I’ve seen a lot discussion about single legs recently, in particular about the different types of them, which are best to use in MMA and how to not get guillotined while shooting them. The purpose of this post is to provide some brief background information.
First, the different types. You can either shoot a single with the head inside or the head outside. For a head inside single, the head is placed firmly against the opponent’s chest (inside their stance). For a head outside single, the head is placed against the opponent’s ribs (outside their stance). Side note: A head outside single can also be called a high crotch, although some people do differentiate between a head outside single and a high crotch based on either the entry or the finish. I personally don’t because either way you’re working from the same position, but that’s a debate for another day. Depending on your positioning on the shot, different finishes will be preferable.
Head inside single:
The most commonly taught way to finish a single in MMA is running the pipe. This can be done whether the head is inside or outside, but the mechanics are different. Running the pipe with the head inside involves driving the head into the opponent’s chest while pulling the secured leg through your own legs. Here’s a quick video demonstration:
Notice how tightly he secures the leg to his chest and the pressure he exerts with his head–both of these things while maintaining strong posture. While this is commonly taught, it can be tough to pull off in MMA. High level wrestlers can show shocking amounts of balance while on one leg, and will sink in a whizzer, stuff your head and fight your grips until they get the leg loose. Some will even hop back to the cage to rest against it while they escape the position, others will pepper you with uppercuts with the non-whizzering arm. When the head is inside, a lot of wrestlers prefer to attack with some kind of trip or sweep.
Maia drives Brown up from a sprawl position into the cage (notice how Brown is up on his toes instead of being “on his laces”) and starts working for a single. Brown immediately starts using his hands to push Maia’s head away and try to break his posture. He does a pretty good job, but note how deep Maia’s grip is–he gets the crook of his elbow behind Brown’s knee and keeps that grip clamped throughout. This allows him to keep pulling Brown off balance despite being unable to secure his head tight to the chest or outside ribs. Brown starts using the space to attack with uppercuts so Maia pulls Brown towards him, forcing Brown to hop forward on his standing leg which Maia quickly sweeps–ending up in that signature tripod passing position everybody knows from BJJ Scout’s outstanding video series on Maia.
Here’s a demonstration in a pure wrestling context:
It’s rare to see that kind of shot in MMA however. Inside singles aren’t very popular, as most fighters prefer takedowns that let them run straight through the opponent like a blast double or knee tap. You’re most likely to see this type of single off a caught kick.
Jones catches the kick, secures a deep grip, Cormier tries to limp leg out, Jones trips him onto his face.
High crotch/head outside single:
It’s commonly claimed that you can’t shoot a single with the head outside in MMA because of the risk of guillotine chokes. While that risk is certainly a factor, it can be mitigated and should not be considered a deterrent against such a useful technique. In fact, most singles you see in MMA will be shot with the head outside. It’s simply easier to get into position and you’re less likely to run into an uppercut or knee. The first finish we’ll talk about solves the guillotine problem easily–doubling off. The attacker shoots their high crotch, swivels outside to cut the angle, then switches grips and drives across the body to finish with a double leg. Done correctly, the attacker lands with their head and hips on opposite sides of the opponent’s body, negating the guillotine.
It won’t always be possible to double off. The skilled defender will do their best to block the inside elbow so that the double leg grip can’t be secured, and will often try to push the head inside to create space. (Jones vs Cormier) In such cases, the attacker will need to consider a different finish. This is where we come back to running the pipe. The mechanics are similar to running the pipe with the head inside, but there are notable differences. Primarly, the pressure from a head outside single comes from the inside shoulder, not the head. Additionally, the pressure is applied downwards and sideways, whereas with the head inside the pressure is mostly sideways.
Instead of driving towards the standing leg, running the pipe involves pulling the defender towards the secured leg. This is a useful concept because it allows for misdirection. If you shoot your high c and start pressuring like you’re going to drive across the opponent, you can get them to brace against you so that when you switch directions and run the pipe, you snap them straight to the mat.
Maia shoots and Rory sprawls hard, but that never means you’re out of danger against Maia. He keeps his hold on the leg as he regains his posture. Watch as he swivels on his knees until he is able to recover from his overextended shot and return to his feet. Rory has been doing his best to circle counter-clockwise and maintain his balance, but as soon as Maia gets up he violently snaps Rory down in the other direction. Pay attention to the big step Maia takes back with his right foot as he pulls Rory’s leg between his.
Alternatively, you can start running the pipe, pulling them into you before you explode and run through them. Another popular option for when you can’t double off, favored by the man with the most spectacular single legs in MMA, is the pop and lift. You cut the outside angle as deep as you can, make sure your grip is REALLY in there, then glue your hips to the opponent and pop your hips up to hit a lift.
Cormier throws a low kick with his lead leg, then steps it back into southpaw. This lets him get his right leg closer to Gustafsson’s lead leg, making it easier for him to shoot with it stepping outside. His head originally goes inside as he drives Gustafsson into the cage, but Cormier then pulls Gus towards him and uses the space to secure his head against the ribs under the armpit. As soon as he does this, Gustafsson turns his back slightly and reaches for the beginnings of a kimura grip on Cormier’s left arm, but this only serves to give Cormier the angle he wants for free. Cormier pulls Gus towards him again and as his hips get in close he hits a huge lift, almost identical to the one he famously hit on Barnett.
The fun part for MMA is that if the guy tries to guillotine you while you do this, he’s just giving you more leverage for the lift.
Observe Cormier’s good positioning here. Head tight to the ribs, grip tightly secured, hips tight to the legs, everything is tight and Cormier looks thick and solid–all the ingredients are there for a massive slam. Jones looks to threaten the guillotine which allows Cormier to assist his lift with head pressure. He loses position this time, but I doubt we’ll ever see that happen to Jones again.
Finally, here’s a cool video of Cormier himself giving a quick explanation of head outside singles.