Opinion

Shinya Aoki’s ONE 101: The Art Of Joint Locks

Mar 17, 2020

Those who have never previously trained or practiced martial arts might think that joint locks (in Japanese Kansetsu-waza) are hard to understand and could cause injuries.

Since I have been active as a martial arts athlete for a long time, my perception of injuries caused by martial arts has become different from the general public.

The other day, in a casual conversation, I heard that ground work is difficult to understand. I thought if those individuals understood the theory and how it worked, then it might help them to get a more in-depth view.

Also, it may be useful to soften fears against the risk of injuries and encourage people to try martial arts. Therefore, I would like to address the topic, “Are joint locks dangerous?” in this column.

Shinya Aoki celebrates his defeat of Honorio Banario at ONE: CENTURY

First, let’s answer the question, “Where can joint locks be applied in martial arts competitions?”

In contemporary judo, athletes are allowed to apply joint locks only to the elbow. However, in mixed martial arts, fans can observe various types of locking techniques because athletes can attack multiple joints such as the neck, shoulders, knees, ankles, wrists, and hip joints.

In military combat, which focuses on subduing enemies, finger joint locks are sometimes applied, whereas in mixed martial arts, it is against the rules since finger joints are vulnerable.

If athletes were allowed to manipulate finger joints, then bouts wouldn’t be carried out properly. Therefore, I think that is the reason why it is prohibited, along with other illegal moves such as eye-poking and groin shots.



No matter how much strength you apply, you cannot execute joint locks unless you understand the mechanisms.

Joint locks are all about theories. When you apply joint locks, you need to understand their mechanism fully, or you will end up just taking on the pose. You need to understand not only the theories about the techniques, but also the anatomy of the human body.

Many athletes only learn the theory of the techniques, but those who are superior at joint locks have extensive knowledge about the human body.

Even though a grappler could get injured – or injure his or her respective opponent – that grappler could be able to guess the level of injury and the approximate time required to recover from it. I think this is because they have a deep understanding of the structure of the human body.

Japanese martial arts icon Shinya Aoki locks in a triangle choke

Personally, I haven’t gotten injured from joints locks, but I have gotten injured when I failed to execute throws, or when I was not able to react to the opponent’s attack. 

I think the risk was higher when I was practicing judo because it includes throws.

We push ourselves to stay on our feet and to avoid being thrown. As a result, these attempts sometimes cause injuries. When we get thrown in judo, that scores an ippon, which wins the contest.

But in mixed martial arts, we can take break-falls and keep fighting.

This is the safer rule in a way and, under the global martial arts rule set, it is illegal to throw an opponent on the head. We can say this is considerate of the safety of the athletes.

When it comes to a match-up between two experts of joint locks, it will be a match of logic. You can observe offenses and defenses as if it were a game of chess.

Back in May 2017, I competed against Garry “The Lion Killer” Tonon in a Grappling Super-Match, which was comprised of a single 15-minute round. I had so much fun because it was as if we were continually reading each other’s next move.

In this bout, I tapped out via his well-known trick – the heel hook.

Towards the end of the bout, Tonon took the important position called “the honey hole,” where he entangled the legs into a figure-four shape, which is an advantageous technique to manipulate the leg joints. Then he grabbed my heel and took a moment before he actually locked up the submission hold.

At that moment, I realized that I could not turn the tables around, so I decided to tap out. Tonon released the lock before I received any damage to my joints, so there was no possibility of injury.

This goes all the same for other joint locks. If both athletes understand the mechanism of the technique, they won’t get hurt.

By understanding the mechanism and the theory behind the art of joint locks, you will find there is a battle of intelligence going on in what some may view as a boring game.

Japanese star Shinya Aoki makes his way to the Circle for his rematch against Eduard Folayang

Don’t be afraid to practice martial arts based on the assumption of getting injured.

There are some martial arts fan events where you can try techniques with athletes.

If it makes you feel uncomfortable to try physically, then you can learn basic knowledge of joint locks, and that will enhance your experience when watching mixed martial arts shows in the future.

During the broadcast of ONE events, the commentators attentively explain what is happening on the ground. That could be very helpful and allow you to enjoy the bouts even more.

Read more: Mitch Chilson’s Journey From The Circle To The Commentary Booth