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MMA Submission Holds, Ranked by How Excruciatingly Painful They Are

Part of the appeal of mixed martial arts is watching fighters smash one another while wearing gloves so thin that they barely even protect the fists of the fighters from harm, let alone the faces of their opponents. However, once you set aside the shock imposed by the initial dose of mayhem, along with your disbelief that people are actually allowed to unleash this sort of focused violence on others and get away with it, you can learn to appreciate the tactical, combat-oriented expertise of the fighters.

One of the most obvious demonstrations of a fighter’s mastery is displayed through the application of excruciating submission holds. At the same time, while many people can relate to the discomfort of receiving a brutal blow to the face, far fewer can understand the pain of being locked in a painful submission hold and being forced to openly capitulate or risk permanent damage. 

This is when “Bad Boy” Leonard Garcia rides to the rescue! The West Texas native was known as one of the foremost gunslingers of MMA during his heyday, having earned UFC Fight-of-the-Night honors on four separate occasions. 

In his 20 years involved in combat sports — including a late-career foray into the world of bare-knuckle fighting — Garcia has seen or experienced almost everything, either in training, or in the heat of full-blown warfare. This makes him the ideal person to rank 10 different MMA submission holds by which are the most painful.

10) Rear Naked Choke 

“The rear naked choke is the least painful of them all,” Garcia says. “It’s a blood choke. It takes the blood from both sides of the neck in the carotid artery — the artery that runs all the way up the neck to the ear and down the other side — and it cuts off the blood flow. If you don’t tap and someone has a rear naked choke on you properly, you’re going to sleep within three seconds. Then you’ll just kind of wake up and realize, ‘Oh. I got choked out!’ So I’d say the rear naked choke is the least painful of all submissions. When you’re knocked out due to a concussive blow, the brain will smack the inside of your skull, and it will put your lights out. With the rear naked choke, you don’t even know that you fell asleep.”

9) Guillotine Choke 

“The guillotine is semi-painful because your Adam’s apple is there,” Garcia explains. “If they’re sliding their arm in for the guillotine, they’re bringing their arm across it. Your esophagus is in there, too, and that can get pressed really hard. I’ve seen some people take some damage that way. When a guy is trying to get it in there, it’s really uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t exactly call it pain.”

8) Americana 

“It’s like a keylock, except it’s in a mounted position,” Garcia tells me. “It’s a really basic hold, one of the first you learn when you start jiu-jitsu. Typically guys can roll out of an Americana, but if you get a black belt on top of you, it’s tough to get out. It’s a painful hold, but it’s pretty simple to alleviate the pain from it once you know what you’re doing.” 

7) Armbar 

“You have a little cap in your elbow that creates that stoppage whenever you extend your arm straight,” Garcia says. “This armbar puts the pressure on that, and that’s not a good way to bend the arm. If you let it break, you’ll never have a straight arm again. After that, your arm just kind of stays crooked. With the full-mounted armbar in particular, guys have all that air and space behind them, and they can lean back as far as they can go. Mounted armbars like that are very painful. 

“I’ve never had my arm broken, but I’ve seen lots of crooked arms on other people. It’s at least six to eight weeks of recovery with your arm in a cast, and again, your arm is permanently bent. You’ll see guys with intentions of trying to straighten out their arms and they just can’t. Plus, it will mentally haunt you for the rest of your life. It requires two to three months of physical rehab for the arm, but then it requires months of mental rehab. 

“That’s why I’ve never agreed with guys who wouldn’t tap. It’s better to tap than to have a crooked arm for the rest of your life. If you’re fighting in the UFC, and you find yourself caught in an armbar, just tap. It’s not about being proud in that moment because you didn’t tap. You’ll lose your pride for the rest of your life because you’ll never have a straight arm again. It’s much better to tap and go home with a straight arm.”

6) Kimura

“Kimuras are really bad,” Garcia explains. “It hurts your elbow and your shoulder at the same time. Typically, the shoulder gives way, and once that happens, the elbow pops with it. The bad thing about a Kimura is the pressure is really tight and it hurts, but once it pops, it pops.” 

4) Toehold and Heel Hook (Tie) 

“Toeholds and heel hooks are terrible,” Garcia tells me. “Any time you play with the legs, that’s really bad. When you walk, you’re using your stabilizer muscles and everything else for support, so your legs are really sensitive and not used to all the pressure pulling them in opposite directions and ways that they don’t normally go. Leg locks were banned in jiu-jitsu matches for a long time because the damage they would cause to the knees and ankles would take guys out for months, even years. 

“The heel hook is a lot like an Anaconda choke, but the heel hook is really attacking that knee, so when it goes all the way around, it’s a painful place to be. If you try to rip out of it, you pop your knee. You try to stay in it, and your leg is still going to be messed up.” 

3) Neck Crank 

“Neck cranks suck!” Garcia exclaims. “You’re tapping from pain and not because a joint is immobilized. A neck crank is exactly what it sounds like — you’re getting your neck cranked in a really bad way.”

2) Calf Slicer 

“A calf slicer is one of the worst holds,” he says. “It’s a muscle lock, so it doesn’t break any bones or tear any ligaments, but it jams that muscle. Imagine your muscle being frogged [knotting up after being hit] and then somebody just stepping on it all over again. They’re terrible. When you watch a submission tournament and see a guy tapping to a calf slicer, it’s a hard tap. They’re saying, ‘Get me out of here quickly!’”

1) Twister

“I know this one way too well,” Garcia admits. “The Korean Zombie [Chan Sung Jung] caught me with the twister, the first time it was ever used in the UFC. It’s actually an old wrestling hold, which was adapted into jiu-jitsu. The guys try to roll away from you and you trap them. I think Eddie Bravo turned it into a really famous move, and the Korean Zombie made me famous because of it. There was one second left in the second round, and I had been caught in the twister for three to four seconds before that last second. My back popped three times, and it felt like the fourth wasn’t going to pop unless something important gave way, so I had to tap. I was hanging on for dear life.”