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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard a Chinese martial artist start to explain the history of their style in a way that means, by sheer coincidence, that their particular lineage is the most special and authentic example of all the different branches of their style, then I’d be as rich as a relative of a Conservative MP in 2020 with no previous experience of procuring PPE equipment.
So, what’s going on here? Obviously not every single Chinese martial artist you talk to can have the ultimate lineage of a style, so one of two things is happening here. Either, you’ve just happened to bump into that one guy on the planet who has the best version of this style known to mankind… Or, like most human beings, the person talking lacks the self awareness to see that they are parroting a line they’ve been sold, and that they’re now selling to you. Everybody likes to think that they are doing the real thing, and that means, that all the other people who do their martial art a bit differently to them therefore can’t also be doing the real thing. As a side note, I think the elaborate and fanciful origin stories of most Chinese martial arts serve a similar purpose – to make the students confident that their style is somehow better than the others.
The most recent example of this phenomina I’ve listened to was in an episode of a podcast featuring a Chen style lineage holder talking about why his style is the best. The whole episode is essentially about who has the real Chen style lineage – the Beijing Chen group or the Village Chen group. I don’t do Chen style myself, and don’t really have any desire to either, so I don’t have a dog in the fight, but listening to the long, convoluted reasoning he used to explain exactly why his lineage is better than the others, I do wonder if he’s ever stopped to listen to himself?
Martial arts styles are essentially brands, and everybody involved is selling you their particular brand in one way or another, whether they realise it or not. This is a cynical view to take on martial arts, I agree, but I think it’s also historically accurate. Martial arts styles only appeared in China the age of commercialism when people realised that it was possible to make money teaching them. Before that different styles didn’t necessarily have different names, or names at all. Once you could make money teaching it was necessary to differentiate your particular style from others, otherwise, how would you attract students?
I don’t mean to single out the Chen style guy – he’s not alone by a long stretch – but it seems to me that all Chinese martial artists have some version of the same story they tell themselves about why their lineage is the most special, unique or authentic. Heck, I used to be one of those guys myself!
This is usually the point where my very wise Polish BJJ friend taps me on the shoulder and reminds me with his usual Spartan brevity that the only reason lineage becomes important is because the art has died and nobody is using it to fight with any more.
Again, that sounds a bit harsh, but he could well be right. BJJ is a brand like any other martial arts, and very marketing heavy, but in BJJ circles people don’t tend to care about lineage in the way they do in Chinese martial arts because the art has a healthy competiton culture. Nobody would say things like, “This is not the real Rio De Janeiro style of jiujitsu”. They’d just get laughed out of town for saying that. In BJJ, if you can make a technique work in training, or even better, in competition, then it’s valid. There is no need for any other type of validation. If it works, it works. You are expected to add to it and innovate. I really like that. Sure, there are a few branches of the BJJ tree that venerate the original self-defence orientated teachings of Helio Gracie as if they were written in stone, and refuse to modernise for fear of losing their street effectiveness, but they’re not that big a deal in the great scheme of things. The rest of the BJJ world carefully steps around them so they can carry on living in the 1930s without affecting anybody else. It’s not a big problem.
Lineage is real. It exists. But surely, what matters more is what we can actually do with the art?
My question is always, “does it work?” If it does, I’m interested.
“Sport” is kind of a trigger word for a lot of martial art practitioners, at least some of the ones I’ve met! So telling them they should train their martial art more like a sport usually goes down like a cold bucket of sick, but really I think they should listen.
“There are no rules on the street!”
“I train for the street, dude!”
“You mean a sport like netball, right?”
When here’s the thing: Training your martial art like a ‘martial art’ is often an excuse for not working very hard and not really pressure testing anything you do.
Sport is a sweaty, dificult, thing to do that usually involves doing something pretty athletic (unless you count darts). Sport is also structured. Quite often in a martial art there is no real training methodology. People just turn up, do a few forms, practice a few safe applications against little or no resistance then go home again. The learning process can be a bit random.
I should stress, I don’t really think that there’s anything wrong with that, depending on your motivations for training, which often change as you age. Just feeling good about doing something is certainly reason enough to do it, but I think you should ask yourself, what progress are you really making? And, worse, are you becoming delusional?
Sports, in contrast, tend to be very structured. You train attributes specifically, and you engage in a focussed practice where you can drill to increase your ability in tightly defined things. Sometime those things are measured. You sit down and discuss progress with your coach. You troubleshoot and then you give it a go against somebody who is going to be uncooperative and gives you feedback. That’s real testing against nature – the sort of thing a human shaman would engage in 10,000 years ago.
Martial arts also have strange rules that sports don’t have – we have to call people odd titles like Sifu or Professor. There’s bowing and etiquette that looks strange to people outside the system. I can understand the cultural reasons for a lot of these things, but I often wonder that when these arts are put into a different culture, whether some of these things should be left behind because they’re not helpful and, in fact, can stand in the way of progress. For example, the little quirks like bowing to photos of dead guys or using a 1-2-3 clap system can gradually breed a cult-like quality of obedience that makes us stop questioning things.
I saw a brilliant video of a Muay Thai coach recently. I love the tiny details he’s giving. Muay Thai is an interesting martial art because it’s probably the most traditional martial art remaining on the planet, but it’s also a sport. It is undoubtedly effective and trained at the highest level in popular combat sports. I think there’s something to learn from that.
As I said earlier, I don’t think we need to make all martial arts into competative sports, but I think we can take elements of the sporting approach and apply it to what we’re doing, regardless of the martial art we’re doing.
As 2020 falls into a slow-motion death spiral, like a bad cinematic supervillain delivering his final monologue before reaching for the detonator, it’s time to reflect back on the highs and lows of the year… and then the really low bits, and then the bits that were lower than those. Yes, 2020 sucked. Martial arts practice with other people became one of those things we all used to do, everybody stayed in their home and talked to each other on Zoom and our physical and metal health suffered. And whatever happens with the new vaccines on the way, the world will never be the same again.
One of the things that kept me going in 2020 were the podcasts. Trapped at home in various flavour of lockdown meant people had more time than ever to record podcasts and we all had more time to listen to them as we waited in the food queues, enjoyed our regulatory 1 hour walk in the fresh air or silently screamed under the blankets.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the shows that deserve my thanks for making 2020 slightly less awful than it could have been.
Martial Arts Studies
It’s like martial arts, but for people who want to think and talk as well as punch people in the head. Crazy, right? The ever-insightful Professor Paul Bowman is your host and he introduces a different guest each episode who has been doing research into an area of the martial arts you probably didn’t even know existed. This is a high-brow listen, so expect to have your horizons expanded and your tolerance for deconstructionism tested. At some point in the year I was on this podcast, so there’s that, too. Martial Arts Studies.
OH GOD, WHAT NOW?
Brexit, brexit, brexit. Not only did we have to suffer the ravages of the COVID 19 pandemic in the UK, but we had to suffer an equally pernicious virus called Brexit simultaneously. A handful of super hard-right millionaires and billionaires had hoodwinked a statistically significant percentage of the population into believing it was in their interests that they should be able to keep on avoiding paying any tax in the UK. It turns out that while they were very good at winning referendums and putting the blame on foreigners for all the aweful things that they had in fact helped create, they were just not that particularly competent at negotiating trade agreements. We narrowly avoided a hard brexit by accident, but are left with a trade agreement that puts us in a far worse position than we have been when we were still a member of the EU and that also removes the right of UK people to live and work in 22 European countries. It’s been an unmitigated disaster, but the sane and rational voices on this podcast have enabled me be clearer about some of the frustrations I have with the government. OH GOD, WHAT NOW?
Fights gone by w/ Jack Slack
While most sports ground to halt in 2020, MMA continued by, well, by not really caring too much about fighter health and safety in much the same way that MMA has always not cared too much about fighter health and safety (hey, they’re all going to end up with brain damage, anyway, right?) To beat COVID restrictions the UFC upped sticks and moved to a “fight island” in Abu Dahbi, where events could be staged with a higher degree of COVID safety and we had some fantastic matches, title defences, knockouts and submissions throughout the year. 2020 fights from Khabib Nurmagomedov, Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson, were particularly memorable. Should MMA really have continued in 2020? It’s hard to say, but plenty of fighters contracted COVID 19, and at least 2 now have long-term complications that have delayed their next appearances. Jack Slack has continually been the most insightful commentator on MMA, in fact, without his Fights gone by podcast I wonder if I’d watch anywhere near as much MMA at all. The level of detail he provides on the fight game can really change your appreciation of the job fighters are doing, and improve your own martial arts. What’s more, he’s British. Fights gone by
Robby The Robot’s Waiting: The Sci-Fi Podcast
As well as podcasts and MMA, another thing that has kept me going in 2020 is sci-fi. I’m currently enjoying the latest series of The Expanse on Amazon Prime, for example. As cinema releases have stalled, streaming services have really come into their own, but they have so much content its easy to miss something you would like, which is why I’ve found the Robby The Robot’s Waiting podcast so valuable – it keeps you abreast of what’s happening in the world of sci-fi, what you should be watching now and what’s coming soon. The hosts all have a connection with SFX magazine, and I know quite a few of them personally from the publishing industry. It’s a perfect fix of weekly Sci-Fi goodness.
I’m going to give a special mention to Stephan Kesting for his Strenuous Life podcast. Stephan is a BJJ guy, but also enjoys things like Kayaking around the Candian wilderness on his own. (I think we can all see the attraction of that right now!) And while I don’t like every episode of his show (it depends on the guest very much) Stephan has been a consistent voice of reason in the BJJ community during the global pandemic, which has seen a lot of prominent BJJ personalities slip into the netherworld of conspiracy theories and casual racism. For some reason, BJJ people seem attracted to conspiracy theories, and it’s very frustrating to have to deal with them, along with everything else.