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08 March 2011

DVD Review - The Best of Roy Harris

Best of Roy Harris Brazilian Jiu Jitsu - Roy Dean AcademyShort Review: This re-release brings together three tapes by Roy Harris, which respectively cover takedowns from the knees, armlocks and training in later life. Harris focuses on the basics, emphasising simple movements rather than anything requiring great flexibility or athleticism.

My personal favourite is BJJ Over 40: though it is intended for the older grappler, the solid advice on this DVD will be of benefit to anybody starting out in BJJ. Combined with the other two instructionals, this results in a valuable toolkit for any grappler, taught in the methodical, structured style that Roy Harris has passed down to his students.

Full Review: In the early years of BJJ in America, there were few places to train, and even fewer instructional videos. The concept of teaching BJJ through video was introduced by Rorion Gracie, with Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics in 1991, which was followed by Renzo Gracie and Craig Kukuk a few years later in 1994. After Kukuk, the next notable American instructor to join the fray was Roy Harris, one of the famous 'Dirty Dozen' (the name given to the first twelve non-Brazilian black belts). With his methodical style, Harris' BJJ 101 tapes immediately stood out (I'm not sure exactly when they were first released, but it must have been at some point pre-1999, judging by this), a clarity of instruction that still holds up today

BJJ instructionals have not been around for long, but after a twenty year history, it is possible to establish some classics of the genre. Roy Dean, a student of Roy Harris and undoubtedly among the best of the second generation to produce instructionals (my reviews of Dean's work to date here), has chosen three selections from Harris' oeuvre: Takedowns from the Knees, Armlocks Volume 2 and BJJ Over 40. Incidentally, if you're wondering who 'BOA Team' are, that isn't a production company: it simply refers to Harris' students, as 'Boa' is one of his nicknames.

I can't claim to understand the intricacies of authoring a DVD, let alone updating older releases. Therefore I asked Roy Dean what the process was in the case of The Best of Roy Harris, to which he responded: "I took the original DV masters and reauthored the DVD's entirely (Armlocks: Volume 2 and Takedowns from the Knees). BJJ Over 40 I replicated exactly from the original DVD. I tried to get the highest quality transfers possible."

Takedowns from the Knees ^

Brazilian jiu jitsu competitions begin standing up, and a self defence situation probably will too. However, due to space and safety considerations, at most BJJ schools the initial starting point for sparring is from the knees. If you go on BJJ internet forums, you'll see that various people will complain about that being unrealistic: they would rather either start standing, or already in a position, such as mount, guard or side control.

However, fighting from the knees has its place, and not simply because of the aforementioned safety concerns. JohnnyS, an Australian black belt, lists his reasoning for teaching attacks from the knees on this Bullshido thread:

Say I escape side control and get to my knees. From there I can back off a little and then put the guy on his back with these techniques.

Say I have the guy in my guard, I can put my foot in his hip, come back to my knees and do the above techniques to put my opponent on his back.

Say my opponent and I end up in a scramble on the ground and get to our knees. We both want to be on top and start passing. These techniques show how to do that.

The DVD is mainly no-gi, as Harris wears a red t-shirt and shorts, while each of his numerous training partners generally wear a different colour shirt (although towards the end, both he and Darin Goo are wearing red shirts, which isn't ideal). Each technique is taught first no-gi from two angles, but it is then followed with a gi variation, which has a wider range of grips.

Harris doesn't spend too long on the gi version, however, with the exception of one choke that is notably different from the nogi option. Most viewers will recognise that Harris' uke for the gi variation is none other than Roy Dean (proud owner of a blue belt at the time), with what can only be described as awesome hair. Each technique then finishes with a textual summary, of around three to six lines.

The whole DVD is forty-four minutes long, with the takedowns divided into four groups, each containing four techniques. Harris' instruction is swift, but carefully structured. This is further helped by little yellow circles that start flashing on key control points and grips. Harris' first grouping is the tie-up position (pull back series), beginning with a simple explanation of how to pull guard from the knees.

That is followed by pulling guard straight into a sweep, then how to add in a little more momentum by stepping up your knee first. Next Harris demonstrates a method of flipping them to the side, then finishes this section by pulling guard straight into an armbar. Those five techniques are covered in just seven minutes, so you'll need to pay close attention. The speed also means that this DVD probably isn't ideal for absolute beginners, as you'll need some understanding of the basics for it to all make sense.

Tie up position (push forward series) covers moving forward into your opponent rather than dropping to your back, over the course of eight minutes. The first technique looks similar to a double leg or single leg, except that you aren't standing up. This is then followed by three 'what if' scenarios: if they put their hand out to base, if they sprawl, and if they sprawl particularly hard. Against a weak sprawl, you can use a butterfly sweep, but if they manage to really drive you into the mat, Harris shows how you can forward roll back into guard.

The two-on-one arm drag series attacks the arm instead, with a further four techniques over another eight minutes. Harris starts by pulling on their arm and blocking the knee with his foot, meaning he can then lever them to the side. Alternatively, if you put you foot on the other leg, you can knock them forwards flat on their stomach, providing an easy route to the back. There is then a method for flipping them onto their side with your shin (similar to the technique shown in the first tie-up series), and finally how to take advantage if they step up their leg.

Harris' fourth section of four techniques, lasting nine minutes, is dubbed pull head down series. As the title suggests, the idea here is to shove their head to the mat, trapping it with your body, then moving round to their back. Although this is part of a DVD on takedowns, after that initial snap-down, it becomes a useful exploration of attacking the turtle position. Harris shows how you can move into an armbar, then a rear naked choke (without having secured your hooks), and most spectacularly, a rolling attack with the legs that looks like a cross between an omoplata and a kimura (which Aesopian informs me is a reverse omoplata).

Next up is a discussion of counters, which gives you the tools to defend against the preceding selection of takedowns. Harris doesn't cover all of them, instead briefly running through four defences to his earlier techniques, taking around a minute on each. Interestingly, Harris then states that "I'd like to inspire you to figure out some of these counters on your own." His method for doing so is to present a beautiful demonstration that gives you the essence of jiu jitsu, flowing from counter to counter.

BJJ is often described as 'physical chess', and after watching this four minute section, you can see why: Harris begins by having his partner try to pull butterfly guard into a sweep, as demonstrated earlier. Also as shown earlier, Harris then tries to block the leg and move forward, in order to pass the guard. That can be countered by a kimura, which Harris avoids by stepping around into an armbar. Finally, his partner escapes the armbar by rolling back over Harris' legs, setting up for a heel hook.

The last four minutes are described as a bonus, where Harris shows two options for how you might respond if they don't start with their knees on the floor, but instead have one up. First, you could grab their foot, helping you to drive forward and move into the top position. Secondly, you might pull their head towards their knee, then transition into a footlock.

Harris crams a lot of technique into those forty-four minutes, so if you have ever had problems thinking what to do from the knees, this DVD will give you plenty of food for thought. From reading about the original release (which lasted for an hour), it looks as if the fifteen minutes or so of grappling matches have been removed.

Armlocks: Volume Two ^

The internet tells me that this tape is roughly a decade old, judging by this capture of from Mar 2000: there is an advertisement announcing the new armlocks volume two in February (so assuming that there weren't any delays, the latest it could have been released is February 2001. May be earlier than that, depending on if the page had been updated after its release or not). In terms of format and personnel, it looks much the same as Takedowns from the Knees, and again everyone wears a t-shirt, shorts and wrestling shoes (although this time, the technique isn't repeated with a gi variation).

In this DVD (fifty-two minutes long), the armlocks in question are specifically bent armlocks, which are typically called either an Americana or a kimura, depending on the direction you twist the arm. As before, there are flashing yellow circles to highlight details like grips, with multiple angles. Each technique is introduced with a bulleted list of the mechanics. The closing textual summary is back too, although it has the slightly unfortunate addition of a clanging noise as each sentence sweeps in from the right.

Harris kicks off with a basic kimura from the guard, then runs through a variety of set ups over the course of fourteen minutes. These tend to be fairly quick, often around a minute: for the kimura from guard, there are three options based around attacking the arm, then another three as a follow up to a triangle attempt, and finally two more off the armbar.

As you would expect, Harris then demonstrates how to apply the bent armlock from other positions, with two from side control, three from scarf hold, then one each when attacking the turtle and in rear mount. The scarf hold series caught my eye, as that included the step over triangle controlling position I've mentioned numerous times before. The technique here is the same attack Matt recorded over in Japan. Harris also includes Renzo's americana applied with the legs, covered on the old Renzo/Kukuk DVD.

The attack from rear mount was interesting too. This is for when you've flattened them out fully on their front, but can't quite get your arms through for the choke. If they keep blocking with their arm, then you can use the choke attempt as bait. Instead of continuing to struggle to thrust your hand through, you can switch to attacking their arm. Once you've moved it away from their body, it becomes vulnerable to the same twisting motion as in the previous bent armlocks.

Having covered attacks, Harris moves on to nine minutes of escapes. He sensibly starts with the old truism that the "best escape is to not get caught in the first place." That leads into some early and late defences, against the attacks he showed earlier. If they are looking for the kimura from guard, drive forward in an attempt to block them, moving your elbow away. If they start to put the other arm through, simply push it out of the way. If they have managed to begin locking in the submission, roll through, which will give you a chance to attack them due to their arm position.

Harris also examines how to escape bent armlocks applied from side control, such as blocking with your knee and prying your arm free. With a deeper attack, he demonstrates how you can shift your hips to the right, until you get under their elbow, then hide your hand under your body to take away the leverage they need for the submission. Finally, you can try the counter Harris showed earlier in Takedowns from the Knees, when you post on your hands, spin around to the other side of their body, then try for an armlock of your own.

Four minutes on training methods discuss developing a feel for technique, with particular emphasis on grappling with your eyes closed. Harris demonstrates that with a partner, before moving on to combinations. That consists of another five minutes, where Harris runs through several scenarios for flowing into and from other submissions: kimura to triangle to kimura from guard, kimura to sweep to americana from mount and an armlock sequence from turtle.

Another sequence that appears is the lockflow Roy Dean also teaches on Purple Belt Requirements. It is interesting to see it taught in an earlier DVD, and a reminder that Roy Harris is the man responsible for guiding Roy Dean to the black belt level. As Dean was a training partner on many of the original Harris tapes, it makes you wonder if that also helped inspire him to make his own instructionals a few years down the line.

The DVD finishes with two rounds of sparring between Roy Harris and one of the training partners (who appears on most of the early tapes), Darin Goo. The first round has commentary, along with those same flashing yellow circles to highlight details. Unfortunately that doesn't continue into the second round, but either way, it is always good to see the technique taught earlier put into a realistic context with full resistance.

BJJ Over 40 ^

One of the most common questions people ask when considering BJJ is "am I too old?" The answer is always "no", but you do of course have to be more careful the older you get. In a class full of younger, stronger and more athletic training partners, it can be difficult to keep up, or worse still, avoid injury. In this DVD, Roy Harris provides some advice for the older grappler looking to conserve energy and protect their body.

While I'm ten years too young for the stated target audience, I've wanted to see this DVD ever since I first heard about it a couple of years ago. I am very paranoid about injury, and I also don't like to rely on strength, speed or athleticism (mainly because I lack all three). So, although the title is BJJ Over 40, it has wider applicability: the techniques and methodologies taught on here are also suitable for smaller grapplers, if you're coming back from an injury and want to stay safe, or indeed if you're just starting out and want to ease in gently.

As far as I can tell, this is the most recent of the three DVDs on The Best of Roy Harris (I think around 2005 or 2006, as he mentions rubber guard: that wasn't a common term before then), which can be seen in the better production values. It is also the only one I've read about in the past (though I kept misremembering the title as BJJ After 40 rather than BJJ Over 40). People often suggest it when the "am I too old" question pops up, including me. Harris begins with a brief introduction by stating that the instructional is geared towards the older grappler with responsibilities and families: he will often return to that statement, talking about "your employer," "your wife" (I'm not sure if he also says "your husband," but I'd assume so) etc.

The end of that section is long textual summary, with the words simply scrolling up the screen. This is something Harris includes for most of the other sections as well, and for a DVD, it seems an unusual format. While it is certainly useful to have a summary of the main points, I think it would have been better to illustrate that text with visual examples: perhaps some clips of rolling in class. Better still, the text could have been a voice-over instead. Otherwise, it doesn't really use the DVD medium to advantage: a hard-copy booklet could serve the same purpose.

Fundamental Movements (13:43) provides you with nine basic motions you'll need to practice in jiu jitsu, which functions as a competent primer for beginners to the sport. That begins with a minute on the upa, then a further two minutes on shrimping. Harris mentions that he prefers to shrimp off both feet rather than just one: he argues that a two-footed shrimp is better against larger, stronger opponents, as they inevitably generate more friction when you try to escape.

He also runs through elbow placement (as in the elbow escape), a technical stand-up, going to your knees and two ways of sitting up, by kicking your leg forward. There is also putting your weight on your hands, for spinning armlocks, passing and knee on belly transitions, along with rolling over your shoulder either forwards or backwards.

That has applications like rolling back into guard from turtle, which Harris showed earlier against the sprawl during Takedowns from the Knees. These are all solid basics, which every BJJ student needs to know, whether or not they're past forty. Again, it concludes with a lengthy textual summary, lasting two minutes.

Defensive postures (10:39) was probably my favourite section on the whole DVD. It reminded me of the 'survival' ethos Saulo Ribeiro lays out for beginners in Jiu Jitsu University. It begins with an interesting posture for defending under mount, which I hadn't seen before. It is also quite simple: grab your collar with one arm, then grab that sleeve with your other arm, keeping your elbows tight. The idea is to help you conserve energy against somebody stronger and fitter than you, until the time is right to move into your escape.

Harris shows a similar position under side control, with the added note that you need to be careful about exposing your wrists to attack. A particularly good aspect of this DVD is that Harris will frequently show these techniques under resistance, which is of enormous benefit to the student: you can see the mechanics and the application. Unlike the other two DVDs, BJJ Over 40 is done from a pure gi perspective: the clarity is greatly helped by Harris always wearing a blue gi, while his partner wears either black or white.

The third position is for when you're in somebody's guard. Instead of tucking your elbows, put them on the outside of your partner's hips to restrict their mobility, also keeping a good wide base. All you need to do from there is wait for them to uncross their ankles. As soon as that happens, sit up and drive your hips forward, elbows back, moving straight into a pass.

This is what I refer to as 'boring my partner into opening their guard'. I am absolutely terrible at passing the guard, but on the rare occasions I do manage to slide past, it is often due to simple patience. So, I enjoyed seeing that methodology actually taught as a technique, with an explanation of details and strategy.

Section four has the similar title of defensive positioning (11:00). Now that you have the postures, Harris shows how you can put your whole body into position. Again, the main aim is to conserve energy, so that you can rely on your timing and skill rather than an incredible gas tank.

That starts with three minutes on mount: Harris breaks down the controlling points in this position, demonstrating how the person on top relies on their knees and feet for control. So, if you can disrupt that, escape becomes easier. The posture is the same as before, but now you also turn to one side, with your same side knee on the ground, moving towards your same side elbow. That blocks your partner from clamping down, and may also cause them to try and move from side to side. Once they do, that opens up space for you to slip free.

The three minutes on side control are similar, except that you want to cross your wrists over each and turn towards them. Once their weight starts going up as they look to shift position and attack, you have your opportunity to work free of their hold. Finally, Harris discusses guard for a further two minutes, in what looks like a sort of combat base. You want to stop them crossing their ankles, looking for the chance to slide your knee over.

Fundamental techniques (38:18) is the longest portion of BJJ Over 40. Harris announces he is going to teach the ten techniques he sees both his older and his smaller students using most often with the greatest success. The first is the foot lift mount escape, which you can also see on Blue Belt Requirements, immediately followed by my personal favourite, the foot drag (which I've been using ever since I saw Johannes do it at the Belfast Throwdown, over three years ago).

Next is a knee slide guard pass from his previous combat base position, with pointers on how to stop them sliding their knee back under. That's followed by a basic bullfighter pass, where again Harris points out the importance of inserting your knee, in order to maintain control and stop them replacing guard. Up to this point, Harris spends roughly two minutes on each technique.

Harris follows with four minutes of escaping to the knees from side control. He says that he prefers this to replacing the guard, because if you replace guard, you're presenting your partner with the opportunity to pass or go for a leglock. To get to the knees, you can turn in either direction: Harris' body position here reminds me of Saulo's running escape, which I've been playing with recently (definitely another good one for conserving energy).

The sixth technique is what Harris calls a 'thigh sweep'. You lock them up tight in your guard, then roll to the side, chopping with one leg while driving with the other. Handily, this puts you straight into mount. That is followed by seven minutes on the kimura, from both guard and side control.

Another eight minutes are devoted to the Americana from side control, in three variations. The first is the orthodox application: Harris emphasises details like grabbing with the thumb on top to block their escape route. The second is a little different, and Harris says he prefers it. Rather than levering up with your elbow, bring their arm almost straight, then their wrist towards their legs.

In both cases, Harris notes that the most important thing is to keep control of their elbow. As he goes on to demonstrate against resistance, as long as you have that elbow, you can take your time. Even if your bum is right up in the air and they are moving underneath you, if their elbow is under your power, the submission is still on.

The final application is unusual, as this one takes place from the bottom of side control, as they're passing. Before they settle into position, you figure four their arm and twist. It is unlikely you'll hit this more than a couple of times on the same person, but you will still probably get them to roll to relieve pressure. That means you end up in side control yourself, with firm control of the arm.

Harris finishes this section with two more techniques, a guillotine from guard, and then something a lot more controversial. Just as in Blue Belt Requirements, I was surprised to see a heel hook popping up as a fundamental technique. I am very much in the "leglocks are dangerous" camp, as they can do serious damage before you feel any pain, so I don't use them.

Roy Harris is known for his skill at lower body submissions, so he views heel hooks differently. His reasoning is that the point of the DVD is to provide older, less athletic grapplers with the tools to deal with much younger, fitter training partners. In that context, you could argue the heel hook is something of an equaliser. Personally, I remain wary of either using it on my classmates or having it done to me (especially as it is illegal in the vast majority of gi competitions), so would have liked to see some kind of warning at this point.

Submission Escapes (24:07) is another comparatively long chapter, with the stated aim being to lower the frequency and severity of injuries (I'm currently recovering from a knee injury, so that sounds appealing, though in my case it wasn't anything to do with a submission attempt). Harris announces that this time, he is going to cover fifteen submission escapes. This is generally in groups of three, getting increasingly later in the attack, beginning with the armbar from guard.

That is followed by three escapes to the kimura from guard, where the early defence is to drive forward with your head into the centre of their body, taking away the space they need. The second is extremely simple: just turn your hand in a different direction. That also blocks the leverage they need. Helpfully, there is a close-up, for which Harris also rolls up his sleeve to better display the positioning.

In the case of the triangle escapes, they are all based off a pass attempt. Keeping your elbow back is the early method, then you aim to stop them crossing their ankles, until the final technique is to stack them and pop the triangle open. Head position is important in this last-ditch escape: it needs to be past their head for the necessary leverage.

Harris finishes with escapes from mount attacks, specifically the armbar and the bent armlock. The armbar escapes are generally fairly orthodox, like the hitchhiker where you turn your thumb, walk your legs around and turn to their guard. Harris' bent armlock escapes are the same as in his earlier Armlocks Volume 2 DVD, but they are easier to follow due to the contrasting black and blue gis.

The last section is entitled How To Train (11:46), and it is basically a series of sparring matches between Harris and his two training partners for the DVD, Brad Hirakawa and Roy Dean (who were both brown belts at the time). Each spar is prefaced by a introduction where Harris lays out what he is looking to demonstrate. He starts by showing how to conserve energy and make your partner work: he finishes by saying "see my point." You don't just see it, you hear it: he doesn't sound at all out of breath.

That leads into his concept of "strengthen your strengths first." You will always have weaknesses, so Harris advises to work on the few strengths you have in the beginning. He then has an entertaining spar with Hirakawa, where the intention is to use his stated strengths: top game, kimura, paintbrush and wristlocks. Each time he gets a submission, a little subtitle pops up with the name. It would be easy to miss them, because as soon as Hirakawa taps, he continues from the same position.

A final two rounds of sparring are presented as being "playful." The idea is to develop sensitivity and timing. Harris emphasises that here he doesn't care who taps who, it is about learning (and indeed, Harris does tap a few times). There are some highly unusual submissions in there, such as what I think is a footlock performed by bracing their leg against your head just as they're trying to put on an armbar. I had to watch that a couple of times to spot it. Fittingly for a re-release by Roy Dean, the man himself closes off the DVD, in another 'playful' spar with Roy Harris.

To conclude on the whole set, Takedowns from the Knees fulfills a specific niche, but a useful one for the majority of BJJers who begin their sparring in class from that position. Armlocks: Volume 2 will give you numerous options from the bent armlock (kimura and Americana), which as Harris notes elsewhere is a strong point of his game.

The best of the three DVDs is BJJ Over 40. This will appeal to anyone who is recovering from injury, approaching or past middle-age, has a lot of much larger training partners, or simply wants to develop their BJJ in a cerebral direction rather than concentrate on athleticism. It would be worth the money to have BJJ Over 40 alone, so getting three DVDs for that price is a bargain.


  1. Great review. I have wondered about how training changes as age increases. Sounds like a very helpful series.

  2. @Allie: Yeah, and I don't think it is a topic anyone else has covered, though I could be wrong. Of course, he doesn't cover upside-down guard for the elder grappler, so that still leaves the door open for a McClish instructional in a few decades. ;p

  3. Once again Slideyfoot, you do not disappoint with a DVD review. I give you credit for me purchasing Roy Dean's Purple Belt Requirements. Funny thing is I trained with TJ, the uke in all of Roy's videos twice when I was a white belt. He was a friend of a guy that trains at my gym. That wasn't what got me to purchase his DVDs, it was your review. I have become a huge fan of Roy ever since, and incorporated many of his techniques into my game. You didn't cause me to purchase this DVD series, I pre-ordered it and received it when it came out.

    I am 37 years old myself, and am steadily approaching 38. I completely understand and agree with a lot of the things that Roy Harris covers in his "BJJ at 40" DVD. When I first started I had to develop a ton of defense and escapes that helped me with the younger, faster, and stronger people in the gym.

    Keep up the great reviews, I'm sure that you are helping the sales of everything you review. Great job.

  4. @Rollo: Thanks! Very glad that I helped you make the decision to buy Purple Belt Requirements. Great DVD: I guess now that I am a purple belt, I should watch it again (though it might be depressing, comparing my meagre ability to the purple belt standard on there ;p).

    I've got a huge backlog of reviews, stretching back at least a couple of years, but hopefully once the PhD is done, I'll have more time to put a few more up.

  5. I'll check them out. I don't have as much time to watch as many DVDs as I used to, so I stick to the ones that are quicker and to the point. Both Roy Dean and these Roy Harris DVDs are great for those reasons. The first DVDs I ever watched were the Saulo Ribiero series, and I'm glad you mentioned those.

  6. @Rollo: Hah - I actually meant I've got lots of reviews still to do, waiting on a Word document in a half-finished state (e.g., I got a whole bunch of BJJ books for christmas a couple of years ago, and I've only reviewed one of them so far).

    Although I guess it's true that I've got a fair few reviews up on the site already.

  7. Well there is nothing like life to get in the way of training and learning some good BJJ.

  8. Love the bit on starting from the knees. Didn't know anyone ever addressed it.

  9. @Megan: Yeah, I haven't seen many people offer instruction on what to do from the knees. Harris was probably the first, although I know Erik Paulson has a DVD on the topic as well.