Inverted Gear Blog / Nelson Puentes

Three Years at Black Belt: Still Learning

I got my black belt three years ago. For the first and second anniversaries of earning my black belt, I wrote blog posts about what I had learned in year one and year two. Time flies, but Panda Nation seems to enjoy hearing about my black belt adventures and just how much learning occurs after black belt.

So here’s the third edition!

My training has been inconsistent. Hillary and I have been traveling a ton for camps and seminars and a bunch of stuff in between. Sometimes we only come home for a week or two before heading out again. My time at my “home gym” has been minimal, so I haven’t gotten to spend as much time in the lab as I would like. I have, however, been able to train with a ton of great grapplers and pick up a few tricks along the way, so it’s a tradeoff.

Even with an unusual training scheduling, my work on leg locks continues. I keep finding new spots to attack my IBJJF-approved game of tripod ankle locks and cross body ankle locks. Last year, I had a goal of working on my knee bar game. After some trial and error, I am a lot better at them. I have collected a few entries that I can hit consistently, mostly from the bottom when opponents defend sweeps or while defending some passes. I have a lot of success with controlling both legs while attacking the knee bar and being able to switch to the toe hold on the free leg when they defend.

Also, since moving to the Allentown area, I get to work on heel hooks a lot more, and my timing and proficiency has gone up with those as well.

A big part of my work on leg locks is linking them with upper body attacks. I have been working on coming up to dominant positions off my leg attacks. If I go for a foot lock and my opponent starts pummeling and re-engaging the leg attack, I am a lot better at coming up into a passing position. My friend Reilly recently changed the way I did the cross body ankle lock: by posting on one arm it is much easier to rewind into the leg drag, so that’s also been on the practice plate thanks to the last R Dojo camp.

When I start to pass, whether I’m coming up from a leg lock attack or not, I have been looking for the folding pass. This has been my project for a few years now, and I’ve made a good bit of progress. Now that my training partners know what I like though, opponents have started playing with wider hips to prevent the fold, so I have been working on different set-ups for my knee cut when this happens. My passing proficiency has gone up, and I get to back step into leg locks when my opponent overcommits to defending the knee cut.

From standing, I been playing a lot more with front headlocks to set up takedowns. Front headlocks are one of the highest scoring takedowns in wrestling. They were so strong that rules needed to be changed and a shot clock added because competitors were refusing to shoot in fear of the front headlock. In a gi and no-gi context, it’s underutilized since many of us choose to jump on guillotines from the position. I have been working on getting the position and breaking my opponent down and then spinning behind, double legging when they pop up, and various chokes once my opponent is broken down to his knees. This new emphasis on the front headlock has made my singles and doubles more successful since my opponent's posture changes as I keep attacking their head.

On top of everything else, I have been working more and more on the Bernardo-style deep half guard. It’s great guard to play when I am tired and I need to tie up an overzealous lower belt while at a camp or traveling. It also feeds very well into my strong passing position to further slowdown my opponent.

This is what I been working on over the last year. A few of these items I have been working on for the last three years now, but I am always finding little details to refine them and add to them.

What have you been working on?

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Build Funnels Into Your Jiu-Jitsu Game

As I train more and more and I get a better idea of what “my game” is, I find myself using a similar principle more often. I like to call it “funneling.” What I mean when I use this term is getting to certain positions that dramatically reduce my opponent’s options. Since I am familiar with the positions, I can react accordingly, and I will pick positions where I feel I have the advantage, whether that advantage is mechanical or simply a matter of my being more experienced with the position.

It all started with closed guard. I was tired of being triangled and swept by one of my main training partners from his closed guard. I realized that while I sometimes got swept when I stood up, I rarely got submitted. Sure, I would get caught here and there in crazy omoplata scrambles, but for the most part I was able to stand up and open his guard.

So I started standing every time I found myself in closed guard.

This dramatically cut the amount of attacks I had to worry about. Triangles and armbars were almost out of the equation if I broke grips correctly and I kept my posture on my to my feet. Now all I had to worry about were lumberjack sweeps, sucker sweeps, and some kind of hail Mary omoplata attempt which could all be prevented by being aware of what my opponent’s options were and positioning my feet and arms accordingly. My success rate of passing the closed guard skyrocketed, so I started applying this principle to other areas of my game looking for options that narrowed my opponent’s options and made him more predictable.

Eventually, I started to apply this concept to my entire guard passing game and not just my response to closed guard. When I was a purple belt (and that seems like forever ago), I went to Atlanta for a Pans training camp at Alliance HQ. I rolled with Chris Moriarty, and he kept passing my guard by setting up different folding passes. Then he would choke or wristlock me repeatedly from mount.

This left an impression. My later purple belt years and brown belt years were spent funneling my passing into the folding pass position. As jiu-jitsu continues to evolve and more and more guards come into vogue I find some tranquility in being able to use footwork and grips to get my opponent to give me an angle where I can get both of his knees onto the mat and sprawl on them. Here his options are very limited, and I have an incredible mechanical advantage -- not only is all my weight pinning his hips and knees, but his knees are facing away from me, while all my big muscles are facing him.

The folding pass is a funnel for my guard passing game. I have a strong mechanical advantage, and I can consistently predict my opponent’s reactions.

Here is me teaching the folding pass at a seminar:

Today, I have built myself funnels for virtually every aspect of my game. I always enjoyed the guard for its variety, and over the years I have gravitated more toward butterfly guard and single leg X-guard variations because I can them in both gi and no-gi, they let me rest my mangled hands, and the mechanical power of these positions for sweeps consistently open the doors I need to either advance my position or attack with leg locks. I’ve also done the same for my takedown game, spending more time on tie-ups and gripping sequences that are less open-ended for my opponent and give me the control I need to press the attack.

As I simplified my game and worked so I could do similar techniques in both gi and no-gi, I am able to do same things over and over and react faster when they become available, keeping me ahead. My friend Reilly Bodycomb has been a huge influence over the last few years, not only in the stand up and leglock portion of my game but his approach to “always grappling the same.” His influence has helped me feel comfortable competing in gi, no-gi, and even sambo. Even if a ruleset bans heel hooks, I can still use my same entries for anklelocks or kneebars.

(If you haven’t checked out Reilly’s new Top Rock Turbo 2 instructional, do so now.)

Funneling can be applied at every belt level. The easiest place to start is simply insisting on getting to a position you like, like forcing half guard when you are on top trying to pass. As you get more advanced, the idea of funneling starts to look like a more complex strategy, like Bernardo Faria’s deep half guard for example, but the core principle is still the same: Get to the positions where you are comfortable and can easily predict what happens next.

What position do you find yourself funneling your opponent into? How can you build on that to improve your game?



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How to Improve Without a Black Belt Instructor

In an ideal world, we would all train at a place like Marcelo Garcia’s academy in New York City or Art of Jiu-Jitsu in California with a multiple-time world champion coach and plenty of world caliber training partners. But what if you live some place more remote, and the nearest black belt is hours away? How can you improve when your only training partners are a blue belt and a bunch of white belts? Are you destined to spend your time in a car driving for hours every time you want to train?

This situation is more common than you think. When you live in southern California or anywhere near New York City, believing that there are places in the world where black belts are scarce and purple belt instructor are commodity might be hard to imagine. Through my travels and camps, I have met plenty of people in this situation, and we have traded notes. At one point, I was a purple belt instructor at a small school in New Jersey and most of my mat time was spent with white and blue belts. I would only train with my instructor Kevin once a week.

So I am familiar with the difficulties of making this work, but the good news is that it can work.

Here is what I would recommend if you find yourself in this situation:

  • Invest in your training partners. Pick a few training partners, if they are close to your weight even better, and invest time in them. Take a few minutes after every class and show them what they can improve on. Drill with them and show them how to counter and best ways to react to whatever you are working on. If you are working on triangles, show them how to recognize and kill your angles or show them how to escape it once it’s locked in. In the long run, the better they get, the better your training will be too.

  • Travel to nearby academies, but don’t burn yourself out. I had many training partners over the years that fell into the trap of long commutes to train. Eventually they hated the commute but also started to hate jiu-jitsu by proxy. Many of my friends that chose to commute long hours to NYC to train at premiere academies, for example, no longer train, even after having success competing at lower belt levels. Traveling to different academies to train is a good thing, but like anything it should be done in moderation.

  • Find what your training partners are best at and put yourself in those situations. If one of the big guys in the room has an amazing mount or side control, let him have it and spend time there. Put yourself at a disadvantage, and get meaningful reps this way.

  • Get people to visit you. Whether you set up a seminar for a local black belt or brown belt or use your spare bedroom or couch to let a BJJ traveler crash, keeping an open door is a good way to get knowledge flowing through your academy. Extra points if you live in a somewhat touristy destination, but that’s not always necessary. Check out BJJ Globetrotters and You never know what traveling black belt may drop by our academy. As I write this blog, I am traveling through the north coast of Australia teaching seminars and staying with the locals, and it’s a blast.

  • Change up your game regularly. If you can armbar everyone in the room, it’s time to switch it up. Spend some time getting to the back and finishing with chokes. If you can butterfly sweep everyone, work on half guard for a few weeks. And so on. This will not only give you a more balanced game, but it will expose your training partners to different games, which they can pick up and make part of theirs.

  • Use your vacations for BJJ camps. Whether you want to visit Europe and go to Globetrotter camp or come hang out with me in Costa Rica next year, BJJ camps are great ways to expand your game and your BJJ network. As you meet more people that like to travel and do BJJ, you have better chances of getting them to swing by your neck of the woods in the future.

  • Learn from instructionals in any form, from YouTube to DVDs to books to websites. My friends wrote great articles about this:

Living in an isolated area with limited training options is not a death sentence to your BJJ improvement. You can make progress. It may take longer than you would like, but BJJ is not going anywhere, and you might find that having to direct your own training could actually be a big advantage for your long term growth and development.

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Non-Conformity and Jiu-Jitsu

As Hillary and I were headed to Australia to meet our friend Chad and teach a few seminars, Winter Storm Stella was scheduled to hit the east coast. Our flight out of Philly was cancelled, which made us scramble to get new a flight. We decided our best option was driving to Pittsburgh, staying with friends, and flying out of there the following morning.

24 hours later, we returned our one-way rental and headed to the gate. Along the way, this book caught my attention. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. A few flights, layovers, and whiskey and sodas later I am about halfway through the book, and I can’t help but start to draw comparisons to jiu-jitsu.

I never thought about it before, but BJJ counts large numbers of non-conformists among its ranks. And some of them really have changed the way we look at BJJ. If we take a historical approach, we can identify quite a few people that had a huge impact on how the game is played today, by either coming up with new positions entirely or changing how we look at old positions.

Half Guard

We can start by looking at half guard, which these days is as diverse and dynamic as any jiu-jitsu position. At one point, however, half guard was seen as a “stalling position” because many players would only go there to get lockdown and slow things down as they caught their breath. Gordo and Gordinho Correa completely changed that by adopting the position as their main sweeping tool. They changed the way the game was played.

By being able to re-guard to half and start attacking right away, it gave them a huge advantage since they didn't have to recompose all the way to a “full guard.” Even as Gordo and his brother succeeded, it took a few years before other people bought into it. Nowadays, the position has continued to evolve, and deep half guard and Lucas Leite style half guard are part of most competitive players’ arsenals.

Inverted Guard

Inversions were not always part of the BJJ game, either. Roleta was one of the first players to use this position in order to re-guard and use his patented “Roleta sweep” (mostly known as Tornado sweep these days since Cyborg Abreu has popularized it again). Many old school players were not fans of Roleta's style, and some didn’t even consider it “real” jiu-jitsu—he wasn't playing a normal guard after all.

His style was nicknamed esqui-jitsu (short from esquisito which means weird in Portuguese). After Roleta. it wouldn't be until a pair of blue belts started going inverted and triangling everyone that the inversion game gain popularity. Ryan Hall and my old training partner from Alliance NYC had much success catching triangles from inverted guard. At the time, many people, especially at the blue and purple belt level, didn’t even know how to pass the inverted guard which gave them a huge advantage in competition. Dave won blue belt worlds and Ryan, well, he became Ryan, accomplishing a great deal in BJJ and in MMA.


Ryan would later develop another position, the 50/50, which he would get to when opponent stood up to pass his inverted guard to avoid triangles. He would shoot his legs through his opponent’s legs and arrive at the 50/50, which was technically not a new position, but it had been regarded just as a stalling position until that point. Ryan Hall 50/50 heel hooking his way into ADCC gave the position notoriety, but it wasn’t until Bruno Frazatto and the Mendes brothers from team Atos started using the position to contain Cobrinha that the position gained popularity in the gi as well. The positioned that once frowned upon exploded as everyone started to come up with ways to pass and enter it.

The Bigger Picture of Non-Conformity

The inverted guard saw another Renaissance with the rise of the berimbolo, and there has been a whole lot of other BJJ innovation that was once against the grain but is now accepted as legitimate effective technique (or for the most part at least; looking at you leglock haters). Nowadays we have guys like Keenan who seem to come up with a different position every time he makes a taco run, changing the way we look at open guard again and again, especially when lapels are involved.

Benefiting from non-conformity doesn’t have to mean innovating on the level of Ryan Hall or Rafa Mendes. Simply being willing to try something outside of the box or to take the road less traveled can make you more likely to grow.

If you ask my mom, I have been in trouble for not conforming for a long time. I used to carry notes from my teacher almost daily during my early school years. As an adult, non-conformity is a part of my life that is evident in my grappling style and in my career path. The whole reason Inverted Gear was created was that I was not happy with the way the gi industry was heading (thank God the Affliction years have passed) and wanted to do something different

As you develop your game and go through your BJJ journey, don't be afraid to develop your own game. Maybe you are interested in a position that is not popular at the time, but don’t let that be a deterrent to creating your own game or investing time in any given position. Maybe you like passing to the right like some of us degenerates or attacking ankle locks across the body instead of the regular side. One of my friends had a knee injury and stopped playing the whole guard thing and sets up all his attacks and sweeps from side control.

The way things are done now should not dictate how they will be done in the future. Learn from the best practices of the day—fundamentals will always be valuable—but just because there is not a road already on your map doesn’t mean that you can’t make one yourself.

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The State of Panda Nation

Five years ago, I started Inverted Gear. It seems like yesterday I was ordering polybags and halfsheet labels on Amazon so I could ship the first batch of panda gis from my mom’s basement. A lot has changed since then. First of all, I met my wife and business partner, Hillary. I didn’t know how much I needed her until she saw our original design files that were sent to the factory. Here is a side by side for comparison, so you can perhaps get a sense of the potential she saw on the brand.


With Hillary’s help, Inverted Gear has grown into something incredible.

I’m still amazed when I scroll through social media and get to experience panda sightings. Whether it’s a video or a picture of a seminar somewhere overseas, if you look hard enough you are sure to find a panda somewhere. I am very grateful for this. With the ever-growing amount of options out there, the fact that people keep choosing us means a lot to me and to Hillary.

In order to thank you for your support, we have worked hard over the last few years to bring you more content than ever. I have assembled what I consider the best BJJ writers out there in one team. Marshal Carper, Matt Kirtley, Daniel Bertina, Val Worthington, and TP grant—also weekly features from yours truly and the occasional post from Hillary when she gets time away from all the design work.

Also we are working hard to start bringing you more video content from both our sponsored athletes and us. We’ve been especially proud of our White Belt Wednesday videos. The best part about my job is getting to talk to people about jiu-jitsu, and these videos are a fun way for us to interact with new jiu-jiteiros around the world and hopefully help their training, even if it’s just a little bit. We have some cool projects in the works that we cannot wait to share with you as well.

On the gear side of things, we’ve been busy too. We will have quite a few announcements on the upcoming weeks. 

As much as we’re looking to do new things, there’s a lot that won’t change. We plan to continue our support of Tap Cancer Out and all the great work they do. We also plan to continue our support of grappling events in general. We have been able to sponsor the last two Polaris events, we sponsored the last Challenge (Keenan Cornelius vs. Sean Roberts), and we are pleased to announce we will be sponsoring Marianas open this year.

Finally, we are working hard to bring Inverted Gear to Europe permanently. Our friends across the pond have been patient so far, but we know that high shipping costs and rising taxes can be frustrating, so we have a European distribution hub in the works, so that we can directly serve European pandas the way we serve American pandas. Our aim is to have this completed by the end of the year.

Everything we have done over the last 5 years has been possible due to your support. Thank you again for believing in our vision. We look forward to bringing you highest quality gear possible, great content, and let’s not forget that really cool Panda logo.

Thank you, Panda Nation. You are some of the greatest people I’ve ever met.


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