Over the last quarter of a century Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has experienced a meteoric rise to become a rival of the traditional martial arts like Karate and Judo in terms of popularity and effectiveness. Despite its growing popularity Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu still doesn’t have the same widespread understanding if its history, purpose and style as other mainstream martial arts.
What does Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu mean
Jiu-Jitsu or as its also known Ju Jitsu is an ancient martial art that was practiced for many centuries in Japan. Although called Jiu-Jitsu the founders of BJJ were actually taught what it now known as Judo. At the time the terminology around Ju-Jitsu and Judo was less clear than it is today so the term Jiu-Jitsu was often used to describe Judo.
In Brazil and many who practice BJJ across the world will simply refer to it as Jiu-Jitsu. This can sometimes cause confusion when comparing it to traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu which remains a popular martial art in its own right.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu History
In comparison to many other martial arts being practiced globally today the history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a relatively short one. The starting point can be found in the early 1900’s when the founder of Judo Kanō Jigorō decided to dispatch his students around the world, this was part of Kanō vision to spread Judo globally. Amongst those who has been tasked with this goal was Mitsuyo Maeda. He spent many years touring the world putting on displays of Judo and taking challenges from practitioners of other martial arts.
The most significant moment for BJJ came when he visited Brazil in the mind 1910’s. A young Carlos Gracie observed a demonstration put on by Mitsuyo Maeda and shortly after he began training under Maeda. Carlos went on to teach his younger siblings one of whom was Hélio Gracie who took on the ground work of Judo and began moving it towards what is now called Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, the most well know branch of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
A second less publicised linage of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can be traced back to Luiz França who was also taught by Mitsuyo Maeda at around the same time as Carlos Gracie. França would go on to start his own school which is still active in the teaching of BJJ today.
From the point that Judo was taught two these two most influential figures they began to place less emphasis on throwing or taking an opponent to the ground and more on the ways an opponent could be controlled and summitted on the ground. At the time this was a fundamental part of Judo which would later be watered down over several decades to a limited set of ground fighting rules and legal submissions.
Over the subsequent decades Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was honed by the Gracie family and students of França through its use in grappling and fighting completions called vale tudo. In these contests practitioners would take on other fighters from other martial arts, the contests would have few rules and could be brutal affairs.
Here is a grainy example of a vale tudo style fight:
BJJ finally found mainstream success in the 1990’s when mixed martials arts competitions began to gain traction in the United States. Royce Gracie won the first, second and fourth UFC championships by over coming much larger opponents who had trained in other styles of martial art. This highlighted the importance of the ground game in mixed martial arts but also positioned BJJ to become the pre-eminent ground fighting style in MMA.
The explosion in popularity of MMA competition over the last 25 years has coincided with a large uptick in the number of people practicing BJJ. Today BJJ is one of the most identifiable martial arts and is practiced globally with schools in almost every country around the world.
How does BJJ Work
The basic concept of BJJ is that a smaller, weaker person can effectively defend from a much larger and powerful attacker by taking the fight to the ground and utilising their skills by applying a joint lock or choke. By taking the fight to the ground the smaller fighter removes the risk of being hit by a powerful strike, with proper technique an experienced grappler can overcome an assailant’s strength advantage.
Once on the ground practitioners of BJJ will look to advance through a number of positions in an attempt to put themselves in a position to execute a submission. Although the end goal is to achieve a submission much emphasis is placed on maintaining control of an opponent as you move through the different positions.
In BJJ you will typically find that one person will be on top and the other will be on the bottom. In this situation the options open to each person will differ greatly and so will their goals. Here is a quick breakdown of basic positions and the options available to the person on top and bottom. Please bear in mind the many variables in BJJ, whole books have been dedicated to just one of these positions so here we will only scratch the surface.
Top: The person on top will typically find themselves in the guard position from which they must attempt to escape, this is referred to as passing the guard. The are many techniques that can be utilised to pass an opponent’s guard, and these are frequently drilled. As with all top positions in BJJ there are a range of submissions that can be utilise but attacking from the guard is often considered risky.
Bottom: From the bottom a defender will be looking execute a sweep, so they can find themselves in a dominant position. They will be trying to control the person on top as best possible and have options to attack submissions as well. The guard is the least dangerous bottom position and some fighter prefer to be in this position because of the submission opportunities it can offer.
Top: Led perpendicular over the person on the bottom this is known as side control. If the person on the top can establish side control by pinning the opponent to the map it is a very difficult position to escape from. From the top there are a range of options open including attempting to transition to another position or finish with a submission.
Bottom: From here the person must first attempt to resist the opponents attempts to secure the position. They must attempt to use a sweep or find and opportunity to move the top person back into there guard.
Top: This is one of the most dominant positions as there are a range of opportunities to attack through armlocks, shoulder locks and chokes. Part of the reason this position is considered to be so dominant is because of the striking options it would offer if such attacks were allowed.
Bottom: As with side control the top priority is either sweep the opponent or manoeuvre to a less dangerous position. In this position the person on the bottom is at a high risk of being submitted.
Top: Also referred to as having taken the back this is an extremely dominant position for the person on top. They will look to secure the position be hooking their legs or feet to control those of the person on the bottom. The person on the bottom can offer very little offence so the person on the top can attack submissions and focus on controlling the position with little worry about defending.
Bottom; They must attempt to escape even in this means ending up in full mount, it is a very bad position to find themselves in. There are a few options for moving from this position which focus on removing the hooks and creating separation from the person on top.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is renowned for placing a strong emphasis on sparing as a means of learning and practicing. The logic behind this being that skills learned in full resistance training will stand a better chance of being successful that those being learned in a compliant training exercise.
Training sessions will still involve the teaching and drilling of new techniques and there will often be a fitness section. Students can drill exercises at home to try and improve their movement and flexibility, but it is the high level of sparing that sets BJJ apart from other martial arts.
The grading system
The grading system in BJJ is known for being one of the toughest in all martial arts that utilise promotions. In BJJ there are essentially 5 coloured belts which a student will move through before reaching the Dan grades. All new students start out as a white belt before moving through blue, purple, brown and black. A black belt in BJJ is highly coveted and usually takes a very long time to achieve. I have written more about BJJ belt promotion separately as it defiantly warrants consideration in its own right.
BJJ as a sport
Competition has been an important part of BJJ since the beginning and this has been carried over to the current day. There are tournaments run that cater to all belt ranks and weights. The International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) have been one of the most well-known organisations involved in the organising of events. They organise competitions all over the globe which adhere to there rules, from these events they produce rankings.
There are elite level invitational events such as the Eddie Bravo Invitational (EBI) which you can view on UFC Fight Pass. This is a No-Gi submission only tournament (no points system) in the event of a draw they go to overtime where competitors must escape a position or finish a submission quicker than their opponent to win.
Many BJJ practitioners have found success competing in Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) events. The ADCC is a submission grappling competition that invites fighters from various grappling backgrounds. Although these kind events are harder to find at an amateur level BJJ has dominated the more professionalised events.
Like most martial arts BJJ has been adapted for use in self-defence situations, in fact before Jiu-Jitsu became so sport orientated training for self defence was its primary focus. If you read around the web you will find wildly different opinions about how effective BJJ is in a self-defence situation, this can often be attributed to the way those people have trained.
The most commonly taught form of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is sports orientated. This type of BJJ doesn’t teach its practitioners how to manage self-defence situations and has the potential to give them a false sense of security. Takedowns are not drilled as frequently as in other grappling arts, so just getting the fight to the ground might be difficult as pulling guard leaves openings for strikes.
In self-defence situations being on the bottom makes someone even more vulnerable, they will be looking to sweep the opponent, so they can find themselves on top as quickly as possible. As seen in mixed martial arts competition the person on top has the option of landing brutal strikes as well as looking to finish with a submission and this would equally apply to self-defence situation. Even an untrained fighter can do damage from this position.
As a general rule being on the ground in a self-defence situation is not ideal and this is where BJJ excels. Rarely will a confrontation involve just one assailant so taking the fight to the floor can often have unseen consequences. If the fight is against one attacker providing a BJJ practitioner can close the gap without getting hit and they are able to get the fight to the ground, they should be able to effectively deal with the situation.
If self-defence is the primary goal, there are better options than BJJ. When training with self-defence in mind, like most other martial arts BJJ can be adapted to be effective but it must be drilled with this goal in mind. Whilst you can probably find plenty of examples of BBJ being used for self-defence on YouTube there are definitely better options and the best option always is to avoid physical confrontation wherever possible.
Gi vs No-Gi
If you are thinking of starting BJJ you will have come across the Gi or No-Gi debate. For those of you who don’t know the Gi is a traditional martial arts uniform and No-Gi is typically trained in a rash guard and shorts. BJJ can be practiced with or without the Gi and you will often find very strong arguments for and against training in the Gi.
Training with the Gi offers easier grips as the clothing can be grabbed usually around the collar and the writs, this is illegal in No-Gi. The Gi grips make controlling an opponent easier once you have established a grip. No-Gi tends to be faster as there is less material to slow down the fighters. In No-Gi the mount is a less effective position than in Gi as the options to attack are limited without the use of collar chokes you have in Gi.
As for which is better I think it comes down to personal preference and most sensible people will agree that training in both is the best option. It’s probably easier to transfer from the Gi to No-Gi as the use of the Gi as weapon to control or submit can take some time to get used too. If you are thinking of buying a Gi head over to the Gi tips section for some great buyers advise.