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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a purple belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©2004-2014 Can Sönmez

08 May 2012

Seminar: John B Will

Seminar #007
Dowty Judo Club, (BJJ), John B Will, Gloucester, UK - 08/05/2012

There aren’t many sources of BJJ history available in English. The main text is Kid Peligro’s The Gracie Way, an interesting if biased biography of several figures from the Gracie family. John Danaher has been involved in two instructional books with significant historical sections, Mastering Jujitsu and BJJ: Theory & Technique, though the historical section of the former is essentially an update of the latter. Aside from that, it is mostly MMA histories like No Holds Barred and Total MMA.

However, there is another useful historical source, contained within the pages of John Will’s ‘Rogue Black Belt’ series of books, specifically the second and third volumes of his three part biographical sequence. Hence why I jumped at the chance to meet him in person for an interview, which should be appearing a little further down the line in Jiu Jitsu Style. Thanks to Mark Collett, I was able to meet Will before his seminar on the 8th May, as well as attend that seminar myself.

I already knew both from Will’s books and Mark that this would be a very different class format to what I'm used to. First of all, everybody faces the same way, with Will standing against a wall he designates as ‘north’. Every technique is drilled like that, which makes a lot of sense: it means that the instructor can easily scan the room to see any errors, and can just say “move your right leg a little to the left”, knowing that there is no need to try and mentally adjust to the varied configuration of each pair of training partners.

Secondly, for the demonstration of the technique, Will does the usual thing of having everybody gather around him in a circle. This again makes sense, as you can get the best angle that way, maximising the space, rather than being spread out along a wall. Thirdly, when drilling he talks you through the technique: if you weren't paying attention during the demonstration, the instructor now has a chance to correct you. Finally, everybody drills a couple of times at their own pace. After that, you switch, so the process can be repeated for your partner.

Given his extensive history in the sport (we’re talking about a man who first trained with Rorion in the 1980s, years before the UFC brought BJJ to international attention), there were plenty of anecdotes. Rigan Machado’s teaching methodology was used to illustrate one point, Hélio Gracie’s attitude to private lessons fleshed out another. Hélio also served as the central reference for the first set of techniques, which Will referred to as ‘the four days of Hélio’: the structure and content was taken directly from four private lessons Will had experienced with Hélio himself.

The four lessons built up to a sweep from the guard. Hélio didn’t assume you already had the grips: the starting point was in guard with no grips at all, while they still have good posture. So, lesson one was extremely simple. Grab behind their elbows (and it needs to be the elbows, not the gi material around them, as that can move), pull their elbows outwards and towards you, while simultaneously bringing your knees to your chest. This should collapse their posture.

Hélio’s second lesson was to reach over their head with your left arm. They will naturally try to recover their posture by raising up. As soon as they do, reach your right arm deep into their opposite collar. Having secured that grip, your other hand then also grabs the collar, next to your first hand. If they try to recover their posture now, get as much of your body off the floor and hang off that grip. Even if they’re bigger than you, this should make it very difficult for them to return to an upright position.

The third lesson is opening your guard. I haven’t seen this before, and initially it seems counter-intuitive, but judging from drilling it’s also effective. Spread your legs out wide and straight, so that they are across the knees of your training partner, also shifting your second hand to their sleeve. Again, this should make it extremely tough for them to stand up. Next, your feet go on their hips, then using your legs in combination with your collar and sleeve grip, stretch your training partner out.

Finally, your knee should now be next to their elbow. Collapse that elbow by bringing your knee across, in order to clear a path to their belt. Switch from feet on hips to butterfly hooks, then reach for their belt with your sleeve-gripping hand. Lean back and use your grips to pull them down, clamping the elbow of your belt-gripping arm to your side. Like in the previous lessons, this should make it hard for your partner to recover posture.

As they are basically stuck, the instinct will be for them to post their hand on the floor and push up. That gives you the opportunity to underhook it with your same side arm, reaching around to hold their same side shoulder. Use your elbow to bring their arm out of alignment, also shrimping your hips towards that arm two or three times. Your shin on the other side drops towards their knee, then simultaneously push out their leg with your shin (similar goal to a push sweep follow-up after a failed scissor sweep) while lifting with your remaining butterfly hook.

Don’t be greedy and go to mount, as you’re liable to at best get caught in half guard, at worst rolled right under their mount (as your underhook would then work to their advantage). Instead, stick to side control. Once you’re there, immediately control their far arm with both of yours, clamping with your head before they can get a forearm into your neck. Your hand on the other side will be waiting for them to try: when they attempt to move their arm around, you can grab the wrist and go for the americana.

Will announced a brief two minute break, before going into the next section of the seminar, which focused on the head and arm choke. He started off by showing the mechanics of the choke, beginning in side control. You’ve managed to get their far arm to the upper side of your head (i.e., the side nearest their head, rather than nearest their legs). This is a good position for you, so you want to keep their arm trapped there.

Having clamped their arm to your head, put the hand you have nearest their legs on their hip. Push off that, in order to curl your head (and by extension, their arm) towards and around their head. This is sort of like a ‘pre-stretch’ in plyometrics, if I understood Will correctly, setting your choke position in place to make it easier once you get the rest of your body there. Walk your feet towards them so your hips rise into in the air, then hop over to the far side.

The second option is to pass over more gradually. Slide your knee over their belt line, as if you were going for mount. Once that knee is on the mat by the far side, use your other foot to hook around their far knee. Pull that towards the near side, then drop down next to them on the far side. Be certain to use the space you’ve created: in the process of pulling them over, you’ll have turned them on their side, leaving a gap you can fill. This should help you make the choke even tighter.

However you get there, next establish a ten-finger grip around their head and arm, locking your hands together: you’re curling your fingers and linking them, rather than the more typical palm-to-palm gable grip. In order to complete the choke, you need to take out any slack. Raise their head up slightly, extend your arms, then use your near side arm to cinch in the arm by their neck as tightly as possible. Re-establish your choke position, then drive with your shoulder to elicit the tap.

That was followed by lots of other entries. From north-south, dig your head along their chest to get into position, reaching under their armpits with both hands. You don’t want to be too deep: just get your thumbs inside, rather than grabbing all the way down by the belt or something like that. Get them up on their side, still keeping your elbow down (like Rodin’s ‘Thinker’) so they don’t have any space to slip their arm out.

Do a sort of push-up to keep your weight pressed into them, also driving your shoulder into their elbow. This ‘staples’ their arm in place. Walk around, at which point you could go for a kimura, but in this case you're going to attack the head-and-arm choke instead, reaching the thumb towards their neck. You can then use the method Will already went through (i.e., ten finger grip etc).

There was also a handy little pointer here for the common problem of them grabbing cloth to block a kimura. Push a little to make them think you still want the kimura, then backstep around their head, using your bodyweight to either break their grip, or move into the head and arm choke.

When attacking the turtle from the side, putting your knee next to theirs on the near side, reach under their near armpit and grip their far shoulder. Your other arm goes to the inside of their far knee, just blocking it rather than gripping anything. Roll into the near side – Will describe it as ‘disappear underneath them – to bring them over your body, putting you back into the choke position.

The next situation is that they’re escaping your back control, specifically by turning towards you and beginning to put their back on the mat, on your choking arm side. Similar to Marcelo Garcia’s option for retaining back control, switch your non-choking-arm-side hook from inside their thigh to the outside, then hook under their knee. That will briefly halt their turning motion, giving you a bit of time.

Will advises against having your choking arm hand on top when using a seat belt grip in back control. Instead, he suggests your non-choking hand should be protecting your choking arm. The reasoning is that your opponent will probably go for the easiest arm to grab, which is the one on top. If they pull your non-choking arm down, then that's better, as it clears a path for you to put your choking arm right into their neck.

I have seen other instructors teach it the opposite way around, but with the same end result. If I recall correctly, they argued that if the choking arm is on top, that means you can capitalise more quickly if they ever leave their neck free. Xande has yet another option, which merges the two: when he teaches the rear naked choke, he uses a gable grip. The palm of the choking arm hand points away, which he then twists as he inserts the arm for the choke.

For this technique, when you’ve hooked under the knee and are ready to go into the choke, switch your hands so that the choking hand is on top. You can then use that choking hand to pull yourself into the head and arm choke position, completing the submission as before.

The final entry was from what Will called headlock control, also known as scarf hold. This was specifically the classic scarf hold, where you’re reaching under their head to grab your own leg, rather than modified scarf hold, where you’re reaching under their far armpit. Will made the point that this position wasn’t as common as it used to be, because people often have a bad experience. They go into scarf hold, pulling their opponent’s arm up...then the opponent links arms behind their back and rolls them over. The move can often be discarded by beginners as a result of that bad experience.

However, Will does it differently, the key detail being that linking arm. Instead of pulling it up and trapping it under your armpit – which exposes you to that linked hands escape – jam your arm next to your raised knee so they can’t get their arm around your back. Will's route to getting into scarf hold is itself also unorthodox. From side control, Will focuses on the arm pushing into your hip. Underhook that arm and walk your fingers along the mat, then literally lay your body on top of the arm, squashing it flat.

In some ways this is reminiscent of the Sao Paulo/Tozi/Reis pass (it has lots of names), in that it feels counter-intuitive, because you think you’re exposing your back. However, if you’ve distributed your weight correctly, they should be stuck in place. Their next move tends to be turning towards you, which is when you wrap their head with your other arm. You can now switch into scarf hold, remembering to block their ability to reach through for your back. They are probably then going to try and push into your neck, giving you the opportunity to push their elbow to bring their own arm past their head, then transition to the head and arm choke once again.

All in all, it was an excellent class. John Will is without any doubt the best seminar instructor I’ve seen to date, so I made sure to pick up a couple of his DVDs at the end (especially as he was selling them at a discount). I wanted to see if the same style of teaching had been captured for an instructional, so I’ll be reviewing both of them at some point in the future. I’ll also be using them to illustrate this post, along with some of the great photos Esther took on the day.


Thanks again to Mark for inviting me to the seminar: I’m intending to head to Cheltenham some time to check out one of Mark’s own classes, as I’m curious to see what his teaching methodology is like. The club he runs with his business partner Tony is a John Will affiliate, of which I think there are currently only two in the UK. The other one is where I briefly trained in Coventry, under John Will purple belt, Rich Green.

Make sure you're at one of John Will's UK seminars next year! ;D

Seminar photos included by kind permission of Esther Smith

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