Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

ADCC 2019 is done and dusted and Australian grappler Lachlan Giles has taken bronze in the open weight division. The Anaheim crowd erupted as Giles submitted Mahamed Aly by heel hook to secure his place in ADCC history.

Why is this such a big deal?

Giles weighs 77kg. The three people he submitted on his way to bronze each outweighed him by more than 20kg. He submitted the +99kg champion (Kaynan Duarte) in his first match. And the only reason he didn’t take the gold was that he lost to the winner of the division (Gordon Ryan).

Image source: Kit Canaria for Jiu-Jitsu Times

As a smaller guy, I know first hand what it’s like to be overpowered by someone significantly stronger than you.

The fact that Giles managed to overcome this, on three seperate occasions against some of the most dangerous grapplers on the planet and in an age where performance enhancing drugs are rampant throughout the sport is outrageous.

His success is a testament to Jiu-Jitsu; it’s an art form which empowers smaller, weaker combatants to defend themselves against larger, stronger opponents through effective use of technique, timing and strategy.

Even at the highest level.

Giles is a head coach at Absolute MMA in Melbourne, has a phD in physiotherapy and is one of the most respectful guys in grappling.

I’m looking forward to taking a trip over there to train with him and his team sometime in the near future.

The Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) is one of the fiercest submission grappling competitions on planet earth.

In little over a week, the ADCC World Chamionships will be held in Anaheim Calafornia. The best no-gi grapplers in the world will travel to compete for the highest prize in submission grappling.

But this Sunday September 22, ADCC Western Australia (ADCCWA) will be putting on a show of its own at Craigie Leisure Centre. If you have any interest in grappling or Mixed Martial arts… you should probably be there.

Unlike traditional Jiu-Jitsu competitions, ADCC organises competitiors into divisions based on experience, not belt rank; allowing grapplers from all backgrounds to compete against one another.

Freestyle wrestlers will fight Judo practitioners, who will fight Jiu Jitsu artists, who will fight Sambo competitiors.

In a sense, ADCC is the Mixed Martial Arts of the submission grappling world. It fosters a space where grapplers from all disciplines can come and test the efficacy of their practice.

Which is why it’s so impressive that ADCC champions are almost exclusively Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners.

My favourite Jiu Jitsu artist (Nicky Ryan) on his journey to ADCC 2019

But on Sunday, at the local level, expect everyone to have a chance at victory.

‘What sets the ADCC apart from the other grappling competitions is the emphasis on going for the submission victory’.

ADCC WA

ADCC WA are adopting the same ruleset we’ll see at the Word Championships next week, which is the perfect introduction to grappling for the unaquainted.

One of the common critiques of Jiu-Jitsu competitions is that there is an overemphasis on complicated point systems, which isolate those who don’t already train. ADCC WA promises that this won’t be a problem on Sunday.

‘You won’t see stalling tactics used like you do in other grappling competitions’.

ADCC WA

Over the past few years, submission focused competitions such as team-based grappling competition Quintet, and the Eddie Bravo Invitational have emerged with the hope of appealing to more casual fans.

For the competitors in these organisations, the ADCC is their version Olympics.

If you’re a grappler of any kind and haven’t signed up to compete this weekend, you only have a few hours to register (which you should).

And if you’re at all curious (or skeptical) about what submission grappling looks like, or whether Jiu-Jitsu is a practical martial art to pick up for self defence, do yourself a favour, support your local grappling scene, and be at Craigie Leisure Centre on Sunday.

Submission focussed competitions like ADCC are the future of grappling. With so many new organisations promoting the sport, there’s never been a better time to get involved; fighter or fan.

Any meaningful progress requires the processing of (and response to) feedback.

An archer practicing her shots on a target nocks an arrow, aims, draws, then releases.

(Tan Ya-Ting, world class archer representing Chinese Taipei)

One of three things will happen;

  • She hits the bullseye;
  • She hits the target imperfectly;
  • Or she misses all together

The beauty of pursuits like archery is that the feedback involved in its practice is unambiguous, immediate, and self-enacting; it’s clear whether-or-not you’ve succeeded, and every possible outcome inspires the same response; nock another arrow, and try again.

If the archer misses, she picks up her bow and tries again until she hits.

When she hits the target imperfectly, she tries yet again, aiming for dead centre.

When she strikes dead centre, she tries again, and again, until she can strike dead centre one hundred times in a row.

Even when she has accomplished this, her mastery is not complete.

She takes a step back, increasing her range. Then once again, she tries again.

The process of improving at archery is ingrained in its practice. You hit, or you miss until you only hit.

You can’t pretend to be good at archery. Not to others, but more importantly, not to yourself. You are, or you aren’t. You hit, or you miss.

Similar loops can be found in pursuits like Jiu Jitsu, pottery, or lifting weights; You can defend yourself, or you can’t. You can throw a set of identical bowls, or you can’t. You can deadlift 80kg, or you can’t.

Want to get better at any of these things? Then do them.

Show up. Try. Process feedback. Repeat.

It sounds simple, because it is.

What most people fail to realise is that this type of progress is not exclusive to pursuits with self enacting feedback loops inbuilt.

Feedback loops can be designed and implemented into any pursuit.

It’s not always easy. But if progressing in your pursuit means something to you, designing and implementing feedback loops is essential.

Some artists do a particularly poor job of this. An artist’s failure to develop usually has to do with the ambiguity of their feedback, and their failure to reframe it into something actionable.

When the feedback generated by an activity is ambiguous, responding productively is a challenge.

Unlike arrows in targets, the effective success of artistic practice is often hard to measure.

What’s worse is when that ambiguous feedback gets further distorted and filtered by the artist’s ego.

What happens when ambiguous feedback gets passed through an ego filter?

Not a lot of growth.

When pursuits don’t have clear feedback cycles, we have to build our own. We owe it to ourselves.

If you want to get better at whatever it is you’re pursuing, you must be able to point at the bullseye, and describe what sending an arrow crashing into it looks like. Not the field it’s in, not the target itself, but the actual image of an arrow lodging itself cleanly in the centre ring.

For the artist, their bullseye might be the approval of a trusted mentor, or to their second timing on a monologue or poem.

A bullseye could look like one interesting blog post published every day, without typos, at 6am.

A detailed understanding of what perfect execution looks like is essential if you intend to trend towards it.

Fail to do so, and you’ll dabble in mediocrity for however long it takes you to quit.

Incredible things are difficult to do.

You shouldn’t feel horrible every time your arrow flies wayward. You shouldn’t expecting perfect results every time you loose an arrow – It’s about giving yourself the best opportunity to grow towards perfect results.

When designing your own loops, consider three things;

What does perfect execution look like?

What opportunities do I have to practice my own execution?

When I fail, how will I know what needs to change?

The more you try, the more you grow, the closer you get, the more you try.

Get trying.

Mixed Martial Arts seems to be in a strange state of flux. As the average fighter is becoming more and more technical, respectful and intelligent, it seems like some fans aren’t adapting quick enough.

Last night I attended Eternal MMA 47 to support Steve Erceg in his main event bout against Paul Loga, which he finished by knockout with a clean left hook in the first round.

Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing

Steve is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He has an incredible Jiu-Jistu game and is one of the coaches over at Wilkes Martial Arts. Our gyms are affiliated, so we’ve trained together from time to time.

He’s someone I have a lot of respect for, and every time I step into his gym I’m reminded of the respect which martial arts instills in those who practice it. Steve’s humilty and kindness is inspirational, and his work ethic is something else.

Which is why I was so stunned (and frustrated) to hear boozed up sections of the crowd dribbling slurs and screaming derogatory crap at the fighters for a huge portion of the night.

MMA hasn’t historially been the most inclusive sport, but it’s made astranomical leaps in the past decade with the rise of womens MMA, the embrace of the LGBTQ+ community through the “We Are All Fighters” campaign (of which all proceeds go to the LGBTQ centre in Las Vegas), and the first openly queer UFC champion in Amanda Nunes.

Image result for we are all fighters amanda nunes
Amanda Nunes (Right) and partner Nina Ansaroff

Organisations like One, whose entire brand revolves around the fact that their fighters conduct themselves with integrity and respect, are also contributing to this shift in a major way.

The sooner people can understand that elite level mixed martial arts has nothing to do with machoistic peacocking anymore, the better. The game has evolved. We need to move on.

Nobody mildly interested in their local MMA scene is going to attend another live event if for the duration of their first card the pudgy guy seated in the row behind can’t stop screaming, “Twist his dick!” to get a laugh of of his wasted mates every 45 seconds.

As fans or practitioners of any martial art, it’s our responsibility to stamp this idiocy out of our culture whenever we can.

This kind of flamboyant ignorance shouldn’t be welcome in a place where disciplined people who sacrifice their lives to be the best at what they do put their bodies on the line to prove it.

We can do better.

I am now a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blue belt.

Jiu-Jitsu has changed my life, and I’m barely recognisable from the person I was when I starter a year and a half ago. I’ve let go of 15kg and learnt more about nutrition than I did in my first 20 years.

Most people don’t understand what the journey from a white belt to a blue belt means, and I’m not a good enough writer yet to distill it into one blog post; but I’m going to try anyway.

Jiu-Jitsu is as much a mental pursuit as it is a physical one. The journey from white to blue drills a certain mindset into those who make the cut.

Here are the most important things I’ve come to understand;

I understand what it’s like to feel completely powerless at the hands of another, and what it feels like to have total control over somebody else’s body.

I understand that exposed vulnerabilities become strengths.

I understand that doing great things hurts sometimes; that your success is directly related to your ability to persevere through adversity, that improvement is a guarantee if you can.

I understand camaraderie; the intangible respect for those who share your pursuits.

I understand that building someone up involves breaking them down, while also having their back.

I understand that winning matters far less than growing does.

Controlled failure is growth.

Most people who start training BJJ don’t make it to their first promotion, but everybody should.

There is no greater reality check.

Jiu-Jitsu allows a smaller, weaker person to handle themselves against someone bigger and stronger, as long as that bigger person doesn’t know the intricacies of grappling.

I’m hard-pressed to think of anything more satisfying than watching a bulky new guy struggle to escape as he gets picked apart by an older 50kg lady – “Does her black belt weigh more?”

Watching this practicality in action is what sold me on the art.

In Jiu-Jitsu, knowledge is a weapon.

After about four classes I was discussing it with one of my closest friends, and of course when I was struggling to physically describe the principles we ended up wrestling in his back yard.

My friend is heavier than me by about 30 kilos. He started lifting in high school, but I never had the attention span.

Expecting to get squished, but wanting to test the effectiveness of what I’d learnt, we fought.

He couldn’t do a thing; he couldn’t get me off of him, and he couldn’t defend my attacks.

If I could neutralise a 30kg weight advantage in four classes, I needed to know what I was capable of after four hundred – and here I am.

A few medals and a bath full of deep heat later, I’ve realised that ignoring strength training has put a ceiling on my competitive performance.

Here’s the thing; knowledge is a weapon against someone who doesn’t know how to grapple as well as you do, but as soon as you’re in the same ballpark of knowledge, once you’ve both brought knives to the fight, strength becomes overwhelmingly relevant.

Being strong in proportion to your body weight is essential for high performance in most sports, and Jiu-Jitsu is no exception.

I found myself romanticising being the little guy; an underdog who was able to win regardless of his size and strength disadvantage. Unfortunately, this narrative doesn’t cut it when the competition gets serious.

I have been in matches where I have weighed exactly the same weight as my opponent, and felt like I was being manhandled from start to finish.

Being weak is not a good game plan.

An experienced friend from the gym put it perfectly;

“You don’t need to be stronger than your opponent, just strong enough not to be bullied.”

I’m not yet. But I should be soon.

If anyone’s selling their weights, let me know.

Perfecting a technique ensures that you’ll be able to execute it perfectly from a distinct starting point.

But what if you never find yourself at that starting location?

Perfecting a system ensures that you’ll be able to execute a move from every starting point possible.

As you become proficient in a technique and begin to practice it; you learn about the counters to the technique and how to prevent them; the set-ups, the angles and preconditions required to execute the technique; and the principles which apply to the technique, and to your opponents reaction.

The implementation of these counters, set-ups, angels, preconditions and principles is the systems based approach to learning Jiu-Jitsu.

A Jiu-Jitsu system endeavours to define all possible scenarios within the system.

Mastering a system maximises your chances of submitting you opponent once you have them within in.

For example, you can have the best swinging armbar from guard on the planet, but if your opponent would rather be triangled than let you cross his arm over your centre-line, you better have a good triangle set-up too.

Having an incredible armbar is worth nothing compared to having an incredible guard which includes a great armbar.

It took me a while to realise this, so for those of you just starting out; apply a systems based approach. Don’t just ask your instructor how to execute a technique; ask how, why, when, and when it doesn’t apply.

I was six months into training Jiu-Jitsu when I found myself standing across from my first opponent in a state-wide competition.

He had trained much longer, and I simply wasn’t on his level.

So he submitted me.

Looking back, I lasted much longer than perhaps I should have.

The fight taught me a valuable lesson. Not in the four and a half minutes of sloppily trying to defend myself while failing to implement the one technique I was half-good at, but in the opening ten seconds of the match.

The referee said ‘Combach!‘ And we were on. I locked eyes with my opponent as we each hesitated. We stared each other down for less than three seconds before my coach’s voice pierced my ear with a nugget of wisdom which has been bouncing around my head ever since;

‘Be first Luke. Be First!’

Without thinking twice, I took his advice. I closed the distance, took my grips forcefully, and executed the guard pull which I’d drilled for weeks leading up to the comp.

I caught my opponent completely un-prepared, and I had the fight where I needed it to be.

I created opportunity by seizing initiative.

I didn’t win, but I put myself in a position where I could have. A position I wouldn’t have found myself in had I not bitten the bullet and committed to action.

It’s unlikely that I would have lasted as long as I did had I not seized control of the fight at the start.

The importance of this extends far beyond losing Jiu-Jitsu fights slower than you could have.

We all have moments every day when we could use a coach to prompt us into action, but hiring someone to follow you around whispering ‘be first every forty seconds is expensive.

In life, we have to be our own coaches.

Remind yourself constantly.

Carpe diem translates to ‘seize the day’, but it means seize the moment.

Seize every moment possible.

You bump into a friend on the street and you’re both waiting for the other to extend their hand, or offer a hug?

You and a stranger are both politely waiting for the other to get on the bus, and now you’re holding up the queue?

Your lecturer asked a remedial question that everyone in the class should know the answer to, but nobody wants to risk answering?

Be. First.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, someone will be thankful you did.

What have you risked? Nothing.

The only think you’ve risked the one-in-a-hundred chance of an awkward three seconds, and you’re probably better for it.

Being first is always better than waiting for someone else to be.

Who’s the most decisive person you know? Who’s the most confident? Next time you see them, notice that they’ve made this a habit.

Try and think of one person you look up to who doesn’t put their front foot forward. Can you? I can’t.

Be first friends. Start now.

If you ask Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) practitioners what it is they do when they go to the gym, you will get a variety of responses; some will say they train Jiu-Jitsu; others that they study Jiu-Jitsu; but my favourite, what I usually say when trying to describe Jiu -Jitsu to a friend who’s never encountered it, is that I play Jiu-Jitsu.

I first heard it described this way in a controversial metaphor often used to describe Jiu-Jitsu to the unfamiliar;

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is playing chess with your body.

Some practitioners don’t like this comparison because Jiu-Jitsu, at its core, is a martial art centred around self-defence.

Jiu-Jitsu answers the question;

How can a smaller, weaker person defend themselves against a larger, stronger attacker?

Those who dislike the comparison argue that framing Jiu Jitsu as a ‘game’ trivialises the practical self-defence elements of the art.

Personally, I understand the resistance to the metaphor, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the difference between practical self-defence Jiu-Jitsu and sporting Jiu-Jitsu, so that you go around jumping guard on armed criminals like this guy.

Those of you who train will know what I’m talking about, but for those who don’t, feel free to check out this introduction video for a breakdown of the self defensive aspects of Jiu-Jitsu.

I recommend attending an introductory session to all of my friends for self-defence purposes, even if they have no interest in training long-term.

Intro sessions are free at most gyms, including the gym I train at if you’re in or around Perth. If you’ve never grappled before, it’s definitely worth dipping your toes in.

I have trained to learn how to defend myself on the streets against an opponent who doesn’t know how to grapple. But that’s not why I show up to the gym four times a week. If self defence was my main priority, I’d probably be adding some striking or wrestling into my arsenal by now.

When I show up to practice, I play to develop my own personal Jiu-Jitsu game which I aim to impose on training partners who are usually much better grapplers, and know exactly what I’m trying to do.

Training Jiu-Jitsu has made me significantly more aware of my physical limits, and I am much more confinement in my ability to neutralise physical confrontations, but when I arrive at the gym, I’m not preparing myself to fight for my life.

When I’m rolling at the gym, I do play Jiu-Jitsu like I play chess.

Similar to chess, there is a fundamental hierarchy which governs the game; in chess, different pieces are more valuable than others; in Jiu-Jitsu, these pieces are instead positions.

The value of a chess piece is determined by how mobile it is, while Jiu-Jitsu positions are ranked based on your ability to limit the mobility of your opponent. The more control a position gives you over you opponent, the more valuable the position.

There is one notable exception on the chessboard; the King. While not very offensively useful, it must be defended at all costs. Leave it open to attack, and you risk losing the game.

In Jiu-Jitsu, your King is your neck. You don’t leave it exposed.

In chess you apply pressure to your opponent which forces them to make decisions. You and your opponent tussle over position and pressure as you ultimately progress towards trapping them in a position from which they cannot escape.

In Jiu-Jitsu you aim to do exactly the same, but the consequences of submission are physical and dire.

In chess, you submit, and you lose the game. In Jiu-Jitsu, every submission is an acknowledgement that your opponent could have incapacitated you.

Jiu-Jitsu is like playing chess with your body in the same way that laser tag is like playing war.

Certain principles operate across both games, but Jiu-Jitsu offers a significantly more complex puzzle with severe and tactile stakes.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) people are some of the smartest, strongest, and most dedicated you’ll ever meet. The art of self-improvement is ingrained in their day-to-day.

Most martial arts teach respect and discipline, but not many demand the same level of fortitude, resilience or humility that Jiu-Jitsu demands of its masters.

(Image courtesy Michael Port)

All Jiu-Jitsu masters, those who have dedicated their entire lives to the art, train every day embracing the fact that they will always have more to learn.

They trend towards perfecting their knowledge and technique with the understanding that they will never complete their quest.

Even after a lifetime of vigilant training, they will never fully know Jiu-Jistu.

This is because, like most worthwhile pursuits, BJJ is not a closed system; there is an almost limitless number of actions and reactions to be honed, perfected, and re-honed when something surprising rears its head.

Jiu-Jitsu is being innovated constantly.

To get better at Jiu-Jitsu is to continually realise how much you don’t yet know; the more you learn, the more there is to learn.

I believe this humbling cycle to be at the core of the Jiu-Jitsu mindset. It seems to me the reason that humility and respect are so entrenched in the sport.

People with large egos tend not to last very long at Jiu-Jitsu gyms, because having your weaknesses exposed is a fundamental step towards any level of competence.

There’s nowhere to hide your weaknesses in a roll, and the mats don’t lie. This proves uncomfortable for anyone who can’t handle a regular feeling of defeat.

I’ve seen it first hand; a new guy comes into the gym and as soon as he gets an opportunity to roll, he freaks out. His face goes red as he angrily exerts all his energy trying to pummel somebody who could comfortably choke him unconscious using only their legs.

It usually plays out one of two ways; either the experienced grappler is patient with the new guy, defending themselves casually while he thrashes around and tires himself out, before they strike quickly and efficiently, forcing him to submit; or, they ramp up and meet his intensity not with anger, but with focus. They get on top of him, let their weight drain the air from his lungs as he struggles, and make his life a living hell for however long it takes new guy to calm down.

Being confident enough to productively and openly process defeat is a skillset. Having the self-awareness to know what your limits are, and where you need to improve is so valuable, but getting practiced in the art of failing takes time. You need to dance with the discomfort, dance with the fear, in order to make progress.

(Image courtesy Michael Port)

There’s no denying that it’s tough. But every black belt had a first tough roll. Every single one has felt totally powerless on too many occasions to count at the hands of someone far better than them.

And every time, they chose to come back. This is the entire game.

Training Jiu-Jistu requires you to embrace your fear and choose to show up anyway; to keep getting beat, knowing that all the people who are better than you have all done the exact same thing, and that they have your back; to implement the lessons each defeat has to offer you; to persist.

This ability to persist, to command yourself to get better despite the cost, is what separates those who become black belts from those who don’t.

There’s a saying you sometimes hear black belts offer to demoralised white belts;

A black belt is just a white belt who never quit.

It’s cheesy, but it’s true.

This rule applies to most valuable pursuits in life.

The same applies to writing. The same applies to making ruckus.

If you want to be good at something; figure out how to safely expose your weaknesses, then do the work.

Find people who better than you, and learn from them.

Set up a feedback loop where you will be forced to train.

Come to terms with what you need to change, what you need to do, and how far you need to go to accomplish your goal.

Then, it’s simple. All you need to do is persist.

Don’t quit.