We hear it all the time. Royce Gracie, UFC 1, jiu jitsu, most effective martial art out there, so on and so forth. I get it. Ok, now let me grab your lapels and put you in worm guard.
The evolution and perpetuation of technical development within Brazilian Jiu Jitsu over the past two and a half decades has given rise to a sportive realm that spreads well beyond its roots in Japan and Brazil. The creation of the IBJJF, ADCC, and various other governing bodies has solidified a sustainable industry of sport grappling created on the shoulders of the momentum generated by the early UFCs. As such, there is a noticeable dissonance in teaching methodologies, focus sparring implementation, and positional mastery concepts between schools. Some schools I have visited speak primarily in terms of points and advantages with regards to preparing students for competition. Given the roots of our art and what it is originally meant for, this type of teaching methodology unfortunately serves only a very small niche of highly motivated individuals who even have the desire to compete in the first place. It fails to demographically target a child who is being bullied at school, a woman who is a survivor of sexual assault, or a 53 year-old lawyer with a dad bod.
A few months back, I had a chance to take a seminar with UFC legend Cole Miller. The main focus of the seminar was taking the back using strikes to open up advancements. The sequence of positions began with him trapped in closed guard, he achieves cross grip control, stands up in my guard, lays a avalanche bomb or two to the face, forcing the guy to open his guard. From there he commits a smothering yet efficient guard pass, lords over in knee on belly laying down punches, forcing the guy on bottom to turtle up, enabling the back take and advancement into a set of submissions from there. In my six years of comprehensive training, I had up to that point never felt in more genuine real-life danger than Cole hovering in my open guard, no points of contact, ready to drop bombs.
All of that changed earlier this week.
Since moving to Southern California two months ago, I am taking full advantage of the different types of training available. I attend classes with the CheckMat team to receive high level fast paced competition type training. I hit up random 10th Planets for their open mats to experience their unrivaled and diverse offensive weaponry. I also happen to attend classes at the Gracie University in Torrance for self-defense, as well as the fight simulation training they employ two days a week with gloves and mouthpieces. Before I moved here, I had done maybe a half dozen or so such classes sporadically at random schools. Many schools I have attended prioritize self-defense; however, few to none actually employ fight simulation sparring as part of their curriculum. It was only this week that I finally had a chance to put on the gloves with Rener Gracie, nephew of Royce and pioneer of the program. While I can say that my intense sportive training leads me to put up a respectable defense against Rener’s lifetime of experience during regular jiu jitsu sparring, I felt like a fish out of water once the sparring became ‘real.’
Understand that in either instance Cole and Rener were both on my team. They were fortunately acting as teachers, and this was not in fact an actual struggle for my life. There was no money on the line, no personal pride at stake. That in no way however diminishes the threat that emanates from a imminent strike, as well as the fear it can instill in a way that no armbar, choke, or even heel hook can compare to. We’re talking facial disfigurement and permanent brain damage, not a muscle tear or joint sprain.
I could immediately tell that Rener has substantially more time throwing strikes in his jiu-jitsu than I have. The stickiness of his points of contact in open guard were refined in a way that not only managed the distance against strikes, he controlled the fight to the point that he was throwing strikes from the bottom and they were landing clean. There were several moments when I was mounted or on bottom side control that I knew a referee would have stepped in to break up the fight had this been a sanctioned MMA fight.
“Remember though…” says a little voice in my head. “There are no refs in the street.”
I bridged and I bucked, I scrambled and I spun, only to land in another control position with strikes raining down on my face, albeit strikes that are only about 5% of the intensity I know Rener is capable of. They were not serving as knockout punches; they were serving as reminders that I am vulnerable. Much of my jiu-jitsu training went out the door. My sportive background did little to prepare me for the veritable onslaught that I was receiving.
If you happen to be a fan of Brian Ortega, a professional fighter ripping through the ranks of the UFC in consistently spectacular fashion, meet the man who raised him from white to black belt. A man who has been in his corner through every single fight, a man who regularly trains Brian to face the best MMA athletes in the world.
And meet me, a guy coming in with six, count’em, six fight simulation classes before moving here. Oh, and a couple MMA seminars. Don’t bet the house on me.
What sank the point home was near the end of the roll, standing in Rener’s open guard, with him yelling ‘Punch me in the face! Punch me in the face!’ Needless to say, each extemporaneous movement I performed only landed me in deeper water. His words became lost in a sea of legs, gi fabric, and sweat. It was only after the roll had ended that I humbly acknowledged a glaring weakness in my quest to become a complete jiu-jitsu artist.
Detractors to this type of regular fight simulation sparring might state that if one aspires to be a world champion competitor, their time is better spent doing competition training. It is hard to argue that point. I believe everyone should acknowledge their goals in jiu-jitsu early on and find the right place to train for them. This is why you do not see many MMA fighters putting on the gi, nor do you often see sport jiu-jitsu competitors putting on the gloves. At any professional level, you can not condemn a person who makes their living from a niche within our art for being exclusively and devoutly dedicated to that one sub segment of the jiu-jitsu universe. If worm guard pays your bills, it would be ignorant of anyone to tell you to stop doing it. If, however, your goal is to be a hobbyist or something similar, which applies to the vast majority of jiu-jitsu practitioners, there is nothing more connected to the foundation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu than engaging in cooperative fight simulation training. Even if your school doesn’t offer it, I encourage you to find a mat, throw on some gloves, and start standing up in a clinch. Gently take it to the ground, play, move, and let your strikes serve as reminders about the space that your opponent is carelessly neglecting. Keep the punches at a minimal intensity. You are sparring, not fighting. Remember this is not a real fight, this is a fight simulation.
Come find me on any given Thursday night in Torrance, remember to bring your gloves and mouthpiece. Mention this article and I will save you a roll. My only request; do not ask me to punch you in the face when I am in your open guard. It will not bring up great memories.