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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

26 February 2012

Book Review - Jiu-Jitsu on the Brain (Mark Johnson)

Short Review: This is perhaps the only instructional BJJ book which is completely 'safe' for beginners. There is no chance of overwhelming a fresh white belt with overly complex technique, for the simple reason that this book does not contain any techniques. The only photograph is on the cover. What the Pedro Sauer brown belt offers instead is much more valuable for a beginner: sound advice, from how to put on your gi to dealing with meatheads. Available to buy for your US-registered Kindle device or app here, or for £3.33 in the UK, here.

Full Review: Mark Johnson has been training in Brazilian jiu jitsu since 1998, which by the time he wrote this book had brought him to the rank of brown belt under Pedro Sauer. In 2002, he opened West Side Academy in Utah, which is not only still going strong, but now has several affiliates. Johnson is also an English teacher, a position which often uses the power of words to try and make a positive impact and lasting influence.

All of that experience makes Jiu-Jitsu on the Brain an interesting addition to the expanding number of BJJ books currently on the market, particularly as this is not what readers have come to expect from an instructional book. You won't find a step-by-step description of techniques, or any photographic representation of jiu jitsu. Instead, Johnson's book of parables and vignettes could perhaps be described as a sort of Hagakure for the jiu jitsu practitioner, trimmed of that 18th century volume's cryptic references and stiff prose.

Johnson's language is irreverent and colloquial, with the cursing you'd expect from the vernacular (though Johnson is thankfully no Dana White: he says 'fuck' three times, along with an infrequent 'shit' or 'crappy'). It's also not going to take up much of your time, which means that unlike all my other reviews, I don't want to get too in-depth and spoil your enjoyment of the contents. Jiu-Jitsu on the Brain reminds me of the beautifully compact 33⅓ series of books, perfectly sized to accompany you on an intercity train journey or a short flight.

Fittingly for a short book, Johnson chose to publish through Kindle (I should note here that the file I was sent for review was pdf format, but I presume there aren't any major differences to the Kindle version). There are the occasional slips in proofreading that you would expect from self-publication, but nothing major (presumably thanks to Johnson's day-job.) Mostly it's the typical spell-check killers, like 'are' instead of 'our', 'accept' instead of 'except', etc.

Jiu-Jitsu on the Brain developed out of Johnson's thoughtful blog. Having followed that site for some time, I expected this book would be similar to the posts I remember, epigrammatic anecdotes where Johnson develops a life lesson sometimes related to jiu jitsu, sometimes not. Elements of the blog do pop up, especially in the final chapter, but the book starts with some practical advice about what to wear to your first class. I also found a strong belief of mine echoed early on: "your gi is a tool to train with, not a fashion statement."

I was pleased to see that he is careful to always be gender neutral. It may seem overly PC to some, but personally I feel it's important to avoid excluding fifty percent of your potential audience, particularly as it isn't difficult to add in the occasional "or her". The first chapter is called 'black bar', in reference to the black strip on your white belt, which then progresses to '1st stripe' and '2nd stripe'. The advice of the first chapter bleeds into the second and third, but the theme is slightly different. It is all good advice, with a dose of observational comedy from a jiu jitsu perspective.

'3rd stripe' gets a bit more intermediate. It remains applicable to beginners, but increasingly Johnson is looking towards more experienced belts, who will find themselves nodding their heads in agreement with a smile. I could quibble with a few points, like Johnson's opinion on testing, but he tends to balance out his perspective with the other side of the argument.

The last chapter is about character, which is where I was most strongly reminded of the posts I read on his blog. The use of anecdotes and parables is far more noticeable here, shifting away from the practicalities of class to more philosophical concerns, like controlling your anger, not judging by appearance and being respectful even when others don't show you the same courtesy. It could easily have come across as trite, but Johnson manages to avoid both the banal and the pompous.

I can happily recommend this to anybody either in the early stages of their training, or those who are thinking of trying out jiu jitsu (with one proviso: don't worry too much about that stain he mentions, I've never seen it happen in my five and a half years on the mat ;D). Jiu-Jitsu on the Brain functions as an excellent primer on the basic dos and don'ts of training BJJ, in a concise but consistently readable package. Available to buy for your Kindle (or if you're like me, your Kindle for PC or Kindle for Windows Phone) in the US here, or for £3.33 in the UK, here.


  1. So it's only available in america, and only on the kindle? That's... backwards...

  2. Kindle is a bit weird, from what I understand: I agree that it seems silly to have restrictions on where you can sell something digital, as the ease of purchase should be one of the massive advantages of digital.

    When I first started buying Kindle books (using the Kindle for PC app), it didn't matter where you were from. However, they later changed it so you had to register for a particular country, which annoyingly meant a whole bunch of books suddenly weren't available to me.

    I'm not sure what the reason is, but I'm sure somebody must have written an article about it on the net somewhere. Though I do know you can register your Kindle/Kindle app to a country in which you don't reside, so you could presumably get hold of the book that way.

    Or maybe Johnson just needs to make the book available in the UK? I'm not sure if that is a simple option you tick, or something you have to pay extra to do.

  3. Downloaded this last night and after browsing (clicking?) through it this morning on the train to work, I'm looking forward to digging into it.

    And you're right, this is not at all what one would expect from an instructional.

  4. Ryan: Cool, hope you like it.

    Alex: I asked Johnson about it, and he said "I have it ticked on my Kindle page. It shows the UK page on Amazon when I click on the UK icon. I'm not sure what the problem is. If you hear anything more about it, please let me know."

  5. Thanx for the review Slidey. My husband is all about the Kindle these days, but I am clinging to my books the way I used to cling to my vinyl. Looks like I might have to modernize. sigh.


  6. Yeah, I like the smell of a new book as much as any English Lit graduate, but I grew up with computers, so have been reading off a screen for a long time.

    As a Star Trek fan, the advent of what is basically a PADD in the form of a smartphone has been very exciting! Always wanted one ever since I saw Jake using them on DS9. ;)

  7. It's awesome to know there is people like him to write it...and people like you to review it..really appreciate it.


  8. Thanks Juan: he's got two others coming up, which should be interesting. Not sure what direction he's going to go, though, as the titles are rather unusual. ;)

  9. Just to update: in reviewing Johnson's new book, I noticed that Jiu Jitsu on the Brain is now available in the UK, here, so have added the links into my review.