Tuesday, January 25, 2011


It seems like most Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools now focus on the sport aspect of the martial art.  Perhaps it’s due to the popularity of the sport tournaments or MMA, and the fact that BJJ is one of the main arts in the country’s fastest growing sport.  Whatever the case, many BJJ players seem to focus on the sporting techniques, rules, points system and time limits during our training. 

But when Jiu Jitsu was first developed and taught in Brazil by the Gracie family, it was mostly about self defense.  Jiu Jitsu taught its students how to survive in the streets, alleys and favelas of Brazil, where fighting was common.  According to my BJJ teachers, the Vale Tudo (Anything Goes) matches were an extension of this focus and sport Jiu Jitsu only developed later. 

The Gracies still focus much of their training in this crucial aspect of the martial arts and, I believe, all their new students first learn the self defense curriculum of Jiu Jitsu before progressing to the sport techniques.  As a reminder of Jiu Jitsu’s streetfighting roots, the legendary Relson Gracie shows us some of the basic self defense curriculum in this video.  Jiu Jitsu self defense is simple, direct and effective.  The techniques are meant to be easily learned and recalled under the duress of a real life altercation.  Hopefully none of us will ever have to use these moves in the street, but practice them well.  There is always the chance we might. 


  1. To get a blackbelt in Gracie Jiu Jitsu, Relson (and Phil, my instructor, his uke in the video) requires us to master something like 150 techniques of self defense as described by his father Helio.

  2. I'm not at all interested in learning self-defence, so I'd never be able to get a black belt under Relson. I would find it very boring, as my main reason for training is fun, rather than self-protection. However, it is fun to discuss, so:

    The principle issue (I babble at length on the same topic here, so I'll keep this short) I have with what gets labelled as self defence jiu jitsu is that the kind of techniques that come under that categorisation are often only ever taught as compliant drills. That's no different from something like aikido.

    The whole reason BJJ is so effective is because it is trained against full resistance, with competition acting as the litmus test. There doesn't seem much point in learning something if the first time I try it against full resistance is when I get attacked on the street. I'd rather be confident of its efficacy long before that, by properly testing it in class, during sparring.

    Unless I've misunderstood, and these self defence moves are regularly practiced in full resistance sparring, including strikes? There's no doubt Relson has that experience, given that he did plenty of vale tudo back in the day and has loads of street-fighting anecdotes, but I don't know if that is also true of all his black belts (I guess at least some of them have fought MMA, so it would be interesting to know if anything from the self defence syllabus proved of any use).

  3. I totally see your point, Can. And, I train BJJ for the sport/competition and fun as well.

    I studied Ed Parker style Chinese Kenpo for 10+ years before training jiu jitz. We did a lot of techniques just like this. Even though I hold a "black belt" in Kenpo, I always questioned how effective it is considering these techniques can't be practiced full speed.

    Still, gotta give Relson the respect due for maintaining this older, more traditional martial arts style.

    I though watching this video would make for some good discussion, and I guess it has!

  4. In response to slideyfoot:

    Many of the "Self-Defense" moves shown are not something you would see in a Steven Seagal movie. The ones in this video contain judo trips and hip throws, as well as standing shoulder locks and armbars. The exception is that they begin in a situation that typically isn't encountered in sport jiu jitsu. It isn't often that someone bear hugs you from a standing position with both of your arms trapped, or when you get standing headlocked. So I believe it is important knowing what to do in such a situation when you can't just think "Oh I will just pull guard."

    Some of these may not work so well against a trained opponent, but then again someone trained in BJJ would rarely attack with such a move.

  5. @Anon: That's my point. Practicing a technique in a compliant drill does not teach you what to do in that situation: it merely teaches you how to use something against no resistance.

    For example, I can land a flying armbar every time in drilling. I damn sure can't land it in sparring: whole different ball game. Exactly what Matt Thornton has been talking about for years with the aliveness concept.

    I also don't buy the argument that often comes up about how the opponents are going to be untrained. It doesn't make sense to me to prepare for the best case scenario. Surely in something as important as a potentially life threatening situation, you want to prepare for the worst case scenario, not the best?

    Not to mention that even an untrained person is going to be fully resisting, rather than just standing there letting you perform the technique.

  6. @slideyfoot:

    The reason is that you are not drilling enough. Honestly.

    I know guys whose whole game revolve around flying armbars. They are a one-trick pony in a sense, but they do exceptionally well in competitions against a live partner. Their secret is that they drill the move to the point where it becomes second nature. Their level of technique and understanding of the move is greater than any factor of resistance or strength of their opponent.

    I have been to over a dozen schools, and I can guarantee you that all the instructors agree not only is drilling important, but that many of the world champions, such as Roger Gracie, Jacare, and Andre Galvao put a huge emphasis on drilling. Andre Galvao even wrote a book on it.

    I will admit, it is good to have an open mind when rolling, but what happens in a situation such as a street fight or a tournament where you are filled with adrenaline and have no time to react? The answer is that you go with what you have drilled millions of times.

    Bruce Lee said it best "i don't fear a man who knows 10 000 kicks, i fear the man who has done 1 kick 10 000 times."

    As far as the whole untrained argument, you missed my point entirely. These are not flashy self defense moves, they are judo throws when an untrained person tries to grab you, or put you in a headlock. BTW, judo holds also work against trained people to. I use them in tournaments quite frequently.

    I don't know what you are getting at with wanting to "prepare for the worst case scenario." In a sport like BJJ, where so much damage can be caused by an armlock or choke, most people who train this sport aren't looking to prove their skills to others. In a sense it humbles people. But say you did fight someone who did have training, the odds might change, but understand that they train in the same way, so they won't be attempting some schoolyard chokehold a typical untrained person would.

  7. slidey is way over thinking this

    "Surely in something as important as a potentially life threatening situation, you want to prepare for the worst case scenario, not the best? "

    ok like, when i'm assaulted by a gang of bazooka wielding black belt judoka or something? or perhaps a bear with... a knife?? the honest truth is, if you're being mugged/raped by a black belt in bjj, you're likely just going to get mugged/raped especially if there are weapons involved. there's no drilling or practicing your way out. BUT, i'd still rather my wife/daughter/girlfriend/etc know something when she's assaulted by some brute on the street. something other than, say, a sporty x-guard sweep series. right?

    like preventing a submission on the mat, preventing being attacked on the street is largely just being aware of your surroundings and not going down dark alleyways to begin with.

  8. "Practicing a technique in a compliant drill does not teach you what to do in that situation: it merely teaches you how to use something against no resistance. "

    why couldn't resistance be added incrementally like all moves? perhaps it wouldn't be wise to really try to hit someone during self defense sparring, most people trying to learn a self defense don't want to go through that regularly. heck, most bjj players don't. this doesn't mean bjj won't make you better at defending yourself on the street though.

    im glad a guy like slidey had fun with the sports aspect of the martial art, but remember, its just ONE aspect of the MARTIAL ART. and that is what it is, a martial art, not a sport.

  9. I don't know who this tommy guy is, but let me tell you x guard is legendary on the streets.

  10. @Anon: Drilling is a very important part of training. However, to take another quote from Bruce Lee, you can't learn how to swim without getting in the water.

    I would improve my understanding of the mechanics of a flying armbar by more drilling, and that is an essential part of the process. When I go to an open mat, I'm there to drill, as I find I never get as much drilling as I want during class. But to actually learn the application, I have to repeatedly try that technique against a fully resisting opponent.

    What I'm getting at with 'worst case scenario' is that preparing for an untrained slob does not make sense to me, as that isn't the person who scares me when it comes to self defence.

    I agree judo holds work great...when you've trained them against resistance.

    @Tommy: Absolutely, resistance can and should be added incrementally to all moves: that is exactly what I'm getting at. You should keep on adding resistance until you're sparring. Matt Thornton explains it far better than me in that video I linked.

    As to the scenario question, let me put it like this: say you had an exam coming up that would make or break your career. As you can't be certain which will come up, do you prepare for the easiest questions, or the most challenging?

    Finally, I can't think of a school where the entire curriculum is based around "sporty x-guard sweeps." I've trained in eight different schools, and they all taught the basic fundamentals - cross-choke from mount, trap and roll escape, RNC etc. Sure, they may ALSO teach an x-guard sweep, but it is in addition to those solid basics.