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MMA Fan's Guide to Grappling: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

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The Guide to Grappling series comes to an end with a look at the grappling art that dominated the early days of MMA and has become a part of nearly every MMA fighter's game, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt Roberto "Cyborg" Abreu chokes his opponent at the 2009 Pan-American Jiu-Jitsu Championship.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt Roberto "Cyborg" Abreu chokes his opponent at the 2009 Pan-American Jiu-Jitsu Championship.

To close out this series, originally requested by a reader on Reddit, we wrap up with a look at one of the most widespread grappling styles in MMA: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Like Catch Wrestling, the development and growth of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu directly parallels the growth of the sport of Mixed Martial Arts.

Brief History: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a direct descendant of Judo, and could easily be termed as Brazilian Judo. So this will pick up were the Brief History of Judo left off. In 1904, Judo founder Kano Jigoro was looking for a student to demonstrate Judo in the United States, and he picked one of his star pupils, Mitsuyo Maeda. Maeda did just that, going to the United States, Cuba, and then to Europe, where he trained in Catch Wrestling.

In 1914, Maeda traveled to Brazil where he began to share his grappling skills with several students, including a rebellious young teenager named Carlos Gracie. These students learned Maeda's blend of grappling skills, which was still referred to as Jiu Jitsu, and Gracie would spend eight years with Maeda before the teacher moved to a different part of Brazil to help with a Japanese immigration program. Now a black belt in Judo, Gracie opened his own academy in 1925, the first "Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy". Carlos would teach his many brothers, and they focused on grappling in no-rules, self-defense situations. To prove the effectiveness of their art, and to advertise their own gyms, they began to compete in Vale Tudo matches, early forerunners of MMA with minimal rules, to great success.

As the Gracie family grew and spread their art, other students of Maeda shared their teachings, and the art began to grown into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu during the mid-to-late 1990s. Countless modifications to the art appeared as fighters adapted it for Vale Tudo fights or local grappling competitions. A fierce rivalry with the catch wrestling style of Luta Livre played out in Vale Tudo matches and street fights all across Brazil for the better part of half century.

In the 70s and 80s, the Gracies began traveling to the U.S., opening schools and teaching there art. They took challenge matches to help grow their student base. That strategy was so effective, Rorion Gracie decided to hold a Pay-Per-View fighting event to showcase Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship was born. The popularity of the UFC grew and while the Gracies soon dissociated the practice of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in both MMA and in pure grappling competitions grew and spread around the world. It has grown into three major branches: those schools that train for self-defense, those who train for sport grappling, and those who train to apply their skills in MMA.

Summary of Rules: The rule sets for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu vary, some being submission-only tournaments, but most are point-based tournaments. The details change from tournament to tournament, but the majority follow the basic formula of awarding points for takedowns, passing the guard, and achieving dominant positions like the mount, knee-on-belly, or the back.

There are major gi and no-gi competitions that occur under different banners, but the biggest competitions are held by the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) and the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC). The IBJJF holds the most prestigious gi competition, the Mundials. It doesn't allow twisting leg locks, knee reaping, neck cranks, slams, or spinal locks, and there is no penalty for guard pulling. The ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships is the premier no-gi event in the world, it allows all leg locks and slamming out of submissions, and the rule set does penalize guard pulling in certain situations, thus opening it up to more styles that just jiu jitsu.

Strengths: The greatest area of strength for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is in ground grappling. Once the fight hits the ground they are masters of positional grappling, gaining a dominant position, and then working for a submission or stoppage win due to strikes. (Gif) While many think of guard play when they think of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, top game is a critical aspect of the art. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters are often very proficient at passing the guard and achieving and holding a dominant position. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was originally a grappling art that was centered around the idea of an opponent trying to strike, so excluding the classes geared towards purely sport BJJ, the positions are taught as a way to either protect from or maximize ground striking.

Guard play is an important aspect of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and is a specialty of some jiu jitsu fighters. Keeping with the idea of position being central to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a huge number of sweeps have been developed to allow a fighter to go from the bottom to the top. (Gif) (Gif) (Gif) (Gif)

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters are also very well versed in submission grappling, both from top and bottom. With the fairly open rules when it comes to submissions in jiu jitsu competition, and as a result they tend to have a diverse submission attack and can threaten from almost any position. The best jiu jitsu grapplers transition very fluidly from position to position and then into submission attacks they present themselves. And when a jiu jitsu fighter commits to a submission attack they are often very adept at chaining submissions together. (Gif) (Gif) (Gif) (Gif) (Gif) (Gif)

They also tend to be very strong when it comes to defensive grappling, both preventing submissions and bad positions.

Weaknesses: The most obvious weakness for BJJ fighters is the ability to get fights to the ground. This is not universally true - the art is derived from Judo and many of the Judo takedowns are still taught in BJJ classes. So some purely jiu jitsu fighters have very good takedowns, but often that requires cross training in other grappling arts; Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza is a black belt in Judo, Rickson Gracie trained both in Judo and Sambo, and the old guard of jiu jitsu practiced their stand up a great deal. But the takedown has been downplayed in modern sport jiu jitsu and many academies start all their sparring from the knees and rarely train on the feet. As a result, many jiu jitsu fighters know several takedowns, can perform them against less skill opponents, but are not adept at chaining takedowns together, and can find themselves unable to get takedowns at the upper levels of the sport.

Some of the sub-set styles of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu do not transfer to MMA well, especially those that rely heavily on gi griping or guard play. They tend to struggle in MMA, as top position is rewarded and the top levels of the sport are filled with strong top players who can negate all but the most dangerous guards. Also, while some fans equate BJJ to submissions, not all jiu jitsu fighters have strong submission offense, and prefer to hold on to position than attack for submissions.

Leg locks have been something of a blind spot for BJJ fighters at times, but that is changing and not to say there are not fantastic leg lockers in jiu jitsu, but it is not widely used or as developed as other aspects. The rules of gi jiu jitsu limit their effectiveness in those competitions, causing many competitors to devote their attention elsewhere. While they are becoming more popular, and a huge majority of black belts have a working knowledge of leg locks, the offensive leg locking skills of BJJ fighters are often behind those of Sambo fighters or catch wrestlers.

Finally, until recently the competitive scene of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu did not really make use of strength and conditioning training. The concept of technique defeating strength was central to old school mind set of BJJ, so a grappler being classified as "strong", "powerful", or "explosive" could be something of a slight. As a result, some BJJ fighters have a ceiling due to a lack of dynamic athleticism. This, however, is changing as grapplers like Fernando Terere and Jacare Souza proved what amazing physical abilities paired with clean technique could accomplish.

Overall, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's development was so closely tied to the sport MMA that has become an ingrained part of MMA grappling. While the sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has drifted away from being totally effective in MMA, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a very good grappling art for MMA.

Notable Practitioners both in and out of MMA (Click for Highlights): Royce Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Roger Gracie, Marcelo Garcia, Marcus Almeida "Buchecha", Andre Galvao, Demian Maia, Jacare Souza, Fabricio Werdum, Nick Diaz, Minotouro Nogueira, Frank Mir, Shinya Aoki

Video of Grappling Art:

2103 IBJJF Mundials, a look at the a gi jiu jitsu competition

ADCC 2011 Highlights, no gi submission grappling tournament

Highlights of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu being used in a Vale Tudo and MMA context

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