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Roberto Pedreira
















 "Jiu-Jitsu is Gonna Drown"

but Rickson Gracie plans to do something about it....

By Roberto Pedreira 

Posted April 11, 2017

Roberto Pedreira's first exposure to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, or BJJ as it's now called, was via martial arts magazines featuring Rickson and the usual suspects. He was unimpressed. Pictures didn't do the art justice. It didn't matter that much because he was far away from any place where he could learn "BJJ", even if he wanted to.

Several years later, about 1991, a friend of a friend from the USA, visiting the edge of the world where Roberto was at that time living/working/training, brought with him a Gracie Instructional tape. Roberto and his training partners studied the "uupah" mount escape and deemed it most worthy of adding to their menu of techniques, concepts, and skills. In retrospect it was fortunate that it was the uupah escape and not an inverted Berimbolo variation that he first encountered. History would have been very different otherwise. 

The uppah escape is a good example of GJJ/BJJ. It is mechanically simple. It almost always "works" and it is easy to grasp why it works. It's easy to learn and hard to forget. Someone who begins their BJJ career with this technique and a few others like it will be immediately prepared to survive a "real" fight. The same day. You don't need to enroll in a Shaolin Monastery for 12 years.


Of course, the uppah escape is a basic German folk style wrestling bridge, adapted by the French into a style they renamed "Greco-Roman". It goes way back, in other words. The Brazilians didn't invent it. They did add some details, they repurposed it (the original application was for avoiding pins), and more importantly, they were offering to teach it to us, and they broke it down in a way that average Joes could understand and do. You didn't have to be a hard-core wrestler with mangled ears. Anyone could and should learn this art, they (Rorion Gracie that is) said, if only to back up whatever art they already trained, if any. Lessons weren't cheap, but you get what you pay for. No one forced anyone to enroll in their lessons (and anyone who wanted to was entirely free to go to Brazil if they wanted to: Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone 1997-2008).

The rest is history, documented in GTR (est. 2000), and Jiu-JItsu in the South Zone.

But the Gracie marketing master plan contained the seeds of disaster. Everyone can learn jiu-jitsu. The focus changed from self-defense and street fighting (tackle, mount, choke, uupah) to hygienic fun sports (Berimbolo, 50-50, Worm Guard, Kaola Guard, Panda Sweeps, Jailbaits, Crackheads, etc.,) for the whole family, mom, sis, uncle Buck, your girlfriend, everyone can train BJJ. That means academies must satisfy customers. To keep prices reasonably affordable, they must maximize the number of students per square foot of mat space. New students are attracted by champions, hence competitions are required. To have champions, there must be winners, hence there must be points. Etcetera,  etcetera, everyone knows how this story goes. It leads to TKD. Combat effectiveness goes out the door, as Rener says. In return, we get medals and belts.

This is not good, Rickson believes. Rener, Ryron, and Pedro Sauer agree with him.  Gracie Academy revenues are not what they could be. People enroll but then quit after 3-5 months (there are numerous possible reasons for this, but Rener and Ryron think it is because self-defense is not adequately addressed in BJJ schools, their own included, until recently). They admit that they were part of the problem. They taught sports BJJ, or as they put it, they taught BJJ guys to fight with other BJJ guys. And they gave belts to tough guys on that basis. The tough guys didn't need to know self defense (or that's what they thought). Thereby, the pool of potential long term paying students consisted mostly of tough guys. People who are not athletic, physical, tough people, were neglected and their needs ignored.  

Rickson was the same. When Roberto was at Rickson's school in a karate studio in a former car repair shop on Pico, Rickson had just abandoned the old system of requiring new students to take a set of privates (40, if memory serves) before joining group classes. Group classes were 90 minutes including 30 minutes of warm-ups at a cost of $160 per month (three classes per week). Within a few weeks or months the classes were slashed to 60 minutes (do your own warm-up before the class but the price is the same). Rickson was preparing for Japan Vale Tudo 94 (if memory serves) so he didn't teach beginners class (although Roberto had a few unofficial lessons from him anyway). Luis Limão, Mauricio Costa, and Jason taught the classes, following Rickson's instruction to the letter. It was all basic and fundamental. Triangles were considered too advanced for beginners (for logical reasons). Most of the things people are trying to learn on youtube now didn't exist. In fact, youtube didn't exist. There were approximately three instructional VHS BJJ sets on the market to choose from. But if you were learning from Rickson, why buy tapes?

Roberto wasn't there for self-defense. He didn't think in terms of self-defense or styles. He thought in terms of problems and solutions, or tasks and tools. "Self-Defense" is too vague to be useful. He thought more concretely. What if someone grabs my wrist and draws back to punch my face? What is an appropriate thing to do? What if he or she pokes a finger in my chest in a belligerent way? What are my options? What if he or she approaches with a meat cleaver held overhead in a Psycho grip? He also believed from expensive experience (i.e., wasted time) that the best way to learn is to find a good teacher and listen to him (or her). Whatever he learned, he evaluated it for effectiveness and efficiency. Can I do this? How likely is it that I would need to? What are the costs of doing it?

Most people did not want to do "self-defense" training. At least that's not why they went to Rickson's school. (And in Brazil, Roberto could count on one hand the number of times he was taught anything specifically related to "self-defense") . The reason is obvious. Academies are businesses. They teach what people want to learn. Rickson and Rener are convinced that people want to learn self-defense. Ryron goes even farther. People want to learn self-defense even if they don't know that they do. Or even more emphatically, they need self-defense even if they don't want it. They must be taught self-defense. 

Rickson's view is that self-defense is the foundation for sports BJJ (for the minority who want sports BJJ). Sports BJJ, no matter how skilled or amazing, without a self-defense foundation is NOT jiu-jitsu, Rickson believes. "Jiu-jitsu is gonna drown", he says, due to an over-emphasis on competition and neglect of self-defense.

Rickson is not immune to criticism. At one time he did teach self-defense at his Pico school. To defend a bear-hug from behind, bend forward, taking care to maintain a stable base, reach behind and grab the attacker's ankle, pull it out and up, while sitting back on aggressor's standing leg above the knee, thereby putting him on the ground, and then apply for a knee bar (a very old judo technique, by the way). However that was also phased out by the beginning of 1995. 

The above is, with some minor adjustments, a decent way to set up a knee bar. Some of the concepts are indeed "self-defense" fundamentals (keeping base, applying pressure, leverage, etc.)  but the scenario seems at best a low probability one. Perhaps students would have been more motivated if Rickson taught them how to avoid being street punched or bitch-slapped in the face (see Gracies in Action for examples) and let them drill it to the point of automaticity. Roberto observed this sort of training in Rio (described in Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone 1997-2008, in  chp. 5). But it was in a juvenile's class. Would American adults want to do this? Apparently, not so much.  The Brazilian juveniles loved it though.

Rickson, Rener, and Ryron (and Pedro) are not heavily invested in the competition sub-niche. They are not focused on producing champions in BJJ under current IBJJF rules.  Rener's thinking is that people enroll to learn self-defense, but then are taught competition BJJ, or how to fight with other BJJ people using BJJ techniques and BJJ rules. Then they quit because competition BJJ is not what they wanted. Rener and Ryron composed a course to teach self-defense, incorporating fundamental skills. They awarded blue belts to people who completed the course. People who already had blue belts under the previous regime loudly objected. Self-defense wasn't real BJJ, they criticized. (The instructional methodology and evaluation systems were also issues). The value of their blue belts was being diluted. A blue belt no longer symbolized awesome bullet-proof destructive potential if the types of gentle people who needed self-defense training could wear them. 

Rickson also didn't like the idea. The desire to get belts (or ranks in general) has always been a part of martial arts marketing (Kano knew this all too well). The internet gave the complainers a loud voice and must have had an unpleasant  impact on the academy's bottom line. Rener and Ryron took notice. They devised a special "self-defense" belt (white with blue segments), which is specifically not a blue belt. Rickson was satisfied with this solution and decided to join hands with his two nephews (and Pedro Sauer). Their mission is to restore self-defense to the place of priority in jiu-jitsu. 

Pedro Sauer added that Helio Gracie told him to teach self-defense in the United States. Helio Gracie had many odd ideas and never tried very hard to hide them (not in Brazil anyway: Helio's Brazil Playboy interview here). The fact that Helio Gracie recommended something is not necessarily a good reason for doing it. But in this case, his recommendation makes sense. GJJ/BJJ took off in the United States not because of Berimbolos but because the Gracie brothers and some of their friends and students kicked asses. That was what appealed to the old school converts. Getting your ass kicked can be very convincing evidence and as Benjamin Franklin said, learning from other people's painful experience is just as good, and cheaper.

Roberto's opinion is that fundamentals are vital. After you have the fundamentals dialed in, you can adapt them to your personal needs or interests, be they self-defense against rugby tackles, wrist grabs, knives, guns, bear-hugs, punches, kicks, whatever, or sports, or MMA.

Rener and Ryron came up with a plan. It might work. They are smart guys and will adapt if it doesn't. It might work for them that is. For smaller academies, maybe not so much. 

Just a suggestion: One way to build fundamentals into the system might be to incorporate them into a warm-up. Example, the head-rotation movement that Helio taught as a defense against a neck grab is a versatile basic, natural movement that can be applied a a wide variety of situations, both self-defense, and sport, including MMA.

 Helio's version unfortunately has a design defect, namely, it allows the aggressor to pull your head down into a rising knee. But combined with basic stepping (forward and to the outside) it becomes a "bob and weave" (useful for avoiding head level punches) . The bob and weave can be combined with a short bend at the knees for a "duck under" to the outside of the attacker's arm, hence to his back, after which many throws or take-downs become easy to safely execute. It isn't hard to set up. Have one person throw left and right (open) hands, any angle, at head level (where most punches are going to be aimed). Keep the speed reasonable and allow time for the other person to step back. Keep the movement continual. If the thrower is using her right hand, the bob and weaver will bob and weave and step to the left (keeping feet shoulder-width). And vice versa (the stepping pattern is an inverted triangle). Assume that the thrower is right handed, and has her left foot forward (as will be the case for most aggressors). Future UFC champions can apply lag punches to the appropriate side. (According to Kenny Weldon a lag punch is a body punch that follows a bob and weave, where the hand "lags" behind the upper body. Three minutes of this will be a good warm-up

This is probably the best way to avoid punches. It leaves your hands free for other purposes and puts you in ideal position for defense or counter-attacks. It is a good way to avoid being grabbed around the neck. It's also a very natural movement. Babies and cats will do it if you try to grab them by the neck.

A similar drill: Ducking. When the hands come in, bend the knees and duck under (keeping your chin down, shoulders up, hands up, and elbows glued to your ribs). This can be easily combined with a penetration step leading to single leg, double leg, or High C, depending on the relative position of feet and a few small adjustments. For guys who think self-defense is sissy stuff, they will probably resonate to it more if they see a sports/MMA application. For aspiring MMA champions, the duck can be followed by straight lefts or straight rights. Three minutes of this is a good warm-up.

If the attacker's punch is poorly executed, a short duck will be sufficient. It worked for Rolls Gracie in 1975 (see Choque Vol. 3, chp. 15 for details, also Gracie in Action, or Myth # 17, here).

Both will develop the all-important senses of timing and distance and ability to read an opponent's preparatory body movements.

 Experienced teachers can dream up plenty of similar drills. 


Old Interview with Rener and Ryron here.

Rickson explains below what he doesn't approve of so much about "modern jiu-jitsu".

Rickson Doesn't like Berimbolo

Rickson Doesn't Like Rubber-Guard

Many more interviews with Rickson here.


Inspired by a June 16, 2016 Gracie Academy youtube video with Rickson, Pedro, Rener, and Ryron.


(c) 2017, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.  

Minor edits March 24, 2019



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