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The oft-repeated saw is that to improve, what you need is to train with people who are better than you are—to swallow your ego and accept that you’ll get beaten in sparring, you’ll have to tap a lot; because you can only learn from people who are better than you (and therefore have something to teach) and in particular, you’ll never learn to defeat skilled opponents without practicing on skilled opponents. There is of course considerable truth to this, and I’m sure it is possible to get very good indeed in a meatgrinder situation where your every training partner from day one is a brown belt and up.

Personally, though, I feel that there is plenty to gain from training with people who aren’t better. Regarded one way, it’s certainly a lot easier to learn offence, and practice new moves that I’ve yet to master, on less experienced opponents with whom I have a greater margin of error. I’ll never pull off a brand new sweep on someone with whom I struggle to keep up to begin with, but with a brand new beginner, I can perhaps get my position and get a few reps in every round. When rolling with people at approximately my own level of skill, I get to practice a more competitive sort of game, because either may credibly “win” and neither is predisposed to play a super defensive, staving-off-inevitable-disaster game—and here those new moves are put to the test. Against superior opponents, well, I certainly get plenty of opportunity to pratice defence

This may be a psychological flaw on my part, but I will be honest and say that sometimes, I don’t feel like I gain anything at all from rolling with people who are better than me by too wide a margin. It’s one thing if I’m constantly forced to play at the edge of my capabilities; that’s fertile ground. When someone shuts down my every attempt before I can even get started, though, I don’t think that really teaches me anything because I get no useful feedback: I can’t tell the difference, then, between “that was a mistake” and “that was a good idea but this guy is just good enough to shut it down anyway”. Then it’s not a learning experience, but mere frustration. (I do my best, when rolling with very new beginners, to remind myself not to create that kind of situation.)

I also think that one should not scoff at the benefits of rolling even with very new people, or much smaller people. Yes, if I outweigh someone by 50 lbs and have 4–5 years of experience to their week and a half, I can probably sweep them in pretty much any direction I choose, but I should be able to make more intelligent use of our training time than that. For one thing, it is a good time to relax, roll without using strength or power, and isolate details, control using the feet only, and that sort of thing. For another, I find that helping people, providing hints, and talking them through those first few rolls can itself be a learning exercise for me as much as for the other person, because it forces me to analyse the situation carefully and isolate and highlight the most important essentials, which is hard to do in the rough-and-tumble of a more even match.

And, of course, it’s good to give back. The only reason I am where I am today is because other people (I would be remiss if I didn’t specifically mention Kabir’s name at least once here) helped me in this fashion, by toning their game down a few notches, give me room to try things, and help me out—and I have a long way to go still, during which I hope to receive more of the same. So of course I want to do as much as I can to provide the same encouragement, help, and guidance to others in the same community or, if you will, family. For all that you go one-on-one at the time when you’re facing a particular opponent, building grapplers is a community effort, and as in many things, the journey is to my mind more important than the destination.

Now I’m off to open mat at GBV (slightly late because I felt moved to write this post) where I will roll with people who may be any combination of better than me, worse than me, and roughly at my level, and I leave confident that either way, I’ll have room to learn.

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From the Department of Obvious Epiphanies (BJJ Division):

When I first started out in BJJ, I learned early on that whenever I get to the top, it is good to be heavy—that is, to apply as much weight as I can; to ensure that as much of my weight as possible is supported by my opponent rather than squandered on the ground. For a long time, however, I was sort of indiscriminate in this. Take side control, for example: I would get to side mount, apply my cross-face, drive my shoulder in, and lean my weight onto my opponent via my shoulder, my chest, maybe even my other shoulder.

My current thinking is that this is, by and large, wrong. It is wrong because by sticking to my opponent using so much surface area, I am creating two weaknesses in my top pressure:

  1. I am distributing my weight over a large surface area, so that he experiences moderate pressure on his jaw and moderate pressure on his chest, rather than really pinning any one part to the ground.
  2. I create a lot of attachment points, and a lot of friction, so that although it is admittedly hard for my opponent to move, it is also hard for me to move.

These days I am approaching my top game with a very different strategy. Instead of indiscriminately applying my weight, I try as much as possible to pick one point where I apply it. It might be via chest-to-chest contact. It might be through my shoulder, in cross-face. If my opponent is pushing my hips away, I might pike up and drive all my weight into his chest, or his solar plexus, via my head, until I can get around his arms. But as much as possible, I make my pressure pin-point and localised.

I honestly think that I can today apply more effective pressure when I am up on my toes and driving via the top of my head than I could two years ago when driving indiscriminately with my chest, even though I was then some 20–25 lbs heavier.

  1. Because the surface area is smaller, the pressure is greater (provided I don’t get lazy and apply less weight!). Thus though my opponent’s chest may be freer under side mount, his head is even more pinned to the ground from the cross-face, and since he can’t escape unless he releases pressure wherever I apply it, this is more effective.
  2. Because I use only one point to pin, the rest of my body is free to move. This allows me to play a much more responsive and mobile top game.

With this has come the obvious observation that the best pin (in the sense of top control pressure and keeping your opponent confined, not the judo-scoring osaekomi sense) is not one that cannot be broken—there is no perfect pin—but instead one that if and when my opponent escapes is one that leaves me in a good place to adapt and stay in a superior position. Having more pinpoint chest-to-chest control, for example, rather than being sort of generically smushed across my opponent, means that if they manage to start turning in to escape, I’m in a pretty good place to pivot around the point of contact, spin to the other side, and stay on top, in the opposide side mount. (Alternatively, I’m in a good position to spin for the armbar, should my opponent expose the far arm.)

For the same reason, I have become extremely fond of knee-on-belly for top control. It’s very much in the nature of knee-on-belly to apply pinpoint pressure (via the knee, obviously), and it’s an extremely mobile top position that very easily lets me switch from knee to knee, or between side mount and knee-on-belly. This is in fact a game I sometimes like to play when I am paired up with a beginner whom I outclass and I don’t feel it’s a contest (or very nice) to apply constant submissions: Just sweep, get to the top, and hone my positional game, where instead of stuffing escape attempts I just go with them, flow with the momentum my opponent imparts, and transition to another top position. That way I get to practice something worthwhile, and they get to practice escapes (in a manner that is admittedly frustrating, but does have opportunity for success).

I do not think that it is a coincidence that this thinking has evolved in a period of time during which I have finished more armbars in an average week than I previously did in two average months.

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The last time I blogged about my general position and progress in BJJ was around Christmas (well, on Christmas Eve, in fact). I’d like to take a moment to introspect and take stock, as it were. At the time, I was reflecting on the breakthrough (at long bloody last!) of attitude—of making it a habit to roll to win at least some of the time, because it’s a mentality I need to be able to switch on, and a focus on fighting between the canonical positions rather than just in them. I’d also just started playing a bit of open guard.

Shortly before that, I had made a list of skills I have and lack in various positions. Notably, I decided that I really needed to work on

  • armbars, triangles, and pendulum sweeps from guard
  • standing guard passes (emphasised by my failure in my second tournament)
  • butterfly guard, where my skills were nil to none
  • taking the back, and improving my attacks from there
  • more armbars from top (mount and side mount)

Over the past few months, one of the natural developments of my game has been to stay much more active and mobile in my top game. I ascribe this largely to two factors: One, I have made an effort to be more active in guard passing and being ready to switch from side to side. Two, I have had occasion to roll more with very new and inexperienced people, not least since joining judo, where the focus is evenly divided between standup and groundwork rather than heavily on the latter, and where much of the groundwork addresses turnovers—so that, per mat hour of total experience, I have just done a lot more groundwork. When rolling with people whom I can more or less submit at will¹, I’ve taken to doing other things: Giving up positions to work from inferior ones, providing advise and/or opportunities to my partners…or focusing entirely on positional control, moving from knee-on-belly to mount to knee-on-belly on the other side; pivoting side mount from side to side… And while I have sometimes done this mostly because it seemed gratuitous to force someone brand new to the sport to tap out ten times in a round, it has in fact rapidly translated into a skill in its own right.

Thus my top game has changed from a fairly indiscriminate effort to be heavy, placing as much weight as possible on my opponent’s upper body, to a more focused control that allows me to stay more mobile. To use side control as an example, I used to apply pressure with my chest and my shoulder and pretty much any part of me that goes on top of my opponent in that position. Now, I try to apply all the pressure with the cross-face shoulder. (Or I might be applying pressure to just one shoulder or one quadrant of the upper chest from side control or N/S; or I might apply my weight in mount differently than just being heavy down the center—and so on.) My working hypothesis is that this is not a less effective pin, in fact it may be more effective in that my weight is less distributed and can be focused more on a mechanically weak point (if I’m doing it right). At the same time I’m not so glued to the ground or to my opponent, so I’m better able to move and take advantage of any opportunity that arises.

This has lead to a radical increase in the amount of armbars I catch (successfully or not). If my standard response to a bridge in sidemount was to just remain heavy, it’s now becoming increasingly mixed up with allowing my opponent to get onto his side, but with me pivoting to the opposite side and attacking the arm. (Of course this means that I need to catch the arm, and not leave space for it to escape. Thus using more focused pressure is no excuse to play looser!) Armbar quotas in general seem to go up quite a lot as I stay more mobile on top, whether in mount, side mount, or knee-on-belly. It also feels like a more effective smaller-man’s-game, which I need to work on: I’m not tiny, but neither am I one of the bigger or stronger guys at the gym. Exploiting bridges and bottom defences rather than blocking them takes less strength. (And is more ju, as it were…)

I have also, very recently, started working on butterfly guard. The breakthrough came from one of those obvious things that needed just the right kind of clear and explicit statement, unsurprisingly from Kabir, who talked about going side to side with the standard butterfly sweep. If I try to sweep left, and fail because my opponent posts or bases out, that’s OK: I can just quickly switch my hips and sweep for the other side. Heureka!, or as Huxley might have said, how extremely stupid not to have thought of that: but there you are. I’m not yet having much success with the standard butterfly sweep, as I find the sitting-up position difficult to maintain, but I’m having much better luck with half butterfly guard, and using butterfly hooks to lift and sweep whenever my opponent bases out to block any sweep. And doing this—constantly attempting sweeps with butterfly hooks—is allowing me to keep my hooks much stickier, making not just my butterfly guard but my open guard in general much harder to pass.

This is an area that needs a lot of work, but then I’ve only been focusing on it for a couple of weeks. I feel pretty encouraged with my success so far.

In some ways it’s kind of startling how different my game looks right now compared to, say, when I wrote my last introspectives in December. At the time, my bottom game was mainly closed guard and a bit of basic, feet-on-hips or maybe half-arsed spider guard stuff thrown in; my top game focused on getting to mount for the cross choke, which was by far my most frequent finish. Now, my guard game is mostly butterfly guard (admittedly because it needs work rather than because it’s my A game), and by far most of my finishes are by armbar, though I’ll still go for cross chokes when I see them. I’m very happy with this transition, because butterfly is something I’ve long known I need to work on but never felt I had enough of a handle on to even begin; and because I knew damn well my armbars were lamentable from disuse. Additionally, I like armbars because they transfer so well to everything: Gi, no-gi, judo…

I think I’m mostly in a phase where I should keep doing what I am already doing. I am currently working on several of the areas that I knew needed work: I do a lot of butterfly; I go for a lot of armbars; and if I’m passing the guard, 80% of the time I’ll stand up for the pass. All this is as it should be: I have put a lot of hours into weak areas, and while they need more work, they’re nowhere near as bad as they were half a year ago.

If I look at my list of four months ago, the main thing I see there that I should be doing, but am not doing often enough, is attacking the back. Especially against larger opponents, I have a tendency to get stuck on my back (in guard) or (worse) in bottom turtle, unable to finish anything. I’m not good at guard submissions, and it’s my current thinking that the short-legged man’s attack on a 30–40 lbs heavier opponent probably should not be the triangle. I need to get better at taking the back, notably climbing to the back from guard and very notably via arm drags from butterfly and similar as well as from half guard. I also jotted down baseball chokes from side control, which are perhaps not a bad idea but don’t currently feel like a priority. So in summary,

  • keep working on butterfly guard
  • keep working on armbars
  • increase focus on taking the back
  • start working arm drags from butterfly
  • start working for the back from bottom half guard
  • start working more sweeps from bottom half guard

¹ I’m not trying to give myself airs; it’s only natural that when I’ve been doing this 4½ years and some guy is in his first month, I’m probably going to have a substantial edge.

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Novum cingulitis (“the new belt blues”) is a psychogenic condition generally contracted on obtaining a new belt in a martial art, such as BJJ, where the patient’s abilities are constantly tested against those of their peers. Typical symptoms include tenseness, a sense of guilt and unworthiness, and constant low-grade nervousness, and may include a period of mild depression. Other common symptoms include paranoia (though this is controversial as some argue that everyone is, in fact, out to get the patient).

Novum cingulitis has no cure, but the condition is self-limiting and will resolve on its own, typically ⅓–½ of the way to the next belt (when a new outbreak may occur). Common home remedies include sandbagging (q.v.) and practicing martial arts without hard sparring, where the additional measure of “pulling rank” may also be employed. Modern medical science recommends against these extreme measures, however, and suggests a healthy diet, vigorous exercise, plenty of rest, relying on your teammates, and colloquially, “manning up”.

Though poorly documented in the literature, novum cingulitis is a very common condition. If you yourself practice BJJ and have never suffered from the new belt blues, you probably know someone who has.

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Re. that promotion:

Promotion picture

Gracie Barra Vancouver, March 8 2012. Receiving my purple belt from my instructor, Rodrigo Carvalho.

Rank certificate. Do not steal. It’s watermarked, anyway.

I may not feel like I really deserve it for a while yet, but it’s definitely legit and very official.

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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.

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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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I’ve never gone to a BJJ seminar before, for various reasons—mostly, I suppose, that I felt it wouldn’t be worth the investment. No matter how great the instructors are, I just have too many basic flaws to work on that my regular instructors can help me with; I don’t need more moves or fancier techniques, and my game is not so polished that I can’t get any black belt—or brown belt, or purple belt—to point out weaknesses I should address, ways to improve. In fact, my gym is full of such people who will happily and helpfully do so. (And if some touring instructor has a world championship title, well, our own head instructor took home gold in the Mundials as a blue belt, if I understand things correctly. There’s no shortage of quality.)

With this seminar, though, I can’t resist it, because egads, have you ever seen such a concentration of skill and accomplishment gather in one place before? On March 8, no fewer than five BJJ blackbelts are holding a seminar at Gracie Barra Vancouver, several of whom are so famous that even I, who have a notoriously weak grasp of the international competition scene, have heard of them. Since the sport lacks the centralised and easily referenced records present in MMA, for example, it’s hard to get any sense of their proper laurels—I can’t find any hint of some of their records. Two of them are so decorated that I can’t be bothered to include all their trophies, cutting it down to just Mundials and ADCC medals to save space; two I can’t find at all; one I can find only briefly mentioned.

It’s a line-up nowhere short of amazing, though, and with five world-class instructors running a seminar (not even an expensive one), it’s hard to imagine not getting my money’s worth.

Partial, abbreviated records of those of the visiting instructors whom I could find anything on:

  • Flavio Almeida
    • 2x World Champion (1999 – brown, 1997 – blue);
    • ADCC Silver Medallist (2007);
    • …Too many other awards and trophies to list…
  • Marcio Feitosa
    • 3x World Champion ­– black (1997, 2001, 2002);
    • 4x World Championship silver medallist – ­black (1998, 1999, 2000, 2003);
    • ADCC champion 2000;
    • ADCC bronze medallist 2000;
    • …Too many other awards and trophies to list…
  • Alexandre Dande (???)
  • Rodrigo Lopes (???)
  • Luca Atala (1996 World Champion – blue?; ???)
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These are the thoughts going through my head as I commute to work.

For a long time, my preferred position in the guard was a very traditional one: Deep grip with my right hand in the opposite collar, left hand on opponent’s right sleeve, attack cross chokes and scissors sweeps (still my highest percentage sweep). Anticipate stand-up attempts and be ready to pendulum sweep, should the opportunity arise. If I’m on the ball and not lying flat, I’ll be on my left hip.

Of course, in no-gi it’s a no-go. Without the lapel the control isn’t there. So in no-gi, I started developing a different game, where my posture control is effected by an overhook. I’ll get whichever overhook I can, but I prefer to use my left hand to overhook as deeply as I can, get on my right hip, and start pushing on the far arm with my right hand and foot, threatening triangles.

More recently I’ve started adopting this same basic position in gi as well: Get on my right hip, and dive my left arm deep for an overhook, preferably securing a grip, as deep as possible, on the opponent’s far (i.e. left) lapel. I’m finding this a superior way to control posture; an opponent with a strong neck and/or a bit of skill can often sit up against the orthodox cross-collar grip, but with the overhook there’s a lot of weight on the shoulder and I’m more to the side, making it awkward for them. Additionally, I find that people tend to fight the overhook before attempting anything else, whereas with the orthodox collar grip they may just monitor it while already working on a pass.

The overhook grip also provides a very solid platform for a number of techniques. If, as I prefer, I get the overhooked arm on the outside (to my left), I can threaten

  • a cross choke by taking either a four-fingers-in grip in the right collar, or overhand grip on the shoulder seam
  • an armbar on the overhooked arm, bracing its wrist against my neck and clamping down with my arm, possibly reinforced by my left knee
  • a triangle choke
  • spinning into an omoplata

Typically the opponent won’t like this, and will work to withdraw the arm to the inside, between our bodies, where it is less exposed and can help fight off the cross choke, and would make the triangle very awkward. But then I can

  • still spin for the omoplata or omoplata sweep
  • start climbing for the back, since my opponent did the hard work of killing the arm blocking me!

Although I haven’t yet worked these things, it seems to me that the arm-inside position should also open up

  • spinning 180° for an orthodox armbar from guard
  • spinning 180° for a sweep, perhaps the pendulum

Additionally, although I’ve never used this position as a platform for scissors sweeps, it occurs to me that the possibility ought to be there, whenever I can control the far (non-overhooked) arm—although my position on the far side of the body might make it less than ideal, as posting with the far leg should be easy (which, however, is why I think I need to play with pendulum sweeps from here!). Still, worth trying.

I find it interesting how this position seems to have insinuated itself into my game very organically, necessitated by the lack of collar grips in no-gi, without my ever really thinking about it. The fact that I seem to have started developing a game centered on it feels promising. Now perhaps it is time to begin analysing it and constructing that game more consciously.

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After four years and an extremely belated start, this month saw me participate in my second-ever BJJ tournament, Grapplers Inc. on February 4, 2012. This time I’ve been eating pretty well for a few months, and so with no need to drop any weight I was comfortably in the middleweight division, instead of the inappropriate medium heavyweight division I was in last time. I knew I had improved since the last competition; I was fitter, stronger, more technical, and more active on the mats. The result?

Oh well.

My analysis is pretty much what I wrote in the YouTube description:

Unfortunately, I ended up inside a strong guard that I just wasn't able to break. I think, and in fact I thought even during the match, that I should have stood up to break the guard, since he was clearly breaking my posture whenever I tried to get leverage to open the guard kneeling; however I don't work enough standing guard passes and decided I was too likely to get swept, and should therefore stay down and play more conservatively.

Right or wrong, that's where I lost the match. I briefly thought I was going to pass to half guard, but he nearly caught me with a sweep in the transition, and as I scrambled to regain posture he caught my arm.

The next few months will be on the theme of standing guard passes.

What I didn’t say in that description is that unlike the other tournament, this time I’m slightly unhappy with the result. Not that I care so terribly much that I lost—after all there are always better guys out there, and I’m not a natural athlete so I think just getting to the point where I can make myself compete in such a physical event is pretty significant. Still, I wish it hadn’t gone like that. I’ve made tremendous gains since the early autumn, thanks to registering for that first tournament; and I’ve continued to improve since then. I know that I’m better than I was in November—in better physical condition, faster, stronger, and with a much more active and cohesive game. I have better jiu-jitsu! But you can’t really tell from that video, where I got stuck doing largely nothing. That is irritating. It’s irritating. I’m irritated, and a bit frustrated.

It may be, though, that this frustration itself is mostly a good thing. I feel this way because I know that I’ve improved, and because I have gained some confidence in my game. In November I had no idea what would happen: I just wanted to get my first tournament out of the way. This time I knew that the odds were perhaps against me (because, having waited so long, I have very little competition experience for a blue belt), but I also knew that I had a game and things I wanted to do.

Then, too, I left the tournament with a feeling of I do not want this to happen again! I want to compete again, and win or lose I do not want to spend another match just stuck in the guard like that. I want to spend the next few months working my standing guard passes so that if I end up in the same place, I will smash that guard; and if I lose, it will at least be different. The last tournament just got me introduced to the idea of competing; this one exposed a big hole in my game, pointed, and laughed at it like Nelson Muntz.

My only fear is that I may get promoted too soon. Be it via franchise rules because I’ve been toiling along for 4½ years, or the same principle as a ‘sympathy D’, I fear the possibility of receving a belt I don’t deserve at the big several-multiple-world-champions seminar next month, preventing me from competing at blue belt again. Ah well, hopefully such nightmares won’t come to pass. There should be another big tournament locally in May or so, and I want to be there.

Hopefully, too, I’ll find a chance to compete in judo at some point this year. At least here it’s not too late; a mere orange belt, I’m very much a nobody and should be able to get my first-tournament jitters over with in this sport at a fairly early stage!

Team highlights:

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I first started training BJJ at Tim Shears’s Cocoon Athletics in October, 2007. For the past four years I’ve stayed with the same club, though it’s no longer either Tim Shears’s club nor Cocoon Athletics; it’s moved, ownership has changed, and the roster of instructors has changed as well (though Tim still teaches the occasional class). I got my blue belt in May 2010; the other day, December 19, I got my fourth and final stripe on that belt (I think, perhaps, the first promotion I ever got earlier than expected); the next promotion, whenever it comes, will (necessarily) be to purple belt.

Blue belt, 4 stripes promotion

The learning curve has been both slow and steep for me. I’m not by nature either athletic or competitive, and physical learning is not my forte. Still I’ve learned, and my fourth year has been, by far, my best year yet. I feel like the first two years were pretty much a matter of learning the bare basics—the positions and positional hierarchy, a basic toolkit of techniques. My third year, during which I received my blue belt, was when I had my first period of Getting It, and I started developing sensitivity and the ability to respond and react to people—rather than just thinking in explicit terms of “I’m in position A, I’d best use technique X”, I learned to feel what my opponent was doing, where their weight and momentum were oriented, and reflexively respond to that.

2011 has been a year of much greater development. I didn’t blog very much early this year, and the first BJJ post of 2011 is from April, so I don’t know what was really on my mind in January, but I do know that something I focused on a great deal during the earlier half of the year was staying active. It’s in my nature to be passive, defensive, and reactive. For better or for worse—often the latter—this is intrinsic to how I tactically approach anything, be it jiu-jitsu, fencing, chess, or a game of Starcraft. I want to build up a solid defence and wait while I wear my enemy down by countering all their efforts. Unfortunately, in BJJ (and for that matter in fencing, Starcraft, and perhaps even chess) this is usually a losing game, as I give my opponent far too many opportunities to find and exploit my weaknesses. It is necessary, at least when appropriate, to be active and assertive. At the very least, if my plan is to wait for you to make a mistake and expose a weakness, I should be ready to exploit that weakness, attack it, and take charge of the game! I wasn’t. These days, I’m better at it.

But the most rapid progress has happened in the last two months, since I decided, in early October, to compete for the first time. At the time I thought and said that

It’s not so much the competition itself—maybe I’ll enjoy it, maybe I won’t; I’m hoping I will but don’t have high hopes (I tend to get too nervous when competing in anything to enjoy it). Still, it will be valuable experience and both the training leading up to the tournament and the tournament itself will force me to address the biggest weakness in my game: The lack of will and drive to win, the tendency when things go south to lie back and go "Meh, what does it matter? It’s just rolling". What else—we’ll see.

This all paid off in spades. Actually I had fun at the tournament. I may never be the kind of guy who drives around the Pacific Northwest seeking out every possible tournament, but I plan to compete again when it’s local and convenient—meaning, in all likelihood, in February. But more importantly, it really did elevate my game to new levels, even if I did lose decisively in both the light heavyweight and open weight divisions.

This time period—the month and a half or so between my decision to compete and the time of writing this, both before and after the tournament, has seen my game improve very greatly in two ways:

  • At Kabir’s advice, I make it my general habit to try to win the first roll with any new opponent, even in a regular class. Of course this does not mean that I go 100% speed and power every time, nor that I am out there to smash beginners into the ground; but I do try to approach the very first roll with any training partner by bringing my A game, as it were, and trying to win. This ensures two things: First, that I keep the A game in some sort of shape—if I only ever rolled to work on my weak points, I’d lose my strengths from disuse! And second, that I get into the habit and the psychology of approaching a new opponent as someone whom I want to defeat. For someone who, like me, tends to be much too passive and non-competitive, this is extremely valuable.

  • I have begun to fight between canonical positions. This is something I should have been doing since white belt day one, more or less, but haven’t worked nearly enough on until recently. It was seductively easy for me to think of BJJ as a game played in certain configurations—guard, half guard, butterfly, mount, side control, and so on; and that’s it. No! Wrong! Bad! Half the game is between positions; half the game is getting to them or escaping from them, and if someone passes my (closed) guard that’s no reason to resign to fighting from under side control—it means I should fight from open guard, half guard, and (more crucially in this context) a hundred ad hoc, between-position scrambles for which there are principles but no official names.

    As what might be considered a corollary to this, Kabir observed that I tend to hold on to my closed guard too long. When I refuse to open my guard until it is physically broken open, it means that by the time my guard is open, my opponent already has their grips set and are already in the process of passing. Of course, the reason I tend to keep my guard stubbornly closed is because my open guard is very weak…but of course it’s bound to be, if I only ever play open guard from an already-losing position! Thus on Kabir’s advice to open my guard earlier I’ve spent more time doing so, and extrapolating from this, generally bailing out of positions before I really lose them, when I still retain enough control to retreat to another position—closed guard to open guard, yes, but also open guard to turtle, and so on. Quite suddenly my open guard game improved radically and I’m much harder to pin down in side control. There’s lots of work still to do in this area, but the improvement was pretty drastic.

The name Kabir appeared a few times above, and is significant. He’s a purple belt who has trained at the gym for a long time, though he was gone for a year or so while attending law school in the States; now he’s back and spending much more time (it seems) at the gym, training and coaching and what not. He’s also always taken time to help me on a very individual level. I’ve known for a long time that if ever my Facebook status updates hint at a specific issue in BJJ, I’m very likely to get a comment from him with applicable advice. With him back at the gym, I get much more of that, and it’s invaluable. Rodrigo is a good instructor, but I suppose when overseeing hundreds of students it’s hard to pay detailed attention to every single one—let alone some athletically unremarkable specimen who’s unlikely to take home tournament gold medals and prestige. Be that as it may, Kabir always has both time and apt advice. I suppose in terms of my jiu-jitsu, Rodrigo and the other instructors serve to teach me techniques and generic strategy, while Kabir (very much a coach!) has helped address my game. He’s also one of those guys with whom rolling is itself a lesson—he’s obviously far better than I am and so able to provide enough pressure and challenge that I have to work hard 100% of the time, but chooses to rarely press submissions and never pin or stifle me so much that I am frustrated.

While on the theme of gratitude relevant to BJJ, I would be remiss and rude if I didn’t at least mention Jaimie, who at the merest mention that maybe I should try to eat a bit healthier before the tournament magically whipped up a lower-carb, higher-fat diet that has me eating a lot more vegetables, more protein, and less sugars and starch; with this and a slightly increased exercise schedule I’ve lost some 10 lbs of fat over the past several months without seeming to lose any endurance or energy. (When I say “whipped up” I mean “researched, designed, adapted to my food intolerances, and cooks every damn weak”. It’s rather considerable.)

Summing up what 2011 has been like for me and BJJ, I would say that

  • I’m much better at it—barring the obvious exception of going from zero to nothing when I first started, I may never have improved so rapidly as I have in the last several months.
  • I have addressed several attribute and psychology types of problems, not completely but with fair success, viz. I am no longer so passive, and I no longer concede positions.
  • I have gained pretty decent defensive skills from bottom positions, and while I need a lot of work on my half guard sweeps, I have a fair bit of success in recovering half guard from under mount, side control, and back.
  • I’ve started to develop the rudiments of an open guard game. (Thinking of being more active, and of fighting not to concede positions, really helps here; open guard feels much less rigidly delineated in that the line between “open guard [variation]” and “scramble” is kind of blurry.)
  • For the first time I’m starting to feel some degree of confidence in my skills. I still have moments of poor self esteem where I am bothered that I am challenged (or beaten) by white belts, where it troubles me that more athetically gifted people join the school and advance in skill much faster than I did…but (notwithstanding truth in the above) I’m really not at square one anymore.

I hope this can continue in and throughout 2012. I have a list of skills, by position, that I need to keep un-rusted for my A game and ones I need to work on or add to my game, so I have concrete points to work on. (I always feel it’s important to have concrete points; rolling “just to roll” feels much less productive. Still a lot of fun, but less productive than specifically addressing particular skills.) There’s a local tournament in February where I hope to compete, and thanks to Jaimie I’ll be signing up for a lower weight bracket this time. I should do better at middleweight—it’s no good being at the bottom of light heavyweight, by beer belly, when the other competitors in that bracket cut their last few percents of body fat to squeeze down into it!

I also want to work more on my standup—and I miss judo; throwing people is so much fun! I expect BJJ will always be my primary grappling art, both because it’s (also) so much fun and because I expect its lower-impact nature will make it easier on my body in a few decades…but it’s time to learn some judo, damn it. Starting, I hope, in January, I plan to make the journey out to Burnaby, probably twice a week, and the Burnaby Judo Club (a club with a very high reputation; I’ve heard it called the best club in Canada west of Montréal). This will require me to cut down on fencing, alas!—would that I had time to do everything. But let’s face it—grappling is where I have the most skill and currently the most fun; and judo should mesh rather well with BJJ. I may never truly excel at either, but some day in the distant future I want to get good enough at judo to throw all the BJJ-ers, and good enough at BJJ to choke out all the judoka…

But first, enjoy Christmas, get back and work off the Christmas rust and fat, keep addressing my list, go to a second BJJ tournament, and learn a little bit of judo.

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Trying to assess my own game, figure out which positions and techniques I feel comfortable with and which I should focus on. Obviously good enough below doesn’t mean I think I’m an expert, only that given the general level of my game, I’m good enough at certain things that I think I’d be better served by focusing on other things to fill in the biggest gaps.

Every time I roll with someone, I always try to win the first roll, basically rehearsing my “A” game as best I can. (I can’t recall for sure, but I feel like this may be on Kabir’s advice.) This way, I insulate myself a bit from complacency, from getting into the habit of approaching new opponents with a mindset of “Oh, well, whatever happens happens”—no, when I face a new opponent, I’ll try to win and work on my mental attributes (lack of assertiveness, initiative, and activity being some of my weaknesses). After that I’ll relax more, and especially if I happen to be rolling with a beginner and getting a tap fairly quickly, I’ll move to weaker positions and ones I need more work on.

So what’s good enough for now, what needs a bit more polish to get to that level, and what do I feel I ought to focus on, perhaps to improve or perhaps to add?

positiongood enoughneeds workfocus
closed guard (bottom)scissors sweep, cross chokearmbar, triangle, pendulum sweepmove to open guard?
guard (top)basic knee slide passstanding guard passstanding guard pass, stacking pass, another guard break?
open guard (bottom)nothingn/a???
butterfly guard (bottom)nothingn/abasic butterfly sweep, arm drag, cross choke?
half guard (bottom)replace guardtake the back“old school” sweep, knee-shield/bridging sweep
half guard (top)basic pass?some choke?
side control (top)advance to mountbaseball chokebaseball choke, armbar
side control (bottom)replace guardreplace guard (better bridging)running escape
mountcross chokeamericanaarmbar
back mountrear naked chokecollar choke, bow-and-arrow chokearmbar

Obviously I’m not too concerned with inferior positions here, mostly because I feel that my defence is OK. Of course I get tapped out a lot if, for instance, I end up under mount; but that’s kind of the point of mount (and as it happens, I often recover to half guard). Submission defence is not my biggest problem and not what I feel a need to focus on.

The biggest problem right now is my complete lack of an open guard game. This is problematic because, first, everyone’s guard gets broken sometimes and I need options; and second, because as a short-legged and not very flexible player, I gather open guards like butterfly are more likely to work better for me in the long run. The learning curve is a bit steep, though, because they’re so much easier to escape than closed guard at the beginning stages, so I haven’t picked it up. It’s time to focus on it.

I also suffer from a complete lack of a stand-up game. My highest-percentage approach seems to be based on people suspecting I might know some judo, and reinforcing that belief by fighting for judo-style grips, then when they get sufficiently focused on defending those grips, drop for a double leg. Sadly, actually doing judo from the standard ai yotsu grips is beyond me. Once again I wish I had time to pick up judo.

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Most important thing first: Tonight’s competition class, after a moderately hard warmup/conditioning bit, was very mellow and analytical featuring mostly discussion and demonstration. We were a tiny group, so Kabir asked the three (!) of us each to name a particular position, technique, or issue that we wanted to improve. I’ve been dying for a chance to focus on something in that fashion, so I requested escape from side control. This is by a wide margin the position I find most frustration. Sure, I may lose if I end up under mount or back control, but those are very inferior positions; if I end up there, I’m at a great enough disadvantage that in a sense I should lose. And I don’t lack answers, anyway; I’m sort of OK at defending the back and have decent success at replacing half guard from under mount. The frustrating thing about side control is that I feel like I have disproportionate difficulties escaping it.

Take-home points:

  • My escapes need better bridging.
  • Focus on small bridges at first, in order to create a frame, then use the frame to perform the big bridge that will create the space necessary for escape. A big bridge right off the bat means the opponent will just follow you. Small bridges to disrupt, big bridge once you feel it.
  • High percentage escapes: The basic one—bridge, swim left¹ hand under opponent’s armpit, shrimp and flatten, then get to knees and attack double-leg. Running escape—bridge and run.
  • Fun to try: Move orthogonally; shoulder-walk up (direction of your head) to create space to insert knee and replace guard.

The other stuff covered was less relevant to me as it pertained to the other guys’ specific problems, not mine, but there are some things I want to set down in point form to remember:

  1. When passing guard, keep pressure on the guard player’s legs/hips. Don’t leave room for them to use their legs.
  2. Never stand square when passing. Good posture: One knee in (pressure!), elbow in tight, ‘collapse’ that side to leave no space to insert hooks, spider guard, &c.
  3. When playing open guard, priority #1 is to never, ever let the other guy control your legs. Priorities #2 through #8 are also to never, ever let the other guy control your legs. Priority #9 is to always engage both your grips; never leave a hand unused.

On a mostly unrelated note, I feel like another piece is beginning to fall into place in my game: Half guard sweeps. When I first started learning half guard, I learned a number of sweeps, all of which I consistently and spectacularly failed to ever pull off in sparring because I lacked the basic positional skills required to work from half guard—I’d get flattened out, cross-faced, and so on. Years have passed, and my bottom half guard can now frustrate some people for a while; I know to fight to stay on my side, I’ll dive for deep half, and so on. Basically, some positional skills have developed. But those sweeps had been forgotten, and generally I’d leave half guard (if successful) by replacing full guard. Which is okay, but guard is not my strong point, so it’s not tactically brilliant.

Last couple of days I’ve finally mentally dusted off that basic, old-school, reach-under-for-the-shin half guard sweep that everyone learns of day one (of half guard anyway) and I never got anywhere with, and to my mild surprise people have started falling over. I also managed to pull off a slightly fancier sweep we worked yesterday, where a knee shield turns into something like a scissors sweep by bridging over the right¹ shoulder, all the way to forehead posted on mat. (It has a nice follow up if the opponent pushes back hard—draw his sleeve above your head; when you drive his shoulder to the mat, do a backwards roll and come up in side control.)

I am feeling rather acutely the fact that I have no stand-up game whatsoever. That is to say, I have a few stand-up techniques, but a grab-bag of isolated techniques that don’t flow together, and without the basic posture control and entry skills to attack with them in the first place, do not constitute a game. This is where my groundwork was two years ago—I’ve learned very few new techniques, but I’m an order of magnitude better because I can flow. Stand-up? Nothing. My highest-percentage approach is to ostentatiously attempt to set up standard judo grips, and if my opponent obliges by worrying a lot about his lapels that’s a great time to shoot a double. If I succeed and get my grips, though, I have no game; I never hit throws. (Oh, I’ve hit a couple of decent uchimatas against people smaller than myself and with vastly less experience. Come within a parsec or two of my experience level, though, or match me in size, and I’ve got nothing.)

I love judo throws; I’m not a fan of shooting, and I never ever pull guard. (I dislike it æsthetically and combatively, and I’m not a good guard player anyway so it’s hardly to my advantage! I want to land on top. Top half is far better for me than bottom guard.) But I can’t connect judo throws, possibly because I don’t know judo. This fact bothers me, and I really (and increasingly) wish I could train judo as well. Finding time for it would be a bit of a challenge, though. My current schedule has me doing BJJ Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays; fencing Mondays and Saturdays; and Friday evenings I plan to alternate. Thursdays I have to do laundry. This leaves me with, if I calculate correctly, no free days at all on which to do judo. Major drag, and this can’t go on indefinitely. Something’s gotta give, as they say, but I’m really not sure what.

I really, really miss having Scott around, teaching judo at Gracie Barra. I don’t blame them for cancelling the class—attendance was atrocious—but the fact that so few people bothered to show up is not just sad, but kind of disappointing to me. Scott was an excellent instructor, and both enthusiastic and pragmatic (he knew he was teaching judo to BJJ-ers, after all; he aimed for effectiveness rather than ippon purity). My stand-up game would be something else entirely if we still had him around.

¹ Obviously right and left depends on orientation—I always think of a standard, right-side-dominant position where, if I’m on the bottom, my opponent tries to pass to my right; and I write accordingly.

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As a follow-up to my post about the tournament, here’s some footage (thanks to Jaimie!):

My first match, medium heavy (click through to YouTube for description):

My second match, open weight (ditto):

Team highlights, better camera and far better results:

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Although I started BJJ way back in autumn (September?) 2007, and even though it’s a competitive sport, I had until now never once competed. The chief reason is that I’m just not that interested. I’m not naturally athletic, I’m not that talented, I’m unlikely to win anything, and I don’t enjoy competition per se.

But on the other hand there are good reasons for competition. Competitive combat sports are the best martial arts, and by competing you are forced to develop your skills to their highest level. Perhaps some train to compete; for me that’s upside down, and competition is a means to an end. The single biggest weakness I have in my jiu-jitsu is a lack of drive—initiative, assertiveness, determination, will to win. My biggest common mistake is to respond to something not going my way—someone begins to pass my guard, moves to establish knee-on-belly, what have you—with an attitude of resignation: It’s just rolling, after all; doesn’t matter who wins or loses; this isn’t going my way, may as well let him have it. Obviously this won’t do for competition, but it really won’t do if you want to regard the martial art as a martial art. Giving up can never be an option (short of the point of tapping out due to absolute necessity, of course). And I do want to regard my jiu-jitsu as a proper martial art, so I have a great need to cultivate a more determined mindset.

And that’s why I wanted to compete, and go to the competition classes—to learn to fight to win; to apply the techniques I’ve spent years learning aggressively and with purpose; to cultivate the mindset where, win or lose, I will not give an inch without at least trying my best to fight for it. (Win or lose—because there will always be people better at jiu-jitsu than me, but that’s no excuse not to fight as best I can.)

So on October 11, I signed up for the November 5 CBJJF BC Open and started going to the Friday evening Competition Team classes. I was briefly stymied by a minor ringworm infection that kept me out of the gym for a week, but apart from that I trained hard and I trained a lot. With only three weeks to go before the tournament and no prior experience, I decided not to attempt to cut or particularly manage my weight, but go in for the experience and let the chips fall where they may.

I think those three weeks of training improved my game more than any three ordinary months of training ever have. I do not say that it improved my skills¹, because of course I can’t pick up or dramatically improve skills acquired over four years in mere weeks; but it improved my game because it provided both focus, venue, and opportunity to fight to win. I have a long road ahead of me and perhaps it’s still my biggest weakness, but I’ve never before made a focused effort to address it and I am a different jiu-jitsu fighter than I was a mere month ago.

Of the tournament itself, I have less to say. I got up bright and early, ate my usual breakfast as I knew I was in no danger of failing to make weight, caught a train partway and a ride the rest of the way. The tournament started at 9:00 and blue belt divisions were first. I fought in the medium heavyweight bracket (181–195 lbs), which is really too high for me, but that’s a worry for later. My first match turned out to be my only match, against a very tough opponent². He ended up establishing mount pretty early in the match, and despite my best efforts at bumping and shrimping I just couldn’t bump him and couldn’t quite make enough space to get a knee in and improve my position. On the positive side, I never just resigned, and I did survive for several minutes with a strong opponent on top of me without ever giving away either the choke or an armlock; instead I lost (decisively) on points.

I also signed up for the blue belt open division, because why was I there if not to get experience, rack up as many minutes on the competitive mats as I could? This was much later in the day, and by then I was starting to feel rather low energy for the early morning and not having eaten much; there was pizza available, but this didn’t sound like something I’d want in my stomach while fighting, so I stuck to a few bananas, a couple of small whole grain muffins, a protein shake, and some Gatorade; not bad but hardly real food. Still I went in and did what I could. My opponent this time was, I think, a bit lighter than me, but gave every impression of being a good deal more experienced. Just as in my first fight, I ended up in an inferior position pretty quickly. I’m happy to note that I didn’t resign just because he ended up in side, but fought as hard as I damn well could to avoid being flattened out and giving him those positional points (and that positional advantage for submission). Sadly, while I succeeded reasonably well in not being flattened out, I succeeded less well in preventing him from choking me out, and lost to submission.

Still, in spite of 0 for 2, and although it’s possible I may change my mind once I see the video, I felt and feel pretty good about it. So I lost my two fights. I expected to lose my fights; I went to get my first tournament over with and for the experience and for all the improvements I thought I would see thanks to the competition team classes, and I got all that I wanted. In addition, I know that I was disadvantaged in my first fight because I’m effectively fighting above my proper weight class; the cut-off was 181 lbs (in gi), and I weighed in at a mere 183 lbs. (I’m surprised I lost so much weight in just a few weeks of simply eating healthier food; a month ago I weighed in at 190 lbs! A few more months of this and getting below 181 lbs by February will happen automatically, no cutting reqiured.)

I suppose there are three take-home points from this tournament for me, though the first two were already obvious: Viz., that I need to be more aggressive when appropriate, and that I need to improve my escapes from inferior positions, especially mount and side control. The third, though, is this: Tournament fights really aren’t that scary after all. They weren’t really any harder, and not that much more intense, than the rounds we have in competition classes. And in those classes we fight round upon round, back to back; and then I start off already tired from at least one prior class and the warmup for the second class to boot. By comparison, these competition fights aren’t so big a deal! I can do that!

I also felt part of a team in a way I never have before. I’m lousy at team spirit, so if I felt included it means that the team dynamic is operating remarkably well. Funny, that, in a sport that is ultimately individual, where we spend practices strangling each other with gusto… Most particularly, Kabir, a purple belt coach, encouraged me to compete, gave me some advice on game plans, answered questions, and was miscellaneously supportive.

Moving forward, I think I shall compete again. It’s not that I enjoy it so much, although I have to say that I enjoyed the day a great deal more than I had expected; but it worked wonders for my game to prepare for one, and I really don’t think that source has run dry or will any time soon. If I keep training with this kind of mindset, and at least part of the same intensity, I might even begin to feel like I deserve my belt… I also think it will be interesting to see how I perform with a bit more preparation, and after having been on a healthy diet for longer, in a lower weight class. Leaner and meaner, if you will.

¹ I have improved one skill: I have greatly improved my mounted cross choke. After watching this video, I was reminded of or recalled a few details I had been taught before, but tended to forget: Climbing high in the mount, using the first grip to pull the head up to defuse the bump, and crucially, the different way of obtaining the second grip, which tends to take quite a bit of fighting for. Watching Rodrigo also illustrates important principles of using your weight properly. All of a sudden, I went from sinking a mounted cross choke every month or so to getting nine or ten in a night. Before, the mounted cross choke was something I would pretend to go for in the hope of exposing an arm for an americana; now I go for the choke every time and ignore the arm unless it comes on a silver platter.

² When I say that my opponent was tough, this is not inference just from him beating me, but also from watching his fight with Chad. The latter is a member of my school, and has this habit of winning everything—for instance, I gather that he won our weight class and the blue belt open weight division yesterday, and no one is surprised. When Chad beat my opponent by so narrow a margin as 2–0, that qualifies that opponent as tough in my book!

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I really, really should have done this a long time ago—at white belt, when I felt less pressure and because I’d be better now with the experience under my belt. Still, better late than never. After four years of practicing BJJ and disgracefully not competing, it’s time to pop that cherry and compete in the CBJJF BC Open on November 5.

It’s not so much the competition itself—maybe I’ll enjoy it, maybe I won’t; I’m hoping I will but don’t have high hopes (I tend to get too nervous when competing in anything to enjoy it). Still, it will be valuable experience and both the training leading up to the tournament and the tournament itself will force me to address the biggest weakness in my game: The lack of will and drive to win, the tendency when things go south to lie back and go Meh, what does it matter? It’s just rolling. What else—we’ll see.

Wish me luck, and remember me fondly or not at all (don’t waste time on bitterness, people). Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I need a training montage or something.

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Received the third stripe on my blue belt last night. Logging it here for the sake of completeness, as I tend to log my rank progress—I should be happy about it, but I’m not. I feel very keenly that I do not deserve it. Well, I don’t feel like I’ve deserved any BJJ rank at the time it was given; by now I’m pretty sure I do deserve my blue belt, but scarcely more, and certainly not halfway to purple. I can’t help but feel and fear that part of the reason is time served—the instructors can only give so much attention to every individual, after all. I think scrutiny intensifies at purple and brown. (White belts are of course tremendously varied, and blue belts have a very wide range, but purple and brown belts seem invariably very, very solid.) So I feel less flattered or recognised than I do self-conscious and uncomfortable.

Admittedly, I felt a lot more rotten about this than I otherwise might have because I also happened to be rather ill last night and had to sit out the moment sparring began to avoid my lunch resurfacing inopportunely. It’s hard to feel hardcore when, instead of doing the three hours of training I had planned for, I managed a mere forty-five minutes before I had to go home, eat bland food, and go to bed early.

And I suppose there’s no question but that I have improved tremendously since I got my blue belt. In the most general terms I feel that getting to blue for me was mostly a journey of picking up various parts—techniques and theoretical principles—and since then it has mostly been a matter of joining the parts together. I have a rather pathetically small repertoire of techniques, but the ones I have are growing more and more solid, but more than that they are fitting together better and better. Instead of knowing how to execute an armbar and being aware that I should tighten up positions and take away space, I can now execute an armbar while keeping positions tight and taking away space (at least, compared to what my “armbars” used to look like…). It’s much more tactile and flowing; I am better at feeling where things are going, rolling with it, responding, and countering, even if I don’t know specific techniques for it. And while I may speak disparagingly of my small arsenal of techniques, I’m not really concerned about that aspect: I much prefer a small set of moves I know reasonably well to a grab-bag of quarter-assed¹ techniques. And while I may lose a lot of rolls, I don’t think it’s because I don’t know enough techniques. It’s a deep and wide game with enormous variety, but it’s amazing how many fancy moves I don’t know that I can still shut down by simply working fundamentals like keeping a solid base and my arms in tight.

Still, I’ve a long way to go before I feel comfortable wearing a belt with three stripes on it (if it’s blue), or before I feel like I can hang with the average guy wearing the same belt—this latter being why I feel so uncomfortable with it. I’d much rather be the guy of whom it is asked, Why doesn’t he have (some rank) yet? than Why does he have (some rank)?, but I fit much better in the latter category, alas.

I also feel very self-conscious of the fact that in four years of BJJ I haven’t competed even once. I really, really should. Aggression (when appropriate), initiative, and plain drive to win are major factors missing from my game, and I find it difficult to conjure them up in friendly training. Even an informal training-structured-as-tournament, where it’s clear that my aim is to try to win rather than practice, brings pretty big changes into my game. I’m better when I’m trying to win (surprise!); when I treat rolling as “Well, we’re just rolling” it’s so easy to get lazy, to meet strength and aggression with an attitude of “it doesn’t matter who wins, so I may as well roll over and work from my back”. True as far as it goes, but horrible when entrenched as a habit. All of this, I think, would be well addressed by competing—and by simply training for competition.

On the other hand competing in itself has no appeal for me. I want to have done it, and I want the benefits I’d get from it, but competition itself? For fuck’s sake, I always had trouble getting over my nerves in junior chess competitions! That does not bode well for a higher-stakes competition where people actually watch, and although life is not at stake, limbs sort of are… I also feel that it’s sort of pointless to compete when I know that I’m pretty lousy for my rank and weight bracket (I am over-ranked and overweight—I mean, I’m not obese or anything, but in a sport where people cut weight, I’m quite a few beers above where I ought to be). It would feel sort of odd competing when, realistically, it’s no competition—I know I’d almost certainly lose my first match. Making matters worse, if I did compete I’d be wearing a Gracie Barra gi and publically lowering the average level of Gracie Barra competitors. The matches are individual but there’s a team element, a team spirit (and sometimes team awards). I don’t want to join a team only to provide a new weakest link.

¹ My current techniques are half-assed; ergo, the techniques that look half-assed relative to my current level must be quarter-assed.

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  1. Bottom side control: Ye gods, I need to work on side control escapes. A lot. All of them.

  2. Top side control: Back to basic subs—work the baseball choke; it’s been far too long.

  3. Guard: Pendulum/flower sweep.

  4. All offensive positions: Armbars.

  5. Generally: Learn to deal with athletic opponents. I’m not feeling too bad about my ability to deal with skill; of course I lose to more skilled opponents, but that’s the whole point and meaning of their being more skilled! My game does not fall apart just because I am outmatched, and sometimes I manage feats of defence that I’m fairly proud of, even if they happen to be against opponents who will certainly beat me: If I manage to thwart one or two attacks…

    However, against opponents with superior athleticism, I do fall apart. With nearly three years of training under my belt, an athletic new whitebelt oughtn’t really be a challenge, but they are—oh, they are. It’s my natural tendency to be (too) slow, (too) passive, and (too) reactive. An opponent who is strong, fast, and explosive is a laser-guided missile aimed at my weakest spot, and I have inordinate difficulty with opponents whose knowledge I eclipse, but whose athleticism I fail to match. I shouldn’t be such a slouch: I’ll never be very strong, but I’m not that weak. I just fail to step my game up. This is a terrible weakness, and one which I don’t know how to address.

    Figure out how to deal with these guys. I’m honestly ashamed at how bad I am at it. It’s also the one thing where, even though I’m sitting down to think about it, I don’t have any solid ideas on how to address it. Time to talk to an instructor.

    Update: As this was cross-posted to Facebook, Kabir, a purple belt from my gym, had this to say. He’s been prone to giving occasional bits of very good advice, so I strongly feel I should include it here to refer back to:

    i had the same problem with athletic guys and being passive. i think it really comes down to being lazy. gariano once told me that with any new guy,my first goal should be to go hard and try to submit them as fast as possible and work down that path, THEN i can play that passive playfful game. its all a mentality.

  6. Bottom half guard: I’m good at getting to a position close to the basic deep half, punch-to-the-sky sweep, and okay at setting it up, but terrible at finishing it. Thought: I need to stay on my side turned into them until I go for it, then turn 180° and punch up: This should provide the power I am usually missing. Alternatively, play with using more leg than arm.


  1. Continue to work on the things I’m already working on: Improve forward guards and commitment to lunges. I don’t feel a need to clarify this in a post mostly for my own benefit: I know what my problems are; I know how to work on them; I’m already working on them; I’m making progress—I’m just not there yet. (Still, I’ve improved or I’d have failed the exam again.)

  2. Learn to deal with taller opponents who can easily overpower me by means of naturally superior leverage. I asked Greg for advice, and came away with some things to keep in mind—the primary admonition was to pay attention to tempo and leverage.

    • Leverage: Be sure to push my forte in very strongly: My guard on their debole!
    • Tempo: When an opponent makes strong parries, use this tempo to disengage or strike
    • As an alternative to disengaging around a strong parry, follow it and strike around it by taking a step to the (same) side.
    • Use the familiar method of forcing the blade down. (I find this difficult with opponents who gain superior leverage more by height and so superior blade position, rather than using a lot of strength.) Use the offhand to stay safe.
    • Threaten low. Use the tempo of the opponent’s lowering their sword; in that tempo find the now-accessible blade and strike.
    • Stringere with the offhand.
    • Use prima when, as Greg put it, seconda runs out of steam. I like this idea and should like to play with it.
    • Take-home lessons: Keep working on tempo (was already trying, just not doing well); focus on getting a very strong find; don’t be ashamed to bring the offhand in to help; and try prima.

Beyond that, of course: Learn new material now that I’ll be doing blue cord classes! Some of which, like voids, will doubtless come in handy when facing opponents who use strength. (This coming month, though, I gather this new material will be sidesword.)

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Martial arts practice without sparring is useless: You can’t learn martial arts skills to a useful degree unless you practice them against resisting opponents who not only try to stop you from landing your techniques, but in fact do their damnedest to not even let you get started and try to get you, first. However, sparring is not fighting. There’s surely a place for sparring where you simply do your best to win, working on your strong techniques, a gameplan, and keeping pressure up, but day-to-day sparring is a learning experience not a fight. This means

  • You don’t treat it like a fight mentally: Winning and losing doesn’t matter
  • You need to work on honing your strong techniques, but sparring is equally for ironing out the weak parts in your game, filling the holes, playing with new techniques, and trying out gameplans

In BJJ, one of the (many) weak parts of my game has been guard. Previously, when I had someone in my guard I mostly stuck to submission attempts, but I’m not very good at guard submissions: I’m better on top, so the logical course of action is to sweep and achieve a top position. However, I was terrible at all sweeps. Thus, for the past six months or so, I have tried to focus as much as possible on sweeps and positional progression. In particular, I have worked the scissor sweep (my least bad sweep). Since it was a weak technique, it was pretty hopeless against anyone close to my own general skill level. A blue belt was a sure sign that you were immune to my sweep. So, when I go to fundamentals classes and roll with beginners, I have been trying to sweep them as much as I possibly can. It’s finally at a level where I am starting to feel satisfied, not that I have a great sweep but that it is no longer a horrible, particularly weak part of my game. I realised this when I managed to give someone a bit of airtime with a sweep last night; but, too, I have spent a lot more time in top mount recently, presumably because I have learned how to get there.

Time to work some other sweeps. Once I feel competent (to the general level of my game), time for submissions, but right now: The other sweeps.

I also need to continue my quest of having two complementary moves in every position. Jiu-jitsu is not a game where you can always force a certain technique. If I achieve top position and you have your hands up to protect your neck (competently), I can’t choke you. This doesn’t make me helpless—it just means I have to try something else, like a attacking an arm; and if you remove the arm to protect it, you may open up a hole where I can attempt a choke. From bottom half guard, I generally aim for deep half underhooking the near leg and far arm, for a sweep; my opponent will often flatten me out, but then I use the distance that gives me to replace guard. In full guard, I’ll go for a cross choke; my opponent will of course bring an arm in to defend the choke, which gives me a chance to snatch the sleeve and try a sweep. And so on. I want to have something like this in every position: One thing to go for, so that the defence against it gives me an opportunity for something else, back and forth.

Of course, this is tricky because BJJ has so damn many possible positions. For a basic game you need some competence in both top and bottom position of full guard (open and closed), half guard, side control, knee-on-belly, north/south, mount, turtle and butterfly; you’ll probably want to know what to do with spider guard, sit-up guard, maybe some fancy stuff like De La Riva, and so on. This gives me about twenty positions to have two actions each for…

I also need to improve my stand-up, which mostly comes to going for it: Ouchi/harai or ouchi/uchimata combos in gi, and go for some fucking double-legs in no-gi.

In fencing, I also have some objectives. They are based directly on feedback from tests and so on; primarily I need to work on my posture (stay profiled, and lean properly) and on taking opportunities to lunge rather than hesitating. Secondarily, some footwork issues.

This is a rather smaller set of objectives than I have in BJJ. Partially it may be because I am newer to fencing, but I think mostly it is because jiu-jitsu is a vastly more complicated game. I’m not saying it’s harder, just less complex. For starters, rather than the twenty-ish positions I can be in relative to my jiu-jitsu opponent, in rapier fencing there are two basic positions: “Face to face with swords pointing at each other” and “someone already fucked up”. The former is subdivided into a few measures (out of measure, largissima, larga, stretta, and strettissima), but that’s still a much simpler set of relative positions. Similarly, there’s a much smaller set of attacks, with the lunge being bread-and-butter, and a few cuts occasionally entering the picture; you basically only use your hands, and only in certain ways—compared to BJJ, where you use arms, legs, and even your head for leverage (five body parts times twenty or so positions, not counting the very important factor of hip pressure and weight distribution), and where you have to worry about joint locks to shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees, ankles, and neck, as well as chokes from every conceivable position and some that are barely even conceivable.

BJJ is a game with enormous breadth and depth. Fencing is, relatively speaking, more like boxing—a game with a few techniques. Of course, since your opponent knows those same few techniques, you will need to polish them to a very high level of refinement: I’m not saying that either is easier than the other, but improvement feels different in certain key ways. I’m glad to have both.

Returning from that tangent, I feel that focusing on techniques is much easier in rapier than it is in BJJ. If I want to work on, say, my pendulum sweeps, I first need to get my opponent into my guard, rather than in any of two dozen other possible positions; and second, I need to make them vulnerable to a sweep by threatening with an attack that off-balances them. If I want to work on baratoplatas or mounted triangles, I need to achieve top mount first—which they will resist tooth and nail—and then if I fail I may lose my position and have to start over. In fencing, a ‘reset’ is much more total, and I end up in a more predictable position where I can launch into whatever I want to attempt. I find this very satisfying in a sharply honed¹, detached sort of way; whereas jiu-jitsu is more fun, but so much harder to deconstruct that the satisfaction of deliberate and organised progress (which is just as rewarding as having fun, though different) is harder to achieve.

Todo items, BJJ:

  1. Stop scissor-sweeping beginners; the sweep is good enough to try on better people (and fail and fail and fail until I polish it further). Instead work other sweeps: Pendulum and bump.
  2. Start scissor-sweeping people who aren’t beginners.
  3. When fighting beginners, try more submissions from mount. In particular, see if I can actually land a baratoplata. I like it.
  4. Against anybody, work on the deep halfguard sweep; learn to be sufficiently explosive to actually sweep rather than merely cause a reaction.
  5. Against very raw beginners, start working butterfly. I am absolutely terrible at it.
  6. Think about two actions in each situation.
  7. In gi standup, sweep and commit more to throws.
  8. In no-gi standup, shoot, shoot, shoot!

This may be too many to keep in mind while sparring. I may need to mentally work on it.

Todo items, fencing:

  1. Posture, posture, posture! Stand profiled, and lean forward properly in forward guards.
  2. Lunge more, hesitate less. Even if I am likely to get countered, go for it anyway. Never lunging means never learning to lunge.
  3. When the swords start to rise in misguided disengage cycles, go for the forearm.
  4. Don’t stomp. It is not a stomping sport.

¹ Pun intended

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Sometimes I feel like I’ve made more progress in the past year than the first two—maybe more progress in the past six months than the two and a half years up to that point. This is, of course, both subjective and fallacious, but I find it interesting and noteworthy nonetheless. I feel as though all the time up to, well, recently, was spent learning various pieces: This or that submission or sweep, some understanding of balance, a bit of sensitivity to the opponent’s movement—but each piece in isolation. Now, at last, these pieces are beginning to fit together.

And it shows—in the past year I’ve gone from submissions being rare against anyone to being able to submit beginners more or less at will¹, and scoring submissions on other people in the general junior bluebelt area, certainly not with any regularity, but at least more than once in a blue moon…

Please don’t get me wrong—I am not overcome with sudden hubris. I still lose an awful lot of sparring rounds, and remain fully cogniscant of the fact that most of the people who started around the same time as I did, are now at higher ranks and much higher skill levels; many people who are around, or above, my own level, started after I did. But for all that I am untalented, my skills are clearly (though slowly) growing.

I also notice that my once enormous problem of passivity is, if not quite gone, then at least greatly diminished. I tend to hesitate and wait too much against some people, but these are people who I know will beat me in spite of my best efforts on a good day: When I’m sparring with an instructor like John, for instance, it’s not a question of whether I’ll tap out, but how many times in a five-minute round, and how many of those times will be to comedy moves like gratuitous wrist locks or double armbars. With people like that, I hesitate, for some reason… But with most people (even a fair number of people who I know will always beat me handily), I now actively work, which represents a lot of progress in itself.

Speaking of John as an instructor, I find it extremely useful to have an instructor whose body type is somewhat similar to my own: We’re about the same height and weight, and (importantly) pretty close in leg length. He’s a lot stronger than I am, but nonetheless we’re similar enough that techniques that he favours often work for me as well. (A long-legged, lanky guy like Evan favours a lot of triangles and guard techniques that I would find challenging on the basis of physiology alone.) I had occasion today to remark that out of the three techniques I usually get submissions with, two of them are techniques I learned from John within the last few months: A choke from side mount (in gi), and the north/south choke (in no-gi). The third is the americana—a long-time staple of mine. (Those are my three reasonably high-percentage finishes; throw in a sprinkling of other moves, like RNCs, bow-and-arrow chokes, kimuras, and so forth. …I hardly ever seen to get armbars.)

¹ That is, I expect I could submit beginners more or less at will of I tried. In fact, I don’t try—when I spar with beginners, I prefer to work on my weakest techniques, like sweeps, mostly because I can only ever make them work against beginners and need time to practice them.


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