09 April 2009

DVD Review - Cesar Gracie Instructional

Short review: Cesar Gracie has a wonderfully detailed style, taking the time to introduce important concepts and fine details as he breaks down each technique, showing it multiple times and from several angles. This series focuses heavily on offence, with some expertly constructed sequences of attacks. Even more than Pedro Carvalho, Cesar manages to flow through combinations in a sensible and highly functional fashion.

This series is an ideal follow-up to Roy Dean's Blue Belt Requirements. Once you've mastered the fundamental escapes on Dean's DVD, Cesar's thorough and methodical approach to attacks will help round out your game. Once again, as with all the older sets I've been reviewing, age means this is cheap.

Full review: Cesar Gracie is an interesting case for several reasons. For a start, he was the first member of the Gracie family to release a BJJ instructional with perfect English, having moved to the US as a child (though he returned to Brazil for several years before settling in the US permanently). Like Roger Gracie, he decided to take his mother's name: as Cesar explains in this interview, "In Brazil it's common to also use your mothers maiden name. My parents were separated shortly after I was born and I was raised exclusively by the Gracie side of my family so it was also natural for me to only go by the Gracie name."

He would later produce notable fighters like the Diaz brothers, Nick and Nathan, both successful in the MMA arena (their records are 18-7-0 and 10-3-0 respectively). David Terrell, who appears with Cesar in the instructional videos, also went on to develop a decent record of 6-2-0. Then there is the well-known fighter Jake Shields, whose record is an impressive 22-4-1. Having already amassed a solid pedigree as a coach, Cesar decided to step up himself at the age of 40, losing to the far more experienced Frank Shamrock in 2006. It would have been a historic event either way, as the bout marked the first ever sanctioned MMA fight in California.

Judging by the adverts in Black Belt, Cesar's original tape series was released around 1999. There were nine tapes, split into Basic, Intermediate and Advanced, consisting of three roughly forty minute videos in each series.

Basics Volume 1 (just over forty-one minutes) begins with the usual BJJ approach to takedowns, working from the clinch. As ever, while Cesar does a reasonable job of this, I'd recommend that you look to styles like judo, wrestling and SAMBO if you want to bring your opponent to the ground: they are all much better at it than BJJ.

Far more interesting is the extended discussion on how to stand up in somebody's guard, in order to pass. Cesar spends a good twelve minutes going over important details about posture, grips and foot placement: this is excellent, and very useful for anyone looking to improve their passing. Cesar is methodical, tackling the position from multiple angles, providing comprehensive coverage of exactly how you should get to your feet to start your pass.

He then follows up with opening the guard, for which he recommends picking your opponent straight up. I'm small, so I was a little dubious on that, but Cesar does carefully go through how to take their weight, using your hips, and finally getting their legs open so you can move through to side control.

If that proves difficult, he also demonstrates how to pry their leg off your hip with your elbow. The multiple angles come in handy here, as it enables the viewer to see just what Cesar is doing with his elbow, as well as his overall body positioning.

To finish up on that first tape, he reviews passing once again, with some additional points for discussion and more work on grips. Finally, Cesar adds in a modified version of the Gracie Gift, though naturally he doesn't refer to it that way. Significantly, he does refer to the triangle danger, which is absolutely essential when teaching this pass. He also shows you how to avoid the triangle, by bringing your elbow back: a simple detail, but one Rorion missed eight years earlier.

The second tape (slightly under thirty-seven minutes) starts from the very basics, as Cesar explains just what is meant by 'the guard'. That enables him to lead into his next point, which is that if you feel very comfortable in the bottom position, pulling guard is a straightforward way of getting there. Strangely, he shows this from the knees rather than standing, but perhaps that is because he is thinking of the typical situation in class. Still, I think it would have made more sense to show this from standing, or alternately show both options.

For beginners, the next sequence is really good, covering pretty much all the techniques that would spring to my mind as most essential for a guard. Cesar kicks off with attacks, with his trademark detailed instruction on the cross-choke, kimura, armbar and triangle, then four basic sweeps: the scissor and elevator from the knees, followed by the double ankle grab and overhead when they stand up.

Cesar has lots of useful tips, including set-ups for the various submissions, as well as a conceptual approach throughout. He will frequently start description of a technique with a discussion, such as when he talks about the need for an endgame with sweeps (i.e., you need to make sure you get on top after you sweep, rather than knocking them down only for them to recover their previous position). There are also specific points on fine details, like gripping the lapels on the overhead sweep (because this means you can keep them suspended when getting your legs into position, unlike the alternate grip on the elbows).

Having run through the guard, tape number three (around thirty seven minutes) covers side control and mount, with knee-on-belly and scarf hold included as aspects of the first. Cesar also takes the opportunity to iterate a central maxim of BJJ, 'position before submission'. He puts it like this:

It doesn't matter how many good moves you know to apply if you can't control your opponent. Your goal is total body control: when I'm across the side, I want to keep my opponent from getting out of there. That gives me time to find an attack. If I can't do that, I'm never going to get an attack, because they're going to be moving.

After establishing the theory, he then explores some basic attacks and transitions, beginning with the Americana and moving on to scarf hold. He also shows the same step-over armbar from scarf that cropped up in the Renzo/Kukuk DVD, but with more detail and clearer instruction.

'Position before submission' guides the content of this tape. Along with showing you how to maintain side control and shift to scarf hold, Cesar also demonstrates transitioning to north-south and knee-on-belly. I especially liked how he linked scarf hold, north-south and side control together, pointing out that you need the ability to stay mobile so that you can keep control of your opponent. To complete a basic top game, Cesar also explains a few methods of getting to mount, such as the knee-slide.

His submissions are also well-described, with coverage of armbars and cross-chokes in addition to the earlier Americana (which he returns to at the end to provide even more detail). However, Cesar's method of showing the spinning armbar from mount suffers from the common defect of assuming your opponent is completely clueless and will push their arms straight up. This is unlikely in a BJJ class outside of total beginners, but then as these first three tapes are aimed at that demographic, can't complain too much.

The way that Cesar fits everything together is superb. Frequently one technique will follow from another due to Cesar covering alternate reactions from your opponent (e.g., they're blocking you with their legs as you try to mount, so slide your knee through rather than attempt to shove their legs down and bring your leg over), and also explaining how certain positions can crop up. For example, he shows how north-south might occur when passing, as they'll be chasing you with their legs: this is one of the reasons its important to master the pin.

At the beginning of Intermediate Volume 1 (thirty-eight minutes), Cesar takes off the gi to add in a self-defence element to the series. Like the Basics tapes, Intermediate starts with takedowns: the difference this time is that Cesar and his drilling partner are throwing strikes, so the clinchwork involves ducking and weaving around punches and kicks.

Like the first basics tape, Cesar then moves on to guard passing. He breaks down how to set up the stack pass, showing how to avoid getting stuck in their half guard by using your knees and elbows to block their feet from your hips. Interestingly, he also shows a pass where you simply push down their knees and thrust straight through to mount. I was a little dubious, as it seems overly simplistic and therefore difficult to get in sparring, but always good to have more options.

The bull-fighter pass is also covered, both into side control and through to knee-on-belly. Already by this point, Cesar has provided the most comprehensive instruction on passing the guard available at the time, building on the excellent theoretical discussion from the first tape.

He finishes with a version "from the street," which in other words is using strikes to pass. This fits with what Mario Sperry showed a couple of years earlier on Vale Tudo 1, and like Sperry, Cesar also demonstrates striking for the guard. Also in keeping with Sperry, this segment is all no-gi: Cesar finishes off with the can-opener and basic pass, but again with the inclusion of punches.

Intermediate Volume 2 (a little over forty-three minutes) returns to the guard, this time working a handy sequence of attacks from overhooking one arm. He begins with a collar choke, using the overhook and a leg over the top to help with the pressure. That smoothly transitions into an armbar, pressing on the overhooked arm, and can also shift into a triangle. Cesar shows a kimura too, but that basically involves disengaging, so not quite in the same flow. Finally, if you're having trouble with the collar choke, Cesar demonstrates how you can overhook both arms, then switch your choke to the other side.

He then follows this up with yet another beautifully put-together combination, this time the classic armbar to triangle then back to armbar. Whenever I've tried to go for this, I pretty much always get stacked, so Cesar's 'eggshell' concept sounded useful. If I understood correctly, what that refers to is raising your hips and rolling onto your shoulders.

Unusually, Cesar states that while its a bad idea to cross your feet when attempting the usual armbar, if you're going from a triangle, its acceptable. Unfortunately he doesn't explain why: the reason you don't normally cross your feet is so that you can stay heavy on their head by keeping your feet down. I'm not sure why that wouldn't be the case for an armbar off a triangle.

Next Cesar runs through the flower sweep. He explains it a little differently than I've seen before, in that he emphasises throwing both legs towards your destination, then chopping with the bottom leg. I haven't looked at it like that before, as I've always seen it as getting the first leg right up into their armpit, then chopping once you've broken the posture down. This gives me another perspective, which could be handy.

After a few more sweeps, Cesar is back to the 'self-defence' striking. He demonstrates defensive posture, and also how to use kicks from off your back to help you return to standing. As ever, self defence is not something I'm interested in, though the instruction here looks equally solid as the rest of the series.

Intermediate Volume 3 (forty-two minutes) takes the side control and mount work from the basics tape a step further. Once again, Cesar fills his teaching with lots of logically connected submission sequences, beginning with a kimura where you move to north-south, and can then potentially end with an armbar instead.

Cesar's scarf hold sequence is a bit longer. That begins with an Americana with the legs, much the same as Renzo shows it, except that Cesar grips around the head rather than the far armpit. He also adds in an armbar you can try if they manage to straighten out their arm, an arm triangle if they try to frame out, and finally a more unorthodox crank if they try to hook you with their leg. As Cesar notes, that last technique could land you in a crucifix, so it depends a lot on perfect timing.

From the mount, Cesar demonstrates how to switch between cross chokes and armbars, doubling up your attacks. Parts of this looked similar to what Roger showed us a while ago, such as going for an armbar from seated mount, then changing to a choke if you can't secure it. That sequence gets even better when Cesar goes into fine detail on finishing the armbar, either loosening the arm, changing to a choke, or attacking the opposite arm in a continuous cycle.

Advanced Volume 1 (thirty nine minutes) returns to passing the guard, but slightly more complicated (as you'd expect from the tape title). The first few passes are all from the same position, where you've tried to go for a stack pass, but they've attempted to swim their leg over your arm. The idea is to trap their shin against your stomach before they can create a hook on your arm or thigh, then work one of five passing techniques.

Cesar moves on to further bull-fighter passes, building on what he previously demonstrated, then shows a variation for no-gi. After a knee slide, which I've also seen on the Mario Sperry set, Cesar covers the guillotine for no-gi: attacking from standing and guard, then how to defend if the situation is reversed.

Advanced Volume 2 (just over forty minutes) explores more guard attacks, beginning with the omoplata. Some might question whether that is an advanced move, but personally I've always found it tough to get, so would be happy separating it out from basics like armbars and cross-chokes.

Cesar presents it as an option if your opponent is being especially tight and stalling your other attacks. If you can't secure a submission with your arms, then using your legs is a good alternative. He goes on to show several follow-ups, with a wristlock finish, a transition to the triangle and how to use the omoplata in the midst of defending against a pass.

This fits in well with Cesar's earlier tapes on moving from the armbar to the triangle. In terms of organisation, it would have been helpful to have that sequence all on the one tape: generally I prefer instructionals to be arranged by position rather than belt or difficulty level.

After exploring the omoplata, Cesar adds in armdrags, bicep slicers and a fairly straightforward sweep from spider guard (although your foot is on their shoulder rather than the crook of their elbow, which would be the normal position for spider guard). As usual, Cesar is adept at filling in the gaps and answering "what if" situations, showing how you can also use the bicep slicer to set up a sweep. Best of all, if they resist the sweep, you still have the option of the original submission.

Strangely, Cesar then leaps from guard attacks to various positional escapes. I'm not sure why he waited until the penultimate video in a nine tape series to deal with something so important to BJJ. It would have made more sense to have a specific tape on positional escapes, rather than the few he includes here.

Having said that, the techniques themselves are all taught in Cesar's trademark style, heavy on detail. He begins with the basic principles of defending under mount, such as getting your elbows into their knees, then demonstrates the escape to butterfly guard by lifting their hips. That is a fairly basic escape: if he was going to demonstrate that, he might as well have shown the more reliable upa and elbow escape too.

Cesar also shows shrimping to half guard, but not from the heel drag I'm used to. Instead, he again lifts up his partner by the hips to make space for the hip movement. That looked a little more risky than the orthodox method, but then I've never tried it, so perhaps its safer than I'm assuming.

The heel drag comes next, though again it isn't the method I'm familiar with. Cesar first puts his partner into quarter guard, then uses that to open enough space to get back to full guard. I prefer how Roy Dean shows it on Blue Belt Requirements: indeed, I'd generally recommend that if you're looking for escapes, you pick that up rather than Cesar's set. He is much better on offence, as far as I can tell, so complements Roy Dean well.

Still, the side control escapes were interesting. The first one involves hooking with your near leg, then sweeping them by grabbing their other leg with your arm. I'd always thought it was a bit pointless to hook with the near leg, so this could be a handy option. Cesar follows that up with two ways of getting a submission directly from under side control, a triangle and then a collar choke. It looked as though you'd need good flexibility to get your leg straight over their head from that position, but again, could be a fun alternative to add to my usual strategy from under side control.

The final tape, Advanced Volume 3 (forty three minutes), continues with mount and side control submissions. Cesar looks into high mount, trapping his partner's arms above his face, then provides some tips about how to maintain posture and isolate the arm. As ever, there is also a follow-up, where if you're struggling to get the arm (I always find it difficult), Cesar demonstrates another two ways of breaking their grip.

From side control, Cesar runs through a choke where you step over their head after grabbing the collar. Tran has done this to me in the past, which he called the 'exposé' choke, learned from Nic G. Looks handy, if you're able to step over without getting reversed: I frequently find it hard to keep my weight pressed into my training partner when trying to shift position.

Cesar finishes up the submissions on this tape with two options from what is effectively 'knee-on-face', an armbar and a choke. There is plenty of detail on setting up the choke from knee-on-belly, showing how to manipulate your opponent into giving you the submission. From what I understood, you're trying to get them to turn towards you, using grips, pressure with your knee, and switching from side to side.

The instructional closes with a return to no-gi and striking. Cesar covers how to strike from mount, side control and knee-on-belly, rounding off his previous segments. Again, I think it would have made more sense to combine the various no-gi/self-defence portions onto a single tape, rather than spreading them across three.

As I keep finding myself saying, this DVD makes for an excellent follow-up to Blue Belt Requirements. Roy Dean provides you with the fundamental defences, while Cesar Gracie adds in a broad range of attacks, laid out in effective sequences from a variety of positions. Cesar also shares Dean's focus on concepts, providing lots of theoretical discussion as well as practical content.

The no-gi parts are less interesting from my perspective, but then I train almost entirely in the gi, so that's unsurprising. Cesar certainly knows his stuff when it comes to combining grappling and striking, given that he has trained numerous successful MMA fighters, so if that's your thing, you may well get something out of it. However, I'd imagine there are much better MMA-specific sets out there. Also as with all the older instructionals I've been reviewing, Cesar Gracie's DVD is cheap.


  1. Thank you for an excellently detailed review (as always) and for helping me figure out what my collection is missing "next" after Dean's BBR. :)

  2. Glad you found it helpful! :D

    If you end up getting hold of the Cesar Gracie DVD, I'd be interested to know what you think.