BJJ: Sport or Self-Defence?

What would a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guy do if faced by two attackers? I’m in the interesting position of having put that question to two of the prime movers in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu movement. It’s an obvious question. If you believe your fighting style is a form of self-defence, then it needs to work when more than one person is attacking you, a situation that is repeated in town centres across the country every weekend. But if you’re rolling around with one guy on the ground, how can you stop the other one from, say, kicking you in the head?

The first time I asked the question was at the third UFC, in 1994, which I was covering as a journalist, and the person I put the question to was Rorion Gracie, Royce Gracie’s older brother and the man who brought the UFC to the States and the world. His answer? He made a gun with his fingers like kids do when they’re playing. His meaning? You would need a gun to fight off two attackers. The second time I asked the question was in Rio, in 2003 at Gracie Barra, when I put it to Carlinhos Gracie, the head of Gracie Barra, and now head of the IBJJF, the biggest BJJ organisation in the world (or at least, that’s how it feels). His answer? He said it was impossible to defeat two men attacking you at the same time. They’d tried it at the academy and the person being attacked never won.

Both, in their own way, were saying that BJJ could not equip you to fight two people, but they were saying something more than that — they were saying that nothing would. This, of course, was before YouTube, and here, contradicting what Rorion and Carlinhos believed, is some well-circulated footage of a balding, ageing boxer knocking out two guys, and here is a young, full-head-of-haired boxer also knocking out two guys, with commentary from the excellent Firas Zahabi.

Now I’m no expert on self-defence, but in my twenties I did a lot of martial arts training (Thai boxing, JKD, tae kwon do, aikido, t’ai chi, a few lessons of wing chun), as well as submission wrestling, freestyle wrestling and judo, and in middle age I’ve taken up BJJ, so I have some knowledge of fighting and grappling styles and training. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Geoff Thompson twenty years ago, a guy who it struck me really did know what he was talking about when it came to fighting on the street and on the doors and so on. Based on those experiences and that conversation, here are a few of my thoughts about self-defence:

  • If you’re not training to fight multiple attackers, then your self-defence training has a big hole in it.
  • If you’re only learning physical techniques, then your self-defence training has a big hole in it. You should, for example, also be learning how to deal with the adrenaline dump that comes in a real confrontation, and how to talk someone down from aggression, and how to recognise the physical signs of imminent attack, plus the legal context for fighting on the street.
  • If, when you train physical techniques, you only train against people who do the same martial art as you, then your self-defence training has a big hole in it. There’s a big difference between asking a BJJ training partner who has no real striking experience to throw a hook at you, then rattling off your predetermined defence, and facing a trained boxer on the street throwing a seven-point combination in three seconds that you’re not going to see coming.

As far as I’m aware, these three holes exist in most BJJ for self-defence training. Does that mean BJJ is no good for self-defence? Absolutely not. BJJ is great for self-defence, because you learn how to grapple with, and subdue, a single opponent on the ground, an important skill if you want to be able to defend yourself — you’re not always going to be confronted by more than one person. Also, because BJJ is sparring based, you really are learning and honing skills that transfer from the club to the street.

But BJJ alone is not enough. If self-defence is what you want, then you might want to learn some striking as well. For example, you could learn Thai boxing or boxing along with BJJ, or you could take MMA classes, which combine Thai boxing, boxing, BJJ and wrestling. You might also want to address the second point, which is that self-defence is not about physical techniques alone.

For me, though, the question of BJJ’s effectiveness as a form of self-defence isn’t an important one. I like doing BJJ because I like doing BJJ. It doesn’t have to have any relevance at all beyond the doors of the club where I practice it, just like a tennis player who enjoys playing tennis doesn’t worry about whether the physical movements of playing tennis have any application beyond a tennis court (swatting flies?).

To me, BJJ is a sport, and that’s the way I like it. I want to practise against someone who also practises BJJ, not someone drunk and swinging at me on the street. Using a chess analogy, I want to play against someone who also knows how to move the pieces properly, not who knocks over all the pieces and tosses the board to the floor. I like the complexity of sport BJJ, the fact that it’s a game of moves and strategy. And the techniques that those at the forefront of sport BJJ are coming up with (the Mendes brothers, the Miyao brothers, the Ribeiro brothers, etc.) are amazing and beautiful to watch and do. These people are innovating because they are trying to outwit others who are innovating, and therefore sport BJJ is constantly evolving and growing  — and I love that aspect of it too.

BJJ is ridiculously addictive. You’re always learning, refining your game, and discovering new techniques to work on. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is highly complex, and part of the attraction is that there’s always so much to learn. You climb one knowledge mountain, look beyond it and . . . there’s another knowledge mountain to climb in front of you.

And rolling around on mats fighting someone is a lot of fun. The great thing about BJJ is that it’s sparring based and you actually get to do all the techniques you’re taught without holding back, unlike in a lot of martial arts, where you never really battle it out full-on without protective equipment or gloves, since it would be too dangerous.

You could see BJJ as a form of fighting without hurting in fact, which is why it’s safe to spar hard. There’s no kicking or punching in BJJ. Instead, we try and beat each other using joint locks, such as arm locks, and chokes and strangles. No one gets hurt: once the technique is on, the person taps their opponent or the mat, meaning they give in, or submit. And when you’re doing BJJ, you always spar with your opponent’s safety in mind  — that’s rule number one.

Meanwhile, as you train you’ll be getting in great shape and making friends. And then trying to strangle those friends.



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