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.

Victorian & Edwardian Martial & Exercise Films

If you enjoy historical martial arts footage as much as I do then you’ll find the Victorian & Edwardian Martial & Exercise Films YouTube channel an absolute goldmine of footage.

This channel displays films and film segments that were created at the beginning of film making in the 19th Century through to the first half of the 20th century in relation to martial art and exercise.

Here are few examples of the content you’ll find here that caught my eye:

1897 Boxe Francaise (Savate) & Baton Demonstration – Lyon France

Filmed: Spring – June 6th 1897
Location: Lyon-France
These films show members of the 99th Infantry Regiment demonstrating Savate & Baton. These demonstrations are not sparring sessions. They are an exchange of techniques for the camera, in the form of a flow drill. In the Savate demonstration you can see that the practitioner on the left is aware of the camera position, and motions the other practitioner back into the frame of the camera. Sparring in this era was conducted on a “touch point system” along the same lines as fencing and points were scored for making contact, and the aim was not to seek a knock out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLcG_QZPWek

1896 Burmese Martial Art in London

“These two films were filmed in July 1896 by Lumiere camera operator Alexandre Promio. The Location was Sydenham Crystal Place Park London. The first film depicts a form of Burmese martial art which includes open hand strikes, kicking and grappling. It is unclear what style is depicted as Burma (Myanmar) has a large variety of styles. (Martial Styles of Myanmar) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96IBH… Both practitioners seem to be sparring in a light friendly manner for the camera. The second film presents a solo performance of the ball exercises known in Burma (Mynamar) as Chinlone. Chinlone dates back over 1,500 years, and is heavily influenced by traditional Burmese martial art and dance. It was originally conceived as a form of entertainment for Burmese royalty. It is also played as a team sport and over the centuries, players have developed more than 200 different ways of kicking the ball. Form is all important in Chinlone, there is a correct way to position the hands, arms, torso, and head during the moves. A move is considered to have been done well only if the form is good.”

Victorian & Edwardian Martial & Exercise Films

1919 Self -Defence (Jiu-Jitsu) – Johnny Kilbane

Film Date: 24-10-1919
Location: Cleveland (Ohio) U.S.A.
Description: Champion Boxer Johnny Kilbane teaching his wife self-defence (Jiu-Jitsu).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flpOOrdI14I

Facing adversity

Why do we exercise? It may be that we have been told we must by a doctor because we are facing some sort of health crisis, for which the most obvious solution is to take up more regular exercise. Usually these problems are related to being overweight and the multitude of health problem this can exacerbate, or indeed cause. But sometimes it can be something more subtle, like just not feeling comfortable in our body. We know when our body feels weak, soft, stiff or unused and needs exercise. The sense that we need to move, to stretch or to run is always there within us, if we choose to listen to that inner voice.

The Stoics were very big on the idea of accepting “voluntary hardships” as a kind of “shortcut to virtue”. Like the Cynics before them, or the holy men of India at the time of the Buddha, they would often become beggars, or live like poor people for extended periods of time to refocus on what was important in life, or to simply stop themselves from getting too soft. In life we generally try and avoid pain and discomfort in all areas, and this can lead us into tremendous difficulties in the long run. By seeking to avoid pain we let small problems fester until they become big problems.

Photo by Kelvin Valerio on Pexels.com

“although most people don’t like pain and discomfort, we generally accept that learning to endure it within reason can potentially toughen us up.  That’s what most physical exercise is about, to some extent.  It improves our fitness but also teaches us to endure pain and fatigue.”

Donald Robertston

Which brings me on to Tai Chi. Generally motivating yourself to get out of bed, or off the couch, to practice Tai Chi involves the same mental toughening up process that is involved in motivating yourself to do any other form of exercise. There’s no difference there, but the difference is in the type of exercise.

Tai Chi is a slow burn. It requires a different type of resilience. You need to develop the resilience to work slowly and patiently at something when your mind is telling you that you’re bored now and you should really be doing something much more exciting or intense.

To some extent you can turn your mind off during sets of star jumps, squats and push ups and just blast through them, maybe while listening to pumping music to help keep you going. In contrast, the first thing you are asked to do in Tai Chi is to stand still and connect with your breath before you even lift a finger. Then you are expected to keep your mind on the job throughout.

But if you try it, you’ll find that this “getting in touch with yourself” first before exercising can lead to a different kind of experience. It’s the gateway to marvels. Maybe you won’t burn as many calories as you do down the gym with your mind on autopilot, but your body will feel better for it, reconnecting with the living spirit of nature that flows through you, and (if Obi-Wan Kenobi is to be believed) all things.

It starts with the breath. Become aware of the breath. Don’t interfere with it, just watch it rise and fall. Once you do that you’ll find that facing minor adversity doesn’t feel like such a big problem anymore, and you can just do it.

The joy of Manchu Wrestling

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.
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com
  • 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?

Podcast Episode 2: Byron Jacobs on Beijing martial arts

Episode 2 of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast is out!

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.

If you’d like to be taught by Byron in the arts of Xing Yi and Bagua, then he has an online learning platform available at https://www.patreon.com/mushinmartialculture

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.

Show notes
—————

(9.45)
Byron’s Hua Jin Online learning platform
https://www.patreon.com/mushinmartialculture

(15.22)
Byron’s Mu Shin Martial Culture YouTube channel
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCg_V6eznSvYOFz2naGlgRpg

(47.05)
DQ’d for Kicking TOO HARD? – Doctor Reacts to Olympic Karate Controversy and Knockout Science
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QFxxM3QOws

(1.05.30)
Speed passing by Rafa Mendes
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qu_9Lcdrh_w

(1.18.11)
Ku Yu Chang (Guruzhang’s) Yang style Taijiquan:
A STUDY OF TAIJI BOXING by Long Zixiang
https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/the-taiji-manual-of-long-zixiang/

(1.23.00)
Stand Still Be Fit by Master Lam Kam Chuen
https://www.youtube.com/user/StandStillBeFit

You can find it on all the usual places you find podcasts – search for The Tai Chi Notebook on Apple podcasts, Spotify, etc.. or here’s a link:

Spotify
Apple
Web

Anthony Bourdain on JiuJitsu Style

Anthony Bourdain courtesy of JiuJitsu Style.

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

Pressure point striking is back!

Dim mak, pressure points, high kicks and nerve strikes! Along with permed hair, styled into a mullet, and blue jeans, these were part of the staple diet of kung fu magazines in the 1980s and 1990s. But pressure point striking quickly became something of a running joke once people found out that it couldn’t be applied in a real fight, you know, when somebody was actually trying to punch your face in, not just when they were standing in front of you passively in the dojo, happily waiting for you to strike their Gallbladder 15 or Lung 4 points.

The reputation of pressure point striking wasn’t helped by the many obvious charlatans peddling their fake pressure point striking systems on DVD and on seminar circuits. These ‘masters’ tended to only demonstrate their skills on their own gullible students, and they rarely seem to work on other people, who hadn’t been brainwashed to think they were the second coming. 

But while falling foul of reality, pressure point striking carried on a healthy second life in the fantasy-based genre of martial arts movies. For example, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had a great scene where one of the fighters is almost instantly paralysed by some quick pressure point tomfoolery until he can be released by yet more pressure point touching.

And in Kill Bill: Volume 2, the late David Carridine famously succumbed to Bak Mei’s legendary 5 point palm exploding heart technique, delivered deliciously by Uma Thurman. 

Even as recently as 2021, in the Marvel TV series, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, homage was paid to the pressure point movie trope with a body-popping sequence that made the Winter Soldier’s metal arm suddenly detach from his shoulder and fall to the floor with a clank, turning him from super soldier into one-armed bandit with one simple cheat code.

However, if you ignore the mystical nonsense surrounding pressure point striking you’ll find that it is actually based on some pretty sound scientific principles. In a recent UFC 252 match Anthony Smith seemed to paralyse Jimmy Crute’s leg with a well-delivered calf kick. 

After the kick, Crute’s leg seemed to be unable to function in a way that was almost comical. Crute bravely tried to fight on, but his leg was so unusable after the strike that the ring doctor waved the fight off when he was unable to walk in a straight line properly between rounds. I’m sure I heard Pak Mei chuckle quietly to himself in his grave when it happened.

So how was this possible? The answer lies in nerves. 

As orthopedic surgeon Dr Lucius Pomerantz explains, on his YouTube channel, the phenomenon is called Drop Foot, and it’s what happens when the peroneal nerve sustains an injury. “When a nerve does not work the muscles that it innervates do not receive messages from the brain. When the peroneal nerve is injured the muscles that raise the foot at the ankle do not work – the foot drops down. Simply walking can be extremely difficult without the ability to raise the foot.”

So, there you have it. A pressure point strike achieved via a calf kick in MMA! I’m glad pressure points are making a comeback, and I hope we’ll see more of them in the future.

I just hope the permed mullet doesn’t make a comeback as well. 

He who stands on one leg (lives longer)

I’ve just finished listening to Just One Thing by Michael Mosley from BBC Sounds. It’s a short 14 minute radio show and this episode is about the benefits of standing on one leg.

I wrote a blog post a while ago about standing in a deep horse stance when brushing your teeth as a life hack for building leg strength. It was a bit of a throw-away post, but surprisingly it consistently turns up in my blog statistics as one of my most popular stories.

Michael does something similar while brushing his teeth, but he stands on one leg instead.

It turns out that your ability to stand on one leg for an extended period of time is a good indicator of how long you’re going to live, and it decreases significantly after age 35. It’s something to do with the brain slowing down as we age and the fact that balance requires the integration of so many body systems, but the good news is that we can improve our balance with practice.

You can give your self a little test of your balance right now if you like. Try and stand on one leg for 30 seconds each side, and for 10 seconds with your eyes shut. Be careful though, standing on one leg with your eyes shut is very tricky!

So, what’s the best way to improve you balance? Professor Dawn Skelton from Glasgow Caledonian University was interviewed in the programme about all things relating to balance, and at 10 minutes 59 seconds she recommends Tai Chi as one of the best activities to improve your balance and prevent your first serious fall – especially for old people. It is 3 dimensional movement, so your head moves at different times to the rest of your body, and because it’s slow and controlled you get great feedback from joints.

So there you go – yet more evidence that Tai Chi is good for you and will help you live longer!

How much water should you drink a day?

We are constantly bombarded with the idea that we need to drink quite a large volume of water a day. Have you ever tried to drink the recommended 3 litres, or 8 cups, of water in a day? It’s actually pretty hard to do, and you’ll end up going to the toilet constantly. At least, that’s my experience!

After listening to the new Body Stuff podcast from TED Audio Collective by Dr Jen Gunter I now realise that this commonly accepted myth was spread by bottled water and sports drink companies using bogus science. It’s a better idea to simply drink when you feel thirsty – unless you have some sort of medical condition.

Give the podcast a listen, because it’s pretty good. You can find it on Apple Podcasts.

Here’s the info on the show:

Body Stuff with Dr. Jen Gunter, the newest podcast from the TED Audio Collective, launches on May 19. Body Stuff will bust the lies you’re told — and sold — about your personal health. Body Stuff is hosted by celebrated OB/GYN, pain medicine physician and TED speaker Dr. Jen Gunter, who has made it her mission to combat health misinformation online and isn’t afraid to take on the world’s biggest peddlers of it — from lotions and potions to diets and detoxes.

Each week’s episode debunks a medical myth and turns us into experts by demystifying how our bodies work. For example, did you know that you don’t actually need eight glasses of water a day? Or that you can’t “boost” your immune system? With humor and wit, Dr. Jen Gunter is here to educate you, while also disproving myths that have been around for centuries. 

TED