1 Nov 2020

Instructional Review - Priit Mihkelson's Defence System (Panda, Hawking, Turtle, Running Man, Baby Bridge)



Estonian BJJ black belt Priit Mihkelson has packaged a highly effective set of defensive principles and positions. Priit's tutorials have a fast-growing fanbase of advocates thanks to his many videos on Youtube, BJJ Fanatics, his own Defensive BJJ website. His seminars are also very popular. I first heard about his techniques on Reddit and experienced how effective they are when rolling with my friend Can Sonmez during his 2019 Grapplethon. Since then I've been testing his concepts during rolling. In this write-up, I review the key main defence concepts that he teaches.

Disclosures - I've never met Priit in person or anyone from BJJ Fanatics. I have not been paid or asked to write this report, it contains all my own work and my own opinions. All BJJ Fanatics videos I bought myself. I was given one-month access to Priit's DefensiveBJJ website. None of these links are affiliate links.

About Priit
Priit Mihkelson is a second degree black belt under Matt Thornton and runs the 3D Treening gym in Estonia. Over the past few years his seminars, especially those taught at BJJ Globetrotter camps, have gained in popularity thanks to Priit's rich insight into positional concepts and willingness to deconstruct established norms. He is also known for using inventive names to describe his techniques.

There are five main defensive conceptual areas taught by Priit that are best applied when defending bottom side position: Panda (aka sitting turtle or upright side control), Turtle, Running Man, Baby Bridge and Hawking. These positions can be used interchangeably and often flow from one to the other depending on opponent reaction. They can also flow into other Priit patterns, notably his Back Escape system and Grilled Chicken guard system (which I'll maybe review at a later time).

Defence or Attack?
It is a commonly quoted statement to say that the best form of defence is to attack. In many respects this is true - a good attacker takes the initiative and forces the opponent to defend thereby increasing his/her chances of winning (a fight, points, ref decision, street fight...whichever applies). Then there is the reverse philosophy - and one espoused by Priit - that to have a very good defence helps you to have a good attack (he uses boxing analogies a lot and cites Floyd Mayweather as an example of a master defensive fighter). See my rolling thoughts below to find out where I stand on the topic.


The general established view is that the turtle is a passive defence position best avoided unless used as a last resort. It is viewed as weak due to exposing the defender to back attacks and that it also seen as a position with limited mobility. The turtling defender is also penalised in some cases with an advantage to the attacker under IBJJF rules.

Eduardo Telles is perhaps one of the few notable BJJ athletes who has developed the turtle into something of more value (see him in action here). Priit acknowledges Telles' concepts as the major influence on his own turtle adaptations.  

Priit's Turtle instructional on BJJ Fanatics (link) was only his second release and as a stand-alone title, it does a good job showing how the turtle is a safe position on its own merits. With the release of his other titles (Sitting Turtle, Running Man/Baby Bridge, Back Escapes) it is more apparent that the turtle is best used in the context of the rest of his defensive system.

See this BJJ Fanatics clip below, Priit covers many of the key concepts that recur repeatedly throughout his defensive series - tightly concealed elbows (discussed more in Panda position), head cocked to one side tightly (which he refers to as the Hawking), grabbing the opponent's wrists.

On the subject of feet position when in turtle, on the BJJ Fanatics videos he recommends being in active feet position (for speed of mobility and also ease of use) but on his DefensiveBJJ website he states that he has changed his opinion and can see merits to, what he calls, 'seal feet' where the instep is in contact with the floor. More about active feet vs seal feet in my rolling report below.

The key concept from his BJJ Fanatics Turtle tutorial is the idea that exposing your back to your opponent is not the devastating game-ending scenario that many are led to believe. In fact, if your guard is passed, turning your back may be a better option than trying to frame against an aggressive attacker who is trying to flatten you and establish side control. Once you have a good sense of how to play from turtle position, it is then a matter of progressing to a better position - ideally one of his other defensive positions, but not necessarily so.

On Priit's Defensive BJJ website he also demonstrates something called the Upright Turtle - which he admits is in the experimental stage. 

The Upright Turtle offers another positional use of the standard turtle but one where the user is in a better position to stand upright and escape back attacks.

The entire concept of turning ones body away from the attacker is explored much further in Priit's other series of positions - Sitting Turtle, Running Man, Hawking and Baby Bridge...

Sitting Turtle (aka Panda, aka Upright Side Control)

This position is confusingly referred to by several different names. I prefer the name Panda because the posture does, in fact, resemble a panda sitting down and slouching but Sitting Turtle makes more technical sense. 

Like many of the Priit defensive positions Sitting Turtle isn't initially an instinctive position to move in to when under attack. And yet, once you recognise the safety of the position and its benefits regarding mobility, then it seems a reasonable strategy to deploy. 

The Sitting Turtle posture works remarkably well as long as the elbows are positioned tightly and grip fighting (grabbing 3 or more fingers) is in play. The main benefit of Sitting Turtle is that it is a better  option after having your guard passed compared to orthodox methods - ie trying to defend lying side down and defend an opponent cross-facing, getting underhooks, flattening you etc.

The other huge advantage to sitting in this position is the increase in mobility - you can move to a variety of other positions - this includes re-guarding, inverting, turtling, spinning out or even just standing up. 

One interesting point made by Priit is that the Sitting Turtle doesn't score the opponent an advantage in IBJJF rule set. This isn't the case when considering the turtle - see rule 5.6.2 here.

Watch this Globetrotters in Action clip below for a great introduction to the Sitting Turtle:

The BJJ Fanatics Sitting Turtle instructional (link) offers more detail on the nuances of the position but there's also a large portion dedicated to what he calls 'active turtle', which looks basically like a wrestling position. Again, it's another technique that most BJJ players will find alien to them, but once you study his reasoning, it does make logical sense. Using it in live rolling may seem odd at first but check out the rolling footage of Priit where he uses it a lot posted at the end of this report.

The key advantage of the active turtle is the higher stance and extra mobility compared to regular turtle or sitting turtle. While this position might appear vulnerable to seatbelt/harness grip back attacks Priit demonstrates how easy it is to, literally, shrug off an opponent and avoid danger. Active turtle is also a great platform from which to stand up - an area that Priit suggests is lacking in most BJJ practice. The standing up concept is explored in greater detail in his more recent BJJ Fanatics release - Back Escapes (link).


Running Man

Fans of Saulo Ribeiro's instructional work (Jiu Jitsu Revolution DVD series and the Jiu Jitsu University book) - will recognise Running Man as one method to escape from under the side mount. It is arguable whether the Saulo Running Man is effective apart from a few specific scenarios. 

The Priit Running Man, although visually similar in appearance, is a very different concept. Here, Running Man is an (almost) static position that the user can remain in and defend the cross-face, underhooks, submissions or top pressure in general. Priit's Running Man is also easily integrated into his other defensive positions as there is room for mobility.

As you can see from the photo above, the basic body shape of Running Man is more or less the same as the Sitting Turtle except you are lying to one side and your legs are split apart, as if in a running position. They both share many of the same positional tips and it is easy to see how the two can integrate from one to the other and back again. By turning away from the opponent, yet not quite establishing turtle (or as the IBJJF call it - four-point-kneeling position) then you are not giving your opponent a scoreboard advantage.

This video below is a nice introduction to the Running Man position:


In the Running Man/Baby Bridge BJJ Fanatics instructional Priit spends more time demonstrating how to transition to and from Running Man from his other defensive positions. For many users, especially less experienced BJJ players who find themselves under side control frequently, running man is probably the easiest of all Priit's techniques to adopt.


Priit states that he named this in honour of the late Professor Stephen Hawking's genius. He seems to interchange between calling it The Hawking and The Boxer's Shoulder. On the packaging cover of his Running Man and Baby Bridge instructional it is omitted but in the chapter listings, Hawking is the name that is used, hence for clarity, I have also used it in this review.

The Hawking is both a head position and a body alignment concept. By trial and error over ten years, Priit states that he has worked out how to make this position able to defend chokes and armbars while avoiding being flat on his back. It is more than just a single-stage defence posture, the Hawking is best used when integrated with his other defensive postures but it can be used fairly robustly against side mount pressure. 

One of the key elements to the posture is the leg position, the top leg steps back and the ball of the foot placed firmly against the floor. This successfully prevents the opponent from flattening your back to the floor. It also acts as a propulsive tool when transitioning to other positions. The video below is the intro chapter 

Most BJJ players will have probably used the Hawking position without knowing it - it happens whenever their guard is passed and the top person is trying to establishing side control. Most BJJ players however extend their arms to frame against the attacker or try to shrimp and re-guard. Priit suggests that it may be more effective to establish proper Hawking position when guard is passed and then progress through the defensive postures to get to a better fighting position. 

On Priit's Defensive BJJ website, I notice he has tweaked the position and called it Hawking 2.0. This version tightens up the lower arm so that it connects with your hip. It's a bit more compressed than the original version. Either way, the Hawking pairs up very neatly with the Baby Bridge... 

Baby Bridge

Unlike the above techniques, Baby Bridge isn't used as a static position but it is more of a transition pattern. Priit cites the Belgium black belt Wim Deputters as the major developer of the technique (I will hopefully study and review his Mirroring Principle set of instructionals at some point soon), Wim himself states that this move was inspired by examining the movements of wrestlers. 

It works just like regular back bridging but instead of raising the hips vertically, the user performs the movement laterally along the plane of the ground. It can be done facing the opponent or turning away from the opponent but the key benefit is to prevent the opponent from putting your back flat on the ground (where you are at the most vulnerable). 

Most BJJ students will initially find the arching extension needed to perform the Baby Bridge at odds with the instinct to keep as tight as possible when under attack so Priit spends much of the time in the BJJ Fanatics tutorial explaining how and when to use it.

In the video below, you can see how Priit uses the Kimura Trap attack as an example of how to Baby Bridge out and escape. 

The Baby Bridge is the final set of chapters in the Running Man/Baby Bridge title from BJJ Fanatics. Most of these chapters are dedicated to demonstrating how to transition from or to the Baby Bridge. I would suggest watching this tutorial alongside his and Wim Deputter's shoulder escape material on Youtube to gain a wider set of escape examples.

The Stick

The Stick is mentioned several times throughout all Priit's titles. As with Baby Bridge, the Stick is not a static position, instead, it is an escaping movement which, in a crude manner, looks a lot of rolling from one side of your body to the other. There's a little bit more nuance to it of course - the main one being the timing of when to use it. It is mentioned in the Globetrotters in Action clip at around 17 minutes here.

Rolling thoughts
I first began incorporating bits and pieces of Priit's concepts last year (2019) having viewed his Globetrotters in Action Youtube videos and his Grilled Chicken tutorial plus rolling with Can at the 2019 Grapplethon. The 2020 pandemic meant my own club had to close down. But thanks to two good friends of mine, I've been lucky to continue training as part of their household training bubble. This has given me ample opportunity to focus solely on studying Priit's techniques and test them against consistent training partners. 

Turtle. My regular training partners will attest, I am normally a very defensive player by nature. I guess this is a consequence of being small, light and easily out-muscled over many years. I also just prefer to play this way and try whenever I can to counter-attack. This meant it was not a huge leap for me to incorporate Priit's defensive concepts into my own game. 

I found that the way he teaches how to hold the turtle posture is the same as I've always been doing. I have always turtled as a regular part of my defence but I'm now able to do so more confidently and with an understanding of where to go afterwards. My friend Can Sonmez also turtles a lot and in fact his use of Priit's turtle concepts is what got me interested in his work in the first place (photo below showing Can using his tight turtle defence while I sit exhausted having tried to prize him open for several minutes.)

Photo by Sam Will

Adding the Sitting Turtle into my game did give me a fresh new option when defending and escaping but I must confess, it was still an odd one to do. It feels the most exposed of all the positions and I've not used it as widely as the others. When sitting in this position, I have received all sorts of attacks (pulling, pushing, jumping on me etc) from my training partners who were keen to expose the perceived vulnerability. Of all of these Priit style positions, Panda is the one that relied on me having the greatest amount of discipline over posture, elbow position, grip fighting and neck position. But it does work. I've even worked out that you can get some cheeky twisting wrist locks while grip fighting from this position and from regular turtle (see my TikTok video). There's still some nagging doubt in my mind over how vulnerable I feel, especially with the opponent's weight bearing down on me from behind but I'm getting better at it and it really is helpful when someone passes your guard.

Active Turtle - It used to be very rare in a roll where I would voluntarily stand up - perhaps standing to escape closed guard or sometimes mid-roll when a technical stand up is a good option. But after looking at Priit's active turtle system I thought, yeah, why not stand up more? So I did...to generally good degrees of success. It was fun moving to the 3-point wrestling crouching posture (see active turtle photo above) and seeing how my training partners would launch themselves to take my back-  just as Priit predicted they would. By following the grip and underhook defence system and then shrugging them off my back, I didn't put myself in any danger. It might seem like an obvious thing to do, but when you've been stuck in a certain mindset like I have (ie alwys to hunker down and stay down) the simple idea of standing back up seems like a revelation. See my TikTok video here for clips of me doing just this in sparring.

The Hawking is another position that seems strangely counter-intuitive. In the beginning, it felt like I was going to be easily flattened and squashed under side mount. After a bit of practice and being very disciplined with my elbow tightness, grip fighting and neck positioning I was able to use it as effectively as Priit suggested. To be honest, I usually found myself in Hawking position by being forced there rather than through choice. Regardless, it's satisfying to just lie there, seemingly in a vulnerable position, and fairly easily fend off strangles and joint attacks. The moment I feel in any danger I would swiftly move to Running Man, re-guard or shrimp away.

Running Man. A crude version of this has been my default go-to position for many years now. Thanks to Priit's instructional I'm now able to refine it and make it work much better for me. The Running man position acts as a super tight shield against submission attacks and prevents the attacker from gaining point-scoring positions. It is also more mobile than the turtle and I can easily transition to a number of other positions from here. In many respects, it has all the protective benefits of turtle and fewer of the drawbacks. Again, good discipline is required with the posture, elbow positioning, grip fighting and neck position, but since my body is half turned away from my opponent, it is equally frustrating for them since I'm denying them access to the cross-face, knee on belly and other side-control attacks. I'd say Running Man has been my most used of all the positions.

Baby bridge. This is the newest concept for me and one I have used the least. It's arguably the hardest one to engage with since it goes against my instinct to keep my body as tight as possible. I have used it on occasion and it has succeeded, I guess I need to be more confident and use it whenever the situation suits.

The Stick. This is a fun one because it seems so silly when you used it that it just gets a big laugh from my training partners, and yet it works exactly as advertised! It's reassuring to know that I'm basically just a chest turn away from escaping a lot of top position attacks.

Below is a video taken recently of one of my rolls with my training pals. From 1:20 on you can see me using mostly turtle and Hawking to defend my partner Jason's vigorous attempts to dominate. There are also some comedy moments as I bang my head, get footlocked and attempt a disastrous takedown. Scroll down further for Priit's analysis of this roll.

I'm personally keen to see if I can incorporate more Baby Bridge into my defensive game. If I manage to record it, I'll update this blog report with a video.

Putting it all together... 

BJJ Fanatics released Priit's tutorials (Turtle, Upright Turtle, Running Man/Baby Bridge) in fairly quick succession. I'm glad they did because one really needs to absorb them all in order to understand the system as a bigger picture. But that's not the entire story. When adding his other BJJ titles (Escaping the back, Grilled chicken) and watching his Youtube seminars (especially the escape from mount seminar) you get to see what he likes to refer to as a unifying theory of BJJ (defence). Using all his concepts when rolling I notice that I'm far less likely to have my defensive postures broken down and ultimately losing the round to submission or to superior point-scoring positions.

It does take a lot of time to get through his material, mainly because Priit likes to talk a lot. I don't have the brainpower to remember 300 hours of techniques, but I can easily remember 4 or 5 simple concepts which luckily he repeats again and again, and which neatly tie all his techniques together. And, unsurprisingly, it's really worked for me. At first, trying out his defensive postures meant I tended to just stay in that position and defend the attacks, but after only a few weeks of playing them I find I am now more confident to play openly and attack much more than I used to thanks to having a more robust defensive system to fall back on. I still get caught of course, but far less so. His concepts work regardless of gi or nogi.

Defensive BJJ is Priit's own website and I've been given a month's trial access to it. The content on his website covers all the main positions discussed here plus a lot more new developments in his ever expanding defensive system. One huge benefit is that Priit will dissect and narrate your sparring videos to see how well you can improve your use of the positions he teaches. 

He did one for me (see below) and just from this one 3-minute narration I already have vastly tidied up my use of turtle, Hawking and various other positions.

As an aged, slow, pluma black belt I found Priit's concepts to be a wonderful game-enhancing attribute of very real value. For a novice white belt, they would have an even more profound effect. It's given me some great ideas on improving my fundamentals teachings when my own BJJ club opens up again. 

Concluding Thoughts

This clip of Priit competing in 2013 is educational. You can see many of his concepts in early action, notably the Hawking, Panda and the finger-based grip fighting. He's also incredibly calm underneath top pressure, confident in the knowledge that he won't be easily submitted or easily mounted nor worried about exposing his back. Arguably, he isn't scoring anything himself and all those advantages, takedown and passing points stacked up against him. 

Below is a more recent video where Priit is applying his defensive positions against a brown belt student of his:

Clearly, relying purely on defence and escape won't win any matches. But we've all rolled and been destroyed by absolute monsters both in class and in competition. In fact it's almost a rite of passage for beginners to be destroyed on the mat - but as Mihkelson often repeats - is it any wonder so many give up? From a personal viewpoint, as someone in their fifties, I find his methodologies attractive as they help me deal with the practice of BJJ as I get older. I also like the fact that Priit's group of positions and concepts are packaged in a very easy to learn way. When used correctly, they form a powerful set of tools that are very capable of frustrating an aggressively attacking opponent.


About the Author


Author & Artist

Meerkatsu is the artist name for BJJ black belt Seymour Yang.



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