Brazilian jiu-jitsu prides itself on being a methodical and highly technical style and has often moved away from techniques deemed to be brutish or bully-ish. This does not mean they are ineffective, and one of the most popular, easy-to-execute, and commonly frowned-upon techniques is the can opener.
The can opener is a spine lock executed from top closed guard by pulling the head of the opponent with both hands toward their chest. This action creates immense pressure and pain in the cervical spine and is mainly used to open a closed guard, but it sometimes leads to a submission.
The can opener is banned in many competitions, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to use it. It can come in handy in self-defense, MMA, and no-gi submission grappling competitions to elicit a reaction in the opponent when the move is not banned.
The can opener is a neck and spine crank mainly used from the top of closed guard to force the opponent to open their guard as a result of pain, hence the name can opener.
The move is executed by grabbing the back of the head in a Thai clinch, anchoring your elbows to the chest, and pulling. This creates immense tension in the neck and spine and forces the opponent to react.
The pressure can be quickly alleviated by opening the guard, which is its primary use. Still, there are more than a few submission finishes when the bottom person is too stubborn or oblivious to the possible defenses.
The can opener is not the most technical way to open a closed guard and is a technique that would earn you instant and certain resentment from training partners. Neck cranks have a terrible reputation in BJJ for their injury potential and being considered brutish and not technical.
The can opener is a technique everyone should be familiar with because it’s simple but effective, and there is also a possibility of getting caught in one if you are rolling with wrestlers or MMA fighters.
The can opener is not something you would want to do to your friends, but it is certainly something you can try against people who annoy you when you or you feel the catch-wrestling itch just to cause pain.
How To Do A Can Opener
The can opener is one of the simplest techniques you can use. It’s executed from a top closed guard, so you won’t need a dominant position secured.
Grab the back of their head with both hands like you would for a Thai-style plum clinch, pull their chin to their chest, and that’s it.
Now, there is one more important detail. If you just pull, the likelihood of getting arm barred is enormous, so you have to put your elbows on their chest or collar bones.
Doing this drastically reduces the chance of them going for an armbar and significantly increases the pressure on the cervical spine.
There are a couple of possible defenses, but if you use the technique properly, the only option is for the opponent to release their feet, open the guard, and give you passing opportunities. Remember, this is the primary purpose of the can opener.
The other option is perhaps even more unpleasant and involves stacking the opponent. Everything is the same grip-wise, but instead of pulling their head straight away, posture and stack them on their neck.
If this still doesn’t work, you can bring them to their butt, which makes it even worse, as shown by one of the masters of inducing pain, Josh Barnett.
Now, there are ways to make it even more painful by applying rotational pressure to the neck. Keep in mind this makes the can opener a real neck crank and much more dangerous than the regular version, so I strongly recommend you abstain from using this unless you are in a self-defense situation or something similar.
How To Defend A Can Opener
The can opener is easy to do and easy to defend. Although not ideal, you can always open your legs, scoop the hips backward, and your neck is immediately relieved. Yes, you can get passed, but you are no longer under threat of being submitted.
Obviously, if you feel a sharp pain in the cervical spine, tap immediately because injuries to the neck are some of the worst. There is no shame in submitting to a can opener, and tapping early is better to prevent months of pain.
But we also want to counter the move, not only submit or get our guard passed. There are a couple of options. If the opponent is careless and does not plant their elbows, you can view this as a direct invitation to armbar them.
Unfortunately, most people are not so slow and sloppy, which is when you can try the second counter and shove their head beneath yours. Use both your hands on top of their head and push them down, destroying their ability to put enough pressure on your neck.
The can opener is usually a big guy move, and many strong people love to use it, especially when they are new. Against them, the shoving of the head method is impossible. If they already have a good grip on the back of your head, push with both hands on their face to alleviate pressure from your neck and to open up enough space to transition into the armbar.
For better or worse, the can opener is illegal under all IBJJF rulesets for all belt levels. The move is also banned in many other originations but is legal at ADCC and all other pro-level submission grappling events.
Keep in mind that in the ADCC, the move is legal for professionals, but it’s still banned for beginners and advanced experience divisions.
An interesting occurrence with the can opener happened in 2004 in the grappling match between Jeff Monson and Marcio Cruz. The rules allowed the can opener as a tool to open closed guard, but not as a submission.
When Monson caught Cruz with the move, the Brazilian tapped instead of opening his legs and then got Monson disqualified. The following brawl and argument is legendary, and I will let you decide who is to blame here.
How Dangerous Is The Can Opener
If we are honest about it, the can opener is perhaps one of those techniques that should not be banned, or at least we shouldn’t pretend it’s banned because it’s dangerous. While it is a spine lock, the can opener does not apply rotational force and is not more dangerous than many other legal techniques.
Yes, your neck can be sore for days, but I am sure you’ve had the same feeling many times from guillotines, arm triangles, attempts to break your posture, and dozens of other common positions we find ourselves in every time we roll.
My experience with the can opener came in the first few days when I started grappling because I joined an MMA gym, and the can opener was one of the first moves newbies learned to get rid of closed guard.
Everyone in the gym uses the technique, and I haven’t seen a single injury courtesy of it. After all, the escape is as easy as it gets—just release the full guard.
However, I am not saying it does not have injury potential. You can absolutely get hurt by the can opener, especially if someone cranks it hard and fast.
Given its legal status, the can opener is not something you will often use, but it’s still a simple technique you should know how to use and defend against.
You won’t be able to use the can opener in competition, and it’s not a nice thing to do to your training partners. Even so, it’s still worth knowing if you need it in a situation or when you encounter a wrestler or MMA fighter in rolling who doesn’t care much about the IBJJF banned techniques list.