I have been practicing Jiu-Jitsu for over two decades. Like many from the 90’s, what inspired me to start was watching Royce Gracie in those first UFC’s beating all comers, especially opponent who were much larger and stronger than him. I’ll be honest too, while I was impressed, I wasn’t totally convinced either.
Already an accomplished fighter in my own right, I thought, “well these guys Royce are fighting, aren’t very good strikers, I doubt he could do that against someone who really has a world class striking game”. It wasn’t even a year after that utterance that I had to eat my words. A chance encounter with an American, Steve Boyd, while I was hosting a seminar at my Academy in Braamfontien South Africa changed all of that. Steve, who was then a blue belt under Rickson Gracie, suggested I do my best to work my stand up, and he will simply close the distance and choke me out. I did pretty well, and held him off for sometime — he ate a lot of strikes too — but once he got hold of me, and we were on the ground I was lost. I struggled as much as I could, but in the end he chocked me out (thank goodness for tapping). I knew then and there, as I am sure many did back then, that this was something I had to learn.
I Never Started Jits to Compete
My reasoning for learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) was somewhat selfish. I was still at that time heavily embedded in the seedy underworld of bouncing. Working the door, in some of the roughest night clubs, in one of the most violent cities in the world Johannesburg. For me, any ‘martial’ upper hand I could get was always welcome. Steve showed me as much as he could on that first trip, and I began to practice. From the very beginning the way I thought about, learned and practiced BJJ was first and foremost as a self-preservation system. Even to this day, this still remains my primary focus. While I love watching competitive jiu-jitsu and try my hand at the Berimbolo on the mat at times — in my heart, my love of jiu-Jitsu is in its real world application in self-preservation.
In fact, it wasn’t long after the experience with Steve that I was taken down while working the door by, what I would later hear was a wrestler. The little I knew about the guard that night, plus almost tearing his hair from his scalp, allowed me to get back to my feet, before the rest of his buddies began to tear into me. There were two lessons that night, when you find yourself on the ground, you absolutely need the the understanding of jiu-jitsu. Secondly, when outnumbered, it may be a good idea to get back to your feet.
Sadly, when we reflect on BJJ for self-preservation these days I have noticed an attitude in many BJJ Academies that concerns me. There is often a ‘purest attitude’ that all fights can and will be won with grappling skills alone. In this respect many Academies teach only grappling, with few Academies today giving the self-preservation aspect of BJJ the time it deserves. Things have also dramatically changed since those first Gracie Challenge matches. People now know grappling as an integral part of the fight game, and finding a teacher isn’t that difficult. The upper hand we all once enjoyed in the early 90’s of beating other martial artists with years of experience with only 6-months of BJJ under our belts, pretty much no longer exists.
The Art of The Forgotten ‘Punch’ in Jiu-Jitsu
Even with undeniable effectiveness of jiu-jitsu, some things have been conveniently overlooked from the days of the Gracie Challenge matches. While there were of course exceptions, many of those matches were won by striking first, and then putting the submission on later. If you go back and watch those matches (most of them are freely available on YouTube), you will see while jiu-jitsu (i.e., grappling) won, it wasn’t always that easy. Some of those matches went on for some time before a submission could be secured. In those matches the victory went to the jiu-jitsu player, who understood positional control, who had the endurance for the ground game, and the patience to ride the storm of incoming attacks. But what stands out for me in many of these matches, was once a dominant position was achieved, it was often preceded with strikes to force the opponent into making a mistake (such as turning their back) that allowed for the submission to be put on so effectively.
My point is, at least from the inception of jiu-jitsu as we all came to know it in the early 90’s, via both those Gracie Challenge matches, and of course the first UFC’s – striking was always part of the jiu-jitsu game. In this sense it wasn’t just about avoiding those strikes, but equally often using strikes to gain the submission advantage itself. In a real fight, one where you have no choice but to protect yourself, fights may or may not go to the ground. Unless you were sitting down, lying on a beach or asleep in your bed, pretty much all potential interpersonal violent encounters start standing up. You invariably then need to know how to deal with this reality. In this reality, opponents hit back Iin fact people will hit back no matter where you find yourself. This by no means makes jiu-jitsu any less effective as it has been claimed to be, but pragmatically, to suggest jiu-jitsu alone is an all encompassing answer, and all that is needed to survive interpersonal violence, isn’t entirely true.
Throw strikes, takedowns, and grappling together and you have MMA. Of course there are many jiu-jitsu players that cross train this way (and it’s a really good thing). But there are also equally as much, probably if not more, who only roll — never concerning themselves with either taking a punch or having to give one out. I have heard a few black belts too, say that all you need is jiu-jitsu to defend yourself. What they are really saying is grappling alone is all that is needed. However just like MMA, just rolling isn’t the street. I experience this in my own Academy too. I have students who only come to jiu-jitsu and do no other cross training, they only grapple. But if you sit down with them, and ask them why they chose jiu-jitsu, outside of the health benefits, personal challenge etc, the number one reason that comes up is self-protection.
Coming from the streets myself, I never sipped the Kool aid that all fights go to the ground, and that all fights are won solely with submissions. I don’t believe those who fought in those challenge matches really believed that either, because very few of those matches were ever won purely with a submission alone and without a strike ever being thrown. Outside of having positional dominance, many of those fights (not all) were won by using a series of strikes to make the opponent panic and open themselves completely up to becoming submitted. I am not saying that a ‘fight’ cannot be won purely with jiu-jitsu without ever throwing a punch yourself, because it is of course possible — but I am simply pointing out an important observation.
I think as jiu-jitsu instructors we need to be careful that we don’t over state the effectiveness of what we teach, or suggest competitive style jits is the answer to self protection. While grappling is an undeniable crucial component of self-preservation, it’s only one aspect of the totality of fighting. It isn’t that easy simply to beat someone with a submission today, just as it wasn’t that easy back then in those challenge matches when the other side was striking back. I would say its even harder today, because so many people in martial arts have some understanding of the grappling game.
This is why in my Academy, and knowing that my students are equally there to learn how to protect themselves, self-preservation has always been an integral part of what I teach in my jiu-jitsu program. When you are confronted with an aggressive opponent who is striking at you, knowing how to deal with that is crucial, and you won’t learn how to do that simply by slapping hands and bumping fists from your knees. While my focus in what I call my Street Jits class is ultimately about applying the grappling game, along with submissions to end an interpersonal violent encounter, I am pragmatic about what that will actually entail (and yes, it may mean learning some striking too).
Rolling on the mat, all warmed up, is not the same as defending myself on the hard, uncompromising asphalt with my kids next to me (and this goes for MMA too). Don’t get me wrong, rolling in the Academy is absolutely crucial to self-preservation survival, because it is the place you learn to control position, use leverage, develop timing, endurance, patience, and to apply submissions — but not matter what it is still not the whole picture when it comes to self-preservation.
The truth is for the ‘street’ you have to modify a lot of things. There’s the real fact that you may not want to get embroiled in an altercation in the first place (as noted if I had my kids with me). Here your verbal jiu-jitsu skills becomes far more relevant than your Donkey guard. In addition outside of having to deal with environmental obstacles like cars, tables, chairs, and other people, you also have to deal with someone trying to punch you as hard as they possibly can in the face. Again, not something most jiu-jitsu players ever contend with, and or even try to train for in the Academy. To suggest just through rolling you will know this, is ludicrous.
In addition, while one of the obvious strengths in jiu-jitsu is the ability to control an opponent and get him to the ground, some takedowns that are beautiful in the Academy on the padded mat, will rip your knees right out from under you, if you tried to do them on asphalt. So again knowing how to adjust your takedowns for a ‘street’ environment is crucial. In the same light, inverting your guard in a roll is a pain in the butt for your opponent to deal with, unless its now on the street where he picks up a brick and slams it as hard as he can into your face.
In a roll in the Academy you want to be on the ground, but the truth is, on the street this may not always be the best option. Outside of some of the reasons highlighted thus far, sadly, if we want to admit it or not in jiu-jitsu there has never been a convincing way to beat multiple opponents off your back. Like it or not, when outnumbered, you may want to keep that fight standing (or if taken down find a way to get back quickly to your feet) — while applying more stand up grappling skills like arm-drags, clothing controls etc to avoid being slaughtered.
And while you ultimately want to end an altercation, with the least amount of damage to yourself, while submitting your attacker, you may have no choice but to use strikes to quickly achieve that outcome. All of these points I have raised have to be trained for. To assume otherwise, to assume that just rolling in the Academy is enough is to invite death. I haven’t even highlighted the real threat of weapons coming into play.
Rolling on the mat, should therefore be balanced with how those skills would ultimately look like if done on the street. A lot of competitive style moves are simply not feasible in an all out interpersonal violent encounter, where life and death are hanging in the balance. This in no way diminishes the real need not only for a ground game, but its effectiveness. Having a ‘street jits’ game isn’t simply a luxury, but a necessity — especially if at the end of the day, you want to learn jiu-jitsu for self protection or teach it as such.
All my students, and those who teach for me love rolling, we do it every single day — but they also know what and how to apply those skills for interpersonal violence. In this way we honour both the beautiful art we have all come to love, but at the same time, know how to martial the game when our lives are on the line!
Check out my downloadable Street Jits seminar, where I teach some formative ideas on the topic.