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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

24 August 2013

24/08/2013 - Michel Verhoeven (Rickson Black Belt) Seminar

Seminar #013
The Dojo Sidcup, (BJJ), Michel Verhoeven, Sidcup, UK - 24/03/2013

For many years, Rickson has possessed a mystical aura in BJJ, a remote demi-god whose knowledge was shared with a select few. More recently, Rickson has been increasing his seminar schedule, holding his first ever European seminars last year. Unfortunately I wasn't able to make it in 2012 to train with the man himself, but I can make it to London to learn from one of his disciples.

When Al (who writes an excellent blog I've enjoyed for several years: like Rickson, he dispenses his wisdom infrequently ;D) mentioned that a Rickson black belt would be teaching in Sidcup, I therefore decided it was about time I experienced the legendary Rickson style. I was also intrigued by the prospect of learning from a Dutch black belt, due to the potential of getting an interview as well (which Al kindly set up for me). Up until now, I've only interviewed people from Brazil, the USA and the UK.

Update July 2016: You can listen to that interview now, as it's the first episode of the Artemis BJJ Podcast

Michel 'Babytank' Verhoeven started training jiu jitsu at the age of 13 in 1999, under Harold Harder (who had himself first met Rickson in 1996). Verhoeven is now a black belt under Rickson and head of Rickson Gracie Jiu Jitsu Holland, a growing organisation that is bringing Rickson over for a second time in October (which again I can't make, as it's my mum's 60th). Verhoeven's presence in the UK was organised by Paul Finn, who runs the Sidcup Dojo where the seminar was held.

Update Nov 2013: I did finally make it to a Rickson seminar, in November. No offence to Rickson, but for me, Michel's seminar was both better and cheaper. ;D

Verhoeven demonstrated his commitment to the basics immediately. During the warm-up, he took the time to not only correct how somebody was shrimping, but also showed the proper application. You might think that to correct a shrimp, you would tell the person to push off their foot more, perhaps raise their hips. Verhoeven told them to go into the defensive posture they would use under side control, then showed how they need to adjust to prevent him from easily pushing them flat on their back by pressing on the shoulder. This then fed back into the proper way to shrimp, keeping in mind the positions in which you might use that shrimp. It set the tone for the day: fundamentals with key details, which is exactly what I was hoping to learn.

Next up was takedowns. After 'self defence' drills, this is my least favourite part of jiu jitsu. It is therefore a testament to Verhoeven's teaching that it was both useful and engaging. That's because he did not begin with a load of throws. Instead, keeping the basics theme, he talked about takedown posture, which I find far more helpful. This followed on from another running theme in the seminar, dubbed 'game planning' by Verhoeven. What he means by that is essentially sparring followed by commentary. He had two of the white belts (who made up the majority of attendees: apart from them, it was just me, Al and a Carlson blue belt, Mike) briefly spar from standing. That became his example for some pointers on grips and posture.

The idea is that you stay solid while your opponent is bouncing around trying to yank you off balance. You react when their leg is in range or there is some other opening for a takedown. I'm not sure I quite got all the details, as I had slightly different advice from Mike and Al, but Mike's perspective was to jam your fist into the pec upon which the collar was resting. Keep that relatively firm, but as Verhoeven said a number of times, don't completely extend your arm, leaving a very small bend. As they push into you, use your fist into their chest to prevent their forward motion. As they pull back, follow them with your fist. This reminded me of what Sean Cooper said last November when I was in Texas, regarding the Rickson seminar he had attended and the importance of 'connection', something that would be mentioned numerous times today.

Al spoke about expanding and contracting, again in reaction to them pulling and pushing. This was also combined with putting your weight onto your front leg (for when they were pushing, I think), then the back leg if they pull. From what Al said, although that's counter-intuitive, the reason you load up your weight on the front leg if they push is that if you rely on the back leg, you have nothing behind it should they push you further. I think you expand your arms, flaring your elbows a bit, when they pushed, keeping an arm almost straight into them (I think like Mike described, but not quite the same?). Then you do the reverse when they pull, dropping your elbows a bit closer together and sinking your weight onto your back leg. Verhoeven mentioned this was something that takes a fair bit of practice, as it also needs good timing.

Verhoeven then demonstrated three throws. The first and last I think are standard judo techniques, seoi-nage and osoto-gari (though he doesn't kick through on the osoto-gari, instead saying that just placing your leg behind theirs as a brace is sufficient). The middle ones were more akin to what you can find in the rear takedown from Lesson Twenty Nine of Gracie Combatives. Start by opening up their elbow and collar by lifting your arms (something we had done as a separate drill earlier), then duck underneath, driving your near knee to the ground while stepping the other up. Keep your head raised to avoid guillotines, then spin to their back.

Put you head in between their shoulder blades so they can't connect with your skull by flinging elbows backwards. If they are upright, drive your hips into them to lift, then drop them back into the space you created. I was a bit nervous of trying that one, as I was concerned I might hurt my back if I messed it up. The second option was less nerve-wracking, as that was the same drop to the mat and pull them over your leg technique Rener shows on his DVD. Verhoeven noted you want to get your arm out of the way to stop them landing on it. I wasn't able to pull this off smoothly (unlike Al, who does it beautifully), mainly because I'm (as usual) over-cautious about committing to the move.

We continued into more comfortable territory with the groundwork, as Verhoeven began with a brief drill on maintaining mount. This was reminiscent of Dónal's method for taking the back in his ezequiel series, as the drill involves staying on your toes as they roll to their belly. You simply follow them sideways: the goal is to get used to having them roll through without letting yourself get stuck to them, as then you'd fall over and they'd end up on top.

That was as far as maintaining mount went (though submissions returned later), progressing instead to escaping the mount. Verhoeven first had us drill bridging in isolation, so he could work out if people were doing it right. Apparently only two people were. Bridge as high as you can, while also turning to one side: this is a significant turn, meaning that you body ends up twisted, your head looking in that direction. Verhoeven could then lead us through the upa escape from mount. The main detail he added which I'm not too familiar with is his grip. I'm used to grabbing the wrist and elbow, either behind the elbow (Rener style) or the crook of the elbow. Verhoeven's method depends on what they did. If they have their elbow out, push it towards their other hip, then grab the gi material of their upper arm and use that for your grip, pulling them down tightly.

The elbow escape instruction was helpful too. Verhoeven began by reaching across to the opposite hip with his hand. As with the tips on stand-up posture, keep your arm slightly bent. Push into that hip, then shrimp, using your free elbow to prise open their same side knee. Pop the knee through, pushing off that to make more space, then prise their other knee open. Once you get the leg out, wrap their leg with your outside leg, which becomes a base point to help slide your other leg out between their legs.

If they are a bit higher, use both of your hands to make a frame. This looks a bit like the recent video Stephan Kesting put out on framing, though he prefers to make a fist, as he feels that makes the frame stronger. The third option, for when they're pressing their hips down (as I like to do in low mount) is to go for the heel drag, still pushing into their opposite hip to help scoop up their leg. If you are having trouble reaching for the opposite hip because they haven't left any space, do a series of small bumps with your hips to create the room for your arm to slide under. This is what Verhoeven did when he used me as an uke for mount escapes, because I like to hold that low mount where I try to prevent them having much space (which is of course rather tougher to do on a black belt ;D).

The last section of the seminar was on submissions from the mount. I was extremely pleased at the selection, because almost all of them are techniques I've been looking to improve in my own game. The cross choke details were especially useful, as I realised I've been doing something fundamentally wrong for years: twisting my wrists the wrong way. I've been twisting them outwards when I should have been twisting them inwards. My training partner Martyn related a good tip for remembering this, which he'd heard from Allan Manganello (another Rickson black belt). If you cross your hands in front of you with the palms facing you, adjust your hands so the thumbs are touching. Now twist them so that the thumbs stay pressed against each other: if you twist the other way, you're opening up space. Genius.

Verhoeven's process is to insert your first hand, then bring your second hand underneath. Establish a relatively tight grip, already beginning to twist your hands inwards (remember the butterfly thumbs!) and raising your partner towards you slightly. Put your head on the mat above the shoulder your top hand is pointing towards, then twist and draw your elbows backwards to finish the choke. Don't flare your elbows, as then they can defend the choke by pushing those elbows back together.

If you can't get past their defending hands, there is the nasty option of digging your thumb along the jawline. I'm not a big fan of that as I find it too brutal, so prefer Verhoeven's other suggestion of flowing into another technique, such as wedging under their elbow and moving into a gift wrap. There was also a variation to the choke when you can only get one hand in, bringing your second arm around to the other side of their head, then 'shaving' back across their face to position that arm by their neck. Grab a handful of gi by their shoulder, then drop your elbow so your forearm is over their throat. This second arm doesn't move after that point: the choke comes from twisting the first hand and drawing that first elbow back.

Finally, there was a relatively straightforward application of the ezequiel choke, though Verhoeven does this differently to Dónal. He doesn't like to use less fingers for greater range, instead preferring to switch to the fist variation if you can't land the cleaner option. Driving your fist is certainly effective, but like digging across the jaw line, I would normally transfer to something else in that situation. In this case, that would be the next stage of Dónal's ezequiel series, the tight americana against the leg.

The more standard americana from mount followed, where once again, Verhoeven had a simple but significant tip. Instead of focusing your efforts on pushing their wrist to the floor, grab their wrist then concentrate on getting your elbow to the mat, by their head. For some reason, this seems to be a lot more effective at getting both your limbs and theirs in the right position to complete the americana. Martyn mentioned 'revving the motorcyle' here, another useful detail I often forget: in other words, curl your wrists up. If you lose the americana because they straighten their arm, you can flow into the straight armbar, much like the Roy Dean lockflow I like from side control.

Verhoeven finished off with an armbar from mount. I don't generally go for armbars from mount because I hate losing position, but it is something I should keep in mind as it's such a core submission from there, for teaching if nothing else. Verhoeven's application starts by grabbing their opposite tricep with one of your hands, using that to pull them up onto their side, so you can slide into technical mount. Post your free hand by their face, in order to swing your leg past their head. Don't drop back yet: first, wrap their arm with both of yours, grabbing your own collars, then raise your elbows and thrust your hips forwards.

That has two advantages. Firstly, it straightens their arm out. Secondly, it puts your hips closer to the shoulder. Together, that means when you do drop back, you're in a better, tighter position. That also means that the armbar comes on quicker, so be careful you don't crank this suddenly, or you're at risk of hyper-extending their elbow before they've had time to tap.

After some more game planning, it was time for free sparring. I decided against taking part this time because I wanted to make sure I was ready to head off and catch my train, so got changed instead (which also meant I could display the fabulous Pony Club Grappling Gear spats I'd been wearing under my gi, plus take a few quick photos for this post). However, I didn't escape getting smashed by a black belt today, as Verhoeven had grabbed me for a quick light roll before the seminar. In my attempts to escape technical mount, Verhoeven noted that I could have gone for a double shin sweep and come on top, something I need to remember.

I also went to my favoured running escape, but Verhoeven did the same thing Sahid does, trapping my trailing leg with his knee and effectively stymieing the escape as a result. As normally happens with higher belts, he eventually secured a collar for the choke. However, unlike some higher belts, when I used the poor defence of popping my collar up over my chin, Verhoeven didn't choke my face. He instead calmly waited for an opportunity to bring his other limbs to bear so that he could get the submission more smoothly. Always appreciated, and another reminder to be more careful of my neck when I'm flailing around with the running escape. :)

Thanks again to Paul, Al and of course Michel: I look forward to future seminars! It was five hours of technique, but because everything was fundamental I could concentrate – and more importantly, retain – some of those key details that make all the difference. This is exactly what I'm interested in, depth rather than breadth. I would much rather refine a collar choke or an elbow escape, as opposed to something flashy (or just outside of the game I'm trying to build for myself and my teaching) that I'll most likely never use. Next time I'll make sure I bring extra cash to buy a Babytank tank top: I was thinking recently, after all the hot weather, that I'd quite like a jiu jitsu tank top. Clearly having a black belt from Rickson gives Michel psychic powers as well as jiu jitsu skills. ;)


  1. Could you comment more on the shrimp details?

  2. From what I remember, it was basically get on your side more and put your hands into a good defensive posture, with a foot ready to base.

  3. Totally trying that 'keep thumbs in contact' thingy with the cross choke. Wonder if the same applies while in the closed guard. Should do I guess.

  4. Glad to hear it isn't just me! ;)

    I would guess it's the same from guard (as turning your hands inward would seem to drive more of your hand and wrist into their neck), but then my cross-choke from guard is probably even worse than my choke from mount.