I’ve never met a white belt that didn’t like side control on top, or dread side control on the bottom. It’s a stable position, easy to attack from, and difficult to escape when your opponent is intent on holding you there. I was one of those white belts until I went to a Phil Migliarese seminar and led a question with “I like side control.” Short story shorter, I started taking top mount and back mount a lot more seriously. However, side control is still a mainstay position after passing guard, and I actively look for submissions before I consider transitioning to more powerful positions. Understanding the basic goals from top and bottom will help you deal with either side of the equation.
If you can’t control your opponent with side control, you won’t get a chance to attack or even transition.
First, side control is about immobilization and prevention of slipping back into your opponent’s guard. This can be particularly difficult against larger and stronger opponents, as well as (ironically) against much smaller opponents.
There are a lot of elements to a perfect side control, but often you have to settle for a portion of them. Even starting an attack will negate some of your control options, so it’s not a disaster if you can’t get every element. So take the following list as what you want, and accept that not every element will be in place every time you get side control. After all, your opponent explicitly wants to get rid of as many of these controls as possible.
- Near side arm control
You want to feel your opponent’s elbow on the outside of your hip bone, and you want to prevent them from getting their elbow under your hips. This can be particularly difficult against smaller opponents. To get maximum control, shift your body more towards your opponent’s shoulders and try to get your knee up towards the top of their head. This will get your hip closer to the shoulder, and make it much harder to slip the elbow inside.
- Far side arm control
Many guard passes and sweeps incorporate an underhook on the far arm, so it’s likely that you’ll already have the underhook you need to control your opponents far arm. Ideally your opponents arm will be on the same side of your head as your underhooking arm. This prevents them from framing against your neck for an escape and allows you to get your shoulders low and it will help prevent silly things like your opponent hooking your head with their outside leg. It also helps isolate that arm for attacks
- Head control
Your other arm is under your opponents neck, inside your knee, and grabbing your other hand with a gable grip. Get in tight against the head, then roll your shoulder in against your opponent’s head to turn their head to the outside. This will hinder their ability to shrimp and create space.
- Torso control
Dropping your hips as much as possible will put as much of your body weight as possible on your opponent’s body, which will help prevent side to side rocking, and will also help inhibit rotation which can loosen up your other points of control. There are a number of ways to accomplish putting pressure on the torso, such as 100 kilos, or dropping one leg back, but those positions are beyond the scope of this class. For now, focus on keeping your hips low and your shoulders low to create pressure on the torso.
- Hip control
This is perhaps the weakest element, but it still matters. Your knee should be against the hip if you are flexible enough, or settle for anywhere along the side, but keep it tight against your opponent’s body. Then try to squeeze your opponents body between your elbow and knee. There won’t be a lot of pressure from this, but it will help keep you connected to your opponent’s body and help you ride along their escape as they try different angles. It’s subtle, but worth thinking about.
- Foot position
It’s good practice to hide your feet under your butt or just to the side. This prevents you opponent from hooking your foot with their foot and attempting a sweep or creating enough space to slide their knee in against your hip to start to put you back in their guard.
- Head position
Turn your head towards their head and keep it low against their body. You don’t want to give them easy access to your neck, and turning your head towards their head will preposition your head for recovery of their inside arm if they manage to get it past your hip. If you turn your head away, the arm recover is very awkward.
There you have it. Basically you are using and paying attention to every part of your body to maintain side control. There are many forms of side control, but this is the most common and easiest style for white belts to utilize effectively. Obviously when it is time to attack or transition you are going to have to give up some of these elements. What’s important is that you try to retain as many as you can so that you can always reset to basic control if the situation starts to get out of control.
But Coach, They Got Their Elbow Under Me!
One of the first things your opponent is going to try to do is to get their elbow past your hip so they can create a frame against your hips. All is not lost. You are going to recover that arm and increase the control as well.
Take your arm out from under your opponent’s head while you grab their far shoulder with your underhooking hand. You want to keep them close. With your free hand, slide it under their arm and wrap your fingers around their elbow. You aren’t trying to grab with your thumb; you are trying to cup their elbow. From here you are going to do a hip switch to a broken scarf hold position. Stiffen your arm that is holding their arm, and drive your knee up from their hip and along their body. The idea here is that you are going to use the hip switch and the stiff arm to elevate their elbow, then your knee will drive through and under their arm.
Next you are going to do another hip switch and step your outside leg over your inside leg and pull your opponents elbow onto your hip. This motion will leave you about 45 degrees away from where you started, and your opponents arm will be further out of place than where you started. You now have the option of underhooking the head again, or you can focus on the far arm and rely on your superior position to help keep your opponents elbow in place.
It’s a good idea to put some momentum into this to overcome your opponent’s strength. You are trying to use a lot of your body and momentum to pry their arm out of place.
If someone manages to get all of the control elements in place, you have a very hard road ahead of you. There is a process, and if your opponent is only trying to control you, your life is actually a little bit easier since you don’t have to worry as much about attacks.
Your only goal right now is to establish a good defensive posture that makes you hard to attack, and allows you to mount an aggressive escape. The defensive posture is straight forward. You need to first get your elbow past their hip, then you want your forearm driving into their neck. Simple in concept.
To get your elbow past your opponents hip, you obviously aren’t going to just drop it in there. You’ll need to create some space. Try to roll away from your opponent as much as you can, almost like you are trying to pull them over to the other side for a reversal. You won’t get very far, but when you fall back down to flat on your back, you will have created a little bit of space for your elbow to drop inside.
Next, you’ll want to get your forearm against their neck. This is tricky because if you just try to put your forearm across, you are opening yourself up to an americana or an armbar. You need to once again try to roll to the outside, except this time you want to roll on top of your opponents underhooking arm. This will prevent them from grabbing your arm, and it will also create some space for you to bring your arm under your opponent’s head. Once you have your hand on their shoulder and your forearm against their neck, you can drop back down to your back. Now you have a stable defensive position.
The cool thing about this sequence is that if you chain it right, you can build up momentum for your escape. You’ll end up rolling side to side, first to create space, then to drop your elbow, then back to get your outside arm back in, then it’s time to use the frame you just built to escape side control. It all becomes one continuous sequence side to side.
If you are on top and establishing side control, try to get as many of the control elements in place as possible. Maintain control until you can attack targets of opportunity, while making sure you don’t end up back inside your opponents guard. If someone is on top of you, you must get to a good defensive position before your situation gets worse. Ideally, you’ll start to setup your defense before they have a chance to fully settle in, but no matter where they end up, build your frame on their hip first, then build the frame on their neck.