Yesterday—March 8, 2012—Gracie Barra Vancouver hosted a pretty remarkable seminar. Sadly, two of the five guest instructors weren’t able to make it, one due to illness and the other due to the fact that life is busy and shit happens. I am not too disappointed, though, because we still had Flavio Almeida, Marcio Feitosa, and Luca Atala (who incidentally runs Gracie Magazine) all on the mats—all three world champions, I believe—which is skill and knowledge enough for any seminar. Additionally we had three of our own established blackbelts—Tim, Rodrigo, and John—and two brand new blackbelts: Will and Evan (both of who rather amply deserve them). It’s not often you see eight BJJ blackbelts on the mat all at once.
I also received a promotion, though a less dramatic one—I’m now, after about 4½ years of training (started in October 2007), a BJJ purple belt. I’m not sure how to feel about that. On the one hand I am proud, because it’s been a long journey and I have gained a tremendous amount. On the other hand I feel awfully self-conscious because I feel very strongly that I don’t really deserve it yet. But then, I gather most people feel that way when they get promoted…and it’s been said that a new rank isn’t something you get when you are the level that belt represents, but rather something you need to grow into. And that makes sense, of course—obviously even the average purple belt must be better than the average brand new purple belt! I started feeling like I deserved my blue about two stripes in: Halfway. Maybe this will be the same.
When Rodrigo was awarding the belts, he said a few words about everyone who received one—most for the blackbelts, of course, who have been at it for about a decade, but some for us new purple belts, as well. He recounted how, early in his tenure at the school, I had come to him depressed and dispirited, and complained how I felt my game was not improving at all; how I would never get anywhere; how I was close to quitting. I’m pretty sure he misremembered that last part: I don’t recall ever wanting to quit or give up. But it’s certainly true that it felt for a long time like there was a plateau I would never rise beyond, and it was a pretty low plateau to be stuck on, at that. Time (and Rodrigo) have certainly proved me wrong on this point. Regardless of what I or anyone else might think of my skill relative to what a purple belt ought to be, I’ve risen a very great deal above that level—in skill, in confidence in the skills I have, and in confidence that I will continue to grow and improve. I’m still very aware of my limitations, but I no longer feel like I’m stuck. I’ve spent too much time improving to think that there’s an end to that road.
So whether (as I am told) I deserve it now, or whether (as I feel) I have quite a lot of growing into it left to do, it remains a milestone on that journey, and I know that I will fully deserve it—grow into it, and eventually even outgrow it. Some day.
I got a chance to roll for a bit with Flavio Almeida, which was quite an experience. I’ve rolled with a couple of very, very good guys, but not very much. “Supa” Dave Rothwell, but that was so early in my whitebelthood that I had no ability whatsoever to judge what he was even doing. Rodrigo, obviously, much more recently. Now Flavio. It was a very different experience.
It’s hard to judge, of course, what part is style, what part is what he felt like doing at that particular time, and what part is him going easy on us poor noobs. Still, Rodrigo plays a thousand-ton crushing top game, moving about half an inch at a time and giving me less than that to work with. He moves very slowly for the most part—but will explode with huge, quick transitions as soon as the moment is right. Flavio’s game, on the other hand, was extremely smooth and yielding. There was, as I had occasion to remark, a lot of “jiu” in his jiu-jitsu: Jujutsu (the more modern Romanisation) is often translated as “the gentle art”, but I gather ju doesn’t quite mean “gentle”, but refers to something that yields before and adapts to a stronger force rather than opposing it directly. This was very much how Flavio rolled: When he chose to, of course, he got on top and put on as much pressure as he wanted, but he spent a lot of time allowing his opponent to push or pull, simply going with that energy and momentum to transition into some other position, giving the opponent a brief moment to reflect on what a bad idea it was to provide that impetus, before moving on to the next one.
I had the opportunity to watch him do this before I rolled with him myself, and in consequence I played a very conservative game. Since I could tell he’d go with every push and take advantage of it, I tried to make my own game one of inches; if he would turn every bit of energy I supplied against me, then I should give as little energy as possible. At the level he chose to go on against us mortals, I lasted a while, even earning one of those
Nice! exclamations one issues in response to something good and unexpected, when I managed to block a sweep. Afterward I was told I had a nice, tight defence—which was very pleasing regardless of how well I realise that he was of course being very nice and generous about it; if someone like Flavio really wants to get me, I don’t think my defence would even register.
I really liked to see (and feel) that ju part. It’s something I want to include more of in my own game, and I sometimes try in my own halting manner when rolling with beginners.
Quite a bit of the seminar was taken up by various speeches and thank yous and promotions, but still the bulk of the time was technical instruction. I took a few hastily scribbled notes during water breaks in order to help me remember what had been taught, which I will set down here in order to hopefully cement them a little better in my mind. I doubt it’ll be terribly helpful to anyone who didn’t get to see the demonstrations, for which I don’t apologise—this is chiefly for my own reference!
Perhaps my favourite part of the seminar was an extremely simple way Luca Atala demonstrated to defeat the spider guard. On the one hand there’s an element of “Why didn’t I think of that?”; on the other hand he emphasised and demonstrated some details that I hope will stick with me for a long time. In particular, he emphasised the need to tuck your elbows in, and showed how the spider guard can largely be neutralised simply by tucking your elbows, gripping if possible just below the knee. Nothing revolutionary, but solid, and the demonstration helped remind me or inform me of some details I was missing.
The pass from here was very simple: Once you have neutralised the spider guard, transfer to a two-on-one grip on a leg and stretch that leg out while passing, keeping two-on-one until you’ve established side control.
Flavio and Marcio demonstrated different pieces of the spider guard game they’d picked up from Romulo Barral (I’m afraid I don’t recall who demonstrated which part; I think maybe Flavio showed the sweep?). It was based on a spider guard grip where one arm was released and that grip was transferred instead to a deep collar grip. Hip out to turn, so that my far leg is on the opponent’s bicep; shift under them to get lifting power. (This was a tricky part for me.) If they don’t base out, this is a slow but sure sweep in its own right, shifting them over me.
If they do base out, here’s where the sneakiness begins: If I have a right spider hook, turned so my left side is toward them, then pass my left leg around their right leg, angled so that the front of my knee can collapse the back of theirs. Pinch my knees together for leverage, push forward—and over they go.
If, on the other hand, they base out far, using their right arm, the submission off this setup presents itself: Square back up and slip the right leg under their (non-controlled!) arm, while sliding the right spider hook over the shoulder: Triangle.
Another part focused on posture control from top side or half guard. The emphasis here was that if the opponent’s head is driven down, it breaks their posture and takes away most of their power. One application was: Opponent turns in; I place my top hand high on their head, and swim my other hand under their arm for an overhook, reaching for my own wrist. If I now walk around their head, I will flatten them back out. (For drilling: They turn back in; I repeat going in the other direction.)
From here was a half guard submission that I’ve seen before but never mastered. Sadly I didn’t master it last night either. It involves stuffing the half guard in just the same manner as above, then using my right hand to feed their left lapel to my left (cross-face) hand. Then, dive my right hand through an overhook and under their head to reach that lapel—this is hard; you have to reach very deep and I found it tricky to have enough gi material to grasp. If this is accomplished, there’s a trianglish choke achieved by sprawling out, using my chest on their triceps to force their arm into their neck.
A simpler but very interesting option from here is to stuff the half guard in just the same fashion, then swim my right hand for an underhook and flatten them out (into a fairly standard top half position). Then, keeping control of the arm with that underhook and blocking their head with my left hand, step over and hook the head with my left leg—locking my ankles together if at all possible (kind of like a triangle about their head and right arm). From this control position, the straight armbar on their left arm is trivial. My drilling partner and I played a bit with this from a regular half guard setup (rather than coming off the head/posture/stuff thing), and found that it works though it’s harder; when it doesn’t come off a flattening action, the bottom person may be in a position to shift to his left side and escape out the back door.