Mar. 3rd, 2012

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I’ve written before about the notion that combat sports aren’t good for self defence, as well as the cliché that you never want to go to the ground in a street fight. Today I want to look critically at a similar statement: That while BJJ does have a subset of techniques that work in real fighting situations, such as street fights or MMA, modern sport jiu-jitsu has become too specialised and so far divorced from actual fighting as to be largely useless.

There is certainly a kernel of truth to this argument, smugly though it is often delivered. Certainly, as its exponents insist, many of the bewildering new guards in high-level jiu-jitsu—spiral guard, tornado guard, berimbolo, reverse De La Riva, X-guard, 93 guard, and so on and so forth—are probably not a good idea in a scenario where your opponent isn’t trying to avoid losing points to a sweep, but trying to smash your head into the ground.

Curiously, I only ever see this argument aimed at BJJ, but in actual fact it’s perfectly applicable to other combat sports as well. Judo, for example, contains a lot of stuff that is totally pointless in a street fight: Uchimata sukashi and sukui nage spring to mind, though perhaps te guruma isn’t the most useful technique in an altercation either—and what’s the point of all those turtle turnovers? Even something as straightforward as boxing has a few things, like bob-and-weave actions and the strategy of pummeling into a clinch, that work only under its specific ruleset. Yet no one seems to feel that this makes “sport boxing” any less of a fighting art.

The simple truth is that a fight between high-level practitioners, just like a match of expert judoka or professional boxers, is a contest of experts, where both people have the same basic toolkit, and both people of necessity know exactly how to deal with that basic toolkit. Just as judo contains uchimata sukashi because judoka are likely to face people who will attack them with uchimata, so any combat sport will develop techniques useful for dealing with its own attacks and counters. No one developed the tornado guard to fight muggers or drunken idiots: It was developed by jiu-jitsu experts in order to defeat other jiu-jitsu experts, because when your opponent knows exactly the same set of basic positions, attacks, counters, setups, and follow-ups as you do, having something different in your arsenal can give you the edge you need.

It’s not like the existence of sport jiu-jitsu means that you’ll walk into a BJJ school off the street one day and immediately start being taught the arcane ways of the berimbolo. On the contrary, most experienced practitioners—even the ones who enjoy learning all the exotic stuff—seem to stress a strong foundation in the basics. By the time you learn even one of those “useless-for-fighting” guards, you’ll have a good grasp of the basic closed guard (perfectly valid for fighting, as breaking an opponent’s posture prevents him from striking), open guard (feet on hips can control distance and protect you), mount, side mount, and back mount (all solid offensive positions), half guard (a valid step to recovering guard), and maybe a few other bits and pieces like butterfly and spider guard (and for self defence, surely we can agree that a guard that involves control of both the opponent’s hands is sound).

By the time you learn the stuff that isn’t applicable in a fight, then, you already should and most likely already do know the stuff that is perfectly applicable—and you’re likely to be good at them, nor will you ever stop working them. No matter how fancy your reverse upside down quarter tornado guard gets, you’ll still be drilling basic armbars from closed guard. After all, you never outgrow the basics, even if you add to them.

Now, it is true that BJJ as often trained leaves a few gaps. I think and hope that everyone who trains it realises that dealing with strikes is a skill you won’t develop by training exclusively in grappling—I know that I have some of the tools to do it (breaking posture, restricting movement, and so on), that in fact the same tools that work for grappling can also neutralise strikes—but I also know that there’s more to it; that I haven’t trained myself to use those tools for that purpose or in that context; and that if you put someone with MMA gloves in my guard, I’m in for trouble. This is of course why many people choose to do a little bit of MMA, or at least rolling with strikes involved, to see what it’s like and learn to deal with it. Maybe I should at some point. But to note that BJJ qua sport grappling without strikes is incomplete (which is true) is a far cry from validating the frankly silly idea that sport jiu-jitsu training is unhelpful.

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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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