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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a purple belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©2004-2016 Can Sönmez

24 March 2009

DVD Review - Renzo Gracie/Craig Kukuk Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Instructional Videos

Short Review: Renzo Gracie and Craig Kukuk produced an excellent instructional back in 1994, which has managed to stay fairly relevant despite its venerable age. The teaching is great, made even more accomplished by coupling it with vale tudo footage, showing you the application under pressure. It is also generally cheap, which is very worth it considering you get five hours of instruction. One thing to keep in mind is that this does look dated when it comes to guard passing and takedowns: that last forty minutes should be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

Full Review: Rorion and Royce were the first to release an instructional video series on Brazilian jiu jitsu, but Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics would be eclipsed three years later in 1994, when Rorion's cousin Renzo released a far more comprehensive set. Helping him was Craig Kukuk, most notable for being the first American to gain a black belt in BJJ. Initially, Kukuk was counted among the black belts from the Gracie Academy in Torrance, though he physically received his black belt from Royler in Brazil. However, there was later a falling out between Kukuk and Rorion (this thread from 1995 claimed it was due to Rorion's sudden raising of affiliate fees, while this alleges it was due to Rorion holding back techniques), leading Kukuk to eventually become a part of Renzo's school in New York.

Their new instructional considerably expanded the limits set by Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics. Whereas Rorion's set consisted of three tapes along with a bonus, Renzo and Kukuk packed in eleven (on the DVD, those are spread across three discs). Not only was their series much longer than Rorion's, at around five hours, but it contained much more material per tape. Renzo and Kukuk also managed to bring in some progression, with videos covering what they called both "beginning" and "advanced" armlocks and chokes respectively.

Unfortunately, according to the internet rumour mill (e.g., this and this), Kukuk and Renzo fell out after this video proved successful. Allegedly, Kukuk made much more money than Renzo, instead of dividing profits equally (it should be noted that this post suggests Renzo may have accused Kukuk unfairly). The relationship rapidly broke down, to the extent that some have even claimed Kukuk tried to get Renzo deported. Whether or not that is true, Kukuk went on to release another large instructional in 1999, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: A to Z and currently teaches in Boise, Idaho. The rights for the series he made with Renzo were apparently bought by Paul Viele, who released a DVD version in 2003.

None of that detracts from the high quality of the impressive eleven tape series Kukuk and Renzo delivered in 1994. They both provide solid instruction, with teaching duties switching between the two at various points, running through each technique two or three times. Each time you get two or more angles, then a repeat at full speed, again from several angles. Having a native English speaker was something new for BJJ videos, further emphasising the clarity of instruction (though Renzo's English is perfectly acceptable).

Like Renzo's later book, BJJ: Theory & Technique, organisation is a slight problem. The DVD set isn't anything like as arbitrary as the book, but putting armlocks before escapes makes little sense, as does leaving guard passing until late in the series. Of course, it is easy enough to just watch the tapes out of sequence (I'd suggest a beginner should start with the escapes from side control and mount on tapes three and six), and it is also much less of a problem if you've already got some understanding of the fundamentals.

The first tape, Beginning Armlocks, covers the Americana, kimura and armbar from several positions over roughly twenty-seven minutes. Helpfully, Renzo and Kukuk also link the moves together: for example, if your opponent manages to block your attempt at an Americana from side control, Renzo and Kukuk demonstrate how you can attack the other arm with an armbar. Important details are emphasised along the way, such as keeping the arm tight to your chest when applying the kimura from guard.

Advanced Armlocks (slightly over thirty minutes) is unsurprisingly more complex, with numerous techniques, many of which involve pressing the back of the elbow rather than the usual hyperextension in the other direction. The armbar from scarf hold looks useful, as previously the only submission I've ever tried from there is the step-over triangle. Then there are techniques like the Americana with the legs Renzo demonstrates, or Kukuk's armbar which begins by locking both legs around your partner's shoulders from guard.

Escapes from the Bottom comes next (around forty five minutes, but almost half of that isn't instructional): specifically, these are escapes from side control. Other instructionals I've watched tend to prefer arm positioning where you press the forearm either into the neck (as on Roy Dean and Saulo Ribeiro), or swimming through to reach under the armpit (which is Rorion's choice on Gracie Jiu Jitsu Intermediate). Renzo shows both, explaining that the position of your opponent's arms will determine where you put yours (if they wrap behind your head, your forearm goes into their throat; if both arms are on the one side, your arm drives under their armpit). Renzo also adds in something extra, demonstrating how you can escape straight into an armbar instead of just shrimping back to guard.

Another innovation Renzo and Kukuk bring to their instructional is the inclusion of fight footage to illustrate the application of a technique. These are normally vale tudo fights from Brazil, with a voiceover from Kukuk explaining the relevance. Often it is just a short clip, but there are also extended sequences: the third tape features probably the longest, with around twenty minutes of no holds barred competition exemplifying how to avoid getting mounted.

The fourth tape (which kicks off the second disc of the DVD version), Escape from the Headlock, didn't particularly grab my interest over its twenty-five minutes, as it isn't a position I often find myself in. Like Rorion's approach in his headlock tape from Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics, this segment is from a self-defence perspective, something Renzo and Kukuk never entirely forget throughout their instruction.

Eight minutes are devoted to escaping a standing headlock, with another four on the standing guillotine: neither are very likely in a BJJ competition, but it makes a certain amount of sense when training for the street. Again like Rorion, the headlock on the ground has some relevance to scarf hold, but unlike Rorion, Renzo does actually demonstrate proper scarf hold as well (i.e., controlling the arm as well as the head).

By tape five, Renzo and Kukuk have reached the guard, which again is roughly twenty five minutes. As with headlocks, self-defence remains a major concern, with advice on maintaining a defensive posture against punches by either keeping your attacker far away or in close (depending on whether they've got close enough to hit you or not). Avoiding getting strangled in your guard is covered too: while only a total beginner would try this, it is nevertheless useful to include the defence, which I've never seen taught in class (presumably because it is such a noob thing to do).

Basic sweeps are explained too, starting with traditional techniques like the double ankle grab sweep, along with fundamentals like the scissor and flower sweep. Kukuk also demonstrates one I'd forgotten about, where you lock your legs around their upper thighs, pull their sleeves across your body, then roll them over to the other side. In a voiceover to some tournament footage, Kukuk then makes the important point that you shouldn't try to hold closed guard on the street when somebody stands up, as you're liable to get slammed.

Defend the Mount comes up next, which should have been right at the start of the set: once more, its about twenty five minutes. Like their side control tape, Renzo and Kukuk stick with the basics, focusing on the upa and the elbow escape (which I tend to refer to as shrimp escape, but it is normally called the elbow escape because you use your elbows to press on your opponent knees when making space to recover your guard).

Bizarrely, Kukuk begins by saying how you should lie with your legs "stiff as a board" at the opening of the video, so that your opponent can't hook them. I guess this is geared towards a street fight or something (although I'm still not clear how that straight-leg position is a good idea), as when demonstrating technique later on, he keeps his knees up in the normal way.

The second disc finishes with what was the seventh tape, Beginning Chokes (about twenty six minutes). Renzo starts things off by taking you through the mechanics of a rear naked choke: Kukuk kneels in front of him to make this as clear as possible. Renzo moves on to the application, getting his hooks in, and also how to stretch your opponent out if you have their back and they roll to their stomach. To finish, there are some examples of the choke in action during some vale tudo.

This is a perfect example of how techniques should be taught: introduce the concept, show the application, then provide some evidence with it working against resistance. Renzo's presentation is sufficiently concise that it is still barely over three minutes, but with a decent level of detail nonetheless.

Cross chokes from mount and various gi chokes in the guard follow. The self defence element is still present, with Kukuk pointing out how to protect yourself from headbutts and strikes when attempting a choke, and as ever there is plenty of solid technique.

The cross choke from guard was strangely absent, but perhaps Renzo decided that it was similar enough to the version from mount that it was effectively duplication. Though I think the tape suffers for its omission, there certainly is no shortage of other techniques. In particular, I liked the look of a gi choke where you grab the middle of their collar and pull them down, wrap your other arm around their head, then feed the gi to your wrapping arm. To secure the choke, drop your elbow to the mat and raise your hips.

Twenty-four minutes of Advanced Chokes on tape eight (or disc three, for the DVD) interestingly begins with the triangle choke from guard, which most BJJers would probably see as a basic technique. As with his explanation of the rear naked choke, Renzo really shines here, in what is possibly the highlight of the whole series. The reason it stands out is because Renzo first demonstrates how the triangle works, then shows several set-ups. Many instructionals have techniques in isolation, but only rarely do they tell you how to actually get into position to apply the technique. Like before, you also get to see the triangle used by Renzo himself in a vale tudo match.

Kukuk is responsible for laying out the papercutter choke from side control, also seen on Rorion's Gracie Jiu Jitsu Intermediate two years later. Usefully, Renzo notes how there are several chokes you can begin in mount but finish in guard, if your opponent tries to roll out to escape.

The next tape spends around twenty-eight minutes on the mount. However, this isn't what you might expect, as submissions from the mount have already been covered in earlier tapes. Instead, Kukuk and Renzo take a thorough look at maintaining the mount position, along with its self-defence implications. Like Rorion, Kukuk shows how you can be punched when mounted, but can't effectively punch back. Fundamental tips like swimming with the arms and stripping their hands off your knee are carefully explained, along with what to do if they try to push on your pelvis.

I especially liked the way that real footage is then used to prove a point. Kukuk's voiceover of a Ryan Gracie fight puts it particularly well:

If asked about the mount and how to escape, a lot of experienced fighters will tell you they'd just gouge or bite their way out. They say this because they don't know the way out. You must remember, when you're mounted, you're in control.

In this fight, the man on the bottom is accused of some dirty tactics, so the man on the top bites the lobe of his ear off, and there is nothing he can do about it.


After even more advice on maintaining the mount, the tape finishes with around ten minutes of some other vale tudo matches to really drive the point home. It is a shame that the countless multitude (e.g., this letter from Black Belt) of traditional martial artists clinging to the 'deadly eye gouge' as some kind of magic weapon against grappling weren't forced to watch Ryan's definitive answer.

The two final tapes, covering passing the guard and takedowns, remind the viewer that despite its many strengths, this tape is over fifteen years old. Fortunately, these are also the two shortest tapes, neither making it past twenty minutes.

The first glaring example is when the infamous Gracie Gift rears its much-triangled head once again. Renzo and Kukuk run through the technique in a fairly similar fashion to Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics. Like Rorion, Renzo extends his arm straight out to hold his opponent's bicep, and like Rorion, helpfully lifts a leg onto his shoulder so he can easily be locked into a triangle. There are also a few more details, like when Renzo shows how you can dig yourself into even deeper trouble by grabbing onto your leg.

This penultimate tape isn't all bad, however. Renzo also demonstrates the cartwheel pass, which while rather acrobatic is at least not guaranteed to put you in serious danger of getting choked. Renzo also spends some time on my favourite, pinning the leg, although the big problem there is getting the guard open in the first place. Kukuk has an answer for that, demonstrating a break from standing where you drive your knee through, dropping the opponent down so that you're able to wedge your knee in to make space.

Self-defence closes the tape, where Renzo and Kukuk show three more options for opening the guard, all of them unpleasant. First, the can opener, where you grab behind their head and pull it towards you, creating pressure on their neck. Second, and even less sporting, slamming anyone foolish enough to keep their guard closed when you stand up in a street fight (obviously you don't slam in competition). Finally, Kukuk uses a choke from inside the guard to open up the legs, though as seen in the earlier beginning and advanced choke tapes, this is liable to get you armbarred.

The last tape, covering takedowns, is definitely the worst. When I was looking around for reviews, I thought that one was totally out of line for stating that "Craig Kukuk looks like a complete idiot (he moves like one too), and some of the things he covers will get you killed. God forbid you should try some of these moves in a real fight or BJJ tournament." While I think that's an entirely incorrect appraisal of the DVD set, if he had only watched the takedown tape, I could understand why they might jump to that conclusion.

Neither Kukuk nor Renzo look confident when shooting in for the takedown, and the shots themselves are stiff, too high and very telegraphed. Although I'm not a wrestler and I suck at takedowns myself, even I could see that these were low quality. However, in their defence, there is then an extended sequence of fight footage where the takedowns are shown in action and working. I doubt very much that would be the case today given the vastly improved competition, but in context, the first part of the tape makes a little more sense.

Once Kukuk and Renzo reach the clinch, its standard fare, quite similar to Rorion's tape on the same topic. Renzo also shows you how to correctly pull guard, by first putting your foot up onto their hip to get them to bend at the waist. Renzo's demonstration of a technical stand-up is also reasonable enough, again with real footage to show how to apply it.

As with most BJJ instructionals, including more recent releases, I wouldn't recommend them if you're looking to get great takedowns. Invest in a wrestling or judo DVD instead, as they are far, far better at throwing people to the ground.

Aside from the last forty minutes, the Renzo Gracie/Craig Kukuk set is an excellent instructional, which still mostly holds up today despite its considerable age. The teaching is great, made even more accomplished by coupling it with vale tudo footage. It is also often available cheaply.

If you are a beginner, then take the last two tapes with a very large pinch of salt, and I'd also strongly recommend you watch the videos on escapes (Escapes from the Bottom and Defend the Mount) first, rather than viewing in tape order. Alternately, buy Blue Belt Requirements first, then after you've got a good understanding of the fundamentals, move on to Renzo and Kukuk (though I'd recommend Cesar Gracie as a better next step after Dean's DVD). That will enable you to review your basics, and also provide useful progression: loads of techniques to play with, which at the same time aren't too complicated.

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