What makes BJJ so different?
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is widely regarded as the world’s most effective ground fighting (grappling) system. While it has been evolving since the early 1900s as a martial art, street fighting system, and sport, the last ten years have brought it the most popularity in America and abroad as a result of globally distributed media coverage of victories in numerous challenge matches and mixed martial arts competitions pitting athletes with mastery of various martial arts. It is a safe yet highly effective combat system. It is considered relatively safe because it does not employ striking (kicks, punches, elbows, etc.), yet it is effective because of its ability to respond well to numerous types of realistic situations. As has been said many times about fights: they almost always start standing, but end up quickly on the ground. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) provides unlimited avenues to success from standing and ground positions. A hallmark of BJJ is that it is constantly evolving and improving to solve the real problems discovered by the competitors and instructors of the art. Another reason for the popularity and success of BJJ lies in the fact that it does not rely as much on size, strength, or speed as many fighting or self-defense systems. Over and over again, BJJ has proven this in real fight situations. BJJ utilizes take-downs, leverage on joints, and chokes to gain control over opponents. One of many remarkable aspects of this art: it gives students ability to defeat opponents from almost any position, even underneath an opponent. To an untrained eye, it is sometimes difficult to know who is in the best position when a BJJ fighter is involved, until it quickly ends in the defeat of the opponent!
Basic Concepts: The Goal is Control
Before you get overwhelmed with the myriad techniques, positions and submissions of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you need to understand the goal: complete control of your opponent. Your goal is not to bloody your opponent or injure them; the goal is control. In most martial arts where your objective is to destroy your opponent, dominating them by annihilation. In BJJ, the goal is to dominate with control. A student with excellent control has the luxury of deciding when, where, and how to apply a submission move.
What is Control?
Control = Base + Position.
Base: “All Your Base Belong to Us”
Base simply means stability against loss of balance. A practitioner with good base is very difficult to unbalance. Judo was an innovative martial art, and a direct predecessor sport to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, in that it centered around unbalancing the opponent to obtain victory. This notion of unbalancing your opponent is a common aspect shared by wrestling, Submission Grappling, and BJJ. In competition, points are awarded for unbalancing the opponent. The two primary methods of unbalancing your opponent is take downs and sweeps. In both situations, you use technique to put your opponent on the ground and control him afterwards. It’s not enough just to trip them up and watch them fall. You must control them through the technique and afterwards to capitalize on your positional advantage.
A submission is a “finishing move” technique applied in order to force your opponent to quit the fight. When you submit, you signal submission by tapping your hand calling out “tap!” If you make your opponent submit, you win the fight, and must immediately stop whatever finishing move you were applying that caused the tap. Common submissions are chokes and joint locks.
The clinch is a position where both opponents are “tied up” from standing or the knees. Typically your right hand is behind your opponent’s neck and your left hand is grabbing his right triceps behind his elbow. Both partners hold each other this way. Many matches start with opponents “tying up in the clinch.” This move shows an example of a move starting from the clinch.
Entering or Gapping the Distance
In Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee defined entering as the process of closing the gap between striking and grappling range. Entering is key in BJJ in that the practitioner wants to gap the distance from the standup fight to take the opponent to the ground and leverage BJJ technique. A fight at striking distance (where kicks and punches are employed) must be “gapped” thereby bringing the fight to grappling distance. There are numerous methods of entering including shoots, pummeling for underhooks, etc. In traditional BJJ, many of the takedowns were pulled directly from the Judo playbook. As the fusion of grappling arts has continued, wrestling takedowns have become more popular.
The Relationship of BJJ to Other Martial Arts
The world of Combat Sports (“External” Martial Arts) is divided broadly into 2 groups: grappling (ground fighting) and striking arts. Under the grappling sports, a broad sub-category called “submission wrestling” indicates a grappling sport that allows an opponent to force submission of another opponent during sparring. When one opponents wants to quit due to pain, exhaustion, fear, injury, etc., they submit, thereby yielding to the winner. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a submission wrestling sport.
Most experts agree that a “complete fighter” must effectively use grappling and striking systems.
Sport or Art?
Many BJJ and Submission Grappling students have distanced themselves from the traditional martial arts by using modernized and sports-related terminology. The Training center is referred to as a gym rather than a dojo. The instructor is referred to as a coach, not a sensei*. The system is highly competition-focused and is just as often referred to as a sport as it is a martial art. While the system primarily originated in Brazil, very few techniques are referred to commonly with Portuguese names. This is not just a reflection of the modernization of the sport. It is also beneficial in taking the system mainstream and attracting audiences outside the pure martial arts crowd. This provides faster absorption across cultures. Rather than having to drag along cultural heritage, the sport simply focuses on the technique.
- Japanese terminology was used here, but Korean, Chinese, or other languages are often used in other systems depending on the origins of the art.
Technique in BJJ is constantly evolving. Unlike “traditional” martial arts, which have encoded a limited set of techniques within forms for centuries, BJJ changes yearly. Fundamentals don’t vary much, but the competitive aspect of the sport forces moves and counters to be improved. Innovation is constant, as is seen from coaches like Eddie Bravo and competitors like Genki Sudo and BJ Penn.
Competitive Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
As the popularity of BJJ has grown, the sport of competitive Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has exploded with it. Like judo and wrestling, it is seen as a safe, yet effective system for demonstrating command of an opponent. Typical Karate or Tae Kwon Do competitors are required to “pull their punches” (apply little or no contact) for safety. This reduces the ability to truly test which fighter is in command in closed matches involving these participants. After all, how can a system of battle truly be tested if the participants only shoot blanks? “Full contact” Karate competitions are typically diminished in esteem by numerous bloody injuries and bruises. In BJJ competitions, competitors can compete at full speed with significantly reduced risk of injury. When an opponent feels too much pressure as a technique is applied, they can “tap” to instantly end the match. Try that with a full-speed punch! By the time the punch has landed, the damage is done. Not so with BJJ. This is one reason BJJ has kept the root name “Jiu-Jitsu .” “Ju” literally means “gentle” in Japanese.
Effective Against Larger, Stronger Opponents
Larger and stronger fighters are universally amazed when they fight a BJJ practitioner. Since they have relied on their physical attributes for past success, they are unprepared for the balance of favor tipping away from them in the face of a smaller opponent! The keys to this “sleight of hand” are simple. First, chokes and leverage against joints. While on average a larger opponent can hit harder than a smaller one, their joints all bend and respond to pain the same! Second, the ability of the BJJ fighter to close the distance, literally attaching themselves to their opponent thereby reducing the larger opponent’s ability to use their advantage. A big guy needs air to their body and blood to their brain just like the rest of us! Take it away, and down goes Goliath!
Great for Kids and Women
Because of the lack of violent and dangerous strikes, its ability to give participants advantage over stronger, larger attackers, and its competitive sporting side, BJJ is a fantastic self-defense system for children and women.
Great for People with Injuries and Disabilities
As a constantly evolving art and sport, BJJ has shown itself to be highly resilient to limitations in the student’s abilities. For example, students can “adapt their game” when training with an injured foot. Visually impaired students have found success in this sport. Could a visually impaired man out-box a visually able boxer? Not a chance. But with the skills of BJJ, the visually impaired person man can attach himself to the boxer like a boa constrictor, and the boxer’s best attacks are useless. Read my blog article on blindfolded grappling for some fun training ideas.
Training in BJJ is traditionally done wearing a gi (a Japanese Judo kimono). Since there is lots of grabbing and pulling, these garments outlast street clothes. BJJ instructors have been diversifying their training to include “no-gi” training (in street clothes like shorts and a tee shirt), in order to improve the realism of the training. No-gi training is also called Submission Grappling. Competitive BJJ has also embraced this direction, often having separate no-gi divisions.
Unlike many other martial arts, all BJJ training is done with a partner. Whether drilling techniques or sparring (often called “grappling”), it takes two to train in BJJ. Most techniques from BJJ are executed from one of the basic positions:
Guard – you on your back with your legs wrapped around your opponent’s hips. Mount – Your opponent on his back with you straddling their abdomen (essentially “sitting” on their stomach). Rear mount or back mount – you on the back of your opponent, with your heels holding around the front of his hips. Side control or side mount- your opponent on his back with you lying (typically perpendicular) chest-to-chest.
For a detailed catalog of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu techniques, see Dave’s BJJ Technique Catalog.
Adult ranking is designated by colored belt and progresses from white, blue, purple, brown, then black. It can typically takes a student well over 3 years to get blue belt, and up to 6 to get purple belt. Hard, consistent training, successful competition, and most of all consistently challenging upper ranks (and beating them on occasion) is the only way to progress up the ranks. There are typically no formal tests for BJJ rank promotion. This is another distinct feature of BJJ. Most white and blue belts are quite experienced fighters by the time they are ready to reach the next rank. There is no comparing the fighting skills of a senior white belt in BJJ to one from most other martial arts.
Ranking for children progresses from white, orange, to green. At this point the child stays at the rank of green until they are 16 years of age. They are then eligible for promotion to adult blue belt.
Some gyms employ “striping” to indicate progress between major rank levels. Stripes are not formally recognized nor are they standardized, but they do help students maintain their perspective when holding a rank for a number of years. For example, I was a purple belt for about 4 years. It was nice to get a stripe each year I was training to signify the experience and progress made that year.
Black belt “dan” degrees, signified by stripes, are more formal ranks than colored “kyu” rank belts. While there is generally little agreement about what it takes to get from one black belt level to the next, they are universally recognized.
Born from Judo
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a refined and distant derivative of Japanese Jiu-Jitsu . Jiu-Jitsu is actually a broad family of systems emanating from Japan in the mid 1800s. In fact, Jiu-Jitsu is the seminal art of so many systems, it is impossible to define a single “way” of Jiu-Jitsu . One particular lineage of Jiu-Jitsu ended up in Karate, another in Judo, etc. The story of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu begins in 1880s Japan and a man named Jigoro Kano. At his school, originally called Kano-ryu jiu-jitsu (literally “Kano’s school of gentle techniques”), Kano popularized the training style of full-speed sparring, where opponents work at maximum force yet not injure themselves. This system became known as Judo (the “gentle way”). One of Kano’s top students was Mitsuo Maeda, who was also known as Conde Koma (“Count of Combat”). Maeda traveled to the United States in 1904 and after a Judo demonstration at West Point, began competitive fighting internationally.
The Gracie Family
In 1914, Maeda moved to Brazil to help Japanese immigrants. There he met Gastï¿½o Gracie, the son of Scottish immigrant George Gracie. Gracie had assisted Maeda greatly, and in return, Maeda taught Judo to Gracie’s son Carlos at Maeda’s school in Brazil. Carlos, who was 14 when he started training, almost immediately started adapting the techniques to be more effective in open street fights where anything goes (vale tudo, in Portuguese). Carlos Gracie, like many fighters of his time, continued a tradition of “challenge matches” against fighters of various styles. He was famous throughout Brazil for his success in these fights. Later, Carlos taught his brothers Oswaldo, Jorge, Gastao and Helio. The first academy was opened in Rio de Janeiro in 1925. Carlos and Helio were responsible for creating the basis upon which Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu exists today. Helio was small and frail, yet would consistently beat larger opponents. The Gracies began to emigrate to the United States after 1972, where they opened schools and hosted competitions and successful challenge matches. Most Gracie schools use the term “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu .” This is synonymous with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu .
Visit Austin Jiu-Jitsu to learn more about opportunities to explore Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.