Short Review: If you're looking for a basic self defence course and don't care about belts, then Gracie Combatives would be an excellent choice. The instruction is superb, with an unprecedented level of detail, sometimes taking over thirty minutes exploring a single technique. This is an impressive production, right down to the smooth camera transitions from overhead shots into zooms and multiple angles. Even for those who are already training at a BJJ school and aren't interested in self-defence, several of the lessons are so good you'll still find them beneficial.
However, the online blue belt test detailed on the last DVD remains controversial, as does some of the philosophy put forward in the course. For example, Rener Gracie states that there is no need to cross-train striking, a highly debateable question when it comes to self-defence. Geoff Thompson, a very respected self defence instructor, would almost certainly disagree. So, take the theory and marketing with a pinch of salt, but if you want self defence with top notch instruction, you won't be disappointed. Available to buy here.
Full Review: The Gracie Combatives course raises a number of questions, two of which I think are especially pressing: is there really a valid distinction between 'sport' BJJ and 'self-defence' Gracie Jiu Jitsu? Can you legitimately test for a belt online, never physically interacting with the instructor or sparring in a class?
I'll address both of those later (split into sections on sport versus self defence and online belt testing), but I assume most people who have done a search for "gracie combatives review", "gracie combatives dvd", "gracie university" etc are mainly interested in the content. Keeping that in mind, I'll start with a review of the thirteen DVD set (though I would note that the introductory video on the DVD features Rener and Ryron touching on both of the above questions).
The Gracie Combatives DVDs ^
If you want to learn Gracie Combatives but don't have access to an official training centre, then there are two options. You can sign up for the online lessons over on Gracie University, or you can buy the DVDs. The Gracie Academy hopes you'll do both, but in either medium the videos are exactly the same. Gracie University has a few add-ons, like forums for questions and summarised lesson print-outs, but frankly I don't think that is anywhere near enough to make it worth buying both. If you train at the main Gracie Academy, then from what friends of mine who train there tell me, access to Gracie University is included in your membership.
As with previous Gracie jiu jitsu self defence videos, the instructors wear t-shirt and trousers rather than a gi. Rorion and Royce went for jeans in their video, while Rorion's sons Rener and Ryron opt for gi pants. Making the distinction between them clear, Ryron wears blue gi pants, while his brother goes for white. Their shirts are also different colours, but they cycle through a variety in the course of the DVDs: it would perhaps have been helpful if they stuck to one shade each, but that's a minor point.
An immediate difference from previous Gracie Academy releases is that the two brothers have perfect English. Rorion's English was good, but he was not a native speaker: that Brazilian accent is almost entirely absent from his sons, though there is a slight hint in Ryron's voice.
Rener takes on the majority of teaching duties, with Ryron chiming in at various points. I would judge Rener the better teacher, as he is more articulate and measured than his brother. My girlfriend, who took an interest in learning from the videos as I was doing this review (she's only up to lesson three so far, though), mentioned that she would have preferred that just Rener spoke. She found it a little confusing when they switched back and forth. That reminds me of when Saulo suddenly passed over to his brother Xande in the Jiu Jitsu University book, which I found similarly jarring.
The camerawork on this DVD is notably superior to most other instructionals I've seen. There are multiple angles, frequent zooming on key details and overhead shots, with smooth transitions between the three. Judging from the quality, production values on Gracie Combatives were perhaps higher than is the norm for these kind of DVDs.
I liked the way that footage from Gracie Jiu Jitsu in Action pops up throughout the course. Those challenge matches are at the heart of GJJ's fame, and the archives make for a marvellous resource for proving the efficacy of techniques. The Gracie Academy uses its historical recordings well, so that the video is always helpful in aiding Rener and Ryron's explanation, rather than an intrusive pause in the instruction.
It is important to note that the instruction is not typical of BJJ DVDs. Normally, the intention is to supplement training, providing some help on specific details, jogging the memory for techniques you've seen before, or perhaps a new approach to something you already know. Gracie Combatives is different: this is not meant to be a supplement, but a complete course, giving you everything required to learn the techniques.
That is ambitious, as physical skills are extremely difficult to transmit through a visual medium alone. To really learn how to perform a technique, you need feedback from a partner. The usual place for that is the local BJJ club, but for Gracie Combatives, you are expected to have a training partner at home, or potentially at a Gracie Garage (which incidentally are a great idea, reminiscent of throwdowns, or the Warwick Uni BJJ Facebook group).
It remains to be seen how this will work in practice, but the program is still young. As I mentioned, my girlfriend has decided to try and learn from the DVDs, so hopefully I'll be able to see first-hand if somebody without much prior grappling experience (she's been to a the odd class of MMA and judo with me over the years, but that's about it) can pick up this course.
There are thirty six lessons in total (three lessons on each DVD), which are supposedly the most fundamental jiu jitsu techniques for self defence as ascertained by the Gracie Academy. Each lesson is further subdivided into technical slices, along with a 'reflex development drill', a 'mindset minute' (where Ryron and Rener discuss some key details), and from the third lesson onwards, a 'fight simulation drill'.
I found myself skipping through a lot of the drills, as they were basically a repetition of the techniques done in a flowing sequence, but I can see how they would be useful for learning. In keeping with the nature of the course, you can see each of the techniques demonstrated in a continuous loop on their respective DVDs, intended for you and your training partner to review whilst practicing, which is a good idea.
The course proper kicks off with lesson one (twenty minutes in four slices, then five minutes of drills plus mindset minute), the trap and roll escape from mount. Just like their father Rorion did in Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics, Rener starts by showing how the person on top can punch, but the person on the bottom can't punch back, making the mount a very dangerous position.
If they reach to choke you, or in any way put their hand near your chest, you can use what Rener calls the 'standard variation'. This is slice one of the lesson, where Rener runs through all the important points, going into considerable depth. For example, he spends a good bit of time on exactly how to grip, and most importantly, why you should grip like that. I was very impressed with the level of detail, which was truly excellent.
The grip itself is a little different from what I've been taught. In class, I've always been shown that you grip their wrist with your same side hand, then grasp the elbow with your other hand. That means you can use the additional leverage of your elbow as you roll them over.
Ryron and Rener grip the wrist with the opposite hand, using their same side hand to grip around the tricep. The idea is that your opponent can't pull their arm out backwards or sideways. Interestingly, this is also how the trap and roll is taught on Carlson Gracie Jr's tape (more on that tape series here) as well as on Blue Belt Requirements, so clearly it is more orthodox than I thought. Given that all three of them do it the same way, could well be I'm doing the technique unusually.
Slice two brings in something else you won't normally see on a BJJ instructional: avoiding punches. The manner in which the Gracie Academy attempts to provide a methodology for dealing with punches is something they push as a selling point. It also forms the basis of their criticism of what they call 'sport' jiu jitsu, which in turn marks an alleged distinction between Gracie jiu jitsu (for self defence on the street) and Brazilian jiu jitsu (for scoring points in tournaments). I'll discuss that argument at length later in this review, so for now I'll just focus on the actual techniques.
In this first encounter with what you might call the Gracie Academy's 'anti-striking', the main principle is to stay tight to your attacker at all times. You begin by covering your head with your arms to defend against strikes, then move in and grab your attacker around the waist, clinging tightly. Knock them to the floor by pushing off with your feet, then switch your grips to their shoulders.
You can now pull yourself up their body, so that your heads are next to each other. Swim your hand through to trap their arm on the same side as your head, hook the leg, then finally roll as normal, reaching up past their shoulder with your free hand to help the bridging motion.
Another point of interest is the attention Rener and Ryron pay to safety during the instruction. Once more, this is indicative of the nature of Gracie Combatives as an entire course intended for practice at home, rather than just an instructional. For example, Rener notes that the person getting rolled needs to be careful with their fingers. If they don't turn their hand palm up, instead leaving their fingers splayed, they may well end up breaking them. It's an important detail, and sets a trend for sensible safety advice throughout the course, another of its many advantages.
The third slice is a bit more straightforward, as it only requires slight adjustment from the standard variation. Instead of having to trap the arm, they effectively trap it for you by gripping around your head. You simply lean your head back and grab their arm before completing the roll as usual.
Having said that, when my girlfriend tried this, she found it tough to move my weight. I'm not heavy, and she is a comparable size, so I don't think it was just weight difference. I did it a few times myself, and eventually decided that the variation I'm used to might work better for her. Turned out well, as she had much more success putting the hand on the hip rather than reaching through with the arm.
This is the version Roy Dean shows on Blue Belt Requirments, which also has the advantage of leaving the arm less vulnerable to armlocks than the Gracie Combatives variation. Interestingly, it is also the version Rorion Gracie uses on Rape Safe back in 1996, where he emphasises the hand placement on the hip. Unlike Roy Dean, Rorion's tape was specifically geared towards self defence, just like his sons' course over a decade later.
Finally, the fourth slice of lesson one is effectively a very basic guard pass, where after reversing the mount, you just push past their legs without any real resistance. This points up a major aspect of the curriculum, which is that it assumes your opponent is clueless on the ground. That means much of the course isn't really suitable for a beginner at any school except for the Gracie Academy and their affiliates, unless the beginner in question is especially keen to work on self-defence.
Some of the habits developed in a number of these combatives lessons could either get you smashed on the mats of most clubs, or are less efficient than their 'sport' counterparts, as my girlfriend found. Keep that in mind if you're using this to supplement your BJJ training, rather than somebody new to grappling who is only doing the Gracie Combatives course (though I would add that I assume most people who are interested in buying these DVDs fall into the latter category).
That one lesson on the trap and roll totals up to over half an hour long. Although it is split into six sections, that is still an incredible length of time to spend on a single technique, even if it includes several variations. By the standards of previous BJJ DVDs, it is pretty much unprecedented, and more impressive still, there are another thirty five lessons to follow (so if you're wondering, yeah, this is going to be a REALLY long review...)
Lesson Two (seventeen minutes in three slices, then four minutes of drills plus mindset minute) discusses the Americana from mount, the first submission of the course. The level of instruction remains high and broadly applicable, making this one of numerous segments which would benefit any BJJ beginner. It's a shame there isn't a 'sport' version of the release, or in other words, a set in which the opponent is not presented as completely ignorant of the ground.
Having said that, later instruction after blue belt will apparently address skilled opponents, but unfortunately that won't be available on DVD. Instead, you'll have to go to Gracie University and start the 'Master Cycle'. You will also have to pass the blue belt test (more on that later), as the curriculum is dependent on completing each stage before you can move on to the next.
Returning to the Americana, Rener again advocates the thumbless grip (which he refers to as a 'monkey grip'), demonstrating how it provides better control. He also heavily emphasises the importance of tapping, in keeping with safety. The technique itself is basic, as you would expect, but there was one element I hadn't seen before, which is hooking their leg with one of your own for stability.
That continues into lesson three (sixteen minutes in four slices, then seven minutes of drills plus mindset minute), maintaining the mount. As with the Americana, Rener shows how you can insert a back hook in order to secure the mount, also moving your other knee slightly forward. This hook will switch sides accordingly, depending in which direction your opponent attempts to roll you.
The third lesson also introduces a new type of drill, dubbed a 'fight simulation drill'. Unlike the reflex development, Rener explains that this aims to "help you build comfort in the execution of all the variations of the drills in combination with maybe one other technique," which becomes increasingly complex as the lessons progress. I can see that being especially useful later in the course, as a reminder of previous techniques, as well as an attempt to emulate a fight.
On the other hand, it is clearly no substitute for sparring: at this point, a 'sport' jiu jitsu school would probably use specific sparring from the mount position to further the progress of their membership. The student now has all the tools they need to make specific sparring a worthwhile exercise: an escape, a submission, and how to maintain the position. In my opinion, that would be a far more useful methodology for learning the three techniques, though admittedly it is difficult to safely include as part of a DVD course (given the absence of a qualified instructor to observe).
Lesson four (eighteen minutes in three slices, then seven minutes of drills plus mindset minute) makes for a sensible progression, as Rener and Ryron explain how to take the back from mount. This fits into the "clueless opponent" category, as it is based off your partner trying to turn to their front while you have them mounted, without trapping a leg and arm first. That is not going to happen in class outside of total beginners, but it might happen in a street fight: the Gracie Jiu Jitsu in Action videos have lots of examples, one of which is briefly included here.
Useful material crops up in the course of the lesson, such as detailed advice on establishing your hooks. Slice two provides a 'remount technique' from the back, which also could be handy if you find you're losing control of the back mount.
The natural next step is then covered in lesson five (thirteen minutes in three slices, then five minutes of drills plus mindset minute), the rear naked choke. Like several of the previous lessons, the instruction here would be useful to any beginner in BJJ: very detailed, taught at a steady pace and clearly explained.
Rener begins with the mechanics of the choke, demonstrating with Ryron kneeling in front of him. As well as a physical description, he also explains why the choke works, then offers a drill for practicing at home, using your leg instead of somebody's neck. Typical of the thorough coverage in Gracie Combatives, Rener shows two variations, from what he calls the 'strong side' and 'weak side' respectively.
Lesson six (twelve minutes in two slices, then seven minutes of drills plus mindset minute) runs you through a basic leg hook takedown. Rener and Ryron focus on control, staying tight to your opponent: this remains a concern throughout the course. The next two lessons are especially self-defence driven, starting with the related lesson seven (eleven minutes in two slices, then seven minutes of drills plus mindset minute) on obtaining the clinch against an aggressive opponent (the version for a conservative opponent appears later in the course).
Distancing and timing are key elements for this lesson, as Rener describes how to time your entry, making sure to always stay out of punching range. In the mindset minute, Ryron states that "the most important thing to remember in closing the distance is that you don't try to exchange punches. Any time you're standing in a fight, don't try to punch somebody who is bigger, heavier and stronger. As a matter of fact, anybody. Doesn't matter how big they are, don't throw too many punches."
His brother Rener adds:
We've found that the quickest way to get knocked out is to try to knock somebody out. […]
Gracie jiu jitsu is all about distances. We teach you how to operate from all the possible ranges where punches are very difficult to achieve against you. So, by staying all the way out they can't hit you, and once you're all the way in, they also can't hit you with any effectiveness. So, learn to control the distance during the fight, and you're guaranteed victory.
The practical application of that strategy is laid out in detail during lesson eight (twenty two minutes in four slices, then nine minutes of drills plus mindset minute). This is perhaps the heart of the instructional course, as it deals with defending yourself against punches from the guard position. The 'punch block series' is divided into four stages (a fifth is added in a later lesson), which are dependent on how far away your attacker launches their punch.
Rener calls the guard "the secret weapon of Gracie Jiu Jitsu," which many observers might agree with. The average person is unfamiliar with the numerous ways in which an experienced BJJer can submit them from the guard. Indeed, as the early UFCs showed, a lot of uneducated people assumed that if somebody was on their back, that automatically meant they were losing.
However, claiming that "the goal of the fight is to get it safely to the ground" is a bit more contentious. Then again, this is not in the context of multiple attackers: as Rener made clear in the introductory video at the beginning of the first DVD, no martial art adequately prepares you for that situation.
The goal of the punch block series is to bring the attacker into stage one, where you are holding them tightly in your guard, leaving them no room to punch. Stage two is when they bring one or both arms back to punch, which you immediately block with your shin, holding their tricep with your hand.
If they sit further back, you move to stage three, putting your knees near their chin and feet on their hips. Finally, if they stand right back up, your feet go on their hips, keeping them too far away to land a punch. As soon as they try to shove forward to get close, bring them back into stage one.
As far as I can tell, this punch block series looks like a good strategy for dealing with strikes if you're on your back, though I've never trained for self defence, so take that opinion for what it's worth. In a MMA fight, I imagine it would be rather less successful, but then it has to be kept in mind that Gracie Combatives is intended for a single untrained attacker in a street fight. Therefore it would be unfair to judge it by standards the Gracie Academy doesn't claim to meet.
Lesson nine (eighteen minutes in three slices, then seven minutes of drills plus mindset minute) touches on the same territory with the armbar from mount. Once again, the opponent doesn't know what they're doing, so they reach directly up to push on your chest. Nevertheless, the details are absolutely brilliant, as Rener and Ryron methodically investigate the essential elements to finishing an armbar in slice one.
First, squeeze your knees together, or as the brothers demonstrate, your opponent might try to bring their head out and over your leg to get free. Secondly, you have to keep your heels tight to their body, or they can pull in their elbow. Thirdly, you have to make sure you keep your legs 'heavy' (to use their terminology), preventing your opponent from simply sitting up and turning to escape.
I really liked the way Rener and Ryron explained exactly what to do, along with the consequences if you fail to get all the details. That continues into slice two, where Rener also acknowledges that this particular spinning set-up off the chest is only applicable when your opponent is foolish enough to push their arms straight up.
The solo drill was interesting, as you can simulate spinning on somebody's chest by putting your fists to the floor instead of palm down. Slice three added even greater value to an already well-presented lesson by showing how to shift into modified mount. A constant flow of fine details make lesson nine one of the highlights. Although in a 'sport' BJJ class nobody with any experience is going to shove their arms straight up under mount, all those details mean this lesson is still great stuff for white belts.
Lesson ten (twenty two minutes in three slices, then eight minutes of drills plus mindset minute) is also good, this time covering the triangle choke from guard. Rener makes a point of telling the viewer how much he loves this technique, and its symbolic meaning as part of the Gracie logo, before getting on to the choke itself.
As with the armbar from mount, the brothers start with the finish rather than the set-up. Like Ryan Hall, they also emphasise shifting your hips back in order to establish the lock, but add that even if you can't fully secure that position, it's possible to get the tap just by squeezing your knees really tight. Rener claims that the difference is the level of control, not opportunity to submit.
Slice two goes into the set-up, working initially off stage one of the punch block series. Your attacker tries to throw a punch, so you block it with your shin, moving halfway to stage two (meaning Rener dubs this 'stage 1.5'). Your other leg bites down on their back. Push their wrist away, enabling you to bring your first leg against their neck, also locking your feet for control.
There is a second option for beating that arm: hold the wrist and then bring your leg around, releasing your grip at the last moment. You can also force the stage 1.5 position, if they aren't punching (as of course they won't, if I'm looking from my perspective as a 'sport' BJJer). Shrimp to make space, bring your shin into their arm, then immediately close the gap you just created.
You're waiting for the opportunity to bring your hips up and push their arm over. That means you can then lock the triangle position with your legs, getting the shin which is over their neck secured into the back of your other knee. Pull their head down and squeeze to finish.
Finally in slice three, Rener demonstrates what he calls the 'giant-killer', a variation for use against much larger opponents. Shove their head to the side, push off their skull to scoot out, then put your feet on their hips. As you push back, you'll shift your hands to their wrist. That gives you enough space to bring out one leg, then pull them in and get that leg by their neck. From there, you can finish as before.
Lesson eleven (twelve minutes in two slices, then six minutes of drills plus mindset minute) is a fairly straightforward explanation of the elevator sweep, where Rener again points to the central importance of getting to the mount position. That moves on to slice two, where Rener shows how it becomes even easier if your opponent tries to throw on a headlock from inside your guard. This is another example of something that you aren't going to see in the average BJJ class, outside of complete beginners, but might happen if attacked by someone untrained.
I was especially looking forward to lesson twelve (twenty seven minutes in five slices, then six minutes of drills plus mindset minute), as this is another fundamental technique I use all the time: the elbow escape from mount. Rener mentions how the primary option is the trap and roll, but an elbow escape is the next best thing. This leads on to the essential skill of shrimping, which is what the opening slice takes as its focus.
Personally, shrimping is probably the first thing I'd show a new student, so it's interesting that in this course it only crops up during lesson twelve. Gracie Combatives is intended to be learned in a specific order, so I imagine plenty of thought went into the lesson progression: if my girlfriend makes it through the whole thing, I'll be sure to ask her at the end if she thought the order helped.
In slice two, it is time for the actual escape, where you're advised to put your arm up over their back. In a normal class, that would be asking to get armbarred (compare Roy Dean's version of the same technique), or possibly choked, because you wouldn't have any hands by your neck for defence. However, in the context of staying safe from punches, it’s a part of remaining close to your attacker. Also, Rener and Ryron aren't wearing gis, so chokes are less of a problem (though it is possible to choke someone out using a t-shirt, or indeed if they're wearing a coat).
The third slice explains how to deal with them bringing their legs under yours and hooking round with their feet (known as 'grapevining'). Rener suggests kicking your leg out, circling around their hook, then pressing on the heel of your other leg to free it. Rener uses his hands to simulate hooks in the solo drill, which looks like a useful way of practicing the technique on your own.
Slice four demonstrates the 'fish hook', where you lift their foot with your instep and suck them into half-guard. I prefer the option in slice five, the heel drag, which Rener presents as an alternative if they block the fish hook. If it was up to me, I'd start with the heel drag, but then I'm much more familiar with that technique, as I'm constantly using it in sparring to move to half guard.
Lesson thirteen (fifteen minutes in three slices, then seven minutes of drills plus mindset minute) is another explanation of positional control, but this time from side control. Rener's choice of side control is sprawled back, cross-facing with a gable-grip (palm to palm) under their head and arm. It looks a bit vulnerable to the person on the bottom moving their knee in and recovering guard, but of course that is not something an untrained opponent is likely to attempt.
Also, Rener addresses that concern in slice two: the first variation will prevent the person on the bottom rolling you off, but it is less effective at preventing guard recovery. To counter that, you switch your legs into scarf hold, although Rener doesn't call it that and also doesn't secure the arm. Your hips stay sufficiently low that you can feel if they are trying to recover guard, immediately moving to scarf to prevent them.
The third slice covers the side control I find most comfortable, with knees in tight, pulling the opponent towards you. Rener uses this in order to transition to mount, first getting space by driving a knee into their armpit to then trap the arm, after which he slides his knee across the stomach. Rener doesn't mention the danger of them blocking your mount attempt with their knee, but once again, this is an opponent ignorant of grappling.
The mindset minute expands upon that transition, commenting that it is actually easier to hold side control than full mount. You can therefore use side control to tire out the attacker, which will significantly reduce their ability to hinder your progression to full mount.
Lesson fourteen (five minutes in one slice, then six minutes of drills plus mindset minute) briefly covers the body fold takedown. Lessons are normally between twenty and thirty minutes, so the comparative brevity here is perhaps due to its similarity to the leg hook takedown. Many of the same principles apply, and as the brothers discuss in their mindset minute, this is effectively a quick and easy alternative to the leg hook takedown. Rener provides the sensible advice that you should take what your opponent gives you, rather than insist upon a particular technique: their reaction will tell you if it would be better to go for the body fold or the leg hook.
Lesson fifteen (four minutes in one slice, then seven minutes of drills plus mindset minute) is similarly brief, explaining the clinch against a conservative opponent. As you'd expect, most of the details from the earlier demonstration of clinching an aggressive opponent apply. The main difference is that instead of shooting in to meet them as they try to attack, you have to initiate the clinch yourself. The brothers note here that you have to be ready to shift your strategy if the attacker changes their approach from conservative to aggressive, a simple but important point.
The following lesson sixteen (twenty minutes in four slices, then seven minutes of drills plus mindset minute) deals with headlock counters, from the mount. This isn't applicable to the average BJJ lesson, as it is extremely unlikely anyone is going to be foolish enough to headlock you from mount, but there is some cross-over. For example, you could find yourself in a position where you move to modified mount and they still have the headlock, which Ryron and Rener cover here.
The brothers also affirm an essential tenet of jiu jitsu, "position before submission." If you are being rolled in the middle of an attempt to get an armbar from modified mount, re-establish your position, then try again.
Lesson seventeen (thirteen minutes in three slices, then eight minutes of drills plus mindset minute) features a reference to "professional fighters", as here Rener and Ryron cover the double leg takedown. They note that a pro fighter might well try and pick the person up after taking the legs and slam them (e.g., famous examples like Matt Hughes). However, they emphasise that this only works well against people your own size: in a street fight, your attacker is liable to be bigger.
So instead, they advocate staying close and driving them to the mat, rather than trying to pick them up. As with the earlier lesson on the clinch, judge the distance, and you could also fake a strike before changing levels for the shoot. They don't use the classic Royce Gracie kick, which looked rather stiff even in the early 1990s, instead opting for the more fluid option of a quick jab.
Lesson eighteen (seventeen minutes in three slices, then nine minutes of drills plus mindset minute) returns to headlock counters, this time from side control. This is a bit more likely than from the mount, but still largely restricted to untrained beginners. The more stable alternative is scarf hold, which you certainly will encounter in a BJJ class, though it is perhaps most associated with BJJ's parent art, judo. Using the arms as a frame to escape is a good principle, and can be used effectively to help make space under scarf hold.
In keeping with Rorion's Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics, his sons also include a demonstration of what they call a 'scissor choke'. As with the earlier Gracie Academy release, I have my doubts on this one, but it appears Ryron and Rener aren't entirely convinced either: in slice two, they show how to switch to side control in the likely event the scissor choke does not succeed.
We're back in familiar territory with lesson nineteen (seventeen minutes in three slices, then six minutes of drills plus mindset minute), the armbar from guard. Rener and Ryron introduce this by stating that in a street fight, most people will try to punch you from guard. If that doesn't work, they'll try to choke you, which presents an opportunity for the armbar.
Once again, the brothers show the set-up from stage one of the punch block series. Your attacker swims inside your arms and goes for a choke, whereupon you switch for an armbar. Rener claims that it doesn't matter whether or not you cross your feet on the armbar after getting into position.
As far as I'm aware, the difference is that with uncrossed feet, you are better placed to drive your heels down and thereby better lock your opponent in position. With feet crossed, this is much more difficult, making it easier for them to escape.
Of course, this could be yet another case of assuming the opponent is clueless anyway, so that isn't as important. Also, Rener goes on in slice three to show how to switch into a triangle if they pull their arm out, a traditional combination attack in BJJ.
An equally traditional technique is covered in lesson twenty (fourteen minutes in three slices, then nine minutes of drills plus mindset minute), the double ankle sweep. Notably, Rener doesn't actually refer to the guard here, but directly to stage one of the punch block series: it becomes increasingly clear that this series is an absolutely integral part of the Gracie Combatives syllabus. If your attacker is especially big, instead of thrusting into their stomach with your knees, your can drive your feet into their hips.
After having knocked them down, you lean to one side and come up on an elbow. Reach for their neck, then transition into mount. Rener also covers handy details, like hooking with your leg for additional stability: the follow-up to a sweep can result in a scramble, so control is important.
Lesson twenty-one (thirteen minutes in one slice, then ten minutes of drills plus mindset minute) is especially intriguing, as it is not something you would expect to see on a self defence instructional. The technique this time is pulling guard, which would seem to be the very epitome of 'sport' jiu jitsu: if you lack strong takedowns (as is the case for a significant proportion of BJJers, yours truly included) it is a means for getting to the bottom as quickly as possible, in order to work your game.
I have seen pulling guard put forward as a self-defence measure before, but did not expect to see it on Gracie Combatives. Then again, given that the brothers state repeatedly that their goal is to get to the ground quickly and control the fight from there, perhaps it isn't so surprising.
Rener does not suggest this as your first option: generally, you want to keep the distance, close in when the time is right, then take them down and move to mount. However, this may not always be possible, particularly if your attacker is much bigger and manages to get in close first. In that situation, Rener says, it makes sense to pull guard, rather than breaking away and risk getting punched.
He later repeats that in a slightly different fashion, stating that if you have a choice, you always want to be on top. If the alternative is getting punched, then its better to have them tight and controlled, even if you have to go to the guard in order to achieve that position.
It is also important to note that Rener and Ryron are not saying flop to your back, or jump up and wrap your legs around them (which is asking to be slammed to the ground). Instead, Rener shows how you start by gripping their shoulders, then crouch and move backwards into guard. So basically rather than leaping into guard or dropping to your back, you're sitting down while holding your opponent.
The brothers spend thirteen minutes running through the technique, along with various details. You need to make sure you don't end up sitting underneath them, or you'll pull them on top of you into mount rather than guard. You also should watch for them to back their hips away from you when standing close to them: that is a trigger for the guard pull.
Finally, to quote Rener from the mindset minute at the end: "You've got to keep in mind that pulling guard is a back up option to taking your opponent down and ending up on top of them." Pulling guard is an "emergency option."
Lesson twenty-two (twenty seven minutes in three slices, then twelve minutes of drills plus mindset minute) returns to headlock escapes from side control, this time for when the frame escape isn't functioning well. Instead, you'll hook their leg and roll them belly down. If their base is too wide for that, you can try slice two, where you drive your shoulder into their spine to release the headlock. Both of these are described in detail, at about nine minutes for each slice.
The third slice is only a little shorter, where the focus shifts again. Self-defence comes to the fore, as the lesson closes with an attacker who is attempting to punch while holding a headlock. Drawing back for that punch, as in the punch block series, will provide you with space to prevent them landing the blow.
Rener suggests grabbing their wrist, then reaching round with the other hand to lock that arm in place, which therefore means it won't be smacking you in the face. You can then hook their leg and push off with your other foot to roll, putting you either in position to take the back, or into modified mount as before.
Lesson twenty three (sixteen minutes in three slices, then eight minutes of drills plus mindset minute) is the standing guillotine, in response to a sloppy takedown. This is assuming, as usual, that your attacker doesn't have a clue how to shoot in properly, but may have some applicability in a class environment too. Especially with beginners, it is possible somebody might make a mistake and you could catch them with this, but unlikely against anybody experienced.
The technique Rener and Ryron show also isn't the fully locked on guillotine, where you're reaching under their neck, wrapping your other arm on top, then grabbing the bicep in order to squeeze (so, similar mechanics to the rear naked choke). Instead, the brothers are just grabbing their wrist to secure the choke.
Slice two shows how you can put your hands on their shoulders to diffuse the power of the shot, then deflect their head into your other arm, setting up the guillotine in a smooth motion. Finally, you could try finishing from the ground, using the principles of guard pulling shown previously: not flopping back, but carefully squatting, then sitting to the floor. From guard, you're able to lock your legs, which provides you with much more potential leverage.
I took particular interest in lesson twenty four (twenty three minutes in three slices, then ten minutes of drills plus mindset minute), as the shrimp escape from side control is something I do all the time in class. The first slice details what Rener calls the 'block and shoot' variation, which is an early defence, in the midst of their transition. As they are moving to side control, you put your hands on their chest (or forearm) and hips, get your shin into their stomach, then extending your body to get a foot on the ground, shrimp into guard.
The second slice is the typical escape from side control, driving your forearm into their throat, other arm braced against their hip. I've seen a few differing opinions on how to secure that arm by the throat: Rener advises gripping the shoulder (not the gi material). This is notably different from Rorion's approach in Gracie Jiu Jitsu Intermediate, who places the arm under an armpit instead, ignoring the throat entirely.
Rener goes on to suggest that if the attacker is in very close, its fine to wrap your arm around their head. From a self-defence perspective I'm uncertain of the validity, but in the average BJJ class, it is probably a bad habit to get into, depending on who you ask. As I've mentioned in previous reviews, Saulo Ribeiro explicitly calls this a mistake, whereas it is a fundamental part of Demian Maia's side control escapes in The Science of Jiu Jitsu.
The brothers expand upon that positioning in the third slice, which is specifically against punches. Your attacker has a very tight grip under your head, so you need to wait for the right opportunity. To stay safe, you have two options. First, you could grab around their neck with both arms, bringing one under their arm to lock it in place. Alternatively, you can hold their tricep, which has the advantage that it is easier to shift your hand into pushing on the hip. For both, you also keep your head tight, leaving them no room at all.
The idea here is that they'll become frustrated and try to force space for the punch, which is when you'll get the opportunity to quickly release, push off their hip for the shrimp, then recover guard as before.
That one contentious issue of arm placement aside, lesson twenty four is another highlight on the course. Exhaustive detail, clear instruction and fluid camerawork mean that Rener's instruction will embed itself deeply into any BJJ beginner watching, whether or not they follow the Gracie Academy's self defence focus.
Lesson twenty five (twenty minutes in three slices, then twelve minutes of drills plus mindset minute) is a basic submission, the kimura from guard. This section begins with brief footage of the famous match between Hélio Gracie and Masahiko Kimura, from which Kimura emerged victorious. He used an ude garami armlock to defeat Hélio, which is why it has been known as the kimura in BJJ ever since. It is a fundamental technique of judo, perfectly executed by one of the most dominant champions in judo's illustrious past.
Rener persists in calling Kimura a "Japanese jujitsu champion" rather than a judoka, a possible hangover from Rorion's similar blurring of judo with its origins in jujitsu. However, despite the irritation such erroneous categorisation has caused historically inclined judoka in the past, I don't think this is a mark of disrespect. After all, when I asked about the importance of judo to Gracie jiu jitsu shortly after the Gracie University forums were launched, I swiftly received the answer "without Judo there would be no Gracie jiu jitsu." Interestingly that was modified later into a rather longer response, but the sense remained largely the same.
Moving on to the technique itself: the details are mostly as you would expect, except for one element I haven't seen before. Rather than just putting one leg over the back to hold them in place, Rener advises locking your feet, scissoring your attacker between your legs for even greater security. I would have thought that might limit your own mobility, but then as ever, this is for a self-defence situation, not the fluid environment of a typical BJJ roll.
Slice two takes stage one of the punch block series as its starting point, following your attacker if they try to raise their torso. That effectively saves you from sitting up and reaching for the arm instead, as they put your body in position for you.
Finally, the third slice describes a 'forced variation', if they don't try to raise up. Bringing your legs in, you shove their head with your free hand and pop it under your armpit, almost as if you were going for a guillotine.
That also means you can keep pressing their head down with the back of your arm, only releasing when you shift to lock in the figure-four on the arm you want to attack. Sensibly, Rener notes that if you're being stacked onto your shoulders with your knees pressed towards your face, then that would be the wrong situation to try the kimura: you need the right opportunity.
Lesson twenty six (six minutes in one slice, then seven minutes of drills plus mindset minute) probably won't help the average BJJer, as you are not going to deal with standing headlocks in a typical class or competition. The situation is that you are trying to take them down and they grab you in a headlock. Step around, then drop them to the mat by sitting down while blocking their leg with your own. You're aiming to end up in the modified mount position while they're still holding your head. This recurs repeatedly across the DVDs, and is something I've been taught while escaping scarf hold, so unlike the standing headlock, it does have applicability to 'sport' BJJ.
That progresses into lesson twenty seven (fifteen minutes in two slices, then eleven minutes of drills plus mindset minute), which is the fifth and final stage of the punch block series. If they have stood up like in stage four, but either stepped back or simply not pressed forward, you need to shift your strategy. Now their weight is no longer driving into you, so instead you want to kick at their knees to get them to step back. This puts you in stage five, from which you can spin on your back with a foot raised, staying square to your opponent.
If you've ever watched the early years of the Pride Fighting Championships (I provide some history here), you'll have seen fighters get in that position, especially if their background is mainly BJJ. Sometimes it could even be quite effective in an offensive as well as defensive sense. For example, Allan Goes' match with Kazushi Sakuraba in Pride 4, where he launched a barrage of kicks while still on his back. There is also the old fight between Renzo Gracie and Oleg Taktarov, where Renzo famously knocked out the Russian while still on his back during the Martial Arts Reality Superfighting event.
Alternately, it may just result in the person on the bottom getting pounded. In Pride 5, Sakuraba learned from his fight with Goes, and punished Vitor Belfort when the Brazilian tried to emulate Goes' tactics. Sakuraba was able to effect a similar strategy against Royce Gracie in the Pride Grand Prix 2000: Rorion eventually had to throw in the towel, after Royce took so much damage he was barely able to walk.
Of course, if you found yourself jumped by someone with Sakuraba's abilities on the street, you'd be in big trouble. Gracie Combatives understandably doesn't expect the viewer is going to be rumbling with MMA fighters, instead aiming to prepare you for untrained thugs.
So, Rener doesn't suggest you try to KO your attacker like Renzo. Instead, keep one leg up, also raising your head and shoulders in order to reduce friction on your back. This will aid your spin, further assisted by the foot your still have on the floor. If they come in for a punch, catch them in stage four of the punch block series, then bring them down to stage one. If instead they back away, stand up in base, but remain ready to drop back if they suddenly choose to rush in and hit you.
Slice two discusses how to react to what is essentially a sloppy open guard pass. The attacker grabs one of your legs and attempts to throw it out of the way, in order to reach your face and torso. Roll to your side and bring your other leg onto their far hip. Push off, then replace the pressure with your first foot. You can now readjust to stage four, with both feet on the hips, ready to bring the attacker into stage one.
Continuing from a similar position, lesson twenty eight (fourteen minutes in two slices, then thirteen minutes of drills plus mindset minute) explains the hook sweep. Your attacker is in stage four of the punch block series, standing over you, but has one leg forward and the other back. Grab their front ankle and put one foot on the same side hip. Your other foot hooks behind their other knee. That means you can now pull back on the ankle and knee while pushing on the hip, knocking them to the floor.
In a BJJ class, it is important to immediately follow your opponent as they fall back, such as pulling yourself up on their sleeve, so you can move through to mount. Rener and Ryron are wearing t-shirts, so that is difficult. On the other hand, that didn't stop them after the double ankle sweep from earlier, so I would have thought the same method for getting up would work here too.
Instead, they advocate standing up in base, then simply moving around and driving into side control. I'm not sure how effective that would be, as your attacker might well have already stood back up by then, meaning you might have to return to one of the takedowns covered elsewhere on the course.
Lesson twenty nine (eighteen minutes in two slices, then thirteen minutes of drills plus mindset minute) covers one such technique, the rear takedown. Normally takedowns are from the front, but sometimes it can be useful to move round to their back. For example, in the situation presented here, you're in the clinch, but your opponent has managed to reach over you with an arm. Lift your head high to avoid guillotines, then move to their back, staying low, with your arms locked around their waist for control.
Rener and Ryron spend about six minutes in the first slice covering the set-up, then almost twice as long on the execution in slice two. Step in, blocking their foot with yours, then with your leg straight, drop back. Pull them over your leg in order drag them to the floor. The brothers once again go into a great deal of detail here, with multiple angles, zooms and repetitions. There are also sensible safety tips, such as making sure you don't bend the leg you're pulling them over: otherwise, you might well drop all their bodyweight straight onto your knee.
Lesson thirty (seven minutes in one slice, then eight minutes of drills plus mindset minute) deals with a defence to the haymaker punch, which you'll have seen in countless films and self-defence videos. Rener describes this as someone running across a bar unloading a huge punch, swinging right back, so the strike becomes very predictable. As Rener says, that is in contrast to most strikes, which are distinctly unpredictable, such as when somebody is squaring up from a boxer's stance.
To defend against the haymaker, you'll be using some of the skills you've already learned about distancing for the clinch. Rener shows how you need to carefully time the moment when you bring your arm up to protect your face, then move under and past their arm into a rear clinch: if you get this wrong, the attacker will be able to readjust and land their strike.
While the haymaker defence is therefore fairly simple, lesson thirty one (twenty six minutes in three slices, then thirteen minutes of drills plus mindset minute) is among the most complicated on the Gracie Combatives course. Rener and Ryron demonstrate how to take the back from the guard, in three long slices. This is another section I'd like to highlight as especially good, with plenty of excellent material suitable for the average BJJer as well as the self-defence focused beginner.
It is also one of the best structured lessons, leading the viewer through the techniques step-by-step, in a linear order. This is in contrast with a number of the otherwise well-constructed lessons, which for some reason begin with the finishing part of the technique then move backwards. No doubt Rener and Ryron had their reasons for laying out lessons such as number ten on the triangle in that fashion, but I personally find it counter-intuitive. Starting from the start and ending with the finish strikes me as much more logical, as they've done here.
Slice one runs you through the set-up, as ever taking stage one of the punch block series as your launching point. The situation is that they are trying to stack you, driving their forearm into your throat. Block their other arm with your forearm to prevent punches, and turn your chin away from the choke (so towards the elbow of the choking arm).
As you're in closed guard, you can also push away with your legs to reduce the pressure on your throat (if they're too big and you can't close your guard, use your inner thighs to move them back). That should also provide you with room to shove their choking arm to the side and off your neck, whereupon you immediately drop them back into your closed guard.
Lock your arms around their neck and shoulder, clasping your hands in a gable grip (palm to palm, not using the thumbs). Shimmy out to the side with your legs still closed, also keeping your head close to theirs. As ever, you're trying to avoid getting punched, so staying tight is essential. From a non-self-defence perspective, you still don't want them slipping free, as then you lose the opportunity to take the back.
Slice one focuses just on getting to that position, really delving into all the necessary elements, a hallmark of the superb instruction on this DVD series. Rener and Ryron are exhaustive in their detail, especially on this particularly well taught lesson. The same high level continues into slice two, which breaks down the next step.
Your arms will now slip round the neck a little, remaining tight: the blade of your wrist should now be wedged by the side of their neck. Next, release your bottom leg, keeping the other over their back. That bottom leg goes flat on the ground, then chops underneath your opponent's leg in order to flatten they out.
The idea here is simply to get that leg in between theirs: you can either chop straight through, or bring your leg back and in. Rener states that it doesn't matter which option you use, though he personally finds that chopping is the most effective strategy. However, as he says, chopping may not work if they are especially large, in which case bringing the leg out and then inserting between their legs functions better.
Finally, slice three adds in another ten minutes on getting up onto the back. You switch the hand hugging their neck to instead drop to their ribcage, while the other hand moves round the back, grabbing their lat muscle. Use the stability provided by your shoulder, arm and top leg to bring your bottom knee out for base. To finish, your top arm posts out, so you can finally lift and spin onto their back, securing an over-under grip to keep you there.
If they try and stop you getting the back by leaning their weight into you, it may open them up to a different kind of back mount. Roll them towards you, establishing your hooks, and you'll have back mount as before, but looking towards the ceiling rather than the floor.
When I've tried to take the back in the past, I'll often make it part-way, then fall off and end up in guard. So this lesson was directly relevant to my own training, despite the fact I only train for fun, not self-defence. Excellent instruction, multiple angles, lots of repetitions, zooming in, and even demonstrating both solo and in the midst of the technique, with narration of fine details along the way. The one thing I wondered was if you couldn't try to get an arm triangle once their arm is trapped against their throat, but its a small point.
Lesson thirty two (twelve minutes in one slice, then ten minutes of drills plus mindset minute) was less applicable to my training, as it is a defence against the standing guillotine. Basically, lift up your head and then move around to the back: its a simple technique, but Rener and Ryron still manage to spend a good twelve minutes exploring all the nuances. They undoubtedly provide as much detail as you could ever want, which is the case with many of the thirty six lessons.
Lesson thirty three (seventeen minutes in two slices, then eleven minutes of drills plus mindset minute) perked my interest again, as this time it was the elbow escape from side control. This was intriguing, as unlike the usual side control escape where you make space and shrimp, you're waiting for them to try and move to mount. Once they do, you need to be on your side, with your leg glued to the floor (so they can't dig their heel in).
As they try to move into mount, push on their leg with your elbow, slipping your leg underneath. This is therefore all about timing, so in a sense reminiscent of one of my favourites, where you simply bridge into them while they swing their leg over. You also need to make sure they can't get their knee in, by blocking with your elbow, and keeping your leg flat, so they can't hook it.
Lesson thirty four (thirteen minutes in two slices, then nine minutes of drills plus mindset minute) explains the standing armlock, which is another technique that you are unlikely to see in competition. This is presented as a response to an attacker pushing on your chest with one arm, and follows a similar pattern to what you might see in any traditional jiu jitsu school. I've seen the same motion in classes like the Jitsu Foundation, making this perhaps the most 'TMA' technique in the whole course.
Lesson thirty five (twenty minutes in three slices, then thirteen minutes of drills plus mindset minute) looks more widely applicable, in what Rener and Ryron dub 'twisting arm control.' This is a controlling position starting in mount, where you wrap your opponent's own arm around their head, feeding it to your other hand, then pulling them up onto their side. Rener starts by showing how to achieve the position, then two options: first, you could take the back, or secondly, go for an armbar from modified mount. Which one you choose will depend on whether or not they try to roll to their knees.
The technical content of the course ends with lesson thirty six (twenty two minutes in three slices, then fourteen minutes of drills plus mindset minute), the double underhook guard pass. This is in some ways a symbol of how far the Gracie Academy has come since the days of Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics, as lesson thirty six corrects one of the major flaws with Rorion's tape. Back in 1991, Rorion delivered an incomplete demonstration of a single underhook guard pass, which has passed into infamy as the 'Gracie Gift'. The single underhook can be an effective pass, but Rorion missed out essential details, meaning that if you were to follow his version, you would very likely get triangled by your opponent.
Rener and Ryron instead plump for the double underhooks. This is much safer, as you don't leave a trailing arm, instead bringing both arms back and hooking around their legs. Rener makes sure to note the danger of being triangled if you leave one arm in, though he adds that it is very unlikely (in a street fight, at least) that your attacker would know how to use the triangle choke. In fact, Rener says it isn't even likely they'll think to cross their feet, so this pass is only included for completeness.
I was initially looking forward to seeing how Rener would open the guard, as I have had trouble doing so myself pretty much since I started BJJ. However, I guess I was exhibiting my 'sport' mentality, as I'd forgotten the obvious method for use in self defence: punch them in the face. That isn't an option in competition or a normal BJJ class, but there are no such restrictions in a street fight.
Those thirty six lessons are spread across the first twelve DVDs of Gracie Combatives. It is fitting that the most controversial aspect of the course - video testing for your blue belt - is detailed on the thirteenth DVD, which I will discuss here. I'll also be looking into the theoretical elements of the course here, such as the 'philosophy' included on that same thirteenth DVD, along with the introduction from the first DVD.
If you don't care about belts and just want a basic self defence course, then I can happily recommend Gracie Combatives. Ryron and especially Rener are excellent instructors, providing the most detailed explanations I have ever seen on a BJJ instructional. The lessons are methodically structured and beautifully filmed, smoothly transitioning between multiple angles, repetitions, zooms and overhead shots.
It needs to be kept in mind that this is a comprehensive home study course. Not only is there great technical instruction, but Rener also provides thorough solo exercises, along with drills for cementing the techniques in your memory. For self defence, its very good, although I wouldn't agree with Rener's advice that you don't need to cross-train in a striking art: for the complete picture, learn a striking art, and preferably a specific takedown style as well, like wrestling or judo.
For the average BJJ beginner, Gracie Combatives is less useful. Rener and Ryron's manner of teaching the double underhook guard pass is a prime example: in a normal class (as they acknowledge), you can't just punch the guard open. The Gracie brothers also include various other habits which would be detrimental for the typical BJJ student, due to the assumption throughout this course that you are facing somebody ignorant of grappling. Therefore, Roy Dean's Blue Belt Requirements remains the best option for what the Gracie Academy calls 'sport' jiu jitsu.
Having said that, there are a number of lessons which would be equally beneficial to somebody looking for self defence and somebody just training in BJJ for fun. The lessons on taking the back, the armbar from guard and the triangle are three examples of brilliant instruction suitable for everybody. I'm not sure that is enough to justify the course for anyone not looking for self-defence, though it might be worth your while paying for a few of the individual lessons on Gracie University. The DVDs are available here and in various places on the web, normally for around $120. I'll also put in an eBay link, as you can often find it cheaper on there:
Sport Vs Self-Defence ^
In the early 1990s, the Gracie Academy was at the top of the heap for Gracie jiu jitsu. There was little choice for prospective students, as the sport was still very young in the United States. However, the Academy's position was challenged as the decade wore on, with numerous other family members arriving in the US and starting their own schools, along with other black belts from Brazil. In Gracie Jiu Jitsu Advanced, Rorion attempted to address the growing competition by drafting in his father Hélio, who was mainly there to extol the virtues of the Gracie Academy at the expense of everybody else.
[For more on the history of BJJ, see here]
Carlson Gracie Jr came in for especially harsh criticism, due to a self-defence video course. Carlson Jr aimed to provide distance learning to students who couldn’t make it to an academy. As the 1997 advertisements in Black Belt claimed:
Now, for a limited time only, Carlson Gracie, Jr., is accepting key students and instructors to learn and teach the fundamentals of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. This new course, endorsed by the International Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Federation, teaches the Gracie Family's most life saving self-defense techniques and is designed for instructors as well as students of all levels. This course teaches dozens of important Gracie standup and ground fighting techniques and fully certifies you to teach these techniques for the Gracie Family. You can even have Carlson Gracie, Jr. personally test you or your students for further certification
This prompted Hélio to spew the following vitriol:
Didn't you see Carlson's son is selling a certificate in the United States? To anyone who buys four or five of his tapes, he'll give a certificate as an instructor. What else do you want? Is there a bigger con artist than this? [...]
This kind of dishonesty I do not approve of. I already elected Rorion my representative in all areas, not only because he's my oldest son, but because he is the one who is more dedicated to jiu jitsu for what jiu jitsu is and the way I like it. [...]
Lets not confuse the student with those presumptuous ones who want to become teachers, because my own sons, who were born with me and since three years old have been doing jiu jitsu, only got their certificates after practicing their teaching skill for ten years.
Now an individual comes by my academy and spends five or six months or a year, and then leaves calling himself a jiu jitsu teacher. There's no way. Because for me, the instructor skill is not the learning of the movements, its in the philosophy behind the movements. In Brazil, unfortunately, it is very difficult to find someone with the morals I expect to become an instructor at my academy. That's the problem.
A distance learning course for Gracie jiu jitsu, where the student never even saw their instructor, was treated as ridiculous. Hélio saw it as “selling a certificate,” reason enough to say of Carlson Jr “is there a bigger con artist than this?”
It is now 2009, and it would appear that in the ensuing twelve years Hélio had a change of heart, if it is to believed he endorsed the latest Gracie Academy project before his death (if he did not, that is a potentially very interesting topic). His grandsons are now running a website called Gracie University, where you can learn self-defence from the Gracie family without ever stepping inside a Gracie school. You will only see your instructor on the screen rather than in person, and at the end of the course, you can get yourself a certificate, granting you the status of a Gracie jiu jitsu blue belt.
In other words, it would appear that Rener and Ryron Gracie are doing the same thing their cousin Carlson Jr did over a decade earlier, except that they can now benefit from the advances in technology. Instead of several VHS tapes, Gracie jiu jitsu is available in high quality streaming video through your broadband connection.
I should note that there is an important distinction between the two, in that Carlson Jr not only presented you with a certificate, but also certified the viewer to teach Gracie Jiu Jitsu. This is not the case with Gracie Combatives, but there is an equally controversial program run by the Academy to get your instructor qualification, originally called the Gracie Combatives Licensing Program (the current name as of February 2011 is 'Instructor Certification Program').
At present, anyone who has a Gracie Combatives blue belt and passed with a score of 90 or greater can take a further 52 online lessons, then potentially be certified to teach after a two day evaluation in person at the Torrance Academy. For more discussion and details, see here, and in regards to the earlier incarnation, read this.
There are many similarities between the material on Carlson Gracie Jr's tapes and the Gracie Combatives DVDs: indeed, you could make a case that the main difference is the medium. Carlson Jr went through a syllabus of techniques from blue to black belt, using the format of two black belts demonstrating the technique, while a third pointed out the details. This works fairly well, and it is also something Rener and Ryron use in their own course. For example, during lesson thirty six on taking the back, Ryron moves through the technique on his own, while Rener crouches next to him pointing out details.
The shift in the Gracie Academy's attitude from outright disdain to wholehearted emulation might seem surprising, but it’s the culmination of a long process. The Gracie Academy has been trying for some time now to distinguish itself from what it calls 'sport' jiu jitsu, by heavily pushing the self-defence angle.
Back in 1997, the competition was only just beginning to encroach on the Gracie Academy’s territory. Now, that competition has arguably overtaken Rorion, with the big names in BJJ coming not from the Gracie Academy in Torrance, but from teams like Gracie Barra, Alliance and indeed Gracie Humaitá, run by Rorion’s younger brother Royler.
It is worth noting here that, technically, Gracie Humaitá in Brazil is the Gracie Academy (Humaitá, like Barra da Tijuca, is a district in Rio de Janeiro. Humaitá is also the name of the street on which the academy is located), founded by Hélio after the closure of the original location in the 1960s. The Gracie Humaitá team is a very different prospect than the Gracie Academy in California, with an illustrious history in competition which continues to this day, thanks to Gracie Humaitá graduates like the Ribeiro brothers.
With the Gracie Combatives program, the Gracie Academy in Torrance can regain its pre-eminence by establishing itself at the head of an entirely separate field to the aforementioned giants of BJJ competition. Repeatedly in the Gracie University literature, there is a dismissive attitude to what they dub ‘sport’ jiu jitsu, the same attitude once displayed in regards to Carlson Jr’s self defence course. This is a brilliant piece of marketing, as it means the Gracie Academy doesn’t have to compete with the likes of Gracie Barra.
Instead, it can pigeonhole everybody else as purveyors of an inferior derivative of Gracie jiu jitsu, tainted by ‘sport’. That clears the field, as the Gracie Academy can then claim that only they offer ‘pure’ Gracie jiu jitsu, geared towards self-defence. In addition, this opens the possibility of marketing Gracie Combatives to all the other BJJ schools, due to this alleged disparity between 'sport' and self defence. As stated on Gracie University:
While nearly all Brazilian jiu-jitsu schools have succumbed to the lure of tournament glory, the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy remained true to the practice of techniques that would work in a real fight. […]
If there is not a Gracie Academy accredited school in your community and you currently train at a sport oriented BJJ school, don’t stop. There is much to gain from training in sport jiu-jitsu, such as exercise, coordination, fun, and camaraderie, not to mention the fact that some of what you learn may be applicable in a real fight. You must, however, be cognizant of the fact that you are almost certainly developing reflexes that will be disastrously counterproductive in a real fight. Once you are aware of this, we recommend that you use your access to the Gracie Academy curriculum to learn the techniques in their purest form, consciously undo any bad habits you have developed, and begin building the reflexes that you will need to ensure victory in a real fight.
The 2009 Mundials presents a revealing comparison for this line of reasoning. The Mundials is the most prestigious tournament in Brazilian jiu jitsu, with the best competitors. Were the Gracie Academy looking for support for their stance, they might bring up the use of the so-called '50/50' position, which several black belts arguably used this year to stall, in an attempt to win on points (see also Rafael Mendes' match against Rubens "Cobrinha" Charles at the Abu Dhabi World Pro BJJ cup).
On the other hand, the undisputed champion of BJJ emerged from the 2009 Mundials as Roger Gracie, winning both his weight category and the absolute. His strategy for victory was one Hélio might have recognised and approved of: secure mount, finish with a choke. Roger clearly didn't play for points, insisting on the submission in all nine of his fights. He won them all with a basic choke: it would not appear that in order to do so, he developed "reflexes that will be disastrously counterproductive in a real fight." For another example, take a look at 'sport' jiu jitsu purple belt Rob T's article.
It is also worth considering the fact that not all BJJ tournaments are based entirely on points. US Grappling has been successfully running submission-only competition since 2008. It would be fascinating to hear what the Gracie Academy thought about those competitions, as it appears they remove one of the major objections Rorion and his sons have made about 'sport' jiu jitsu.
The manner in which the Gracie Academy has marketed itself as 'pure' jiu jitsu has not gone unnoticed by other members of the Gracie family. Renzo Gracie has taken public exception to what he perceives as a disrespectful stance from his cousin Rorion, as he discussed during his Fightworks Podcast interview:
You know, its become a joke. Let me tell you what the real jiu jitsu is: the real jiu jitsu is the one that doesn't back away from a challenge. It goes at the obstacle and defends its flag. It's like, if you want to claim that you have the best fighting style, you should be in the UFC kicking some ass. That's where the best competition is.
So when people call me, saying "this is the real jiu jitsu," the next thing they are going to say is "I cannot use it, because I could kill you!" [laughs] You know, that's what I heard my whole life, from those fake martial artists who claim they were better than everybody else. So believe it my friend, I live my whole life watching this and seeing this. We were always against that, and now suddenly one branch of my family is turning into that! It's claiming that, but doesn't go on the proving ground to prove it, does not step into the place where he should actually be representing jiu jitsu, to do it.
The only guys that are doing this now, is my team, and actually I'm from Gracie Barra. So if you're talking bad about Gracie Barra, I was one of the founders. You talk bad about Gracie Barra, you talk bad about me! If you claim that I don't know jiu jitsu...it's a joke, you know?
You have to understand one thing. The champions have the right to talk. The losers have to shut up. If you lost, you should shut your mouth off and walk away. So I don't see no champions talking [laughs]. That's the reality. People are selling a product, they become the king of the internet.
The 'pure jiu jitsu', it's doing nothing but selling products on the internet. Again, trying to shove crap in American peoples' mouths. This is just claiming: go and prove it with acts, my friend! The jiu jitsu was good when nobody else knew any jiu jitsu. Now, everybody knows, so now, only those who are really good shine. If you realise Gracie Barra produce more champions than anybody else, go to the world championship and try to fight in there.
You see, I am one of the guys who has the best game, believe it. If I wanna go compete on the championship level, I would have to dedicate like three or four years of my life to be on the level, of the sharpness, of those kids who are fighting in there. So I cannot question the level, the champions that they are: they are! If you win the world championship, you are legit. Nobody can question that.
Anybody questioning that, it's because they're afraid to step in there.
In their defence, as Fightworks Podcast host Caleb mentions, the Gracie Academy does have at least one fighter in mixed martial arts: Ralek Gracie. Though he hasn't fought since 2008, at the time of writing, Ralek has a 2-0 record. It would appear that the majority of his training is with his brothers Rener and Ryron, but according to interviews like this, it is not his only source of instruction. Ralek mentions that he has also trained at Rickson's academy, and says here that he respects Royce's opinion, but is tight-lipped about the possibility of any other sources he might draw upon.
The Gracie Academy's line of thinking didn’t come out of the blue. A division between sport and self-defence BJJ/GJJ began to crystallize when time limits were first brought into MMA. Hélio himself made his name by fighting in vale tudo, and success in challenge matches was the bedrock of Gracie jiu jitsu's growth. Hélio's son Rorion sought to bring vale tudo to America with the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993, which also provided the perfect advertising platform for Gracie jiu jitsu's continuing efficacy. However, the later introduction of time limits brought complaints from the two most visible members of the Gracie family then involved in MMA, Royce and Rickson.
(Royce Gracie, writing in Black Belt, Dec 1995, pp31-33):
The problem with me fighting with a time limit is that I am usually giving away too much weight to my opponents, so it takes me longer to wear them down. That's why I'm not fighting in a lot of shows right now. All of them are talking to me, but they want me to fight with a time limit. I weigh 175 pounds. If they want me to fight someone who is 135 pounds, then they can put a time limit on the fight. [...]
I don't like the idea of the judges because if a judge doesn't like you, he might give the decision to your opponent. A lot of judges will get personal. I prefer no time limit. You should fight until somebody quits.
(Rickson Gracie, writing in Black Belt, Feb 1997, p16):
Fighting in tournaments is important to me because it gives me the chance to show the effectiveness of my jujutsu. But in order to show its true effectiveness, I don't want to have to concern myself with time limits. If I am going to fight a very big guy, it may be difficult to finish the fight in a short period of time. So before I sign a contract, I want to make sure that the rules are such that they leave the fight in the hands of the fighters. If there is a time limit, it is going to restrict the fighters and could leave the outcome in the hands of the judges
(Interview with Royce in Full Contact Fighter, 1997):
the problem with the time limit..if I drop you in the ocean, and say, "My friend, I'll pick you up in 3 hours." You're gonna say, "Gee, okay, I'll hang around here for 3 hours, I'll float for 3 hours." You look around, there is no land, you gonna float for 3 hours.
But, if I drop you in the ocean and I say, "Goodbye," you don't know if I'm coming back to save you or not, you have to find land. You have to choose a direction, and start to swim.
Now darkness comes, you don't know if the whales are coming. You don't know if the sharks are coming, what animals are gonna show up in front of you, if you gonna get tired, if you gonna find land or not, if there's a ship coming...all those factors come in play now.
So, in the moment that they say, Royce, fight, but the time limit's 1 hour." They know that they cannot beat me, so they hang around for an hour..."Time is over, Yeah! I'm the best, I draw with the champion!"..get the F outta here.
Then in 1998, it was made even clearer in the bonus tape interview with Hélio (some more excerpts here):
Here in Brazil now, everybody does jiu jitsu with rules and time limits. How can I fight a man much stronger than I for five or ten minutes if I'm weak and he's strong? I have to wait for him to get tired, so I can defeat him. Who is a better fighter? I, who can make him tap in half an hour, or he, that wins by points in five minutes, because the time-keeper or somebody with a pen says that he scored more points. The winner is the one that wins the real fight, which is what we do.
Now it has come to fruition: GJJ is actively putting forward arguments you would normally hear from TMAs like aikido and wing chun: 'sport' isn't 'real', and their martial art is complete in and of itself.
Firstly, there is a concerted effort to officially separate BJJ and GJJ as sport and self-defence, here:
The Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy belt system is distinct from that of sport-oriented schools. Although the belt colors are the same, the belt qualification requirements are very different. Sport-oriented schools promote students based on their mastery of techniques that will lead to victory in a tournament setting. In most cases, sport belt holders are very comfortable in sport jiu-jitsu matches and controlled sparring sessions. However, when confronted by a larger and more athletic opponent who doesn’t play by the rules, they are often shaken by the unpredictable, violent attack and find themselves unable to respond.
The Gracie Academy promotes students exclusively on their mastery of the techniques that will ensure their victory in a street fight. The Academy rigorously tests each student’s skills and reflexes at each stage of their training. The Gracie Academy Blue Belt Qualification Test, for example, requires students to demonstrate a high level of accuracy, efficiency, and reflexes in the execution of the most important street self-defense techniques. Because we feel that “street readiness” is our first and foremost objective, most of the techniques that we teach at this level are “street only”. As a result, a Gracie Academy “street” blue belt will win on the street but may not fare well in a sport jiu-jitsu match. On the other hand, a sport jiu-jitsu blue belt will perform well on the mat, but may have difficulty dealing with unpredictable and chaotic circumstances of a real fight.
Secondly, the Gracie Academy discounts striking. In one of the philosophy videos on the thirteenth DVD (also up on Gracie Unviersity), Rener has this to say (see also the Mindset Minute on Lesson Six):
People often wonder whether or not they need to learn a striking art to complement their techniques of Gracie Jiu Jitsu, and the answer is no. Gracie Jiu Jitsu is a complete art in itself.
The strategy of Gracie Jiu Jitsu is to avoid getting knocked out at all costs, control your opponent, and then submit them with a leverage based strategy.
The reason we advise against someone learning how to use strikes to win in a real street fight is because if you're fighting someone, who is much taller, much heavier and much stronger than you, your attempt to strike them as a means of victory will put you in the range to get punched. Every time you throw a punch, you're at risk of getting knocked out in return.
So because of that, its important that when you get into a fight, your mindset and your strategy is solid, and you're very well aware of what you want to do. You don't veer on that, so learning another art could possibly conflict with that.
He does go on to say that striking is important for MMA, but to call GJJ a complete art is still a bold claim. More than that, its also a classic wing chun claim: the whole ridiculous concept of ‘anti-grappling’ came about because certain traditional martial artists insisted they didn't need to roll around on the floor, they could knock you out before it got there.
The essential point wing chun practitioners were missing was that the way to defend against grappling is learn how to grapple. It is beginning to look like there is now GJJ 'anti-striking', with Rener effectively claiming they don't need to learn strikes because you aren't going to be able to knock them out.
In Rener's defence, the early UFCs showed that pure grappling could be highly effective against pure striking, with Royce walking through numerous competent strikers. The Gracie Academy would presumably claim that on the street, you will find yourself against opponents similarly untutored in groundfighting, who will therefore be no match for your refined grappling abilities.
Finally, the Torrance Academy display their TMA mindset with this comment on page eight of the Blue Belt Handbook:
At the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy, our primary concern is to preserve the techniques as they were developed and practiced by the Grand Master so that we can effectively teach them to the greatest number of people. [...]
If you dilute your training with impure, unrealistic, sport applications of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, you will hinder your ability to respond quickly and effectively with the right technique.
This is the very definition of a TMA: preservation instead of evolution. Observers might well worry that this could mean Gracie jiu jitsu ends up losing its ability to adapt and progress by constantly pressure-testing techniques. An aversion to 'sport' and 'competition' has been the death-knell for many other popular martial arts, as it is a path that leads to compliant drills instead of sparring. Perhaps the 'Master Cycle' will rectify that deficiency. I certainly hope so.
Online Belt Testing ^
From what I've read on the internet (e.g., Bullshido, EFN, NHBGear and Sherdog), the sticking point for most critics of Gracie University is video testing for rank. If the Gracie Academy hadn't included that, I don't think anyone would complain, as high level instruction is always welcome: after all, Jean Jacques Machado has had a well-respected online training program (which most definitely does not offer rank) for quite some time.
Much to his credit, Rener responded at length to this criticism, with a statement on Gracie University. He counters that with a video test, it is in fact harder, as the evaluator is able to pause, rewind and look at the action in slow motion, as many times as they want. It’s a good point, but the central issue with video testing is that an instructor is not able to review the student's progress over an extended period of time, or see them sparring with a variety of body types and skill levels. Most importantly, the instructor cannot physically test the student's ability themselves, not to mention that the Gracie University test doesn't even include sparring, merely cooperative drills.
Rener's father Rorion was recently asked about the apparent similarity of Carlson Jr's tapes to Gracie University, on the history forum. His response was extensive, largely because of the way in which it repeated Rener's position above, but the specific response related to the Carlson Jr tapes was intriguing:
This s%*@ puts the Gracie Academy in the same position as Carlson Gracie Jr in 1997, which led to heavy criticism from Helio. Helio is spinning in his grave. F@#% you greedhead. PS Carlson Gracie Jr had an instructional series available at the time which offered certification in self-defence. Helio thought it stunk. It does and so do you.
patfromlogan (7/29/2009 7:52 PM)
Dear Pat, I appreciate your comment but you must understand that when Carlson Gracie Jr. released his video program in 1997, the colored belt, the corresponding certificate and the videos were all part of the same package and were distributed without any form of quality control or concern for the student’s ability to demonstrate his execution of the techniques. Even if you were physically unable to move at all, by ordering his videos, you would receive a belt and certificate in the mail. A total absurdity!!
The capability of a video test to provide the "quality control or concern for the student's ability to demonstrate his execution of the techniques" is debateable, though Rorion is of course right that a paraplegic would be unable to complete the examination.
While it is certainly true that Carlson Jr lacked any kind of feedback mechanism, filming a student running through compliant drills is not all that much of an improvement. The incorporation of resistance into training is what keeps Brazilian jiu jitsu an effective martial art. It has also, up until now, formed the basis of BJJ ranks in the vast majority of schools.
Gracie University removes that resistance, which is why it has generated such controversy. Without resistance, a student is not truly tested: they cannot properly demonstrate their "execution of the techniques" unless their partner is actively trying to prevent them performing those techniques. Otherwise, it essentially becomes a kata, a set of dead movements which remain untested in a live situation. In other words, a martial dance rather than a martial art.
For learning a technique, compliance is of course necessary, so that the student can understand the details correctly. However, they must then take the next step of applying it against a resisting opponent: when they are able to regularly accomplish those techniques in sparring against their peers, that is when they are approaching blue belt, not before.
To make a comparison, below is a video first of a Gracie University blue belt test (the final 'freestyle' section, out of five), then a Roy Dean blue belt demonstration. Roy Dean also has students demonstrate technique, but then progresses to the all-important addition of sparring, against various belt levels right up to black. Significantly, Dean rolls with all belt candidates himself before awarding the new rank:
Naturally part of the argument from the Gracie Academy is that they are unable to provide enough instructors to offer a similar service for their online students. The reasoning is that if you are not able to get on the mats at a legitimate school, then video instruction by qualified teachers is the next best thing.
There are two problems with that. First is that the Gracie Academy is attempting to distinguish itself from all other BJJ academies, so even if there was a talented instructor nearby, the Gracie Academy's line of reasoning would seem to indicate a new student should rely on video rather than go and train with a black belt. Learning from a 'BJJ' black belt in person is denigrated in favour of instruction via video from a 'Gracie jiu jitsu' black belt.
Secondly, video instruction is not at all comparable to hands-on instruction. Online college courses are plausible, because they are based on theory and critical thinking. Online BJJ instruction lacks that same validity, because BJJ is both complex and physical, progress resulting from mat time, rather than accumulated theoretical knowledge which remains untested in sparring.
Gracie Combatives is not the same as a 'sport' BJJ curriculum, at least in the opinion of the Gracie Academy. According to Rorion, Rener and Ryron, while a BJJ blue belt at the average BJJ school is learning techniques they might use in a competition, a Gracie Academy (and by extension, a Gracie University) blue belt is ranked in self defence rather than 'sport' (I discussed this alleged distinction earlier). It remains to be seen if there is any value to these 'street belts', a question which will become all the more pertinent once Gracie University begins producing purple and brown belts in the future.
Update June 2013: Thanks to my friend bjh13, I have now had the opportunity to train at the Gracie Academy in Torrance (as ever, I did a full write-up, here). I can confirm that at least training at the physical academy is no different than training anywhere else: the sparring is much the same with a similar level of resistance. I also had the chance to both train with and interview Rener (first part of that interview is up here, where he addresses the self defence question). He made it very clear that his goal with Gracie Academy affiliates is to replicate training at the Gracie Academy exactly. That's a tall order, particularly given all the potential flaws with an almost 100% online certification model, but accurately disseminating the Gracie Academy methodology and atmosphere is an understandable and even laudable goal on Rener's part.
Perhaps we will see a division into two separate martial arts, like traditional Japanese jujitsu and judo. Perhaps the Gracie Academy will prove that their syllabus and teaching methods are superior, and a revolution in self defence will occur, with all other BJJ academies taking up Gracie Combatives as an essential complement to 'sport' jiu jitsu.
Alternately, perhaps we will see large numbers of people wearing belts without the ability to back them up on the mats, resulting in the watering down of Brazilian jiu jitsu as a whole. I hope not, but only time will tell.
I'm tempted to try and pass the blue belt test just so I can see what the next set of Gracie University lessons will look like (and by extension, their higher belt requirements), as they won't be released on DVD. The Gracie Academy has always been good at marketing, and this new production is perhaps their finest hour in that regard. Available to buy here.