As I have published my history articles and partnered with Chadi on the videos, I have been thankful of the positive feedback and support that I have gotten from the BJJ community. It has been great to have the encouragement, know that people have interest in learning our history and that they are enjoying the materials that I am producing. However, I was not prepared for the follow up question that I received after almost every compliment. It was usually some variation of, “But, will you get in trouble?”. At first, I was taken aback. It was not really something that I had considered.
With the advent of scholarly research, books, articles and videos being published by Chadi, Robert Drysdale, Roberto Pedreira, Jose Cairus and others, troves of information became accessible and led to a more detailed, nuanced and robust account of the history of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil in the twentieth century. While many aspects of the “Gracie version” of the story are generally accurate, there were so many other people and events that contributed to shaping, developing, proving and spreading our art. For someone like me, who started training back in 1995, it was fascinating to be inundated with so much new information derived from actual, primary sources.
I really had no intention of contributing at all. I found many of the materials excellent and truly, thought provoking. However, over the years, in talking with my training partners, I realized two things. People did really have an interest in learning the actual history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and much of the published materials were not easily digestible by everyone. Some of the books were massive tomes, covering hundreds of people and events spanning decades. While a book may cover the biographical details of Geo Omori, for example, those references may be broken down into thirty separate paragraphs splintered across one thousand pages of text. That book may also contain thirty paragraphs on Takeo Yano. After reading the thousand pages, a reader may remember a particular incident or contribution, but forget whether it was Omori or Yano that did it.
What I have tried to achieve with this site is to create a “Reader’s Digest” version. One to two page articles focusing on particular individuals, events or contributions. A format that I feel will lead to easier consumption and retention. The articles can also serve as simple reference points for people who need to quickly revisit an incident or person to clarify their understanding. I still wholeheartedly endorse the works of the others mentioned above, I just know not everyone wants to read three hundred page dissertations for fun.
Referring to the provocative question above; will I get into trouble? The answer is…I don’t know. It was not my intention to upset people or burn bridges or embarrass anyone. There is truth that humans have inherit biases and some authors have previously displayed a distinct anti-Gracie slant. Also, several of the early authors lacked a close affiliation to the Gracies or published their materials under pseudonyms. These factors may have affected how people approached the materials or how they viewed the authors’ intentions. It has also led some people to believe that if anyone discusses BJJ history outside the constructs of the “Gracie version” that they are somehow trying to demean or destroy the Gracie name or legacy.
It has been over 25 years since UFC 1. I think the value and validity of BJJ can stand on its own. We need to now recognize certain aspects of our art’s history were simplified and sanitized for marketing purposes. I am hoping that these articles can help remove the taboo associated with discussing the broader history. Expanding our understanding of the full story of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu does not weaken BJJ; it makes it stronger.
Welcome to the wild, weird and wonderful world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu! You have done your research, decided BJJ is the martial art for you and found a local academy. The below guide will walk you through the next few steps of your journey, making your transition into our strange microcosm a little easier.
I will note that the below information broadly applies to most academies, but as you will find out in the BJJ community, nothing is standardized between academies.
COVID has changed things in BJJ. Probably, permanently. Due to requirements around maximum class sizes, contact tracing and other regulations, academies now need to perform more administration, preparation and cleaning before, during and after class than ever before. The days of you showing up for your first ever BJJ class just two minutes before class starts are largely over.
I recommend that as soon as you select a school (that will be a topic for another guide), that you immediately call, email or reach out to the school via social media. They will inform you of the registration process and when you can attend your first class.
For Gracie Ohio, we now utilize the Spark mobile app to have students fill out their standard waiver, their COVID waiver and register for individual classes. While this can be done right before a class starts, it is much easier to get the app setup on your phone, get forms signed and get enrolled into classes well before you head to the academy. You also want to avoid the frustration of showing up at the academy for a class, just to find out you cannot participate.
Some academies will steer you towards a special Introductory class geared towards Day 1 students. Other academies will slot you into the Beginner classes where you will be practicing alongside other junior students.
What do I wear and what do I bring to my first class?
At most academies, you will not need to purchase a Gi (the martial arts uniform) or belt for the first class. They recognize this can be a significant expense (usually running between $100 and $200 for the set) for someone who has not yet experienced their first class and not yet decided if they want to make a long term commitment to training. Some academies will offer loaner Gi’s and belts for free or a small expense. Others will just have you train in your own athletic wear. If that is the case, please follow the below rules:
· Whether you wear pants, shorts or leggings, please make sure they have a drawstring waist. You will be wrestling other people and elastic waistbands are not designed for that kind of force and friction. As you don’t want to show everyone your bits and pieces (at least on your first day), you will need a good drawstring to keep everything in place. Also, avoid anything with pockets, zippers, snaps, Velcro or flaps. Fingers and toes can get caught in pockets and seriously injured. Zippers, snaps, rivets, Velcro and similar adornments can tear the mat or the skin of your training partners.
· Similarly, T-Shirts (either long sleeve or short sleeve) should be free of pockets and not too baggy. Also, as shirts can sometimes be stretched or torn, bring a shirt you don’t care too much about. Avoid tank tops as hands and feet can get stuck inside the straps.
· Underwear is a must. You can actually get disqualified for not wearing it in a competition. Women should wear a sports bra.
· Mouthpieces are important. I always tell my students; it is always the time they don’t wear a mouthpiece that they accidentally catch a knee to the jaw and knock out all their teeth. Most academies will not require mouthpieces be worn and a lot of students will dismiss their importance. Over my years in BJJ, I have seen many students end up with a $20,000 dental bill and then begrudgingly admit that I was right. The basic boil and bite mouthguard can be purchased at most sporting goods scores and major retailers. They cost around $20. While you don’t need it, I still feel strongly you should always wear it during all classes.
For those who may be new to grappling.
Some people may be completely new to any kind of athletic training, while others may be experienced, competitive athletes or veteran martial artists. Regardless of your background, if you have never participated in a grappling based sport, such as Judo or Wrestling, there are some additional items you will need to pay attention to:
· Your Feet: It is critical that you only step on the mat with your bare feet. Do not walk on the mat with shoes, sandals or flip flops. Ever. We are getting our faces ground into the mat on a daily basis and we need to keep the mat free from bacteria, viruses and fungus as well as other abrasive debris like sand, glass and pebbles. Bring a set of flip flops with you. When you change for class, leave your shoes in the locker room. Switch to the flip flops and wear those around the locker room and into the main academy area. When it is time for class, most academies will have a place for the flip flops to be stored next to the mat. Just remember, bare feet only on the mat. Feet covered whenever you are off the mat. Some academies will have you leave your shoes at the front door and switch to flip flops there. While procedures can vary, you get the idea.
· Your Fingernails and Toes: This is something that surprises people. If you have not grappled before, you probably have not thought about your nails and how they impact your workouts. Long fingernails or toes cut your training partner. Many experienced practitioners will relate stories of their necks being torn up or huge scratches laid into their chests, faces or forearms by their partners un-trimmed nails. This is not just a cosmetic concern. Bacteria and fungus can reside under nails (especially toenails) and the cuts from these kind of scratches often get infected. The concerns are not just for your training partners either. Long fingernails will often get bent, pinched or pulled from their beds as you strongly grab your opponent’s Gi and they are resisting you. Save your partner and yourself the trauma and ensure your fingernails and toenails are well groomed before each class. Grapplers will often keep a nail clipper in their training bag so that they are always able to trim when necessary.
· Your Jewelry: You may be able to lift weights with your necklace on, run at the track with your wedding ring on and take a cardio kickboxing class with earrings on, but that will not fly in a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class. Necklaces and watches will simply be torn apart. Earrings and other body piercings will be ripped out of your skin. Ring wearers are susceptible to a specific injury known as a ring avulsion. Trust me. If you are squeamish do not Google it. Leave your jewelry at home. If you must have it with you, put it in your workout bag before class. But make sure you are not opening yourself up to theft. I was once had my wallet stolen while I was in a class in Philadelphia. It was not a student or staff, but rather a guy who came into the academy under the auspices of “checking out class”. He went into our locker room, ransacked everyone’s bags and then casually left. Things happen. Be prepared.
· Makeup and Hair: Makeup should be removed as it smears all over the mat, your Gi and your training partner’s Gi. Long hair should be tied up. There are multiple YouTube videos with tips and tricks on the best way to tie up hair for BJJ. As I have been follicularly challenged for the last couple of decades, I will leave that advice up to the professionals.
Greetings, goodbyes and other etiquette peculiarities
I wish I could tell you there was a standard here. If you went to a hundred different academies, you would see 100 different forms of salutations, valedictions and other gestures. The best advice I can give you here is to follow the crowd. The other students will know what the academy-specific procedures are and just mimic what they do until you get the hang of it. Below I will document some of the more common permutations:
· Handshakes: These are pretty common at most academies. Some academies will follow more standard norms and just handshake casually. While others will handshake for everything. My experience with the more intensive format has been mainly at Gracie Barra affiliates where we would shake when we first see someone, again when you get on the mat, again when class starts, again when class ends and again when you leave the academy.
· Bowing: Not too common in American academies. I will not get into the detailed history of that here, but the simple reason is that the Brazilians in the US wanted to differentiate BJJ from Asian martial arts. As such, many academies in the US to this day do not really bow. It is more common in BJJ academies in Europe, Asia and Brazil. For these academies, students will normally bow as they get on the mat. Sometimes in the direction of a picture of a BJJ legend on the wall or at a Brazilian flag. At these academies, when you leave the mat, you are usually expected to, once again, face the picture or flag and bow again. Bowing at fellow students or instructors does not normally happen in BJJ.
· OSS, Clapping and Similar Responses: This seems to vary by region. You may find that when students begin a certain phase of class or acknowledge that they understood a technique or correction that they may respond in unison by clapping or saying, “Oss”. I will not even begin to get into the history of “Oss” here, but just keep in mind that these kind of things are just basic acknowledgements that you understand and are ready to proceed. It is kind of like in other sports, when a coach is done with his advice, the team says, “Break” and claps their hands.
· Titles: Similar to the bowing concept, the early Brazilians’ promoting BJJ in the US sought to contrast themselves to traditional, Asian martial arts. As such, they eschewed the kind of titles people associated with martial arts instructors: Master, Grandmaster, Sir, Sensei, etc.. In the US, you will normally just call your instructor by their first name as we maintained the casual format taught to us. Occasionally, when we introduce a senior practitioner who is visiting a location, we may formally announce them to the class by utilizing their formal title, e.g. “I would like to introduce Grandmaster Relson Gracie...”. But once class is underway, people will just refer to him by his first name, Relson. In other countries, the titles have different meanings and are more associated with professional teaching as opposed to martial arts. It is common in other countries for people to use the term Professor or Mestre (Master).
What will the format be?
Most beginner Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes will follow a similar format. There may be a warmup with some basic stretches and calisthenics, or the class may just move directly into technical instruction. The teacher will demonstrate the technique to the class and then you will practice performing the technique on another student in the class. In most class formats, you will have the same partner throughout the class. It is important to understand, at this point in class, you and your partner are cooperating. You are allowing him to perform the move on you and vice versa. This is not the time to resist, fight or counter him. You don’t want to just lay there like a wet noodle, but it is important you both partner together to move through the technique. This is the section of class where you can become familiar with a maneuver, understand when to do it and develop some muscle memory. The majority of class time will be dedicated to this style of instruction and practice (what we call drilling).
Some beginner classes will just end after the drilling, while other classes may conclude with “live” practice or “rolling”. This just means that it is a competitive situation and you are trying to execute your moves while your opponent attempts to do the same. Most academies will not throw a Day 1 student to the wolves and they will usually have them watch during this part of class as opposed to participating. After the new student has a few classes under their belt, knows some techniques and has a general idea of BJJ rules, they then begin rolling. Some classes will have “situational” or “specific” rolling. In this format, the instructor will establish specific parameters, positions and techniques that focus the rolling so students gain more experience in a specific area of BJJ, usually related to the class the student just took.
Do I need to be in shape before I start training?
No. A lot of people are concerned prior to starting their training that they will not be in good enough shape to handle class. Don’t worry about that. You will be starting in Introductory or Beginner classes and it is understood you are not going to be well conditioned at this point in your journey. Classes will not be very intense and you will improve your conditioning for BJJ as you do more BJJ. People often make the mistake of postponing starting in BJJ until they first get themselves in shape for BJJ. Unfortunately, many of those people fall into the procrastination trap and never end up stepping on the mat. Just show up and start training. Your fitness will improve and adapt for what you need in class.
Do I need to have previous fighting experience?
No. This is a strange question, but I am seeing it more and more lately. I think it is due to the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). People see MMA events (like the Ultimate Fighting Championship) on television or see training videos of professional fighters preparing at academies. People think everyone who trains BJJ has to be a professional fighter or previously a champion in something else. While we do have those use cases in BJJ, the vast majority of students are just everyday people who want to learn Self-Defense, get in shape and have some fun.
I hope this guide is useful to you, gives you some insight as to what class will be like and alleviates some of the stress of attending your first class. While I could add dozens of additional pages, I tried to keep it short and digestible. The important thing is, by this point, you have made the decision to start Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The only thing left is to walk on the mat and begin your journey just like we all did. Just remember to take off your shoes!
Josh Simon teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Switzerland.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, from the earliest days of Mitsuyo Maeda, Geo Omori and Takeo Yano, was focused on self-defense. Yes, these fighters and others proved their skills in competitive matches, but the matches themselves were often attempts to conduct real fights under the most realistic conditions that the authorities would permit.
Over time, as more academies sprung up across Brazil, sport Jiu-Jitsu rules were developed to allow for less violent and less dangerous competitions between schools. During this period from the 1940’s through the 1980’s, students would still primarily focus on street self-defense instead of sport, competition training.
With the creation of the CBJJF and the first Brazilian National Championship in 1993, (the World Championships and Pan American Championships in 1996 and then the Abu Dhabi Combat Club’s creation of the World Submission Wrestling Championships in 1998), things changed. Sport competitions received a lot of press coverage. Champions began receiving sponsorships and professional endorsement deals. Students were incentivized to focus on sport competitions as it was often an accelerated path to promotion. In addition to the direct financial payouts for winning some of the events, champions also saw increased revenues via increased academy enrollment, seminar bookings and instructional video sales. For many Brazilians in Jiu-Jitsu, winning prestigious sport competitions became a golden ticket for them to establish academies abroad and have lucrative careers. For the first time in BJJ history, prospective students were entering academies, saying they wanted to be a sport champion as opposed to saying they wanted to learn self-defense.
This environment caused many Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners, after learning the basic self-defense techniques in beginner class, to never practice them again, dedicating all their training to just sport techniques and strategies. Some academies took it a step further and stopped teaching street self-defense entirely. This structure is creating a generation of BJJ practitioners, who have significant skill in sport scenarios, but little to no knowledge of what to do in a real street self-defense situation.
How do we address this? I don’t think the answer is to eliminate all sport competitions. These competitions have their benefits for the student as well as BJJ overall. However, we need to remember our roots and the reason why most people begin training in martial arts: to learn how to defend themselves.
Most academies will utilize some degree of self-defense training in beginner classes, but it is often absent at the intermediate and advanced levels. Some academies have higher level self-defense classes, but students will sometimes avoid those particular sessions to focus exclusively on their sport training. How do we still allow students to enjoy their training, specialize in what they want, but still maintain self-defense competency?
I have a solution.
My solution borrows something from my wrestling days. While my wrestling team never utilized this particular method, several other teams did and were quite happy with the results.
Most wrestling practice sessions follow a standardized format that would be familiar to many Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners:
· Warm up
· Technique and drilling
· Live wrestling
While the vast majority of wrestling practices adhered the above formula, coaches realized the mental and physical benefits of changing things up from time to time. Focusing exclusively on competitive matches, for example, would not only improve sport specific conditioning, but also significantly increase wrestlers’ experience with the competition format, scoring, strategy and prepare them better for tournaments and their back-to-back match format. Focusing on conditioning only during a session, would benefit strength, speed and endurance more than the standard format, but also push wrestlers mentally through long and grueling sessions. There were added benefits of the spontaneity and randomness of the changes. Wrestlers gained skills in adapting to unpredictable situations and managing unanticipated, stressful situations.
To achieve these benefits, coaches implemented a system where one of three flags would be hung in the locker room right before practice each day to notify the wrestlers the format of the session. The wrestlers would not know which flag would be displayed until right before practice began. As such, they could not avoid a session and they could not prepare for it.
· Green Flag - Standard Practice: Format as per the above. This would occur at 80% of practices.
· Red Flag - Competition Only: Warm up followed exclusively by multiple rounds of formal wrestling matches for the remainder of the session. 10% of practices.
· Black Flag - Conditioning Only: Warm up followed by continuous strength and conditioning work for the remainder of the session. 10% of practices.
A similar system can be implemented into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes to ensure students maintain their skills and mentality for self-defense. At random intervals, any class, regardless of the published format or focus can be immediately and unexpectedly converted into a street, self-defense focused class by the instructor. As students would not know about the change, they would not be able to avoid it. As the change in format would be announced as the class began, students would need to deal with the added anxiety, stress and adrenaline. It is important the students have mouthpieces and access to MMA gloves to ensure realistic and safe training.
It is important that the class not devolve into some kind of chaotic, soccer riot or Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome scenario. Instructors will need to clearly explain the goal of the session and the structure, format and rules that will be utilized. The level of the students and how experienced they are with the self-defense curriculum must also be taken into account. I would suggest a crawl-walk-run approach. Examples of possible formats and which classes where they could be used are below.
Beginner Gi Class: As students are not well versed in the self-defense curriculum, they cannot just be thrown to the wolves. Instead of focusing on foundational Gi sportive techniques, instructors would first show a more street, specific technique: headlock up against the wall, sucker punch, strikes from being mounted, etc. As per the normal class format, the instructor would teach the technique and the students would then drill it. Towards the end of class, the students would line up against the wall and the instructor or senior student plays the role of the “bad guy”.
As the students would have limited experience and not know variations, the bad guy only executes the specific attack from the class and the student, regardless of what other variations they know, only executes the defense from that particular class. One student goes at a time and the bad guy can ramp up and ramp down resistance as appropriate based upon the student’s level. While this is more of a live environment than just drilling, it is still controlled. Having one person perform at a time while the entire class is watching them adds anxiety and pressure. It takes students out of their comfort zone and simulates some of the stress of a real self-defense situation.
I use this class format exclusively for my Saturday beginner class and it has yielded great results. As each unit is completely self-contained and students to not need to have any previous knowledge of techniques or positions, it can be used with the most junior of students and still be safe and productive.
Intermediate No-Gi Class: These students should already have completed the self-defense curriculum in beginner class and can more quickly move into combat simulation. An example of a class would be: a quick review of punch block and tie ups from the guard to ensure the students refresh their memories and adjust their focus to the street format. Once that is complete, students pair up with one punching in a live context from within the guard and his partner working to block and tie him up. Once a tie up is achieved they reset and restart the drill with the same person on top. After 2 minutes, the students switch top and bottom and the drill is reversed. Once both students have gone, pairs are switched up and the drill is repeated until class is over. This will give the students a lot of practice at defending strikes with someone in their guard and will allow them to understand the adjustments they need to make with differently sized opponents.
Advanced Gi Competition Class: At this level, students should be well versed and experienced with street training. They should be knowledgeable and comfortable with someone striking them from all positions and should be able defend against more competent and skilled attackers. An example of a format that can be used for a class like this is for everyone to take off their gi tops and partners start with one person mounted on the other. The top person’s goal is to continue to punch through whatever position they end up in. The person mounted needs to survive. If through the course of the match the mounted person moves to guard or top position, that is fine. They need to continue to advance the fight toward more dominant positions, control and then submission. The person who started in mount, even if they continue to move to worse and worse positions, should continue to strike in order to simulate how a person would react in a street encounter. Matches are 3 minutes and then partners switch top and bottom. Once that cycle is completed, people will change partners and repeat the format until class is over.
Above are just a few examples, but hopefully they help to illustrate that:
· Street mindset, skillset and practical application can be sporadically inserted into any class format to improve the students’ competency and ensure their capabilities in a self-defense situation.
· That the class intensity can be ramped up and down to match the level of the students and these classes can be executed without an increased rate of injury compared to “normal” class.
· By unexpectedly implementing this format, students are required to deal with the stress, must develop the appropriate defensive skills and cannot “duck” classes they want to avoid.
The consistent and proper application of this methodology will increase the self-defense skill of students, ensure they retain those skills and preserve the foundations of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Rickson Gracie vs Casemiro "Rei Zulu" Nascimento Martins on April 4, 1980
One of the first questions I get from new or prospective students is how long until they can get a Black Belt. Once I explain the long and difficult path to a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, they often immediately pivot to how they can get a Blue Belt.
My opinion on these matters has changed little over the years. When I started BJJ in 1995, there were probably only a couple hundred non-Brazilian Blue Belts in the world. The numbers quickly dropped off for non-Brazilians at the higher belts, with there probably being a couple dozen Purple Belts, a dozen Brown Belts and only one Black Belt (Craig Kukuk). The internet was still in its infancy. There was no media covering BJJ and there was almost no way of learning what was going on at other academies across the US. I remember I met Richard Bressler in 1996, when he was a Brown Belt. Seeing an American walking around in a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gi and a Brown Belt was like akin to spotting Bigfoot.
The concept that I, as a White Belt at the time, especially as an East Coast guy, could ever be a Black Belt never entered my mind. I know many of my peers felt the same way. It was just too abstract a concept. It really seemed that there was no realistic path to Black Belt. That was a thing reserved for Gracie family members or their lifelong students who dedicated themselves full time to professional fighting. The curriculum was not really laid out to show a path to Black Belt. My teammates and I were just happy to be a part of it.
My goal then shifted to becoming a Blue Belt. I remember talking to my training partners at the time. We opined that if one day we could become Blue Belts; that would be the ultimate. We would be elite killers. We would be unstoppable. It would be a major, life accomplishment. There really was not a fantasy beyond that. It was simply too unrealistic to believe a higher rank was achievable.
Times have changed. In the almost 30 years since I started BJJ, there are now thousands (maybe tens of thousands?) of academies worldwide. When I started there were two academies in the entire eastern half of the United States. Now there are several in each major town. I remember seeing an article a decade ago that there were 40 schools in San Diego alone. As time went on, supply increased, our knowledge and experience increased and the path through the Belts became clearer. There are now maybe a couple of thousand non-Brazilian Black Belts. But it all starts with the Blue Belt.
So, what skills should a Blue Belt possess? How much experience do they need? How should we evaluate that? How should students prepare themselves? Below are my thoughts.
# 1 - Competency in Self-Defense
Overwhelmingly, the most popular reason people walk into a BJJ academy is to learn self-defense. This was true in 1913 at Mario Aleixo’s academy (the first ever Jiu-Jitsu school in Brazil), it was true in 1916 at Soshihiro Satake’s academy in the Rio Negro Athletic Club (the first Jiu-Jitsu school in Brazil run by a qualified Japanese instructor) and it is true today. Sure, with the popularity now of MMA, in particular, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), we do see some people coming in off the street who want to pursue a professional fighting career; they are in the minority. Same goes for the people whose primary motivations to step on the mat are physical fitness or grappling competitions.
I, as an instructor, feel that it is a disservice to our students and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, if self-defense is not the foundation of our beginner classes. It is dangerous and even deadly to promote students to a rank in BJJ that do not have the requisite “street” skills to back it up. They will falsely believe they can handle themselves in real world, self-defense situation and they will put themselves and their loved ones at risk.
We as the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community also must maintain standards. Unlike other martial arts. rank in BJJ means something. People are aware that BJJ belts are earned through long hours of hard work and people do not automatically advance through the rank system. I am proud that these standards have been maintained over the decades, but we must be vigilant to not allow BJJ devolve into another Karate or Tae Kwon Do.
Therefore, competency in street self-defense is the first and foremost measure of someone’s readiness to be promoted from White Belt to Blue Belt. Note that I say competency and not mastery. Also, recognize that I say street self-defense and not professional level MMA skills. People will have limited time, limited athletic skill and limited potential. Most will have no interest in pursuing a professional fighting career. To earn a Blue Belt, they need the skills and ability to survive a street fight, not win a UFC title.
It is important to focus on a core curriculum that teaches them the skills to endure a street encounter. Skills include situational awareness and the ability to defend against the most common street attacks: sucker punches, headlocks, getting punched while on the ground, etc. At Gracie Humaitá aligned schools, beginner classes are usually structured around these attack themes and students will get practice performing defenses and escapes to the common attacks in progressively realistic training sessions. At some schools of other affiliations, there is almost no self-defense training. This needs to change but is a topic for another article.
The Beginner classes that I teach are always focused solely on street self-defense. In each session, I teach a full sequence. For example, sucker punch to clinch to leg trip to mount to strikes to Americana. Or headlock escape on the ground to S-mount to frame to gift wrap to rear naked choke. Or escape/throw from rear bear hug to run away. The idea is that I am not teaching techniques in isolation. Students, even first day ones, are learning a full sequence that will arm them with tools to survive if they were attacked outside the academy. We finish each class with live sparring of the day’s sequence. Senior students simulate “bad guys” and resist, punch and act like unskilled attackers in a controlled way.
It is during these sessions where I begin to evaluate prospective Blue Belts. I can clearly see the moment they are ready. It is during the clinch and takedown. At first, students are extremely awkward and nervous. It is understandable. I have them performing the sequence live, one at a time, with the whole class watching. Someone is trying to punch them in the face, and they are trying to execute a sequence of techniques they just learned. It would be nerve-racking for anyone. But over months of classes, they gain experience and confidence. They have been there before. They are less hesitant. They are calmer. Their entry to the clinch is no longer spastic or full of fear. They calmly wait for the proper moment to close the distance and immediately enter. They are controlled and relaxed in the clinch. They hit the takedown and then settle in on the ground. They do not rush. They do not force things. There is a calm confidence present throughout the sequence. The student has been here before, knows what to do and knows they can do it. I can see this transformation in students, and it is very satisfying.
# 2 - A Well-Rounded Game
It is not always about getting punched in the face, getting your hair pulled or fighting when you are pushed up against a wall. It is perfectly fine for beginning students, in addition to learning the street curriculum, to learn some basic sport techniques and practice sport rolling with their classmates.
Sport Jiu-Jitsu is fun, relatively safe and develops many of the attributes that students need for self-defense. While street and sport are different things, there is overlap and sport training can be beneficial. It is important not to get too crazy with sport training in the beginning. Students should have a healthy diet of the basics: core positions, techniques and transitions. No flying, inverse avocado guards on the first day. Students should also be instructed as to what is a sport vs street technique, how a certain technique could be modified between the two variants and the pros and cons of using a particular technique in street versus sport. Developing these skills will fill some of the gaps in the street curriculum and give the student valuable experience grappling full, free form matches in a competitive setting.
We also see cases were some students come in an immediately favor certain positions or techniques. This may be related to early success, innate physical attributes/limitations or even their personalities. Some students only play top. Some will only try one sweep whether it is there or not. Some people will only go for Kimuras. It is important we force students from an early stage to be able to fight (both attack and defend) from all the major positions. Once again, mastery is not required. I just want to see someone be able to move from guard to cross-side to mount to the back. For someone to be swept and immediately begin their guard sequences. You will see if people have any gaps or weaknesses. I am looking for basic proficiency across the major positions.
# 3 - Relaxation
I remember vividly being taught this lesson by Steve Maxwell at Maxercise in 1996. I was a new Blue Belt at the time, and he was explaining to the class what he was looking for to determine if a White Belt was ready for promotion to Blue Belt. It was all about bottom cross-side. He had several White Belt students start from bottom cross-side under him while the class watched. They proceeded to role for a minute or so. Steve repeated this with multiple people and then had me do the same with him. He proclaimed I was doing it right and the others were doing it wrongly. I was happy that I did what Steve was looking for, but I was bewildered at what I had done right. Steve then explained what he was looking for during the evaluation. Did they spaz out? Did they try and use muscle and push themselves out? Did they do something foolish and put themselves in a worse position? What Steve was looking for was relaxation. Similar to what I mentioned in the street section above, the student must demonstrate familiarity with the situation and the appropriate response. They need to show that they understand there are times when they are stuck, times it does not pay to exert oneself and times where one needs to wait for their opponent to do something and then respond with the appropriate counter. This understanding is clearly demonstrated (or not) by students’ reactions on bottom cross-side during live rolls. If they settle into a proper, defensive grip and leg position and wait for the proper time to hip escape or bump, they have passed. While easily confirmed by watching a student in bottom cross-side, this skillset and mentality should apply to all positions.
#4 – Toughness
I was recently watching an interview between Demian Maia and Fabio Gurgel. They were reminiscing as well as lamenting, how if you started training in the 1990’s you had to be tough. Many academies in Brazil during this time were not actually looking for students. They were not interested in expanding, showing BJJ to the masses or helping people improve themselves. They were hard places filled with rough people. Everyone was there for hard training. There was no room for people who could not embrace the daily grind. Weakness was shunned. It was Darwinism. The academy where I spent my formative years, Maxercise, was no different when I arrived there on September 30th, 1995. I won’t go into those stories now, but I will assure you that when new people showed up at Maxercise we really wanted to put the screws to them. We did not want people to come back. Those that did come back for more, we knew would handle the hard training.
Times have changed. We as the community, and myself in particular, have learned people from all walks of life can benefit from BJJ. It is not just for a select few twenty-year old’s who want to go all out every day. While I was in Geneva, I had a training partner who was in his sixties. He did not speak English and my French was barely existent, so we really could not communicate. He had extreme hip issues and had difficulty walking, yet he would still be there on the mat every day. He couldn’t do much, but he would try his best every day to learn and improve. Some days, his hips were so bad that the most he could do was sit there on the mat in a chair. I really could not understand why he was there. Why someone who was so elderly and so injured as he was, was doing this. I later found out he had been a Judoka. So elite, in fact, that he had represented Switzerland in the 1972 Olympics. His body had absorbed the punishment of decades of elite competition and training. He body could no longer do it, but his will was not diminished. He was awarded his Black Belt the same day I was.
We need to parse toughness from elite performance. Not everyone will be able to perform like a top-level athlete, but there is a harsh reality of fighting. You will be tired, you will be uncomfortable, you will be in pain and you will need to make a decision. Will you wilt and quit or will you continue the fight? It is a conversation that happens inside of us often during rolling. I can see people having the conversation with themselves as they are getting ground into the mat. The same conversation will happen in a street fight. Over the years, I have learned to look for that will, that perseverance, that ability to endure. We just need to remember to scale what we are looking for as appropriate to the individual.
I am not saying soften our standards and make it easy. I am just saying that we need to put things in proper perspective and relative to the student. Holding everyone to the same standard, regardless of age, injuries or other factors is not right.
So there it is, the four principals that I look for in a prospective Blue belt. If you are an instructor and follow these guidelines, I think you will produce Blue Belts who are well-rounded, competent and tough Jiu-Jitsu practitioners that can handle themselves in the street and carry those lessons on into their every day lives. If you are a student, I think keeping these principals in mind and focusing on improving them will put you well on your way to truly earning your Blue Belt.
Josh Simon, as a Blue Belt with Rickson Gracie in the Summer of 1996
Well, let me start out by saying my intention was never to have an educational site. This just organically grew out of a frustration I had with BJJ people continuing to just recount the "Gracie Version" of history.
It is understandable. I was guilty of the same thing in the 1990's and early 2000's. There just was no other information available. We all assumed what we heard in "Gracies in Action" was the complete story. However, there is now so much scholarly material out there and it is so readily accessible that we need to ensure that the BJJ community learns the expanded story.
As most BJJ practitioners are already familiar with the basic stories of Helio and Maeda, I wanted to focus on the historical figures and incidents that people were not familiar with.
I also wanted to keep the articles short and easily digestible. It may be easy to write a short article on Jacyntho Ferro as there is not that much information available on him. However, how do you write a short article on Helio or Maeda? People have written entire books detailing their biographies. I am stuck with the paradox of writing an article that will separate fact versus myth on some of the most legendary and influential members of our community while simultaneously keeping the article under four pages.
I just started this site in 2020 and I am still flushing out articles on the key individuals and events that are not often mentioned. Perhaps, one day I will figure out a way to incorporate Helio and Maeda as well. I would like to.
In April of 1996, I received my Blue Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I was at Maxercise in Philadelphia, rolling with one of my fellow White Belt training partners at the end of a Relson Gracie seminar. During the roll, a Pro Force Judo Blue Belt, still in its plastic packaging, was thrown in between us. We both looked up to see Steve Maxwell and Relson standing over us. Steve said to me, “Relson wants you to wear that.” and the two then walked away. That was it. No test. No ritualized beatings. No speeches. No barbeque. Just someone throwing a belt at me and walking away. No pomp. No ceremony. No celebration. That was the way things were back then.
But how should things be now?
First, we must define our terms. Tests and rituals are two separate things. Belt tests serve to formally evaluate a practitioner’s skill level and determine if they should be promoted. Belt rituals, while they may involve competitive elements, are performed after the instructor has already decided to promote the student. In essence, you can fail a belt test. You cannot fail a belt ritual. One is practical (at least in theory). One is social.
Belt tests are dangerous to the cultural fabric of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Look at Karate, Tae Kwon Do or similar Traditional Martial Arts (TMA). There, instructors often require students to pay fees to participate in a belt test. This incentivizes two behaviors, both detrimental to quality. Instructors may be motivated to wring as many fees as possible out of a student by inviting them to tests and failing them. Or conversely, instructors may feel obligated once they have taken fees from their students and pass them and promote them even if their skills, experience or ability are lacking.
There is also the issue of what to test? How do you formally test in BJJ? We don’t have kata or Portuguese tests. We don’t break boards? How would a test be structured?
There is a primal element to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training. Your instructor sees you rolling daily. They will often roll with you themselves. They know your skill level; they see you improving, and they can evaluate you directly against other ranked students. This should not be supplanted by some formal, one-off, static evaluation.
It is a very artificial construct, for example, to ask a student to perform an armlock from guard on their non-resisting training partner and then base a promotion off of that. Can the person do it against a resisting foe? Do they know when do apply the armlock and importantly when not to? Can they make appropriate adjustments as the person moves, defends and counters? These observations can be difficult, if not impossible to conclude in an artificial testing environment, but can be quite easily discerned by seeing the student roll live.
Belt tests should be avoided for BJJ.
While my promotion to Blue Belt decades ago may have been quite a pedestrian affair, today there is often much more formality in regard to belt promotions. As always in the world of BJJ, practices will vary tremendously from academy to academy, but in general there is now more structure and ritual associated with the promotion process. Examples that I have seen over the years include:
· Throwing: Everyone present takies a turn throwing the person who was promoted to the ground.
· Gauntlet: The person promoted is either whipped with belts or slapped by the hands of others in attendance on their back. Other variations of the gauntlet involve a promotion candidate rolling with dozens of teammates consecutively, non-stop. Sometimes they have to roll with everyone in attendance.
· Mass promotions: All students attend a special session at the academy, where everyone or almost everyone is promoted one by one.
· Speeches: People being expected to address the academy and make a speech when they are promoted.
· Parties: Picnics, barbeques or similar events where people are promoted, or the celebrations are held immediately after a promotion.
· Podium promotions: People promoted while standing on the podium after placing at a tournament.
· Posthumous promotions: People promoted to a rank after they have died.
· Rolling Promotions: Through the course of a roll, an instructor sneakily takes the belt off the student and replaces it with the new belt.
While these practices exist at various academies around the world; should they? Is there a benefit to them? Do they help in anyway? Are they hurting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? I think these are fine. While some of the rituals may appear punitive or sadistic, they foster a sense of community. They can often recognize the achievement and allow friends and family to celebrate the accomplishment. Most importantly, as the rituals do not impact the promotion decision, they are not impacting the standards for promotion.
What do I recommend?
In general…beatings. I guess I am weird. Maybe it is barbaric, but I did not mind. Not all academies I have been at performed gauntlets, but when I have participated both as inflictor and receiver; I enjoyed it. It was not malicious. I won’t say it was a walk in the park, but I feel that it is something that can be appreciated by people that train hard with each other daily in the combative arts. I am not alone in the sentiment. Many military special operations units use similar rituals to welcome members to the team. I am not equating training in BJJ to Combat Arms careers, but there are some similarities to the communities. It is no surprise that many of these units train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and take it quite seriously.
But I understand. I am old. I am part of a bygone generation and these kind of things are being phased out. I accept that.
So, what is a better option?
Belt tests. No. Seriously. But not like you think. Not like how I described above. When I arrived at Gracie Ohio in 2015, I found out they performed belt tests. I was immediately incredulous. I had my biases against the belt test concept, and this was such a traditional academy. How could those two things coexist? As it turns out there is another kind of belt test. And it solves a lot of problems.
Much of how the belt tests are performed at Gracie Ohio is somewhat confidential. Not that what we do is super-secret, but we feel there is a benefit for students heading into a belt test not knowing exactly what will happen. As such, I will be somewhat vague with my descriptions below, but will attempt to get the point across.
To be clear, it isn’t exactly a belt test. It is also not purely a ritual. It is a practical hybrid of the two.
Students are selected for the belt test only when we, as instructors, feel the person is already performing at that new rank. We see them roll. We roll with them. We see them in competitions. We are confident that we know their level in Jiu-Jitsu. However, the students are not just promoted on the spot.
They are invited to a special session at the academy designated as a belt test. The students will be there with everyone else at their rank who is testing for the next belt along with some senior students who will be assisting. We do these tests a couple times per year.
In advance of the test, students are told the key elements that will be included in the belt test for their level. As the focus of Relson’s Jiu-Jitsu is Street Self-Defense, much of the testing parameters are pulled from that curriculum. For example:
· Blue Belt candidates perform the standing Street Self-Defense techniques versus an unarmed opponent who is untrained in live scenarios.
· Brown Belt candidates perform defenses against opponents wielding knives and sticks in live scenarios.
· They will need to engage (depending on belt) in a one-on-one fight with an untrained opponent, a striker or an MMA fighter.
· Fight against an attacker while they are pinned up against a wall or being held in headlocks.
· Survive for X minutes or Y rounds while mounted or having the opponent in the guard while he punches you.
· Roll for X minutes consecutively in Sport Jiu-Jitsu against continuously rotating opponents.
The tests are long and can go on for a couple of hours as we move through scenarios and phases. As the students perform their live scenarios or live roll, they will be matched up against other promotion candidates or senior students that are there to assist. While students will be corrected if they make mistakes, the goal is not to immediately fail and throw someone out if they grabbed the wrist with the wrong grip.
In this model, the student has already been evaluated and earned the belt. The belt test here just brings it all together, instills in the student the confidence that he can perform at the appropriate level and ensures all people of the same belt have a common skillset and proficiency.
Depending on the belt, the number of candidates and the number of senior students assisting, the test will usually have multiple phases. It will cover Street, Sport and ensure the Jiu-Jitsu practitioners have adequate stamina and mental toughness.
There have been times when we have added circuit training or similar conditioning to the test to push the students into deep fatigue. We then make them continue to roll. It is not a punishment, but merely us ensuring that the students can maintain their composure and survive the fight. It instills a great confidence in the student when they complete the test.
There are many benefits to this approach, and I have become a believer. It ensures quality control, the students can have a shared experience of suffering and overcoming adversity and are promoted in unison at the end of the session.
While this type of belt test is not performed formally at many academies, it is something I ask you to think about and possibly incorporate.
Students after a successful promotion gauntlet (belt whipping).
I was thinking the other day. You see people train Judo and BJJ well into their 40’s. Most academies will have a handful of people in their 50’s and even 60’s that still come in and do randori or roll. But what about wrestling?
In the US, tons of people wrestle in their youth. In states where it is a popular sport, there are wrestling programs for kids as young as toddlers. However, for most Americans, they are introduced to the sport in secondary school. According to Statista.com, in any given year, the US has approximately 250,000 male and 15,000 female high school wrestlers.
While it is a popular sport in high schools, only a small percentage of wrestlers continue to the sport in college. Across the three main athletic divisions in US higher education (NCAA Division 1, 2 and 3), there are only around 7,000 wrestlers according to CollegeWrestlingRecruiting.com. That is a reduction by almost 98%. Why does the number drop off so steeply?
Well. Wrestling is a grind. Daily training and competition take a heavy toll on the body. Wrestlers must constantly cut weight and there are extremely limited ways of making money with wrestling post-college. I just think a lot of people rather spend their college years with other pursuits. I did.
Once the small percentage of wrestlers that participate at the collegiate level graduate, only a tiny fraction of that will continue to train and compete. These are wrestlers who are attempting to represent the US at the World and Olympic level. The US team, for both men and women, only has 54 athletes. I could not find the number of American athletes that train full time to obtain one of these select spots, but my guess is it somewhere under 500.
That means only one out of every 530 high school Wrestlers still wrestles after college. In other words, 99.8% of the athletes stop wrestling.
I get it. Just because you did a high school sport does not condemn you to a live of continuing to have to pursue it. People try sports in primary and secondary school, don’t like them as much as other activities and move on. No harm, no foul.
But surely, some of these wrestlers were passionate about grappling and would have liked to continue to train and compete. What happened them? The thousands that enjoyed the sport, the benefits and the skills they developed?
Some continue to grapple. They found Judo or BJJ academies. I did. They transitioned from the wrestling mat to the tatame. Some gravitated more toward MMA. It makes sense. But it made me think of the future.
Companies like FloSports, IBJJF, EBI, ADCC, Polaris, Fight to Win and others are broadcasting high-level grappling (wrestling and No-Gi) competition footage. They are hosting events with professional payouts. There have even been wrestling vs Jiu-Jitsu crossover matches. I think this will have a big impact in the next few years.
It is so easy to come in contact with this footage nowadays. When I started in the 1990’s, it was nearly impossible to come across competition footage. If you were a diligent sleuth and had a wide network of contacts, you may be able to borrow a VHS tape that was a copy of a copy of a copy of a grappling event. There would be no sound, the picture would continuously go in and out and the resolution would be so blurry, it would be almost impossible to tell what was going on.
Now, with YouTube, social media, machine learning and artificial intelligence, people’s feeds are inundated with suggestions and content they may enjoy. It is much more likely that someone who previously indicated interest in wrestling, would be shown a FloSports wrestling vs Jiu-Jitsu match. Clicking on that may take them down the rabbit hole of the afore mentioned slew of elite, submission grappling competitions.
No-Gi training and competition may be a good solution for these former wrestlers. They could still train and compete and there is less wear and tear on the body and less weight cutting compared to wrestling. There are competitions for beginners and not everyone needs to be an elite athlete to train or compete.
While this may generate interest and drive more wrestlers to the world of submission grappling compared to past generations, I feel there is an obstacle that needs to be addressed.
For most former wrestlers that have interest in learning submission grappling, they are invariably driven towards the local BJJ academy. And while that is fine, unless they end up at a 10th Planet school, they will likely be forced into a Gi for their initial training sessions.
While this may not be a big deal to a true, grappling novice, experienced wrestlers may have an aversion to having to learn the Gi. This may stop them from joining a traditional BJJ academy all together and once again preclude them from continuing their grappling journey.
With the advent of more and more professional No-Gi competitions and its stronger alignment with wrestling, I think you will continue to see an acceleration of what we are seeing with 10th Planet and the Danaher Death Squad. Professional teams begin to specialize in just No-Gi, this leads to the academies that they train at to focus exclusively on No-Gi, which, in turn, creates students that just train No-Gi.
No-Gi will basically become its own martial art and sport; distinct from Gi Jiu-Jitsu.
I think there will be a push in this direction over the next twenty years. This is a business and there is an under-served population that will likely start training and paying membership dues if they find an academy that fits their needs and goals. No-Gi exclusive academies scratch that itch.
It creates many questions. Is this a good thing? Does it help or hurt Jiu-Jitsu? How would ranks be handled?
It brings up memories of the fierce 1980’s/1990’s rivalry with BJJ vs Luta Livre. Both claiming to be the best, even in the arena of No-Gi. While events like the “Desafio Jiu-Jitsu vs Luta Livre” and subsequent MMA fights and ADCC matches may have definitively settled the debate in favor of BJJ; the questions related to the rivalry always remain in our minds.
If you want to be the best at No-Gi grappling, wouldn’t it make sense to exclusively train No-Gi? Wouldn’t it be more effective for Street Self-Defense to specialize in No-Gi as those would be techniques you could always apply regardless of how your assailant was dressed?
As I mentioned, competition results of the last forty years appear to conclude that the answers were actually counterintuitive. Fighters trained in the Gi outperformed fighters who did not, even if the competition was No-Gi.
However, related debates remain unsettled. Was this due to their styles and approaches or really about quality coaching and training time? Perhaps the next generation of Gi vs No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu matches will challenge our conclusions.
Regardless, I think you will see a steady increase in No-Gi competitions, prize money and visibility. The matches are often more fast paced, the rulesets looser and laypeople can better understand what is going on compared to GI competitions. It just has more potential for growth over the Gi competitions.
If academies maneuver to capitalize on that popularity, I think it will lead to massive shifts in what Jiu-Jitsu will become.
Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Should it be encouraged? Should it be stopped? I will lay that out in a future article.
Will there be an explosion in No-Gi popularity and a separation of Gi and No-Gi?
I may be a little late to the party on this topic. Gordon has recently announced he will stop competing due to stomach issues that he has been battling for the last three years, caused by antibiotics he was taking due to a staph infection.
It is yet to be seen what role and how prominent Ryan’s presence will be on the Jiu-Jitsu scene going forward. He will likely coach. He may return to competition at some point. But his mark, not only as a competitor, but also as a “personality” cannot be overstated.
For those of you unaware, Gordon Ryan is known for two things:
1. Being the best, overall No-Gi Submission Grappler on the planet from 2017 up until his retirement in 2021. During that time, Gordon won ADCC twice, IBJJF No-Gi Worlds (Weight and Absolute) and IBJJF No-Gi Pans (Weight and Absolute). In addition to those tournament wins, Gordon excelled in professional No-Gi Superfight matches, winning almost every match against the best grapplers on the planet. Between 2017 and 2021, Gordon accumulated a record of 70 wins and 3 losses and 2 draws against the best of the best. Gordon’s dominance over his competition became so pronounced that he often encountered extreme difficulty in finding anyone to take a match against him. Regardless of rulesets. Regardless of financial payouts.
2. Being one of the first, trash talking Jiu-Jitsu stars. In the Jiu-Jitsu world, for both Gi and No-Gi, you would often find competitors speak with the utmost reverence and respect for their competition publicly. They would extol the virtues of humility, honor and good sportsmanship. Gordon burst on the scene with a brash, trash-talking persona. He criticized the competition and belittled their skills. He even went after the sport’s fans that posted negative messages about him online.
It got him a whole of attention. Most of it bad. Much of the community criticized Ryan’s behavior for being crass, petty and unbecoming of a professional Jiu-Jitsu athlete.
In one aspect, it worked. Gordon became a major star in the Jiu-Jitsu world and his matches generated a lot of interest. Either people wanted to see if he could back up his claims of superiority or they wanted to see him lose. Either way, they paid to see him compete. His success led to popular instructional videos and packed seminar series. There was no question about Gordon’s Jiu-Jitsu, but much of the community spoke out about concerns regarding his attitude and his influence on Jiu-Jitsu practitioners that idolized him.
While many people took to social media to condemn his behavior, I remained silent. I don’t have social media and do not really have interest in getting into these kind of arguments. Then, Gordon posted this:
I love how people say, “BJJ is built around respect and honor”. No, it’s not!
It’s built around savage Brazilians kicking the **** out of people just because they could.
Storming gyms of other martial arts and fighting their instructors just to show how superior BJJ was.
And while I think that is ****ing awesome, it is not the fairytale you guys tell about respect and honor.
This sport is built around real men who didn’t give a **** and took what they wanted.” – Gordon Ryan
Now, that intrigued me. Someone referencing 1930’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu history in a 21st century argument? Surely, I could add some insight there.
First, let me start out by stating that we need to keep in mind these are people’s public personas. They are aware now, as they were aware in 1930’s Brazil, that certain statements and actions would be publicly consumed.
I have been a part of the BJJ/MMA community for a long time. I have been around people with the most pristine and gentlemanly reputations, but did not behave so saintly behind closed doors. Similarly, I have spent time with “villains” in the community that could not have been nicer to me.
People will often choose the image they present to the public. It stands to reason that we cannot believe that everyone that paints themselves as noble, honorable and selfless actually is. That also then means that the “bad guys” are not always truly evil. This is a business. People are presenting themselves and positioning themselves in a manner which aligns to how they want the public to view them and in a way that provides financial reward or other incentive.
So, if we know Gordon is choosing to present himself as this larger than life trash-talker, it has worked. First with Muhamad Ali, then Chael Sonnen and now with Conor MacGregor. It seems that most people in MMA now feel a need to cut WWE-style promos.
The early Gracies and there contemporaries were no different. There were fighters that talked about testing their skills, representing their arts and hoping to do their best. There were also fighters that said their competition sucked, they did not know anything about Jiu-Jitsu and were they going to get destroyed in the ring.
Believe it or not, Helio and Carlos were often in the latter camp. While the images portrayed nowadays from Gracie Barra and Gracie Humaitá are of saintly Carlos and Helio altruistically helping the downtrodden, teaching Jiu-Jitsu to everyone and nobly respecting their opponents, the historical record is quite different.
I am speculating, but Carlos and Helio behaved this way for two reasons. One, was I think they were generally upset that anyone else chose to be the fight game or the martial arts business in Brazil. I believe that they felt that any competitor, either in business or in the ring, was an insult to their legitimacy and a threat to their very existence. Secondly, I think they knew it was good for business.
While the popularity and legality of combat sports in Brazil waxed and waned, there was often intense competition for attention from the public. This was either your fights and fighters being watched as opposed to the competition or you trying to have people watch your fights (or listen to them over the radio) as opposed to them participating in other leisure or recreational activities. The Gracies realized trash talking, hyperbole and grandiose claims, got people to watch.
Personally, I have no issues with Gordon’s behavior. He is a businessman, trying to make a living. He has the Jiu-Jitsu skills, but he also knows BJJ competition is often boring and does not have a lot of potential revenue. Through his calculated antics, he raises his visibility and gets the lion’s share of press and payout as opposed to his more conservative competition.
Gordon is right, that those clamoring for a noble, samurai existence are misguided.
Even the tales of the samurai, are not really historically accurate. Much of what we attribute to the behavior ad culture of the samurai is attributed to Nitobe Inazo. He was a Japanese diplomat who converted to Christianity, majored in English Literature and spent significant time living in the United States. He wrote influential books on that modeled much of the samurai culture that we are familiar with, after the tales he had read of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. While the samurai did dutifully serve their masters, it was not with the chivalrous code of honor we often ascribe to them.
Overall, Gordon is correct. The history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is not paved with the actions of infallible, pristine saints conducting themselves in the most righteous of ways. It was a competitive business, it was professional combat sports and it was taking placing in a macho country. I think if Helio and Carlos could see what Gordon is doing today, they would give him the thumbs up.
This is something that I have been struggling with recently. While I have been teaching BJJ for quite some time, due to life and work, I found myself changing academies every couple of years. Now, things are a little different. I have been sedentary for a while and am coming up on 8 years at Gracie Ohio.
Previously, while I taught people in the US and Europe, I did not get a chance to see them really develop beyond a belt or so. But, now with many years teaching at the same academy non-stop, I have been able to see people develop from the first day they walked through the door to now being very senior and experienced students.
But I find myself now asking a complicated question. What is a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? What do they need to know? What do they need to prove? What do they need to accomplish in order to be promoted to Black Belt?
For an art with a notoriously difficult and arduous promotion process, the general lack of standard requirements can be surprising.
When I started training in 1995, it was a different world. There were only a couple hundred Non-Brazilian Blue Belts in the entire world. Maybe a couple of dozen Purple Belts? Half a dozen Brown Belts? One, maybe two Black Belts? The idea of ever holding a senior rank at any point in my life was a completely alien thought at the time. All of the people of my generation felt the same way. Maybe, just maybe, one day, I would become a Blue Belt. That would be the culmination of my BJJ career and the ultimate accomplishment I could ever achieve in Jiu-Jitsu.
The idea of us, as regular people, progressing through the system, just did not exist yet. There was no internet, no social media, no books, almost no one was travelling to Brazil to train. It was a very information scarce environment.
I would see BJJ Black Belts compete in Vale Tudo events on Pay Per View. I got to meet, learn from and train with Black Belts occasionally. However, everyone that I encountered was a world beater. Either a Gracie with lifelong, dedicated training or their closest disciples who competed for a living. I did not think that someone could be a Black Belt without that being their fulltime profession. I just didn’t know that existed.
While I was in my late teens, I would still get smashed by Rorion, Relson and Rickson, even though they were in their late 30’s and early 40’s. I did not think about age, injuries or anything else diminishing one’s ability. I didn’t think that at some point, everyone’s combat ability on the mat would degrade. It seemed like all of my idols would be unbeatable forever, regardless of Father Time.
I know there has been deflation over the years in the value of BJJ belts. It is just supply and demand. The demand for BJJ has remained sky high for decades, but there are now more and more qualified instructors and academies. The Gracies no longer have a stranglehold (pun intended) on promotions, and people now get promoted to Black Belt quicker than the earlier generations.
But is that good? What is the right amount of time? While we all probably agree that Richard Bresler should not have had to wait 20 years for his Black Belt, should there be a minimum required time? How much time?
What if a student never competes? What about one that only wants to train No-Gi? What about someone who has no interest in learning Self Defense, but only wants to learn Sport Jiu-Jitsu with the Gi? Can they all be Black Belts?
How do I compare a student that has a very simple and limited, but very effective game to another student that knows a ton of techniques, but is not very good at applying them? How do I factor in age, sex or injuries?
What about people that refuse to roll with others? Is that ok? Is that a problem? I have seen people avoid matchups due to size, injuries and age and I understand it. But what if I feel someone is perfectly capable, but just chooses to avoid any challenging rolls? Do they have a legitimate reason that I am not aware of? If not, and they get promoted to Black Belt, are they watering down the art? Does it devalue the Black Belt? Are we at risk to becoming another “Traditional Martial Art”?
Selfishly, would my Black Belt be “worth” less? Would Jiu-Jitsu become less effective? Should we to permanently bar people from advancing? Under what criteria?
Could anyone become a Black Belt?
Was I trying to hold on to antiquated values or nostalgia? Recently Fabio Gurgel and Demian Maia did a podcast and were saying that if you started training during the 1990’s you had to be tough. That was my generation. It was just a different environment compared to today. It was not “Jiu-Jitsu for Everyone”, it was Darwinism in action.
Many of my students enjoy my tales of the old days at various academies. Of challengers coming in off the street to fight us because they did not believe in the effectiveness of Jiu-Jitsu. Of daily rolls to the death and people refusing to tap no matter what, even during everyday training. About us going as hard as we could against prospective students to make sure that only the toughest would return to the academy and sign up.
But here I am now, decades later with dozens of permanent injuries, multiple surgeries under my belt and I can barely put my socks on in the morning. I am 45, not 85. Was that approach wrong? Did it even yield results? Did it do more harm than good?
I was having an existentialist crisis.
I was reminded of Conan the Barbarian and the Riddle of Steel. If you make a sword’s metal to be too soft, it will bend in combat and be ineffective. However, if you make the metal too hard, it will not flex enough and will shatter when it impacts other hard surfaces. If it is too soft it is bad. If it is too hard it is bad. You had to find the perfect balance.
How do I apply that principle here. What was the right balance?
I sought out answers. Through writing these articles, I am fortunate to have access to many of the most experienced, most accomplished and most revered BJJ Black Belts of all time. While it was obvious that I could not solve this conundrum on my own, I am sure that they could.
So, I asked them, “What is a Black Belt?”
My only caveats were that they could not give me inspirational memes. I did not want, “A Black Belt is a White Belt that never gave up.” or similar aphorisms.
I wanted to know how I should actually evaluate my students. How do I ensure I am doing it correctly. I asked about factors such as competition experience, practical ability, age, sex, injuries, morals, maturity, teaching ability and more.
Here is what I found out:
Craig Kukuk: First American Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Has awarded ~ 8 Black Belts as of 2023.
Craig had a very old school viewpoint and I would expect nothing less from the first American to go through the process. As I mentioned above and in other articles, training in the 1980’s and 1990’s was tough and not for everyone. Craig’s views were forged in this era and influenced by his significant amount of time spent with the Gracies, training in the US and Brazil.
He felt competition success was not a requirement. As there were no competitions in the US while he was moving through the ranks. However, Craig does feel that people needed to “prove it on the mat” in their regular academy training and show they could be competitive with the Black Belts (but not necessarily have to beat everyone). If someone was not able to hang with the Black Belts, his solution was similarly old school, just tell the student, “You need to train more.”.
When it came to people avoiding hard rolling or training, Craig said that would be a non-starter for him and he would definitely withhold promotions if he felt people were avoiding tough match ups and hard training sessions. Craig expressed concern that if we do not maintain the high standards, including hard training, that we would end up with a watered down product.
He never really had to deal with older people or women training while he ran his schools. Craig acknowledged that if he did, he would likely hold the women to a different standard and look at how they rolled against other Black Belt women at the academy or in competitions. As for people who started training later in life and may not be able to be competitive against the senior belts, Craig’s advice was that they may never get to be Black Belts. He is not a believer in the “trophy for everyone” self-esteem movement. Craig opined that while older people could benefit from training, it does that mean that Black Belt would be automatically achievable. In Craig’s view, the Black Belt represents elite performance and some people will just never get there regardless of time in grade.
When it came to teaching ability, Craig felt it was unrelated to promotion evaluation. Focusing on practical ability and performance were the indicators he looked for in his students for promotion.
For morals and character, Craig did feel that those were part of his criteria. His solution was what I would consider as systemically self-correcting. He worked to establish a culture at his academies that defined acceptable behavior on and off the mat. If people did not follow those norms, he kicked them out.
Additionally, Craig would look at if people were accepted by the group. A student that was ostracized by the other students would be a red flag to Craig. So, by the time people were Brown Belts, they already had his endorsement as to their character.
Murilo Bustamante: World Jiu-Jitsu Champion, UFC Champion, Co-Founder and President of Brazilian Top Team ~ 100 Black Belts as of 2023
Murilo’s philosophy is that anyone can make it to Black Belt, but he differentiates between competitors and non-competitors.
However, he does feel behavior and character are the most important factors when determining who to give a Black Belt to. He likes to witness how the student treats people, not just the people in the academy, but people outside of Jiu-Jitsu as well.
He wants people to demonstrate that they follow the Bushido way. Murilo has also seen the positive impact Jiu-Jitsu can have on people and likes to see that his students use it to improve their humanity.
Murilo is a firm believer that Black Belts are role models, especially to the children at the academy and they must practice the ethics that they preach and not behave in hypocritical behavior.
He said that competition is good as it teaches lessons about winning and losing, but he does not require his students to compete. Experience teaching is also beneficial as it can demonstrate your knowledge and mastery of the techniques.
Practical skills in Self-Defense are critical and Murilo believes it is really a question of dedication and commitment. He does take into consideration factors such as age and injuries. Most important to Murilo, is that the person sets a good example.
The Riddle of Steel and the Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Copyright © 2023 Simon BJJ - All Rights Reserved.