Why BJJ should really be considered a weapons-based art

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.

Modern interpretation of a Viking warrior: Photo by Fernando Cortu00e9s on Pexels.com

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.

BJJ in a gi: Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

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.

Choking with the gi from back control in BJJ:Photo by Samuel Castro on Unsplash

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.

Attempting a collar choke while rolling in BJJ: Photo by Samuel Castro on Unsplash

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.

Review: “Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu” by Brandon Mullins and Stephan Kesting

A rare and welcome return to dead tree media for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fans everywhere.

Since the advent of DVD, and easily downloadable video tutorials from the likes of Kesting’s own Grapple Arts website and sites like BJJ Fanatics, new books that teach you BJJ techniques in a step-by-step manner have dwindled to the point of non-existence. Back in the day we had masterworks in print, like Jiu-Jitsu University by Saulo Ribeiro and Kevin Howell, and Advanced Brazilian Jiujitsu Techniques by Marcelo Garcia and Marshal D Carper* to guide us. But VHS and then DVD took over, which is why I’m so pleased to see this new release from Brandon Mullins and Stephan Kesting. Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu is the first new book about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to buck the trend and feature photos and step-by-step techniques, released in years.

You might be wondering what the point of a printed book teaching you BJJ is in the modern age of YouTube and steaming video, so let me offer you some reasons for its existence:

1) You don’t need a phone, app, computer or VR headset to enjoy a book. You can take it wherever you go and dive into any page anytime, anywhere. Talk about “instant access”!

2) Some people learn better from printed material – reading puts you in a different headspace. There’s also just something nice about a real, physical book that you can hold in your hands.

3) A DVD of this material (“Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu”) already exists from Grapple Arts, so this book acts as an additional resource.

4) Goddamn it, I’m just tired of all BJJ instructionals being in video format these days! It’s so nice to go back to something more old school.

So, as you can probably tell, I really wanted to like this book. I work in print magazines as my day job, so I love print with the sort of passion that Gordan Ryan normally reserves for protein shakes. I want to see the printed medium continue for as long as possible. So, as a fan of the original Nonstop Jiu-jitsu video instructional from Grapple Arts, I was beyond excited to hear that a print version was now available. And at 260 pages, with literally hundreds of full colour photos it is clearly a labour of love for the authors Kesting and Mullins. Yet alas, (alas!), it is not without its problems, of which there are many, but more of that later.

First though, who are Kesting and Mullins, and why should you care what they have to say about BJJ? As mentioned, Kesting runs the Grapple Arts business of BJJ instructional videos. I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time, and purchased many of his products. They’re all good, high-quality productions and usually done in conjunction with another teacher, who has a unique or valuable insight into the world of BJJ. Kesting usually takes the role of uke in the videos, while the featured instructor takes you through his techniques, or concepts. The featured instructor here is Brandon “Wolverine” Mullins, a BJJ world champion who is known for his clear instructional style and showing you complete gameplans, rather than isolated techniques, so he will show you a guard sweep, followed by a guard pass and then a submission, rather than techniques that leave you hanging and not knowing quite what comes next. Mullins isn’t one of the really famous BJJ guys out there, but he’s no stranger to competition and is a very competent teacher.

So what’s my beef? Well, the problem is that the book smacks of self publishing. A quick scan of the credits page reveals they didn’t employ an editor or a sub editor, and it really shows. Not only could almost all the text in the book do with a good edit to make it punchier, tighter and more interesting to read, there are a lot of unforgivable grammatical errors that have crept in, mainly in the introduction text admittedly, but that’s the thing you read first, so it creates a very bad first impression. But while things improve in later sections, typos are prevalent throughout the work, and if like me you can’t stand seeing obvious mistakes in a finished book, you’ll be tearing your hair out. I have a lot of sympathy for the authors here – working in print I know how hard it is to spot your own mistakes. You go “word blind” to your own writing. There are probably typos in this review that I’ve missed, but I can easily go back and fix them because it’s a blog post. In contrast, once something has been published in print it can’t be changed without issuing an expensive reprint – it’s really a very unforgiving medium, and not getting another pair of eyes to look at every single page before you send it to the printers is always fatal. Heck, I’d have done it for free myself if only they’d asked me!**

Some examples of typos from the introduction:

Maybe you’re not be the sort of person who cares about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. You just want to get to the great content, right? Well, I have some issues there as well.

I can’t fault the quality of the instruction presented. Like I said before, I was a fan of the original video series. But the way it’s presented here could be improved. For a start, the book is an odd shape (21.5cm across and 21.5cm high). There’s a reason why most books generally aren’t square – they’re really awkward to design for and you can see how this has created problems. When they have a full page of text, they’ve used only 1-column, so a line is uncomfortably long. The margin on the outside edge of the page is very tight too, and it all makes reading difficult, as you have to track your eye back a long way to the left to find the start of the next line. A 2-column grid would have made scanning text much easier.

(Very long lines of text to digest here. And a double exclamation mark at the end? What were they thinking”!!”)

The pages of photos have a different problem. Following from one step to the next is difficult, as they often have alternative shots of the same technique on the page. They’ve put numbers on photos so you can see where to move your eye to next, but knowing where to go next is not intuitive. They also expect you to read the explanation in the text box at the top of the page, then move your eye back to the correct picture to see what is meant, then move your eye back to the text box at the top to read the next step, and so on. It’s all a bit awkward.

(The two white lines indicate an alternative view, in case you were wondering.)

All credit to Kesting and Mullins for spending the time to re-shoot every single technique in detail and presenting colour photos of each step (that’s not cheap to do in print). The photos are clear and accurately show the techniques. They avoid the classic mistake of both weaing the same colour gi, but the printing is a bit too dark, meaning there are some shadows and dark patches on Kesting’s blue gi that are hard to make out, as you can see in my photos. (This probably looked fine on screen when they were creating the book, but the printed version can differ).

(That’s a lot of very small photos to try and fit on one page).

The design has competing systems of classification too, which makes it even more confusing. Sometimes a “what not to do” type photo has a red thumbs down icon on it, at other times it is crossed out with a big red “x”. Why not just pick one system and stick with it?

In their enthusiasm the authors have tried to squeeze too much into this book, both in terms of the number of photos on each page, and the amount of material covered. There are 3 big sections – 1. Fundamental movements, 2. Butterfly guard, 3. De La Riva guard – and to fit it all in, something important has been lost, which is context. In the video version of Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu, Mullins explains why he’s doing each technique, usually in response to the opponent defending his previous effort. Here you don’t know when or why you would use the techniques shown. For instance, when you have butterfly guard, what makes you choose either the hook flip to x guard or the hook flip to phantom choke? It’s not entirely clear. A short piece of text explaining the context before diving into the steps would have made all the difference.

To give you an idea of how much content there is here, the table of contents alone runs to 6 pages! Complaining there’s too much value in a book sounds like an odd gripe, but this book could easily have been split into 3 different books, with more room to really let each subject breathe, and it would have been all the better for it.

The first section (which seems unsure if it’s called Fundamental Movements, or Advanced Fundamentals) is based around the fundamental movements of Jiu-Jitsu, like the technical stand up, sit through, hip escape, butt double and rolling forward and backwards, and then shows you how these movements can be applied in techniques. In a section aimed at beginners the applications are actually quite involved and ramp the difficulty level up very quickly – for example, a rolling omoplata from the armbar position in side control, anybody? As a more experienced Jiu-jitsu player I personally loved the high-level technical content here, but a real beginner might be a bit out of their comfort zone. My only criticism is that they show plenty of applications for all the movements except the hip escape (or shrimp) and bridge, which only get one application each – regaining closed guard from half guard for the shrimp and bridging from mount. I would have liked to have seen a shrimping escape from side control here, and another mount escape added for completeness sake.

The second section goes on to cover butterfly guard. Butterfly is a really good guard to use against an opponent who is trying to pass your guard from his knees. The standard butterfly sweep is shown, plus a plethora of options for when they post a hand or leg. Quite naturally this leads into all sorts of x guard material, back takes and shin sweeps. The section starts with Mullins’ trademark aggressive butt double attack from butterfly, which is a very proactive way to get the action going against a stalling opponent, and as such is nicely suited to competition. Because Mullins teaches in a game plan-based system, a lot of this chapter is devoted to guard passing after you’ve swept them from butterfly guard.

The final section covers the De La Riva guard, which shows you what to do against a standing opponent. The majority of the section is on how to attack with the ball and chain sweep, and follow ups depending on how the opponent defends. Again, the jiu-jitsu shown is attacking and aggressively non-stop, in the sense that he links together guard sweeps, passes and submissions.

Throughout all of the book’s sections, Mullins drops in some tips on motivation, competition strategy and his general thoughts on BJJ. It’s welcome advice, but I think it could have done with an editor to make it more concise.

After all this moaning you probably think I’m going to recommend staying well clear of Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu (or is it “Non-stop Jiu-Jitsu“? Even the name of the book is editorially styled in two different ways, one on the cover without a hyphen and another on the footers of each page with a hyphen – argh! Just choose one way and stick with it), because of all the editorial problems, but I’m not. I’m recommending it because this book is actually glorious!

I love seeing BJJ back in print, and despite the issues I’ve mentioned**, it didn’t stop me from loving this book. If you’re looking for some new ideas for a game to play from butterfly or de la Riva, then you’ll find inspiration here that will last a lifetime, and you can easily add to your game. And, godamn it, it’s a real book about BJJ and we should celebrate that fact.


Link to Nonstop Jiujitsu on Amazon


(* If you’re interested, I consider Marcelo Garcia’s book to be the gold standard in terms of these types of instructional BJJ manuals. Its production standards are first rate, from the quality text and explanations to the brilliant photos. Sadly it went out of print a long time ago.)

(** Lads, if you are reading this and want to do an updated version 2 of this book without all the typos, then please do, but please, please hire an editor this time!)

The First 6 BJJ Techniques Everyone MUST Learn

Apologies for the click-baity headline, but:

i) it’s true

and

ii) that’s what the video was called 🙂

This is a video created by the Gracie Academy, it’s pretty long, but it’s got the essentials of BJJ for self defence in there, and why not learn it? What have you got to lose?

“But all fights start on the feet!” Well, as the video of a real attack in the clip shows – you can be attacked at any time, anywhere and potentially by anyone. You could already be sitting on public transport. You could be attacked from behind and end up on the floor. If you don’t know how to get up from there then you’ve got a problem.

Russell Brand on BJJ communities

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Here’s a very nice video from actor, comedian and all-round philosopher guru person, Russell Brand, about getting his blue belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu from the Roger Gracie school. There are no shortcuts for celebrities in BJJ (or at least there shouldn’t be), so just like everybody else he’s had to work hard for this. This is a great example of hard work paying off. Well done Russell!

In the video, he talks a lot about the community feel of BJJ.

What he’s talking about in the video (I believe) is the gap in modern society that used to be filled by either religion or secret societies and mystery religions – the idea of a brotherhood (and sisters too) that is created in a group where people are no longer viewed by the labels that society creates for us – father, doctor, immigrant, lawyer, builder, student, etc… but by what we have achieved on the matt.

“We all come through the door for different reasons, but we are all the same once we’re inside”.

It’s a very valuable thing to be viewed without societies cultural baggage weighing us down.

BJJ especially seems to fill that void in modern life. Other martial arts do too, but I don’t think they create quite the same sense of brotherhood as BJJ for a variety of reasons – perhaps it’s the close physical contact, where we’re constantly almost killing each other but paradoxically helping each other succeed.

In BJJ you see the huge changes in people’s personality happen before your eyes, they become more humble, warmer, and you feel it happen to yourself too.

Whatever this process is I just think BJJ does it better than other martial arts, and is more accessible than the old fashioned secret societies which don’t really exist in the same way in our more secular society where mainstream religion is a lot more tolerant than it used to be.

Anyway, he talks about it here:

 

My podcast with Ken Gullette – BJJ, XingYi, Tai Chi and Choy Lee Fut

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I was interviewed for Ken Gullette’s Internal Fighting Arts podcast recently. It was a fun show and Ken is a gracious and generous host and a new friend in martial arts. We had a really wide-ranging discussion about so many different subjects. I’m sure each topic we touched on could have been a podcast in itself, but Ken did a great job editing it to keep it on track.

We start talking about what it’s like starting BJJ later in life, then move on to Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi, Choy Lee Fut and XingYi and if they are still relevant today for self-defence. Hopefully, you find something here of interest.

Thanks to Ken for the opportunity. I’d suggest checking out his other episodes, too.

Here’s the link to mine.

 

The ultimate guide to the guillotine choke

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Just look at those two guys and tell me they aren’t having fun! Nothing says “macho martial artist” quite like standing on one leg and having a guys head wrapped under your armpit in a guillotine choke while he’s pulling your leg into his groin.

But seriously, I think every martial artist should know how to do a guillotine choke, not just grapplers. The power of the guillotine is that it’s a very versatile choke. You can do it standing, on the ground and in all the positions in between. It looks like a deceptively simple technique – you just wrap your arm around their neck and squeeze – but as you’ll discover, there’s a whole load of subtle variations, tricks and positional requirements you need to know about to make your guillotine effective.

Rob Biernacki has produced a series of video clips that form a great free online instructional on Grapplearts about how to perform this simple choke. Trust me, it’ll be a great use of 30 minutes of your life and it’s good enough for them to have charged for it, but they’ve kindly provided it for free.

BJJ 101 – Defending the guard pass. Frame and hip escape

Welcome to a new, occasional, series looking at the basics of BJJ. This is BJJ 101.

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Now that I’ve got to brown belt in BJJ I find myself wanting to refocus on the basics and get them really tight. By basics, I mean the fundamental moves that you use most of the time, rather than the spectacular spinning back takes or flying triangles that get all the attention. I mean the boring stuff. The bread and butter of BJJ, if you will.

 

Read the rest of this post at my new blog… BJJ Notebook