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

28 November 2009

Article - BJJ & MMA: A Symbiotic Relationship

Article #5, by Can Sönmez

[For more on the history of BJJ, see here. For a discussion of the development of MMA, see here]

'Jiu jitsu,' as it is still known in its native country, had spread across Brazil for almost seventy years before it made a significant impact on the United States. BJJ's expansion outside Brazil is largely thanks to two brothers, Rorion and Royce Gracie, and one event, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Bringing the 'Gracie Challenge' to a tournament setting, broadcast on pay per view, was a brilliant piece of marketing. It also inaugurated a long-lasting relationship between BJJ and the fledgling sport of mixed martial arts.

For those who began after 1993, a huge number of BJJers will cite Royce's victories in the octagon as their inspiration. I've seen that story told by Roy Dean, and it's a running theme in the informative UK history thread on SFUK. Chris Brennan sums it up in his recent interview from Final Round, when asked his reasons for starting in BJJ: "same as everyone, I guess. I saw Royce in the first UFC and started training right after that."

In Royce, the early UFCs found someone physically unimposing who could calmly and efficiently defeat much larger opponents, often without throwing a punch. Better still, he achieved this in a no-holds-barred environment open to all-comers. Rorion's younger brother presented a very attractive proposition to martial artists looking for proven efficacy, as well as a considerable threat to traditionalists unwilling to embrace change. Thanks to the exploits of Royce and those who followed him, it is now generally accepted that in order to succeed in the sport of MMA, you need a good understanding of grappling: BJJ remains the most common choice to develop skills in that area.

MMA began as 'vale tudo' ('anything goes', in Portuguese), which presents another major connection with Brazilian jiu jitsu. Originally, vale tudo was a part of BJJ, something which the first fighting generation of Gracies trained to conquer. However, MMA and BJJ are no longer equivalent, if indeed they ever were. BJJ is a component of MMA, but does not constitute a truly complete style in its own right, no matter what the Gracie Academy might try to tell you. It would be foolish for BJJers to compare a BJJ tournament with a mixed martial arts fight: though both are strenuous tests of combat ability, only MMA will demand all round fighting prowess. Adding in strikes and slams makes a big difference: for example, instead of struggling to open a particularly tricky guard, you can just punch your opponent in the face. To paraphrase Carlson Gracie, getting struck can knock you down a couple of belt levels.

Nevertheless, MMA remains a powerful advertisement for BJJ, just as Rorion intended back when he helped create the UFC. After SEG sold out to Zuffa, both sports reached even greater heights. There are valid criticisms to make about their business practices, the 'Zuffa myth' (in which Dana White claims Zuffa invented everything, like the rules, weight categories etc. Their version tends to conveniently ignore the hard work done years earlier, by pioneers like John Perretti) and an unfortunate tendency to value spectacle over sport, but nevertheless, Zuffa innovations like The Ultimate Fighter brought MMA to much broader public attention: BJJ has followed in its wake.

Rorion hasn't been idle either. Where once he cleverly used tapes to disseminate his teaching, he and his sons have now turned to the internet, developing Gracie University and its accompanying Gracie Combatives DVDs. In the process, the Gracie Academy is attempting to distance itself from the competitive events which were once the bedrock of GJJ's success. Instead of challenge matches and constant sparring, they are beginning to ossify into the compliant drilling of a thousand 'self defence' courses, and worse still, testing for rank via video.

In a sense Gracie jiu jitsu has come full circle, now casting itself as the traditionalist martial art dismissing the benefits of tournament fighting. The same kind of arguments were once used by practitioners of styles like wing chun and aikido, in order to deride the UFC. This is therefore a dangerous step backwards, but it is still early days: we shall have to wait to discover the full implications of breaking the old link between BJJ and competition.

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  1. I wonder what your views are on no-gi grappling as perhaps a more applicable help (compared to BJJ) towards MMA training.
    Interesting points about Rorion's Gracie Jiu Jitsu as it stands now. I wonder how the Gracie clan in Rio, Royler, Royce and all the others from Helio's family think of Gracie combatives?

  2. In regards to that, this post by pro fighter and BJJ purple belt Aisling Daly is interesting (I met her back at the Belfast TD):

    "I do really enjoy BJJ by itself but because of the way my MMA training is I don't have as much time to devote to wearing the Gi. At the moment I really just use it more as a component to improve my MMA. There is benefits to wearing the Gi when training for MMA such as sharper defense and better escapes, but bad habits can also develop such as an over reliance on grips so it's better to balance the two."

    So, according to Ais, the gi can actually be a useful training tool for MMA as well as BJJ.

    I'd love to hear the views of Royler, Royce etc on Gracie Combatives too, along with other prominent Gracies like Relson, Renzo and Rickson. Maybe Caleb can make it happen? ;)

  3. Unfortunately, as happens with so many things, quality BJJ can be sacrificed for the sake of making money, as seems to be the case with the DVD training. Regardless, though, the amount of attention BJJ has gotten from UFC can only be a good thing in my eyes, even if some people use it's popularity just to make a buck.

    It's funny you should talk about how getting punched in the face lowers you a few belts because some of my friends and I were talking about that the other day. At our school, we work some striking and kicking into the mix as well. I mean, the class is still predominantly BJJ. But two of our instructors were in the Marines so they want to make sure we have at least some knowledge of how to throw and defend punches and kicks. I think it's useful for self defense. In a street fight, people won't be adhering to tournament rules!! ;)

  4. Yeah, makes sense to spar that way occasionally if you want to see how your grappling functions against punches.

    Interestingly, Renzo has now raised some of those same concerns I was discussing at the end of the article, in an awesome podcast, here. Transcribed too, so there is the option to listen or to read.

  5. Great read. A lot of good info there. I think what concerns me the most is exactly what Renzo said when he stated something to the effect of soon they will be saying they can't show or practice the moves because they are too deadly. Great site by the way! -TheMove