BJJ ‘Self Defence vs Sport’ – The Dogma Debate

This November will mark 22 years since Royce Gracie stepped into UFC 1 and showed the world what martial arts was really all about. Yet two decades on, many Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners, even at the higher echelons remained confused. As a result, we are increasingly seeing a divide between those extolling the self defence elements of BJJ “Gracie Self Defence” and those perceived to be practising ‘the sport’, with the former turning on the latter. The position being taken by the ‘traditionalists’ is ridiculous on a number of levels and leads to ineffective training practices with the resulting output you would expect.

Choosing to ignore what has happened in MMA since 1993, where clinch dominance from Thai, Wrestling, and Judo has taken over as preferred delivery systems vs. a low kick to clinch of the early Gracie fights, this ‘group’ is actively attacking ‘BJJ sport players’ for their lack of attention to takedowns! With their mantra of ‘nobody starts from the knees’ (no really!), Gracie Self Defence advocates are recommending that stand-up consists of self-defence scenarios against situations like schoolboy headlocks! You literally could not make this up!!! The art that revolutionised martial arts is continuing to ignore the real world and instead turning inward on “sport BJJ” players who are more than capable of handling the types of imaginary situations at least as well, if not better. I’ve seen Gracie Garage devotees with their online training course gradings directly challenge the stand up capabilities of highly competitive sport BJJ players. Anyone who is worrying about self defence situations where the attacker ‘schoolboy headlocks’ them, has bigger issues to sort out in their thought processes than concerning themselves with the stand-up capabilities of active sport competitors.

As a result, even the more progressive are being dogged by clear breakdowns in their epistemology due to the influence of traditionalist dogma. For example, a highly respected Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt of many years and whom I have personally gleaned a great deal of insight, recently wrote an article incorporating his thoughts on “BJJ takedowns”. In the example, this individual gave the magic number of at least “2 takedowns” but I have seen other articles that talk about “the 7 takedowns you must learn” and everything number in between. Such notions are based firmly in numerology “belief in divine, mystical relationship between a number and some coinciding events where no such relationship exists.” We must be careful when even good coaches with great experience accidentally take us into the realms of mystics and dogma as we risk adopting the methodology and thought processes of the traditional martial artists.

An Alternative approach:

Firstly, stand-up training depending on whether its MMA or BJJ needs coaching and expertise from other delivery systems. Thai Boxing, Boxing, and full contact Karate have been highly successful in MMA striking. Clinch from Thai, Wrestling and Judo are vastly superior to Gracie Self Defence notions, whether for active competition or self defence. Wrestling and Judo is ideal for sport BJJ competitions for the stand up elements. An active judoka’s biggest concern when placed in a schoolboy headlock should be the moral hazard of how they takedown the aggressor without doing them serious physical harm. Sport BJJ players could easily take the back and finish standing. Training alive is infinitely more useful and realistic than pre-rehearsed self defence moves, Gracie branded or not, makes no difference.

A Useful Takedown Concept

From training with Judo coach Verity Stephens, I have learned that there are four corners in which all takedowns fall into. A related concept is explained by Neil Adams when he talks about balance lines. In effect, your opponent can either choose, or at higher levels be forced through positional dominance, into one specific corner. An appropriate takedown to that specific corner can then be selected. Whilst statistics in the UFC show the double leg as easily the most successful takedown, the double leg work best when your opponent leans into you or you make them step / lean into a front corner. Developing a working knowledge of takedowns that work for all 4 corners will result in a very rounded and highly adaptive approach.

Its also important in stand-up for players to learn the positional game of wrestling. This is actually another inconsistency with the self-defence approach in the Gracie Self Defence stand-up ‘game’. No positional methodology appears to be taught in Gracie Self Defence stand-up yet its fundamental to their ground orientation. Why the inconsistency? Anyone interested in gaining a BJJ style of positional orientation for wrestling or judo would do very well to read Matt Lindland’s “Dirty Boxing” book, where Lindland takes the reader through a hierarchy in much the same way BJJ would depict the following positions – Closed Guard – Open the Guard – Headquarters position – Half Guard – 3 Quarter Guard – Mount – Back. Lindland works from the 2 on 1 Tie in much the same way Eddie Bravo begins with half guard and then progresses through positions in order of hierarchy. Another excellent resource on positional play with the Gi is Jimmy Pedro’s instructionals, in particular ‘Gripping Like A World Champion’. Like Lindland, concepts like inside control, shoulder control, putting the opponents sleeve’ in the pocket’, power hands, etc, are all concepts from which the appropriate takedown becomes significantly easier to execute. Learning the fundamental control positions of wrestling and judo first such as dominant head position, free range movement, footwork, posture, etc, are critical as is developing grip fighting concepts like inside control and ‘the pocket’. Learn the four corner concept and start to recognise where takedowns fit within them. Finally, begin to develop takedowns for each corner and each of the 3 ranges as recommended by Verity Stephens. The alternative notion of learning takedowns like random submissions should be utterly preposterous to any intermediate BJJ player yet this again appears the approach of the Gracie Self Defence advocates. What’s more important? Learning correct guard posture or learning a kimura? Clearly the former. Takedowns are no different.

In summary, the martial arts world owes a huge debt to the Gracie family. However, Gracie Self Defence advocates need to take a long hard look at what is going on in MMA; what works, what doesn’t. The stand-up elements need replacing with striking and clinch from delivery systems proven superior already and this has already happened in forward thinking MMA and BJJ establishments over a decade ago. If their recommendations for improvements in Sport BJJ are little more than the scenario based nonsense they helped the world reject two decades ago, they risk what should be an unrivalled legacy imploding in its own dogma. And sport BJJ should ignore them, as they are currently doing.

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