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Evaluating the 4 Major Clinches

Updated: Apr 16

4 major clinches

Black Belt Plus

The over-under is the big dog of clinches in mma and submission grappling —and for good reason. We’ll get to that reason in a minute, but first let’s look at why we see so little of the three other major clinches: the traditional boxing clinch, the collar-and-elbow clinch and the plum blossom, aka the

Muay thai clinch.

First is the boxing clinch. The absence of this one in MMA is almost a no-brainer. It’s too upright and loose to inhibit knees and elbows, as well as too narrow and “light” to avoid the takedown. As much as I love boxing, this position simply has no place in the cage.

Next is the collar-and-elbow. It’s exceptionally common and quite useful in collegiate and folkstyle wrestling because it sets up countless shots to the legs, in addition to numerous duck-unders, go-behinds and offensive gambits. It’s also a deceptive defensive tool that allows you to “read” your opponent’s intentions and use steering motions to defend against shots.

Why is such a formidable tool so rarely seen in MMA? Because if you use it in the cage the way it’s used in other sports, you’ll get clocked. The collar-and-elbow is a fantastic tool, but it commits the hands to grappling in such a way as to lead you to not even think of mounting a striking offensive — and if you do mount that offensive, this is such a loose base to launch from that you could have skipped the tie-up altogether.

The collar-and-elbow performs even worse on the flip side of the striking coin. Its openness/looseness creates holes that any good inside fighter can use to punish you for trying this clinch when it shouldn’t be used. Lest my wrestling brethren despair, I’m not saying you should throw away this clinch. I suggest that rather than thinking of it as the starting point and/or feeler in a match, relegate it to use during quick windows of opportunity. By this, I mean you should apply it in short iterations in which your transition to the next phase of your offense or defense is tripped to fire immediately. You’ll be less likely to get hurt.

The plum blossom is a devastating weapon in muay Thai, and we see it from time to time in MMA — but not nearly as much as we did in the early days of mixed martial arts. I surmise that the plum blossom used in its pure form is diminishing for the opposite reasons the collar-and-elbow clinch is waning. Where the collar-and-elbow is strike vulnerable, the plum blossom is grappling vulnerable.

Here’s what I mean: The posture used in the plum blossom is a bit too high and the base a bit too narrow, which allows a good wrestler to shrug and blow through this tie-up fairly easily. The key to avoiding this is to not get lulled into thinking of the plum blossom as a snaking-pummeling game. Instead, treat the tie-up itself as a strike. With that in mind, charge through your clinch defense quickly — the shrug is high percentage here — and you should be good to go.

Just as with the collar-and-elbow, the plum blossom, when used in quick instances or in a modified form, definitely has its place in MMA. It’s the original upright form that needs a caveat or two.

That brings us to the clinch that’s established its dominance for offense and defense: the over-under. Pre-MMA, it was most commonly seen in Greco-Roman wrestling where leg dives, picks and lacing are off-limits and upper-body control is key. Taking this clinch almost intact from its original sport and adding a few modified concepts yields an MMA-ready weapon that’s functional and versatile.

The over-under allows for good upper body control. You can stave off most punching because of the way it limits the opponent’s room to maneuver. Elbows can still be formidable, but good underhook control and/or underhook “reading” can go a long way toward reducing the threat. This clinch does leave open the possibility of a knee strike, but good weighting via overhooking forward and down, as well as tight and aggressive underhook pulling accompanied by aggressive underhook shoulder-pinning, reduces the threat and intensity.

The over-under also presents numerous takedown possibilities, both of the upper body Greco-Roman variety and the judo leg-lacing/tripping variety. The underhook portion of this clinch also serves as the root of a good defense against these same takedown attempts.

The over-under is a great position to work from as you spin and pin an opponent into the cage — or a wall. On the flip side of that equation, when your back is to a barrier, the over-under is your defensive friend and the key to escaping.

The only downside to this clinch is that it’s essentially a neutral position, meaning that both parties have the same offensive and defensive opportunities. The key to making yourself king of this position, therefore, is twofold.

One, have superior conditioning. Clinch work is grueling. You can go from fresh to exhausted in 15 seconds. The better-conditioned person will have an edge.

Two, have a superior vocabulary. If you’re able to draw from a deeper well of offensive and defensive tools and preserve a conditioning edge, you’ll increase your odds of owning this clinch. Being able to pummel only and having just one or two offensive moves at your disposal is clearly not optimal.

Mark Hatmaker’s website is

This article originally appeared in a 2021 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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