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

We all use Jin already, all the time

cheng-man-ching20

Chang Man-Ching using the power of the ground to uproot an opponent.

I’ve talked a lot about the idea of Jin on this blog, usually in reference to using the power of the ground in martial technique. However, talking about Jin only in this context starts to create the impression that it’s a special skill that you may, or may never acquire.  A hidden secret, almost. It might be more grounding (no pun intended) to consider that we all already use some aspects of Jin in every day life.

Take a look at the following photos of people carrying things/other people:

two boys walking beside the grass

Photo by Dazzle Jam on Pexels.com

man in black overcoat and blue denim jeans kissing while carrying a woman in pink overcoat and knit cap on shore at daytime

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

 

two women wearing traditional dress carrying basins

Photo by Jose Aragones on Pexels.com

 

beach careless carry clouds

Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

 

The photos of people carrying weights on top of their heads provide perhaps the clearest example of what I’m talking about, but I wanted to include the other photos too, because the same principles apply.

In all cases, the human body has the ability to manage the extra weight applied to it in a constantly shifting environment of movement, without you toppling over. The weight being carried is being sent to the ground in all cases. If you hold a heavy weight out in front of you it is much more difficult, because you have to use your arm muscles in isolation, but if you can simply add the weight to your own body and let the force pass through your body to the ground then it’s a lot easier to carry, especially over long distances. Your body/mind will automatically manage these forces as you move using your subconscious. If it wasn’t doing it then you’d simply fall over as you moved because you wouldn’t be adapting to the subtle shifts of weight.

The point about the subconscious doing it is important because it means your conscious mind is free to do other things. For example, you can carry out a conversation while carrying a weight on your head and walking, rather than having to concentrate on it with 100% of your mental effort.

This ability of the subconscious mind to manage these forces is what we call Jin in Chinese Martial Arts. So, when somebody pushes on me, say in Taijiquan Push Hands, and I send that push to the ground I am using some sort of conscious control over a normally subconscious-mind ability.

That’s the skill you need to train. These Jin skills can range from the simple to the complex, but it’s all based on using an ability we already possess and use naturally, without even thinking about it.