The REAL origins of Brazilian Jiujitsu revealed!

The following is said to be a video of Mitsuyo Maeda (1878-1941), the man who famously brought Jiujitsu to Brazil from Japan and (allegedly, since there is some debate about whether he was taught directly, or by a student) taught Carlos Gracie of the Gracie family, who went on to popularise Jiujitsu in the country, creating the Brazilian variation of the art, which hit the big time after UFC 1 in the USA in the 1990s, and is now practiced the world over.

I’d recommend watching it at half speed -( go to Settings/ playback speed/ 0.5 ) – since like many films of the era (circa 1908), it’s sped up.

What do you think? My first reaction is that this is clearly the Pro Wrestling of the time. You can see that the performance is done purely as a kind of entertainment, not as a real fight at all. Those are real jiujitsu moves being demonstrated (sacrifice throw, hip throw, etc) but it’s also scripted like a very Chaplinesque slapstick comedy involving members of the crowd getting up on stage to join in.

As I mentioned recently, I’ve started taking my son to watch local Pro Wrestling events because he really enjoys them, and it’s given me a greater respect for Pro Wrestling and the skills of the performers.

Mitsuyo Maeda was known to have performed challenge matches as a way of earning a living, but I’ve always thought that his stage name, “Count Koma”, sounded more like a sideshow wrestling name than anything else. And here’s proof that he was earning his living as an entertainer. That’s not to say that he couldn’t have also engaged in serious challenge matches, but I can’t see how those were putting food on his table.

First though, we have to be confident that this is Mitsuyo Maeda. It certainly looks a bit like him. But can we be sure?

Maeda c. 1910

The find is credited to an Instagram account called origensdojiujitsu the text next to the video is in Portuguese, and the Google translation reads:

“In the 20th century it was common for Jiu-jitsu performances in Theaters and Circuses throughout the West, many Japanese emigrants, as a way of surviving, entered the World of Show and transformed their Martial knowledge into pure entertainment.

Due to the numerous presentations in theaters and circuses, the Soft Art gained notoriety in the West, it was common for the fighter to perform and even throw challenges to the spectators of the Audience, a common practice used by Conde Koma and his compatriots.

In silent cinema, some presentations in short films served as a trailer between one film session and another, in Brazil and in the world, both the armed forces and the shows contributed to the popularization of art.

In Brazil, the first exponents traveled both in the military environment and in circus shows such as Geo Omori, Conde Koma, and Satake, among others.”

origensdojiujitsu

So, this recording could have been a trailer shown between silent films. it certainly sounds credible, and if legitimate, it’s a fascinating look back at the origins of Brazilian Jiujitsu, and perhaps a refreshing break from the tough guy image that it later became associated with.

Priit Mihkelson seminar review – Sideways Open Guard, Day 1, 21st Jan 2023

Photo: Roger Karel, Blue Dog Jiu-Jitsu (c) 2023

This is the second Priit Mihkelson seminar I’ve attended, the first being on back defence up at Chris Paines’ gym in Stafford. This latest one was on guard playing at Blue Dog Jiujitsu in Yeovil a really nice gym in deepest darkest Somerset. Like last time, this was a massive 8-hour seminar split over 2 days. Priit explained that this is how he likes to present his work, so that there’s plenty of time to drill and practice to really let the lessons sink in. It’s a very different approach to pretty much every other BJJ seminar teacher out there, most of whom like to get their message across in a single 2 or 3 hour block. I only attended the first day this time because I have other commitments in my life, and frankly, 2 days feels like too much! But, that made me the exception here – pretty much everybody else in the room was going to go back for day 2. So, I guess most people are more obsessed with Jiujitsu than me, or they probably just lived a lot closer!

Priit has all sorts of heretical views on the problems with the way BJJ is generally taught, and can talk about any of these aspects at length. In fact, I interviewed him on my podcast last year and you can get a flavour of his views on BJJ there:

Interestingly, the Sideways Open Guard seminar started in exactly the same way as last time – an initial intro by Priit to his approach to BJJ, then a demonstration of a particular posture, an explanation of key details and then he asked you to practice it solo for a little 2 minute burst, then you regroup and he goes further into the details, and we repeat.

The details are deceptively simple:

Sideways open guard is like an extension of Priit’s “Grilled Chicken” guard – the original Grilled Chicken was a supine guard – lying on your back in a position that resembles a rotisserie chicken. Sideways Open Guard is (surprise, surprise) lying on your side. The important details are:

1) Up on your elbow – not flat on your shoulder, or propped up on your hand.
2) The top leg is key – the angle (45 degrees) has to be just right and the toes must point upwards, so there’s a slight twisting in the calf/shin. We did a lot of experimenting with this angle and why it’s important.
3) The bottom leg is your jab in boxing – so you can move it where you need to.
4) Constant forward pressure – you should be always moving forward in this guard, pressuring the passer.
5) Keep the opponent in the right segment.

Sideways Open Guard. Photo: Roger Karel – Blue Dog Jiu-Jjitsu (c) 2023

But ‘simple to explain’ doesn’t necessarily mean easy. As the seminar progressed it gradually became a 2-person drilling position with an attacker and a defender, building up through various repetitious drills of “adaptive resistance” to get closer and closer to what most people would call “specific sparring”. It became very apparent along the way that there were plenty of mistakes you can make while trying to hold even a simple set of postural principles when under pressure, and Priit’s repetitious drills were designed to expose them.

We’d do something, get feedback from our partner, then do it again, in short 2 minute bursts, with new aspects being added in occasionally by Priit – defence to a leg drag, defence to a toreando, defence to an over/under pass, etc… Priit’s approach to teaching is very different to most BJJ coaches. He does walk around offering advice, but really he wants you to be given the information, then work it out in practice on the mat with as little help from him as possible. The aim is that your drilling partner gives you feedback on where things are going wrong, so you can correct them. You drill, have a chat about it (get feedback), then drill again. I was luckily enough to get paired up with a good partner (shout out to Mark!) who was skillful, thoughtful and intelligent.

Maybe it was just me, but I found the teaching method a little confusing and difficult at times – sometimes we were allowed to talk, sometimes not, and sometimes we could pass guard, sometimes not. I found it frustrating not quite knowing what the rules were at all times. Also the expectation to give feedback on positions that I wasn’t completely familiar with myself was pretty difficult. How do I give good feedback on what my partner is doing “wrong” on something I’ve only just started learning myself, especially while engaging in a ‘live’ type of practice? I find that when doing Jiujitsu my brain is either in “flowing” mode when sparring, which doesn’t involve much thought, or in “thinking” mode which is usually when I’m sitting back and analysing a situation. Having to do both at once I found hard. Sure, I can figure it out over time, but short 2 minute bursts don’t give me enough time to get my brain into that sort of gear. I felt like we’d often just be getting into something interesting and then get called back.

Priit is all about going into microscopic detail on the fine points that make something work. And most importantly, why those details matter. Because they do – the exact angle of a foot can make the difference between a leg that feels impossible to move, like trying to push on a massive tree trunk, to something that would get knocked over by a light breeze. In a way, this reminded me of the focus on posture you find in martial arts like Tai Chi, rather than Jiujitsu, and I suppose that means it’s also open to the same criticisms that Tai Chi gets – that under pressure these small details are too fiddly to be practical. But then, Priit could demonstrate exactly what he was teaching under pressure, so theoretically it should be possible for others to do it too!

Sideways Open Guard is an interesting position because it looks like a very open position where a pass should be pretty easy to do, but it’s not. Priit asked the room to suggest passes to defend against and demonstrated how he could shut down almost any attack. I suggested a simple step over pass, which Priit then demonstrated the defence to effortlessly on me. I really appreciate teachers who take questions from the room like this and let you try things out on them without any ego.

Priit presents himself as a scientist of jiujitsu. His aim is to teach only the optimal posture for each position, which he has worked out through testing, rather than his personal style. His scientific approach can appear a little harsh in teaching style at times, and he sometimes doesn’t seem to have much patience for people who keep getting it wrong or who he perceives as training in the wrong way. He wants you to slow down, really focus on the details and get them right, not blast through the drills without thinking. This hopefully makes you become fully aware of your own blind spots, which is obviously quite difficult, because they are… your blind spots.

With the Sideways Open Guard, a lot of the time the answer to people getting too close was to grab a leg and wrestle up, and Priit constantly used analogies with boxing and wrestling throughout the seminar, comparing the jiujitsu guard to the boxing guard, for instance. This connecting of jiujitsu back to the universal principles of other combat sports, and away from the “if he does this, you counter with this” approach of many other marital arts, is really a great insight and truly valuable to the BJJ community.

After initially gaining popularity for his approach to turtle and other defensive postures, it’s great to see that Priit is still innovating in the world of jiujitsu. I’m a big fan of his work, and it feels like he’s still working on his masterpiece. A Priit seminar is a rare chance to see the master at work, so I’d recommend them to anybody. He has an online site too, Defensive BJJ, so you can follow his work even if you can’t make it to a seminar. His free BJJ Globetrotters videos on YouTube are another great source.

Overall, this was another great seminar. I caught up with some Bristol friends (shout out to Artemis BJJ ) and I’ve learned some fascinating details that are going to change my game for sure. I already played a lot of sideways open guard, but now I know the flaws I had in my posture, I’ve got plenty to work on. So, I’m sad to miss Day 2 and whatever insights Priit was going to share there (I think Z Guard, and even inverting were on the table), but in the spirit of Defensive BJJ, I’m not afraid to have a go at working it out for myself.

Photo: Roger Karel, Blue Dog Jiu-Jitsu (c) 2023

Episode 19: Salvatore Pace on the evolution of Brazilian Jiujitsu

Salvatore Pace, or Salvo for short is a 3rd degree black belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu and owner of Gracie Barra Bath, the Head Quarters of Gracie Barra in the South West of the UK, Gracie Barra West Wilts and co-owner of Gracie Barra Gillingham. He is a two time NAGA European Champion and Grappler’s Quest champion. Salvo grew up in Sicily and had a passion for martial arts as a young boy, practicing everything he could get his hands on, from boxing and Kung Fu to wrestling, and then MMA in the emerging combat sports scene in the UK, but it was his first encounter with Brazilian Jiujitsu and his main teacher Professor Carlos Lemos Jnr, that changed his life forever and put him on a plane to Brazil and then the USA, where he trained with some of the biggest names in the sport.

Returning to the UK Salvo had a dream of teaching jiujitsu for a living and set up Gracie Barra Bath in 2007, back when most people hadn’t even heard of Brazilian jiujitsu. And that’s where our paths crossed,  I first met Salvo way back in 2011 and I’ve been with him ever since, getting all my belts from white to black from his hands and it’s been a pleasure to watch his students and academy grow and develop and expand to new locations around the South West.

Jiujitsu has certainly evolved a lot since those early days, but we can let Salvo tell that story, so here he is.

Links:

Gracie Barra Bath (South West HQ)

Gracie Barra West Wilts

Gracie Barra Gillingham


Stay tight, but not too tight

Teaching jiujitsu class this morning I found myself saying a phrase that I feel like I’ve said a million times before.

“Don’t hold too tight because if they roll, then you roll too.”

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

It’s one of the fundamentals of controlling somebody on the ground when you’re on the top, but it’s not really a technique, so it’s never taught specifically, you just kind of pick it up as you go. In fact, most of these little pearls of wisdom feel like they could belong to Tai Chi as much as Jiujitsu.

Inevitably the new white belt, overjoyed that they’ve actually managed to get on top for once, (perhaps it’s even the first time they’ve got somebody in side control or mount), will hold on like their life depends on it and inevitably be rolled over because they are holding too tight.

Imagine sitting on a horse for the first time – you’d hold on pretty tight, right? Well it’s the same thing with a person. Your brain is telling you to squeeze hard and not let go. The problem is, the harder you squeeze, the more tense you are and more tense you are the lighter you feel and the easier you are to move. You’re effectively joining your body to their body in a way you don’t want to.

One of the most basic escapes from a bad position on the bottom is to try and roll over. The escapes that are usually taught in jiujitsu class are more technical and go in stages, – a grip here, a leg there, a hip movement – but a complete beginner will often just try and grab the person on top and roll them over out of instinct. And the thing is, quite often it works.

Rolling people over is not basic or wrong – and there are more technical and skilled ways of doing it, of course. You can subtly bump their weight forward so they are slightly off balance without realising it, and then trap an arm or a leg that’s in the direction you want to go, so when the roll happens they can’t reach out with the limb to widen their base and prevent it.

But whether done out of pure instinct or with technical precision, the roll often works because the person on top is squeezing too tight.

If you are on top then ideally you want to let your relaxed weight sink into them, not hold them with muscular tension. That’s how you feel heavy. And that way, when they do an explosive bridge or a sudden roll, you can surf the movement like a wave and not get carried along with it. You might need to change position on top, but that’s the best way to control somebody from the top – go with their movements, and keep changing position so you are always behind their force, not in front of it where you get pushed off.

Stay tight, but not too tight. That is the way.

Turtle sweep – BJJ technique

One for the BJJ nerds only!

I’ve always liked the turtle position in BJJ. It’s supposed to be a position that you don’t go to voluntarily, however, I’m quite happy there and I find there are good opportunities for sweeping your opponent. This is one particular sweep I’ve always liked doing.

It’s off the opponent’s attempted toreando pass. They grab your gi pants at the knee, ready to toreando. You hold both sleeves, so you can adapt to whichever side they go to. Once they move a side is chosen, you turn away from them and stiff arm the sleeve that’s now your top arm. Your bottom arm starts building a base from elbow to hand and gets you into turtle right underneath them. You then wrap the stiff arm around your body and execute a shoulder throw from your hands and knees. In most cases it’s a pretty easy sweep and they go head over heels and land on their back. If the armbar is available then take it, otherwise side control is there for the taking.

Boom!

What’s better in martial arts – Body Methods or Foundational Movements?

I got asked once by a CMA practitioner what the “Shen fa” (body methods) of Brazilian Jiujitsu were and I drew a blank. The only answer I could come up with was “we don’t have any”. What I think we have instead though are foundational movements. Let me explain.

While Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi, Xing Yi and Bagua all have “Shen Fa”, which are “body methods” that need to be internalised before the practitioner can be considered sufficiently proficient in the art, Brazilian Jiujitsu doesn’t have them in the same way. Instead, it has a series of foundational movements that crop up so often in techniques that they are considered the foundations of the art, and are usually done in class as warmups.

I taught an interesting Jiujitsu class this week. (Well, I thought it was interesting – I think you’d have to ask the students themselves what they thought!) I started with the group practicing the basic Technical Stand Up both forward and reversed (which is doing it backwards, so you go fro standing to sitting down), then with variations like a knee or an elbow on the ground instead of a foot or hand.

Sweaty work – a fun class!

A Technical Stand Up is a way of going from sitting on the ground to standing up that exposes you to the least risk if you’ve got an aggressive person attacking you. It minimises your chances of getting kicked in the head and also affords you the ability to kick back at the attacker’s knee, possibly hyper extending their leg painfully.

How to do a Technical Stand Up

Once everybody in the class could do a Technical Standup well enough we went on to practice applications that utilised it as part of the technique. A good example is a basic X Guard sweep, or a way of returning to base after completing a tripod sweep. (I’ll not explain what those are here, because I don’t want to get lost in the details of these techniques in this post, because that’s not what this is about.)

Foundational movements in Jiujitsu include the aforementioned Technical Stand Up, but also things like a bridging movement, a hip escape (shrimp), a triangle, a forward (and backwards) roll and an inversion. If you can’t perform these basic movements correctly then your chances of doing any technique correctly are going to be severely limited.

In contrast, Chinese martial arts “body methods” include things like dantien rotation, opening and closing the chest and rounding the kua. These body methods are postural observances and ways of moving that need to be kept in place during all movements.

Why one art should have developed body methods, and the other not even have that concept, is worth thinking about, and I think it relates to the role of form in Chinese martial arts. Practicing solo movement in the shape of a form done in isolation from other people allows the possibility of subtle things like body methods to be developed.

Torso Flung Punch by Chen Zhaopi, 1930,

There are no forms in BJJ. Sure there are solo exercises you can practice to warm up or condition the body, but they don’t have the same function as form (tao lu) does in CMA. BJJ is heavily partner orientated. All the drills and sparring need another person physically there to do it with. To practice BJJ we literally have to get together with other people in nice matted areas and throw down. There is no other way.

These body methods in CMA have resulted from forms, but my suspicion is that this was never planned, rather they have grown out of a situation that happens when you are required to practice forms. Why CMA started practicing forms in the first place is a different question – there are some clues as to why that might be in the video I shared the other day by Simon Cox on the Taoist concept of the Subtle Body.

It’s analogous to the situation in China between Shuai Jiao and Kung Fu (Wu Shu). Shuai Jiao has no extended tao lu (forms), like Kung Fu does, but it has an awful lot of solo conditioning exercises with and without weights and belts. I’m not a Shuai Jiao practitioner, but I think you’d be hard pressed to say that Shuai Jiao has Shen Fa in the same way that the various Kung Fu (Wu Shu) styles do.

Is one approach better than the other? I don’t know. They’re just different and personally I enjoy practicing both.

Some options from BJJ Side Control

Let’s take a little diversion into the world of Brazilian Jiujitsu. Here is a video I shot this morning that shows some of my favourite options for getting submissions from side control. For some reason the sound didn’t work, but hey ho, let’s roll.

Here it is:

I’m demonstrating how I like to keep my knees off the mat, so that my body weight is going straight into my opponent, which I use to pin him, freeing up my hands. The hands are then free to see submissions. I show some chokes and armbars. The very last choke, where they get choked by their own arm across their body is my most common submission. It’s quite opportunistic, but the opportunity is there quite a lot if you know to look for it.

If you enjoyed this sort of content then you’ll probably enjoy my chat with BJJ black belt Stephan Kesting of GrappleArts.com. We talk about a lot of BJJ issues and also how BJJ has changed over the years.

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

Ep 5: Priit Mihkelson – Meet the BJJ Turtle Master

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.

Show Notes:

Priit’s talk at BJJ Globetrotters Iceland Camp in 2020
“Want to get better at Jiu Jitsu?”

Priit’s online coaching website:
www.DefensiveBJJ.com

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