In the latest episode of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast I’m talking to the man, the legend, that is Stephan Kesting. Stephan has taught thousands of people martial arts through his famous website grapplarts.com which, back in the day, was one of the first sites to put out quality Brazilian jiujitsu instructional material and is still putting out top notch instructional material today.
Stephan is a fireman, he has competed in marital arts, he has trekked across the Canadian wilds with a canoe and recently he’s undergone a full hip replacement and documented his recovery – and he’s about to return to training again, so he’s one tough old dude.
Stephan also hosts his own podcast, the Strenuous Life Podcast, which I’d recommend you listen to – because it’s always super interesting, especially his episodes debunking conspiracy theories.
I used to train jiujitsu with Brad back in the day, before he went on to become a UFC fighter, so I’ve known him for years. Brad is retired from the UFC now, but he recently accepted a fight offer from the famous D.K. Yoo, who teaches martial arts seminars all over the world. The fight is scheduled to happen on December 4th on pay-per-view here:
Brad and Joe are flying off to South Korea in just a few days for a boxing match that looks set to make a huge impression on the martial arts scene.
So, let’s find out how it all happened, how Brad’s training is going and what the boys think is going to happen on December 4th.
Picture Grog, the caveman. He’s sitting around the fire with his tribe, wearing animal skins and singing the songs of his ancestors, while his kids run around the back of the cave and paint bison on the walls. Compared to the sabre tooth tigers with their man-splitting canines and the huge giant sloths with their throat-cutting claws that roam freely the valley below, Grog hiding in this cave, doesn’t look like much. But in a mere 10,000 years Grog is going to become the dominant species on this planet. In fact, he probably already is.
Homo sapiens special power is that we’re a tool-making and tool-using creature. Our opposable thumbs gave us fine motor control to skillfully manipulate objects, and our brains have the super power of being able to picture what an object is going to look like before it exists in reality. These two factors, combined with our other abilities, like language and social bonds, put us on track to dominate the earth thousands of years ago. From humble beginnings, like making spears and flint knives, our tool use has grown exponentially into the today’s miracles of engineering like cars, planes, and penis-shaped space rockets. And don’t forget, in the past we’ve managed to build huge, complex structures with what would be considered only basic tools by today’s standards.
When it comes to combat, it’s no different. Our ancestors didn’t charge into battle barehanded as well as bare-chested. Well, maybe some of them did, but they’re not around anymore. We devised a whole range of deadly tools to effectively chop, sever and dismember our opponents, while wearing skillfully-made armor designed to protect our vital organs as best it could. In today’s more peaceful society our preference is for safe, unarmed martial arts, which we use to de-stress ourselves with after work. But these toothless tigers belie the long and bloody history of deadly weapons use amongst humans. And in terms of effectiveness between armed and unarmed, it’s not even a contest: even a professional boxer has very little chance against an unskilled man wielding a sharp knife.
I remember having an interesting conversation with my martial arts mentor and teacher, Damon Smith, about what kept him interested in a martial arts over such a long period of time. He said that, for him, a marital art needed to contain weapons or he loses interest. While they might not be practical in the modern age, adding weapons to a martial art increases its difficulty level as well as its effectiveness hugely, providing a new physical and cognitive challenge in the process. And by ‘adding weapons’ I mean actually learning to fight with them, not just performing a solo form.
Of course, there is a long history of weapons usage in martial arts. In fact, many modern martial arts started off as weapons systems before transitioning into purely bare-hand arts in modern times. Weapons are found in almost all ‘traditional’ Chinese martial arts and consist of things like spears, nunchucks, swords, throwing darts and wooden staffs. European martial arts use quarterstaff, sword and buckler, amongst other things. The gladiators in the Colosseum in ancient Rome use swords, shields, tridents and nets.
But there’s one marital art that most people would consider a purely bare-hand grappling art, which I think should be more accurately categorised as a weapons system, and that’s Brazilian Jiujitsu, (or BJJ for short).
While most systems of Japanese Jujitsu train with traditional weapons you rarely see them shown in BJJ beyond basic defences to a few random knife or gun attacks, and we certainly don’t train to use things like swords or spears in defence or offense. However there is one weapon that we use all the time – the gi.
Jiujitsu was an import to Brazil from Japan, and adopted and taught by the famous Gracie family in Brazil in the early 20th century. It was originally practiced in the kimono, or “gi” as we call it today , and that is still how the majority of clubs train around the world, although the “no gi” or ‘spats and shorts’ version has been proving more popular in recent years.
The gi is a thick, and durable uniform that can stand up to tugging and wrenching without falling apart. It’s tied at the middle with a belt, which changes colour as you progress through the grades. For adults it goes from white to blue to purple to brown and finally black. There are belts after black, but most normal people don’t reach these.
The gi doesn’t look like it, but it is actually a weapon. Chokes can be performed in BJJ with almost any part of your body. The famous triangle choke, for instance, uses the legs to shut off the bloody supply to the head, causing unconsciousness, unless the person taps first. However, when you’re wearing the gi the number of chokes available increases massively. Chokes using the collar can be performed from almost any angle. You can also wrap the lapels of your gi, or their gi around the neck to create a choke.
Soft weapons, like the rope dart in Chinese martial arts, have long been respected in martial circles for their efficiency and the gi is no different. In the hands of a skilled exponent of the art, the gi becomes simply another weapon with which to attack. While some people might consider that ‘cheating’ and no use for ‘the street’, there are plenty of others who point out that most people wear clothes when they go outside their house (and usually in their houses too), so these skills are transferable to real life situations.
There are plenty of videos online showing how gi chokes can be done even on somebody wearing a t-shirt:
I’ve stuck with Jiuitsu for 11 years now myself. and I think a large part of the attraction is the gi and the huge number of possibilities it offers. And while I favour a basic collar and sleeve grip when playing guard myself, there are whole systems of BJJ guard playing dedicated to intricate lapel grips, popularised by famous practitioners like Keenan Cornelius, the most famous of which is his Worm Guard:
The gi offers the same level of cognitive challenge that using a weapon does in other martial arts. And while Brazilian JiuJitsu takes the use of the gi to new levels, I think the same could be said about other grappling arts that make use of clothing, like judo and Mongolgian wrestling. Modern judo has become all about the grip fighting, for instance, and a good grip on the opponent’s clothing can give you a real advantage in arts like Mongolian wrestling.
There are downsides to fighting with the gi of course. Firstly, the damage to your fingers is real, especially as you get older. Too much gripping of the gi really takes it out of your fingers, especially once your grip gets twisted and your opponent is trying hard to break it.
The gi game tends to be a little bit slower-paced as well, since just having one grip somewhere on somebody can stop an attack completely. But while some people find that frustrating, to me it’s just another problem to solve, and more brain-tingling fun to keep training the mind as hard as the body.
My guest in this episode is my first from the world of Brazilian Jiujitsu. He’s Estonian Jiujitsu coach Priit Mihkelson.
For over 15 years now Priit has been pioneering an innovative, logical and defensive style of jiujitsu that has been taking the BJJ world by storm.
He’s just back from running a training camp held in a castle in Italy and his seminars are sold out until mid June next year, so it was great to grab some of his precious time and catch up with him before he jetted off for his next training camp.
In this podcast we talk about defensive BJJ, training methods and technical innovations.
Click the link above, or you’ll find it on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Search for The Tai Chi Notebook.
Paul Bowman is a professor of cultural studies at Cardiff University. He’s the author of multiple books on martial arts, including several about Bruce Lee, and most recently, “The invention of martial arts: popular culture between Asia and America”, which was published by Oxford University press in 2020.
Paul also helped establish the academic journal Marital Arts Studies, and organised conferences for the Martial Arts Studies Research Network.
In this chat we reminisce about our times training together, talk about paul’s recent discovery of Brazilian jiujutsu and discuss the emergent field of martial arts studies.
In the last episode of the Heretics podcast we talked about Chinese wrestling – Shuai Jiao – but Damon also mentioned Manchu wrestling quite a bit. He described it, but you can’t get a proper idea of how it works without seeing it done, so let’s look a little closer.
Manchu wrestling is a unique form of puppetry popular in certain parts of China where the participant wears a life-sized puppet of two wrestlers in a costume that turns ther legs and arms into both the puppet’s legs. Various wrestling maneuvers are then performed. The skill is to make it look like the two puppets are really wrestling and pulling off moves on each other.
To a western martial artist interested in only “learning how to defend myself” this might all look a bit silly, but if you watch this documentary you’ll see that there’s quite a lot to it:
There are so many things here worthy of note.
Firstly, the connection between puppetry and Chinese martial art is ripe for research – I’m thinking of the other famous puppet show that martial artists are known for – Lion and Dragon dancing. These cultural and religious practices are still done by martial arts groups at demonstrations and festivals.
Everybody in the Manchu wrestling documentary calls it “wrestling” even though it’s a solo drill. They don’t call it a dance or puppetry. To them this is “wrestling”, but we’d never call it that in Britain, for example – I find that pretty interesting.
It’s a damn good work out. If you’ve ever done any BJJ floor drills where you walk around on your hands and feet you’ll know that it’s instantly exhausting. Manchu wrestling will get you fit! If you don’t believe me then have a go at some of these drills before you tell me I’m wrong:
Manchu wrestling actually looks pretty dangerous – you can easily break a wrist with the high-speed spinning they’re doing, especially if the stick you hold in the shoe breaks.
Mental health benefits: a part of the documentary is focused on the mental health benefits of Manchu wrestling, especially looking at its life-changing benefits for rural Chinese women whose lives seem to be reduced to raising children and farming. I found this interesting in light of how much mental health benefits are talked about in BJJ culture – “BJJ saved my life” is a commonly used phrase amongst gym rats. Perhaps there is something inherently therapeutic about any style of wrestling movements and the human body?
Ryan Hall, a notable BJJ black belt and MMA fighter wrote his Open Letter to the BJJ Community 9 years ago, but it seems that not much has changed since then and it’s taken 9 years for BJJ to reach its #MeToo moment.
It’s a very thought provoking read, especially in light of the recent actions of some individuals in the BJJ community that are being illuminated by some extremely brave people. In recent weeks several high profile names have been connected to cases of sexual abuse or misconduct, in the USA and the UK.
The most recent podcast from the BJJ Mental Models crew, with special guests Emily Kwok & Dominyka Obelenyte addresses this issue directly. It’s worth a listen, especially if you train BJJ.
The UKBJJA has issues the following statement:
With the recent discussions and allegations that have come to light in our community, we wish to reinforce and make clear that the UKBJJA has always held a zero-tolerance policy for any abuse amongst our members.
Victims of any abuse are always welcome to contact us in confidence at email@example.com where all allegations of abuse will be independently investigated.
All members are reminded of our Code of Conduct and welcome to review this here.
I really enjoyed watching the judo at this year’s Olympics. I thought the technical level on display was simply electrifying, which is why I find it odd that people sometimes refer to judo as dumbed-down jujutsu.
I’m a practitioner of Brazilian jiujitsu (which could be described as an offshoot of judo), and I’ve only ever dabbled in a few classes on Japanese jujutsu, so I’d hardly call myself an expert on it. However, from my experience, and what I’ve seen I’m going to make a bold and possibly controversial statement: Judo is more sophisticated than Japanese Jujutsu.
The question is what do I mean by ‘sophisticated’. I certainly don’t mean that there are a greater number or variety of techniques. There is certainly more content in the old jujutsu systems than there is in judo.
Kano created Judo by removing a lot of content from the Jujutsu systems he started learning in 1877, and changing the emphasis from performing kata and drilling applications to randori – free practice. There is also a big emphasis on competition in Judo. Strikes and weapon defence were originally part of Judo, but only in pre-arranged kata and are not included in competition and over time they have receded into the background. Most Judo clubs these days don’t even include the original kata or self defence techniques and simply train for competition.
Broadly speaking, the content Kano removed were the things that couldn’t be practiced safely in randori – throws that landed the opponent on their head, for example, or the sort of techniques that were designed for the battlefield and therefore irrelevant to civilian life. The change resulted in judo becoming the prominent style of jujutsu in Japan and internationally. The key to judo’s effectiveness was this switch in emphasis to randori. By trying to get the same moves to work over and over on resisting opponents, the technical level of the practitioner naturally rises. If you’re going to hip throw somebody in a setting where they know you’re going to try to hip throw them, then your setups for the technique have to evolve and get better. You cannot simply step in and expect your hip throw to work. You’re going to have to improve your ability to fake, shift weight, take balance and finish the techniques massively. This process produces a much more sophisticated level of technique.
Judo is therefore not “dumbed-down” jujutsu – it’s highly evolved jujitsu. To my eyes at least.
Byron Jacobs is a teacher of Xing Yi and Bagua based in Beijing, China. He’s a student of the famous Shifu Di Guoyong and is heavily involved in the martial arts scene in Beijing. As well as training traditional martial arts he’s also a BJJ practitioner and competitor.
In this wide ranging discussion we talk about training Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi and whether Wu Shu will ever get into the Olympics. We also find out what it was like to train martial arts in Beijing during the Corona virus pandemic, and what the Chinese BJJ and MMA scene is like.
There’s a great article on Jiujitsu Style about the late, great, Anthony Bourdain and his love for BJJ, which he took up later in life. Over four years, Bourdain posted on the BJJ Reddit forum, r/bjj, as NooYawkCity 80 times before his death. He wasn’t doing it to promote a book or new TV show. He was just doing it because he loved BJJ, and his writing was real, honest, unflitered and above all, relatable.
Here’s an example:
“58 years old and getting so gassed during warm ups, that when we start to roll, I end up sticking my own head into an obvious guillotine –just to take a break. An utterly humiliating class yesterday, yet showed up for a private today with 250 lbs of muscle and bone so I could get pounded like a chicken fried steak . Why am I doing this? I don’t know. I’m like a dope fiend at this point. If I can’t train I start going into withdrawal. Wander around, twitching, restless and pissed off. At least with dope, you feel GOOD afterwards. After training, I feel like a rented and unloved mule . All the other (much, much younger) white belts all seem to be coming back from long breaks because of injury. Strangely enough, so far so good for me. I may feel like a fragile box of stale breadsticks but I’ve managed to avoid injury (if not discomfort). I have never enjoyed pain. I don’t care if it’s Gisele Bunchen coming at me in thigh boots wielding a riding crop, I’m not interested. Yet I insist on getting squashed on the mats every day and feel bereft if I can’t. This is not normal. When I talk about BJJ , Old friends look at me like I have an arm growing out of my forehead. But I Won’t stop. Can’t stop.” – NooYawkCity, July 9th, 2014