12 February 2009

DVD Review - Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics (Rorion & Royce Gracie)

Short Review: As the first of its kind, this set is mainly of historical rather than practical value. The intended market of BJJ beginners is now much better served by releases like Roy Dean’s Blue Belt Requirements. Nevertheless, Rorion presents his instruction clearly, with plenty of detail, always showing techniques in context. If you can take it with a pinch of salt, then it is still possible to benefit from the instruction on thse tapes. Available to buy here.

Full Review: In the late 1980s, adverts began popping up for a video entitled Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Action. Seven men, all wearing a gi, stared out above the caption “Real Fights – Original Footage”. The advert also made the bold claim that something called ‘Gracie Jiu Jitsu’ was the “most complete form of fighting today.” This was nothing new in the world of martial arts, as many styles made similar claims: what was different is that the Gracies were willing to test themselves against anybody who doubted them. Most important of all, the fights were recorded on tape, putting over half a century of challenge matches onto the screens of living rooms across America.

[For more on the history of BJJ, see here]

The success of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Action, along with the Gracie Academy’s open challenge for anyone to come and test the Gracie’s mettle, led to wider coverage. Articles on the Gracies appeared in Black Belt, but more importantly, Pat Jordan’s piece on Rorion featured in the September 1989 issue of Playboy. Interest in the Gracie Jiu Jitsu system grew, until by 1991, Rorion and his brother Royce were ready to produce an instructional video series.

Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics is therefore fascinating from a historical perspective: these tapes were an essential part of spreading interest in GJJ, at a time when qualified instructors were few and far between. Almost two decades after its original release, Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics is rather dated in some regards. This is partly due to the self defence focus, which assumes that your assailant will be completely unfamiliar with grappling on the ground.

The series was originally divided into five tapes: ‘Get Close’, ‘Get Them Off’, ‘Scissors’, ‘Headlocks’ and ‘Finishing Holds’. The more descriptive subtitles (which for later releases became the main titles) were ‘How to Close the Distance Between You and Your Opponent’, ‘How to Escape from the Mounted Position’, ‘How to Pass the Guard’, ‘How to Escape from Headlocks’ and ‘Arm Locks and Chokes’. There was also a short bonus tape, ‘How to Handle Stand Up Aggression’, used as an incentive to order all five tapes at once. Later on, the five volumes were condensed into three, a pattern which following releases from the Gracie Academy maintained.

Rorion begins with the tactic of throwing a stiff front kick to the leg before going for the clinch, recognisable from Royce’s early MMA fighting style. Rorion makes the comparison to boxing, where he states that when they go to the clinch, that’s a safety position, as it is difficult to effectively punch someone who is hugging tight to your upper body (though that does raise the question of muay thai’s use of the clinch, which isn’t mentioned).

From the clinch, Rorion also demonstrates a basic o-goshi hip throw, then a few simple wrestling takedowns. Rorion’s intention with all of them is to get into mount as quickly as possible. Rorion’s teaching style is detailed, methodical, and perhaps most importantly, always shows a sequence of moves in context. After about fourteen minutes, the whole series is shown again, which emphasises how well the instruction fits together. Finally, Rorion and Royce go full speed: in total, the opening section on takedowns lasts about twenty minutes. The techniques are perfectly valid, though if you want to learn how to take a fight from standing to the ground, you would be much better served by judo, wrestling or SAMBO.

Next, Rorion shows you how to stabilize the mount position. His instruction is excellent, picking up on fine details, explained clearly from several angles. The assumption is that your opponent is clueless on the ground, but that’s forgivable given that this is supposed to be basics. It was also aimed very much at self-defence, something the Gracie Academy has always championed: hence why Rorion states the importance of mount is that it puts you out of reach of their punches while still being able to throw your own. In addition this was recorded back in 1991, before the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the rapid revival in grappling that produced. Rorion’s points on maintaining balance, spreading your weight and adjusting to your partner’s reaction are all still valid.

Having covered stabilizing the mount, Rorion then demonstrates how to escape from that position. Again, the techniques shown here are still very relevant, with the two classic escapes – the upa and the elbow escape – described in detail, dealing with several eventualities. It also gives Rorion the opportunity to make a quick sales pitch for Gracie Jiu Jitsu, insisting that the person who knows GJJ will always have the advantage, even when on the bottom. The section on mount is longer than the opening depiction of takedowns, lasting slightly over forty minutes. As before, that includes a summary, finishing with a reminder to drill all the techniques you’ve just watched as much as possible, aiming to make them reflexive.

That brings the series to its most infamous moment: the ‘Gracie Gift’. Rorion breaks the cardinal rule of guard passing, which is never leaving one arm in and one arm out. If you keep an arm inside, you are leaving yourself open to a triangle. It is possible to pass from this position, but you need to keep the elbow of the inside arm back by their leg, and press either above or below the knee with your shoulder. Nevertheless, it is always risky, and Rorion does nothing to mitigate that danger: his inside arm is locked out against Royce’s bicep, while Rorion's shoulder presses directly into the back of his brother’s knee. The triangle is staring Royce in the face.

This is why the pass has since become known as the Gracie Gift: Rorion is ‘gifting’ his opponent with an easy way to finish the fight. The excuse is presumably that this tape took the perspective that you are in a street fight against somebody unfamiliar with the ground. However, if the opponent knows the guard, then it isn’t unlikely they would also know the triangle. The stack pass, which proceeds in a similar fashion (with the essential difference that you wrap your arms under both legs) is far safer: Rorion could, and probably should, have shown this pass instead (indeed, his son Rener does just that in 2009's Gracie Combatives).

Rorion himself was clearly aware of the danger, as in Gracie Jiu Jitsu Intermediate, he demonstrates the triangle as a response to the very pass he had shown five years earlier. In other words, he taught a pass to which he knew there was an easy counter, but failed to provide either a warning or the details which make the pass safer. It was a strange omission, which has generated plenty of comments over the years. For example, Yrkoon9 takes the Gracie Gift as a central indicator of GJJ’s unwillingness to progress, to such a degree that Yrkoon9 claims GJJ actually became ‘inferior’ to the Brazilian jiu jitsu taught by schools outside of the Gracie Academy. Then there are opinions like this tongue-in-cheek thread on NHBGear, or this critical thread on Sherdog.

The self-defence focus comes to the fore again in the next tape, which covers headlocks. At first I thought this might refer to the common scarf hold position, but it is indeed just headlocks (i.e., arms around the head rather than one arm around the head and the other arm pulling their arm into your chest). In Rorion’s introduction, he admits that it is “not the most technical way of finishing a fight,” but claims that “for those who lack better technique it is one of the most widely used finishing holds.”

It is unlikely that anyone except an absolute beginner would try to hold you in a headlock: the scarf hold is far more secure. Rorion’s escapes have a degree of applicability to the scarf hold (basically it is as if you’ve already got the point where you’ve extricated your trapped arm), so this tape is still of some use. There is one rather bizarre technique where Royce supposedly gets a tap by simply squeezing Rorion's head between his legs, but most of the escapes are fairly standard. For example, framing your arms, sitting up, bringing them onto their side then shifting into mount, or alternately hooking their leg and moving to their back.

The last tape of the series, along with the earlier material on the mount, has probably stood the test of time best. Rorion gives a thorough explanation of basic submissions from the mount, guard and headlock, like the Americana, kimura, armbar and guillotine. As is the case throughout the tapes, these are all shown in context, such as flowing from a kimura to a guillotine from guard.

Again, sport is absent, as Rorion always talks about breaking the arm rather than submitting a training partner. In the course of his instruction, Rorion comments more widely about developing your BJJ, such as the fundamental importance of establishing a good base. As he puts it, if you can get that solid base, then your opponent will be exerting lots of strength and energy while you can simply relax. On the one hand, this points to the explicit assumption throughout Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Basics that your attacker is completely unfamiliar with the ground. On the other, it emphasises the importance of relaxing, something I very much agree with.

Finally, the brief bonus tape runs through simple self defence techniques, like throwing from a front choke, the twist and armbar from a lapel grab, armbar from shoulder grab, throw from double grab etc. Rorion also uses knees and elbows, but mostly sticks with throws and armlocks. More bizarrely, he demonstrates defence against an attacker coming at you with a club, which tends to be a little dubious (for weapons, I would suggest groups like the Dog Brothers rather than BJJ). The sequence is merely a demonstration without instruction, but then it was only a bonus, so would be silly to make it especially in depth.

To my surprise, the original series is still available on DVD from the Gracie Academy, apparently unchanged (at least judging by the previews available on the website). I would assume that the extras included are different (presumably with Ryron and Rener), but it is nevertheless incredible that the ‘Gracie Gift’ remains a staple of GJJ video instruction. As discussed in this thread, there are ways to make that pass work – most importantly tucking your elbow back and pressing your shoulder above the knee rather than directly behind it – but Rorion does not mention those details.

If you can find the DVDs at a reasonable cost and take the guard pass with a large pinch of salt, then Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics will still be of use to beginners (though Roy Dean’s Blue Belt Requirements remains by far the best DVD on the market for beginners). Rorion presents his instruction clearly, with plenty of detail, always showing techniques in context. Available to buy here.

If there is anyone reading this blog who trained BJJ back in the early 1990s, and therefore may well have used these tapes upon their original release, I’d love to hear any anecdotes you might have about watching and learning from them, and especially how you view the tapes now, looking back.


  1. the guy had a major machismo problem. but i'm not going to be too upset about it because the rest of the guys are really cool about fighting me, and when they lose they laugh and then ask me to explain what i did..

    even when they win they are just like you know that was really hard and you are really good at bjj. so at least it's not the norm..

  2. I think the best thing about GIA is how Rorian sounds exactly like the Dog Whisperer as he narrates.