Martial arts have always been inherently conservative, provincial, and resistant to both change and “outsiders.” By protecting their “trade secrets” while demanding allegiance (and fees) from their students, those who invent new systems are able to carve out a business for themselves and maintain an edge on their competitors. This has certainly been the model of Brazilian jiu jitsu in general and Gracie jiu jitsu more specifically. The recent chorus of complaints voiced by the luminaries of jiu jitsu about the 50/50 guard, the rubber guard, double guard pulling, the berimbolo, the lapel guard, and “point fighting”--to name but a few of the things that are allegedly spoiling or ruining the system we are misleadingly told the Gracies single-handedly built (see here and here)—is a perfect example of the type of conservativism I want both to highlight and criticize.
Back in the early days of the Gracies, one clear example of this misplaced conservativism can be found in how leg locks were viewed. To see what I have in mind, consider how Oswaldo Fadda and his students were treated by the Gracies. While the Gracies were busy catering to the upper classes in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Fadda was teaching jiu jitsu to Brazil’s poor. Because kimonos are expensive (both to purchase and to keep clean), Fadda focused on what we now call Luta Livre (or jiu jitsu sem kimono). Because Fadda didn’t charge tuition and because he held practices in public places, from the outset he was dismissed as an outsider by the Gracies. Yet, by the 1950s, Fadda had enough students to open an academy on the outskirts of Rio—where he trained an outstanding group of grapplers.
Shortly thereafter, Fadda issued the following challenge in one of the leading papers in Brazil (namely, Globo Journal): “We wish to challenge the Gracies, we respect them as the formidable adversaries they are but we do not fear them. We have 20 pupils ready for the challenge.” The Gracies unsurprisingly accepted the challenge fully confident they would once again establish the superiority of their fighting system. Instead, Fadda’s students relied largely on footlocks—which are an important aspect of traditional jiu jitsu and catch wrestling the Gracies have historically neglected (even to this day)—to clean house. Making the Gracies’ poor showing all the worse, the challenge took place at their vaunted Gracie Academy. Before the day was done, not only had Fadda bested the great Hélio Gracie, but Fadda’s students won the majority of their matches with the leg locks the Gracies had previously derided as lowly “suburban techniques” (técnica de suburbano).
In the wake of his team’s dominant performance, Fadda proclaimed in Revista do Esporte that “We put an end to the Gracie tabu.” Even Hélio Gracie later admitted that, “All you need is one Fadda to show that Jiu-Jitsu is not the Gracie's privilege.” Yet, the Gracies nevertheless continued to neglect (and look down upon) footlocks as the kind of dangerous, cheap, and dirty techniques that only the under-privileged would use—a misconception that still influences (and distorts) tournament rules today. Given how useful leg locks are for the purposes of self-defense—since they prevent one’s attackers from being able to strike one’s face—this is a clear cut example of what happens when conservativism trumps progress. Rather than improving their martial art by incorporating leg locks into their fighting system, the Gracies decided to derisively dismiss them instead as something beneath them. On their view, real men don’t play with one another’s feet and ankles. Real men fight face to face not foot to foot! If this type of attitude seems silly to you, it should (because it is).
The recent debate about sport jiu jitsu, self-defense, and point fighting is another instance of the kind of misplaced conservativism I am trying to highlight. It is especially ironic to hear the Gracies grumble about mere point fighting (see here) since they are the ones who introduced points into jiu jitsu in the first place for the purposes of rewarding grapplers for advancing to positions that would be advantageous in a real world situation. In short, one gets more points for mount than side control because in a “real fight,” mount is a better position. But then what’s wrong with point fighting? If I win on points, it means that I was able to achieve advantageous positions in a simulated fight that would have translated into dominant positions in a real fight. What difference does it make if I am not able to finish you from mount if we are already disallowing strikes? After all, if strikes and headbutts are allowed, I am never going to bother with a choke from mount anyway. I am going to try to smash your face with the top of my head (see early video of Mark Coleman and Ken Shamrock in action in MMA for a sense of how this works)! In short, there are more effective means of ending the fight in the real world than the rules of jiu jitsu allow. But because we are imperfectly and incompletely simulating real fighting when we train and practice jiu jitsu--which is easy to lose sight of when we're training and competing--we give out points for positional advantages even when these advantages don’t translate into submissions.
There is another obvious sense in which both sport jiu jitsu and non-sport jiu jitsu are quite clearly imperfect simulations—namely, we often wear kimonos in practice and in competitions. How is this supposed to help one prepare for the real world? Perhaps in the heyday of the Gracies back in the 1930s through the 1950s, it was common for rich and poor alike to walk around in suits and shirts with collars. But fashions have changed. These days, an attacker is much more likely to be wearing a tee shirt and shorts in the summer (or a zipped up coat and jeans in the winter) than anything resembling a kimono. So, by focusing so much on grip fighting, both sport and non-sport jiu jitsu take us further away from the skills we need to survive in a real world situation. If the defenders of “real world jiu jitsu” were serious, they would focus almost exclusively on luta livre (or, better still, vale tudo). But to insist that people wear a kimono—which is already unrealistic—and then complain when innovative practitioners invent new ways of taking full advantage of the kimono—e.g., Keenan Cornelius’s recently banned lapel guard system (see here and here)—is conservatism and small-mindedness pure and simple. After all, while it’s certainly true that I am unlikely be able to use the worm guard on an attacker in a back alley, it’s equally unlikely that I will be able to use a cross collar choke. What I will be able to use are the tools and techniques shared in common between sport and non-sport jiu jitsu, on the one hand, and luta livre and vale tudo, on the other hand.
To see how silly the sport vs. non-sport tempest in a teapot really is, ask yourself the following question: How many random attackers on the planet would you pick to best Keenan Cornelius, Ryan Hall, or the Miyao brothers in a back-alley attack? The countless hours these innovative grapplers have spent on the mat have prepared them well for most untrained and unarmed attackers (see here for proof). As for the armed attackers, while they admittedly pose a problem, it’s not because the worm guard or berimbolo won’t work, it’s because the guard position more generally won’t work. You need very specific weapon defense training to handle these sorts of situations. And while Gracie jiu jitsu provides this kind of training, so do other martial arts such as Krav Maga. But that is neither here nor there for present purposes. The take home message I am trying to drive home is that the complaints about point fighting, sport jiu jitsu, etc. are partly driven by a misplaced and counter-productive conservativism and partly driven by confusion and misunderstanding.
At the end of the day, it’s clear that Hélio Gracie was right (even if he didn’t really mean it when he said it at the time) that jiu jitsu isn’t the sole propriety of the Gracies (or anyone else). There are multiple approaches to jiu jitsu just as there are multiple motivations people might have for studying these varied approaches. While some people want to focus exclusively on self-defense, others want instead to enjoy a sport they love or even just try to improve their overall physical fitness. Fortunately, jiu jitsu has something to offer everyone—which is something even the luminaries need to be reminded of from time to time. Jiu jitsu is bigger than the Gracies. It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than any particular practitioners (even the champions and legends of the sport). Indeed, the greatest virtue of jiu jitsu as a martial art is that it is endless and ever-evolving. So, people should (a) spend less time policing jiu jitsu and criticizing how some people happen to chose to enjoy and advance the art, (b) spend more time trying to encourage people from all walks of life to take an interest in whichever aspect happens to catch their eye. After all, in the “real world,” the overwhelming number of the people who practice jiu jitsu will thankfully never have to use it to defend themselves against an assailant. So, by self-righteously insisting that self-defense is the reason d’être of jiu jitsu, one preserves tradition at the expense of the progression of the art form. Or so it seems to me. But what do I know? I am a lowly purple belt. That alone gives some people all the reason they need to reject what I say outright as uninformed. This, too, is yet another instantiation of the elitism and conservatism I am encouraging you to resist!