Recently Rickson Gracie commented that modern Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is in danger of losing its self defence roots. A comment that has ruffled some feathers. Feathers should always be ruffled. He is not the lone voice in this regard and the sport-art of BJJ is not the only martial art system that is suffering because of an excessive emphasis on sport or stylistic doctrine.
Rickson and his family were instrumental in bringing their national and in many ways family style of Jiu Jitsu to the world. Grappling and submissions certainly did exist long before them. But it was with their dedication and philosophy that the world was able to see the true importance of ground work for fight training. It was an impression that was left so deep that no one can imagine a time before. But there was and in that time, it was assumed that the striker would near always win. Despite historical matches between boxers and wrestlers or judoka versus karateka often ending with the superior thrower and breaker of things being most often dominant. But belief and the fictional imagery of movies had a powerful resonation.
In the past most martial arts at best offered a very simplistic appreciation for grappling and ground work, certainly Judo, wrestling, Sambo etc had all lurked inside of obscurity. It was with challenge matches and Vale Tudo competition that the Gracie family helped to showcase the importance of a solid submission game. National rivals such as Lutre Livre and various shoot or catch fighters also had success, none were as symbolic or successful as the Gracie family and their Jiu Jitsu fighters. It would be with the first UFC that the world would see with the unassuming Royce Gracie that form, composure and technique were enough to vanquish powerful men of varying styles in unarmed combat. To prove it was not a mistake Royce would repeat his performances as would many of his relatives and comrades of the art.
As the 1990s slid into the 2000s NHB and few rules competition rationalised into Mixed Martial Arts, a clumsy name that helped legitimise the sport with law makers while also confusing the very nature of what the competition was about. Fighting. It was not a hybrid or mish mash of martial arts. Other combat sports also thrived thanks to the MMA-NHB boom, it was only among the stalwarts of boxing that any threat was felt. Grappling developed into its own elite level of competition, the world over thanks to Abu Dhabi and other prestigious events the sport of gi and no gi grappling would grow BJJ especially across the globe. The eldest Gracie brother Rorion had worked hard to bring Jiu Jitsu to the world, his 1987 Playboy interview would seem like another life time away as academies and gyms proliferated thanks to the MMA boom.
Even as most BJJ gyms meandered down a very specific path of nearly all focus being on grappling competition, the masculine prestige of MMA lingered with the BJJ brand. It was in many minds assumed that BJJ was essential or all that one needed to posses in the arena of few rules. As fight gyms and self defence academies evolved and adhered to the lessons observed inside the cage, a comprehensive method of understanding was often developed for fighting. Furthermore it was the cross training of grappling athletes and MMA fighters who would help to entwine this linkage.
Inside the ranks of many grappling and BJJ academies a fixation with grappling only and floor work became doctrinal. The inverse had happened. Because of the initial supremacy of many grappling arts, notably BJJ a brand loyalty developed into a religious fervour. Stand up and striking were simplified, while the ground was over complicated. Just as the reverse had been true before the NHB boom, it was now many of the grapplers who through selective observation ignored the lessons of the cage or even CCTV. Grappling or Jiu Jitsu was a super skill set, whereas all the other aspects of fighting were crude and lacking any depth or power philosophy. A cognitive dissonance that was perpetuated by the success of the sport of grappling, now standing out as an elite level competition. Instead of fighting being its own thing, grappling being another combat sport a good many simply assumed that the attributes of sports Jiu Jitsu would have instant relatability for the cage or far worse. A belief, the imagery of past exploits of courageous men still resonated within the community.
One could somehow attain a black belt in MMA or shootfighting (both combat sports mind you) without ever competiting in either, in a year or few. Yet, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu belt gradings would take far longer and be considered a much more prestigious mantle to attain. And it was often BJJ associations and figureheads who would be granting these belts in MMA or Shootfighting, with anointed authority. Again, the ground was sacred and the gi revered , yet what happened inside the cage was simplistic and inside of many minds it was the dominion of the BJJer to achieve absolute success.
Except, even by the mid to late 1990s a swing had happened. Wrestlers entered the mix, strikers learned to sprawl and Pat Miletich. Many UFC and their rival events began to show that the BJJ fighter was not all dominant, Maurice Smith would head kick TKO Black belt Conan Silveria, Kazushi Sakuraba would become known as the Gracie hunter and Mark Kerr would grind, bash and butt his BJJ foes on home turf inside the Vale Tudo ring. By 1999, few that were serious about fighting thought that a gi clad BJJ black belt could now reign supreme inside the arena. It was known by any serious MMA fighter, that one needed to train MMA to do well in it.
NHB had matured, it stopped being about styles or infomercial space for a martial art brand. It was about fighting, the fighters and what worked best when and where. The Croatian Sensation, as Pat Miletich was known fought with a style the in many ways would become the prototype for the modern MMA fighter. He was not over geared in any one direction, balanced. A complete fighter. And as would be the necessity of all MMA fighters, he could speak the language of the other combat sports. If a wrestler training for the Olympics needed to scramble, a Pat could do it. When an Antwun Echols needed to train for a Bernard Hopkins, Pat could give him some rounds, just as well as he could with a K-1 guy. And if a BJJ grappler was preparing for an Abu Dhabi comp, then Pat could also do that with him. But none or few of them could spar him at any serious level in MMA. That was the point. He was simply a fighter.
The period of the pure wrestler, BJJer, Boxer and so on doing well at any level inside few rules competition were vastly running out. In many ways, Rorion Gracie and his other brothers had done their job. Many had adopted and valued the ground to such an extent that for any serious fighter it was as important to fighting as punching. But as the sport of grappling developed too, many BJJ academies almost exclusively focussed on that sort of competition. The high level grapplers were still sought to help sharpen the MMA fighters, just as were striking coaches and the likes. Grappling had finally become an elite sport on its own, taken serious by more people in the wider public. It is perhaps the fastest growing sport in many regards, to imagine this before 1993 was hard. The beauty of grappling and submissions now is shared by many to the point of excess in some cases. For sport, there is never excess. For the utility in self defence, singular bias leads to failure.
The violent call to do battle with bare knuckles for honour and to uphold the art or family name slowly began to erode. To watch a Rickson Gracie dismantle a trained fighter, with skill and bravado almost would seem crude and boorish to many of the new followers of the grappling cult. To watch one of the forefathers of their faith bash and pound a Funaki into yielding could seem alien. And to watch such display of pure control and skill is lost on some, one needs only read the comment section beneath a video to see how many times Jiu Jitsu is mentioned, how often the fighters brawling or locked in raw combat are criticised by the virgin on the outside declaring how poor that their technique at Jiu Jitsu is. They are fighting, it is not Jiu Jitsu, certainly not the BJJ that the keyboard warrior knows. And to see them condemn a Rickson Gracie, declaring him to be obsolete or lacking in good modern technique encapsulates the tribalism of generational arrogance. Without men like him, likely they would never have heard of Jiu Jitsu nor experienced it. Unlike much of what the modern critic practices today, Rickson and his brothers fought to show how the smaller person could over come a larger violent threat. That is the essence of all martial arts. All combat sports. Violence. Good form over violent strength.
The ability to navigate horrible, deadly and competitive violence is the opening mission statement of all styles, systems, arts. Combat Sports began as a way of instilling the attributes and elements necessary for combat, they confirmed the training. Though each sport steered in a certain direction to support a bias. Tae Kwon Do favoured kicks, Judo throws, Boxing punches and so on. In time the lucrative entertainment side of these sports would press the competition far away from its origins. MMA included. Just as the sport of MMA has many elements that are not necessarily relatable to the street, battlefield or even bedroom it does have many lessons for all of us to observe.
Beyond MMA lurks less than mainstream sports of 5 on 5 combat or even armoured weapon fighting that shows the importance of every aspect and attribute that many were already aware of. But these sports are fetishes only favoured in Eastern cultures. Their appeal as an entertainment and marketable medium is less than what one can gain from MMA or the other fight sports. Regardless the lessons one can gain from competing and watching them is immense. Too long on the ground against a several aggressive foes is dangerous, and a lack of mobility against a sword can be deadly. The lesson from every combat sport is that we can always know more.
Those with a mind for individual self preservation can still look to each of these sports with honest eyes and gain from the shared experiences, not only of their own, but each competitors. Unfortunately as important as self defence truly is, its now merely an aside. Many who walk through the doors of a dojo want to practice a sport that they likely will never play, or will do so as a tourist, they will seek it for confidence, fitness or as a hobby. The cultist energy of the realm will likely engulf them and without any evidence they will assume that their art is all that they need. That some how the ugly predators will see the aura about them and steer clear. Delusions of the comfortable. John Danaher, on the Joe Rogan experienced commented that most Jiu Jitsu players had ignored the legs. They were denying themselves access to half the body. An imposition that hurt their overall game. Imagine how fighters view pure grapplers or pure strikers who ignore the many other aspects of one on one combat. Nothing wrong with leg locks, nothing wrong with head kicks. Those who trained fighting never said there was, in the first place. The debates exist inside the bias ranks of singular martial arts and other fraternities.
To those who look back at men like Rickson Gracie, Pat Miletich or a Frank Shamrock with disdain, shame on them. Whether it is from envy or ignorance most modern day detractors were likely not around in that era, they did not understand the World then. What knowledge or declared Jiu Jitsu supremacy they have now was thanks to warriors like Rickson who dared to step into the ring and fight few or no rules, to accept challenge matches, to fight in the streets, on the beaches. Outside the comfort of grappling only conditions most have no idea or clue how their skills would measure up to even the gentler realm of the modern day MMA cage. To imagine many modern martial artists stepping inside a strangers dojo fighting with no rules is unlikely, to imagine them fighting Vale Tudo in a blood soaked tropical ring is out of the question. Instead they likely will disregard the legacy and lessons afforded to us all now, by those who risked and dared.
Rickson Gracie is right, as he often was, but its not just Jiu Jitsu. Most have gone down this path of sports only. Those who claim to be solely focused on self defence as a contrast are usually doctrinal and certificate ridden. It is all a real mess. The only solution is for the individual to know what they want. If you want to learn how to fight, seek a fighter. If you wish to learn how to play a sport, then go there. If you want fitness, fun or all those other bubbles of delight then go forth and enjoy. The belt, the excessive emphasis on sport or the lack of any competitive trial all go hand in hand to breed ignorance. The legacy of the past should be to enlighten us. Not to perpetuate bias and ignorance with a vile twist of arrogance. Afterall how do you know how you could fight a violent man inside the cage, if you never have? How do you know how you would survive against six thugs in an alleyway if you dare not climb from your comfortable setting and train for that scary reality.
If all that you seek is sporting competition, then there is no fault in that. If you wish to indulge in the spiritual and community aspects of martial arts, one can’t fault you in enjoying such an experience. Nothing is wrong with any of that. We get from training what we focus and put into it. If we neglect and lack any self defence then it is likely that given certain situations, whatever they may be then the investment and naïve assumptions would have failed. Only practicing kata or just training complicated sport grappling motions can fail you should you wake up to a violent attack. Self Defence should be taken more seriously, it is after all what all of the martial arts and combat sports really was about.
Kym Robinson, June 2019