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.
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.
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.
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 existsfrom 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.
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.
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).
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.
(* 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!)