are more so dictating the people’s technique rather than the techniques dictating the tournaments, but it is hard to tell. It certainly opens up a lot more and I do believe there is a consensus that people prefer to see good submission battles than positional battles. 

The Danaher system of leg locking is being talked about a lot right now, can you give some insight on what makes it so effective?

I truly believe that the most effective part of Danaher’s teaching system is his approach to grappling in general. He comes from a philosophy background, so he is very good at learning and studying things. And he studies techniques and movement like a scientist and he encourages us to study like scientists; to experiment, to adapt, to evolve, and throw out what doesn’t work, to keep what does work. And we are constantly in the process of evolving our technique in a very deep way. I think you’ll see in these upcoming tournaments, I’ve adapted my game quite a bit. I don’t do heel hooks the way I did in the ADCC trials for instance, I use different entries and I use different grips and leg positioning for the finish. So I’ve spent most of my time on the mats the past six to seven weeks getting this to be a habit so I don’t go back to the old habits, which we determined to be less than efficient. So ultimately I think it is very effective because it is always adapting, it is actually very fascinating to me to watch the evolution of my personal heel hook over say the past three years, under Danaher’s guidance and it has evolved so deeply. Periodically I see video of myself explaining everything I know about a heel hook, and every few months I do this, and once in a while I’ll go back and watch these videos it is incredible how wrong I was, how I have a lack of understanding, I couldn’t even demonstrate the heel hook right! Within three months I’ll see all the details I’m fixing and that I gained in that time. 

So I think more than anything else it is adaptability, I know this a long answer, but adaptability that is what makes it work so well and the overall approach to the sport. 

As someone who is still learning the basics of leg locks, the more I focus on being offensive with leg locks the more I realize how important the placement of my feet matters when attacking a leg. You guys have a nomenclature for the different foot positions, so can you talk a bit about that? Is the ashi garami the baseline position?

Certainly a standard ashi garami is where we start with the leg game, at least conceptually. When teaching people we almost always start with the standard ashi garami for control, it is just a very robust position; it is easy to get to, it has the ability to keep a person’s weight off you, it’s dynamic, you can let it go easily, you don’t get stuck in bad positions and it is a little more challenging for someone to counter you there, you have a lot more mobility, there are good sweeping options, it is not the best at any one thing but it is pretty good at all of them. So it is a decent place to start. 

Of course we evolve a bunch of other positions out of that. Like the outside ashi garami, where both my legs are connected outside my opponent’s hips, then of course there is 50/50 where my legs are connected outside with his heels across the body. And then we have all the positions where my legs are triangled inside my opponent's legs, the 4-11 and the Inside Senkaku. However even within those four broad distinctions of where my legs are triangle and where my foot is, we have a bunch of different ways of triangling our legs, crossing our legs, and uncrossing our legs. And those in and of themselves are very interesting, for instance in outside ashi garami we played with at least five different leg positionings with the legs on the outside. Different patterns, different ways to triangle the legs, so it can very intricate, very deep, very quickly. Overall I think people will gravitate towards their preferences and what they feel is working best for them, but the standard ashi garami is an excellent place to start. 

So you get a lot of finishes from the ashi garami and seem to really start your game there, but if an opponent is defending well do you prefer to go inside or outside? 

Ultimately I think I’d like my legs inside with really good control. Which is rare and challenging to get. If you tell me I have an unconscious person and I can put them in any position I want, wake them up and then go: I’d triangle my legs on the side like the inside senkaku with an inverted heel hook locked. But again against a resisting who is counter leg locking and knows what he is doing and is rolling out the right way the outside ashi garami is, I feel, much more tolerant of my opponent’s movement. It is a much more challenging position to get out of and I am able to transition to a lot of other positions, even coming up on top for passes and such. So it depends on what I want and what my opponent is doing. I actually think the most devastating leg lock of all, if someone is not resisting you at all is a kneebar. However on a resisting opponent there is a lot of defensive resources for that. 

So on September 12th you are facing Reilly Bodycomb at Polaris 2, another grappler known for his leg locks, and his heel hook in particular. Reilly hails from a Sambo background. While you guys have similar submission games, do you see any subtle differences in your leg lock games that people might miss at first glance?

I’m sure his game as evolved first of all his background, Sambo definitely emphasizes reaping more so than my original background under Danaher. However we both use both types of positions, triangles outside and triangles inside, depending on what our opponent is doing. So I’m sure we’ve evolved different preferences and different approaches but the mechanics, the idea, and actually a lot of the set ups are fairly similar, which is why it is an interesting match. And in that we are both going for the submission, it is not like either one of us has a history of stalling. I’d say if you want to pick a difference he probably emphasizes setting up the reap a little more than we do, but I know Reilly has been evolving his game since his early instructionals, which I was a student of myself back when I was coming up. I’m sure his game has evolved quite a bit since then. Also Sambo tournament rules force them to be a little more hurried in their submissions than jiu jitsu players necessarily are. I can hold a person in a pinning leg lock position for a very long time where if I was a Sambo competitor I’d be encouraged to go for the finish a little quicker, take a few more risks to get to a bit more dynamic position just because I need to go for the finish within a certain time frame. So there may be a small aspect of that but he trains submission grappling every day with his students, he was training with Ryan Hall so I’m sure he knows how jiu jitsu players play. It is not so much a match between jiu jitsu and Sambo, we are submission grapplers with a slightly different background, I think everything is pretty modernized nowadays. 

So regardless of how the match turns out, will you consent to a Magic the Gathering rematch with Bodycomb backstage after your match?

I think that is the only logical conclusion to our jiu jitsu battle. It would be unreasonable if that didn’t happen. I saw the video of him and Ryan Hall, I think I will be a more formidable match for [Bodycomb], he may have some problems. The grappling matchup is interesting, but the Magic the Gathering matchup, far more intriguing.  

Someone will have to get out their cellphone and record it for the community when it goes down.

Oh yeah, it’ll happen. Polaris is fun, I’m sure we’re all going to go out after. 

At the time of this interview you're getting ready for the Eddie Bravo Invitational, then after that it is ADCCs and then Polaris. That is an intense time frame, what is your ideal rate of competition? Is a Miyao-like schedule of once a week or something a little less frequent?  

I have done that and competed every weekend. And I do like that, the nerves melt away and you definitely stay sharp. There is definitely a lot stress involved though with that, at the higher level the risk of injury gets higher actually. All your opponents really know how to break you, they know how to injure, if they joint lock they are going to go hard. They are going to bring a fight to you, so I don’t think you can compete at that level, for a length of time, every weekend. We talked about this, me and Garry Tonon, about what the optimal competition schedule would be like when Metamoris offered Garry that false contract. Basically once a month would be perfect. Guaranteeing competitors once a month it is just enough to stay sharp, plenty of downtime in between to rest up and re-look at your game. So if I could compete once a month, that would be perfect for me, preferably super fights and things like that. It would be different if we were talking sub only, no time limit tournaments, those can be a little more intense. But that would be ideal for me, this competing every two weeks coming up is a little bit intense. But again I do enjoy it, ultimately this why pursue this art and why we want to further it in the public eye. This is how you do serious things, in high pressure competition, so it is exciting to be part of that as much as possible. 

Okay, so you’ve mentioned Garry Tonon, your training partner a few times. It is well known things getting pretty competitive around Garry, right?

[Laughs] Extremely. Extremely so. 

So I’ve heard tales about bowling between you two, who is the better bowler?

I mean I’m a better bowler, by far. Garry, he tries but he just can’t hang. Just can’t hang, just can’t handle it. We’ve had an epic bowling match, to the point where our fingers were damaged for the next day’s training. 

In an interview with the Verbal Tap Podcast Garry talked about driving around all night looking for a bowling alley with you?

So the actually story goes like this: we drove to Ohio in the dead of winter. Which is as horrible as it sounds, and if you’ve ever been in a car with Garry you’ll know that your life flashes before your eyes consistently for the whole twelve hour ride or eight rather, if he is driving. So we get there in the middle of a snowstorm for the Dean Lister seminar, which was Saturday and we were going to train with him on Sunday. So we do the seminar on Saturday, we go out to eat, you know we have some downtime. It is me and Garry and we bring along two of our blue belts at the time. His blue belt Gordon Ryan and my blue belt Kenny Fong, who used to train with when I was at Progressive Martial Arts. So we decided let’s get a friendly game in, and this friendly game which started at 7 or 8 o’clock at night gets extremely heated to the point where Garry refuses to stop until he and his blue belt beat me and my blue belt. 

So if I was a reasonable man I would have just let him win, but I am not a reasonable man. And this continues till midnight when they are ready to throw us out of this bowling alley. Garry, he had took some games, but were hanging in there and we at least beat him once for sure. He decided we are going to find an all-night bowling alley. 

So we go find another bowling alley, driving around in Ohio in the middle of a snowstorm looking for a 24-hour bowling alley. We find one unfortunately and we are there until maybe 3 or 4 in the morning, my fingers are numb, both blue belts are mentally broken. They don’t want to go on, Garry and I are threatening them with demotion if they don’t continue and play well. All this time we had to train with Dean Lister in like four hours. 

We eventually called it a draw, or maybe Garry did eventually win, I don’t know. To be honest I just can’t remember, I do remember the war that occurred though.

Check out T.P. Grant's feature article on leg locks, Leg Locks Decoded, here.

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