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The Americanization of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

What Went Wrong?

By Robert Drysdale

Special to GTR

April  20, 2022


The 2019 edition of the ADCC event was unique in the history of Jiu-Jitsu, but not due to the evolution of competitors and their techniques, There was nothing “unique” in that because technical evolution is normal whenever impediments are not in place to stifle it. What was so unusual was that for the first time in the history of Jiu-Jitsu, there was an attempt at creating a rift between practitioners of different countries. For the first time, this attempt at division was obvious for everyone to see, and what had originally been a cohesive effort in the name of the growth of Jiu-Jitsu, was now being crafted into a game of “us” vs. “them.”

At some point during the event, a chant that I have never heard before in any Jiu-Jitsu event began. A small group of people in the stands were chanting “USA! USA! USA!” in what to them might have seemed like a display of patriotism, but that in fact left most of the arena stunned. After all, no one in Jiu-Jitsu had ever heard this before, certainly no one in Brazil or Poland chanted their respective countries during a Jiu-Jitsu event. Jiu-Jitsu, up to recently at least, was a gigantic family free of politics, identity politics, ethnicity, nationalism, gender, religion, etc. In fact, it had up to recently always been completely free of anything that wasn’t unifying. On the mats, the only distinction in rank is that of skill and experience, excluding those two, any other differences and life choices were never a cause for any rift. In other words, to an older generation, Jiu-Jitsu was “us” (all of Jiu-Jitsu), vs. “them” (anyone who didn’t train Jiu-Jitsu).

Yet something was changing in the Jiu-Jitsu landscape, perhaps as a result of the growth of the sport and the inevitable commercialization that parallels such growth. And possibly even a  reflection of the hyper-politicization of virtually everything that is so abundantly and disturbingly evident in recent years. Regardless of the motive, the last ADCC made these transformations all the more obvious. From now on, it wasn’t “us” (all of Jiu-Jitsu) vs, “them” from now on, it was Brazil versus America, or more specifically Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) versus "American" Jiu-Jitsu (AJJ). And while the rift might have been noticeable to some only recently, its wake has been long in the making. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time such thing had happened where personal ambition had recruited patriotism as a disguise. But what was underneath this disguise? Clearly there is a coordinated and ill intended effort to split the sport of Jiu-Jitsu. But why?

From a young age, it was always clear to me, through interactions with people both in the US and in Brazil, that the relationship between the US and Brazil was a hierarchical one, where everything that was American, or that came from the US, was automatically superior. It didn’t matter what the pretenses were or what people avoided saying out in the open due to political correctness, because it did nothing to change the reality of the relationship. And the reality was clear for all to see and hear, one held the superior seat in every way, while the other was somewhat submissive in this relationship.

An observation always reinforced whenever I heard Brazilians speak of Americans and of how Americans spoke of everything south of the Rio Grande. It was also an observation to which I am always remitted to whenever I have to explain to perplexed Americans why was it that my parents chose to raise me and my sister in Brazil rather than in the US, as if wondering: “why would you trade the ‘best’ for something less?”

Of course, in my mind at least, none of this made any sense, since if the two countries were more or less of the same size (which is how I measured power in those days), why was the relationship so unbalanced? Why was it that it was held for granted that everything made and done in the US was, immediately and scrutiny-free, accepted as the ‘best.’ And when Americans weren’t the ‘best’ it was because we didn’t care at all about endeavors that others around the world felt were important to them (say, Formula 1 and Soccer for example). So, as simple as that, a hierarchy was established: ‘Everything that is American is better’ and as testimony to this obvious truism we have the Herculean efforts of thousands of immigrants from all over the world who desperately want to raise their families here. The riddle is solved, no more questions asked, ‘we are number 1,’ case closed.

A point that isn’t without its merits. If life in the US weren’t, on average, more convenient, comfortable and promising than in other countries, then how do we explain the mass immigration from other less economically fortunate countries? And although I don’t agree with the statement that ‘Everything that is American is better’ (which I would prefer to rephrase as ‘life in the US, in general terms, is better for a lot of people including myself’) the fact I choose to live here, speaks volumes about where I think life is better.

Yet the ranking paradigm between Brazil and the US, doesn’t only affect the relationship and perceptions between both countries and their quality of life, in fact, this rank goes well beyond and succeeds in establishing itself in parallel to other arenas such as, values, habits, culture and people in general. In other words, hidden underneath the fabric of this dynamic, was an assertive insistence that with this rank between nations, the peoples that inhabited these lands followed suit and were also “better” or “worse” depending on which country they so happened to be born into.

And while it has always been somewhat obvious to me that in general, Americans are extremely successful in everything that matters to us, still, it is an enormous stretch to get this observation to encompass its people as well and simultaneously establishing a fixed rank of people free of analysis. And while few, if any, would be willing to admit in public that this is the case, I vouch that this is in fact the case, that this belief in superiority permeates not only the US, but the Anglo world in general. Albeit not a belief that is spoken out in the open, but that is rather veiled in attitudes towards this hierarchy and those who belong in it.

In my observations, having spent my entire life between two different worlds and having traveled significant portions of the rest of it (and always with Jiu-Jitsu as a background), people, all peoples, are on average not so different after all, some simply try harder than others, while others have it harder than others… but on average, we are not so different. Yet the belief and certainty in the rigidity of the hierarchy remains intact. Additionally, the American confidence and sense of a higher-purpose or “Manifest Destiny” is not only one of the US’s most endearing qualities, but also a major blind-spot when confidence turns into over-confidence or, even worse, reframing reality and facts to suit the confidence instead of the other way around.

Right about now the reader might be asking what any of this has to do with Jiu-Jitsu, or better, with “American" Jiu-Jitsu? To which I would reply that, if we pay close attention, there is a common thread between my simplified generalizations between the social-cultural dynamic of the US and Brazil and the current debate between AJJ vs. BJJ.

I first became aware of this connection when a friend, over a couple beers and perhaps forgetting that I was half-Brazilian, asked me perplexed: “But how Rob, how can they [Brazilians] be so good at Jiu-Jitsu?” The question seemed so strange to me that at first, it caught me off-guard, and my immediate answer was what to me remains the only and obvious one: “People get good to the degree that they train hard and with a purpose.” Which didn’t satisfy my friend in the least. The answer, must lie elsewhere or at least that is what I gathered by his reaction to my answer to his question.

To be honest, it took me a few days to actually digest what my friend had actually meant by his question and this is what I actually think his thought process looked like: To him, it was inconceivable that Brazilians were so dominant at something that mattered so much to Americans like Jiu-Jitsu did. Because unlike Formula 1 and Soccer, Americans fell in love with Jiu-Jitsu, and because it mattered to us, how can we be number 2? To my friend, the number of high-level practitioners coming out of Brazil simply made no sense. The belief in the fixed hierarchy was so ingrained, that he couldn’t even fathom any answer to his question that didn’t fit the belief.

So how exactly is anyone to explain this to someone who insists in their belief in a fixed hierarchy and for whom, being number 1 is a God-given truism? The explanation must lie elsewhere. Perhaps it is because Brazilians take more steroids?  Or perhaps there is a conspiracy of referees that are making sure that the best ones don’t rise to the top by favoring Brazilians instead. There must be an explanation but what is it?’ Anything will do, as long as it can bypass the obvious answer that being skilled at Jiu-Jitsu has absolutely nothing to do with nationality and everything to do with effort, environment, and talent.

But if the cognitive dissonance remains, in other words, that the belief cannot readjust itself to reality, then perhaps doing its opposite might just do the trick, perhaps reality needs to be tweaked a bit. If the reality of being skilled in Jiu-Jitsu is that effort, environment, and talent are all that matter and that the rules apply to all in equal measure; and Americans are better at everything that matters to us; Then the high-proportion of Brazilians and other nationals winning tournaments needs to be addressed differently. Enter American Jiu-Jitsu.

I first heard the term “American Jiu-Jitsu” or simply “AJJ” fairly recently, but had in fact been aware of its first movements well before Jiu-Jitsu became a worldwide phenomenon, back in the day where Joe Moreira Invitational and Cleber Luciano’s Copa Pacifica, were still the biggest tournaments on the land circa 1999. Even then, the division was already becoming apparent. In those days, one of the most common questions practitioners asked in those days was “when will Vale-Tudo (MMA) surpass Boxing?” The other one was “when will Americans outdo Brazilians in Jiu-Jitsu?”

But what is AJJ after all? There are two answers to this question, the standard one that is relentlessly repeated and that more or less takes the shape of the assertion that 1) “Americans are now innovating the art of Jiu-Jitsu and taking it to the next level” and 2) what I believe AJJ really is. We will address both these answers one at a time.

To begin with, there are two different AJJ movements that contradict one another. One is in the gi and claims the acronym of “AJJ” while the other is a no-gi movement and strategically claims no acronym but that is in fact, the real movement of dissent, largely centered around the “Sub-Only” rule-set. Given the differences in social-media reach and marketing, the rest of this text will be concerned exclusively with the second version of AJJ (the no-gi one) since the gi version does not deviate in any significant way from the IBJJF sphere of influence other than in replacing the letter “B” for “A.”

The AJJ that concerns me here isn’t exclusively “American” either, but is rather “Anglo” in character. Also, due to the fact that this movement of dissent isn’t exclusive to the US, but is rather a larger global movement centered around the English-speaking world. Due to this, from this point onwards, we will refer to AJJ not as “American Jiu-Jitsu,” but as “Anglo Jiu-Jitsu.” Keeping in mind that, in my view, the Anglo world doesn’t only share the English language, but also the belief in a “Manifest Destiny” of sorts.

And despite this no-gi version of AJJ not differing, in technical terms, from BJJ in any major way other than in the rules, for the justification for a departure to work, it needs to justify itself to its audience somehow, which is to say, it needs to adjust reality to suit the belief. Below are a few common attempts at reshaping reality:

Innovation, has nothing to do with nationalism and everything to do with a competitive environment in the Darwinian sense. Which essentially means that through the process of selection, the best techniques get passed on to further generations, while the less efficient ones either get adapted or eliminated from the curriculum. The more competitive the environment, the higher the need for technical innovation in an ‘arms-race’ sort of fashion. And while it is certainly true that many techniques are developed daily in the US, this is the case in every country where the art is practiced, no exception. Although, to be fair, wherever there is more high-level competition, there will be more advanced innovations, so, naturally, most innovations are coming from countries with a great number of high-level competitions, namely Brazil and the US. Undoubtedly it is true that many innovations in terms of leg-attacks have been developed in the US in recent years, nonetheless, I do find it odd that this observation somehow is used to justify a split in the sport by marking some imagined technical superiority. As I well remember, when Brazilians were leading innovation in spider-guard, Delariva-guard, back-takes, half-guard, butterfly-guard, closed-guard, etc., I never heard any of them say that the innovation took place because they were Brazilians or because they took place in Brazil. The innovations were for all to use, who cares who invented them? Or, better still, “who cares where they were invented as long as they work?” Furthermore, even if it were true that leg-attacks and AJJ were revolutionizing Jiu-Jitsu, in what way does this justify a rift? Unless, of course we apply the same rule to all countries, which would leave us with hundreds of different acronyms to essentially describe the same thing. Long story short, the notion that innovation is an exclusivity of the Anglosphere and that this imagined exclusivity can justify any split is ludicrous and wouldn’t even merit a rebuttal if it weren’t such a widely held belief.

This isn’t the place to address the gi vs. no-gi debacle, but there is some truth in the claim that no-gi is more realistic, particularly in terms of transitioning to Vale-Tudo (MMA). Yet the bigger problem is the belief that the format in which AJJ is grappling under (sub-only), is very far from realistic and I would even argue that it is even less realistic that an IBJJF gi rule-set, since it consists of a game that largely neglects positioning (so fundamental for real-combat) and focuses on ‘submissions only’ instead. 

The problem is that, by not rewarding positions, practitioners naturally neglect them. The result is a festival of penalty-free butt-scooting, sacrifice submissions (the ones that compromise superior position, something very risky in a real-fight) and people not bothering defending takedowns or sweeps. Not to mention the overtime tie-breaker, where contestants begin the tie-breaker very near a submission and where whoever escapes fastest wins the prize. A highly problematic thing to teach. Problematic because it reinforces a strategy of stalling for the entire round and choosing to actually fight only during the overtime. Nonetheless, it is a reasonable strategy considering the rule-set. Keeping in mind that the whole point of Jiu-Jitsu is to get to the submission, not win by escaping them quickly in a completely arbitrary and artificial overtime that has no grounds in the reality of combat.

I don’t believe that non-Brazilian has competed in Brazil more than I have. In fact, almost all of my competition experience took place in Brazil. Although I wouldn’t call myself an outsider (amongst my close friends at least who always treated me fairly and as one of their own), I didn’t exactly fit in either. The vast majority of referees in my matches in Brazil didn’t know me and, given my more than gringo name and looks, immediately concluded that I was a foreigner. Yet, despite all this, I didn’t ever feel like I received unfair treatment by any referee or organization during my decade of training and competing in Brazil. Undoubtedly there were some mistakes made by referees during the course of my career in Brazil, but I don't believe that these mistakes were intentional or had anything to do with the fact that I was born in the US. In fact, many times the referees favored me during decisions. And here lies the crux of the conspiracy theory of Brazilian referees hating on non-Brazilian grapplers: this belief is nothing but a perfect example of the good old confirmation bias. In other words, ignore the times where the iffy calls favor you and focus on the ones in which they favor your opponent. A stance that is either dishonest or ignorant.

Maybe leg-locks are what make jiu-jitsu American?  Leg-attacks have always been part of the Jiu-Jitsu arsenal.  So what’s changed? Simple, what changed is that heel-hooks have been made legal in recent years and that has significantly expanded the arsenal of leg-attacks. Which tips us to the misleading belief that the welcomed addition to the arsenal has something to do with Jiu-Jitsu reaching the Anglosphere for the innovations to take place, and accidentally implying that others could not have done it themselves. When in fact, the ban of heel-hooks and its more recent acceptance has nothing to do with innovation being an exclusivity of the Anglosphere, but may well have something to do with the advances in modern medicine and its ability to repair torn ligaments. Keeping in mind that a total reconstruction of the knee was not a technological possibility in 1967 when the rules and heel-hook ban were made official by the Guanabara Federation. At a time when, depending on the damage inflicted by the heel-hook, the practitioner could well become a cripple for life, something technology has remedied in the 21st century giving space for heel-hooks to be permitted in competition thus creating the incentive to practice them competitively and leading, naturally, to innovation. Long story short, the change is more likely to be more of an issue of advances in technology than of geography.

One of the most common justifications for the AJJ movement’s drift apart from the rest of BJJ, is that it is more business minded (which it really is) and that by pushing for ticket sales, marketing, self-promotion, personality cults and sensationalism in general, Jiu-Jitsu will attract more viewers/practitioners. A claim that has some merit: If more people are watching, doesn’t that mean more money? Yes it does, however, the problem is twofold here. First, commercialization isn’t necessarily the best direction for the sport. Secondly, I believe it to be absolutely false that it is the pro-wrestling like and sensationalist promotion or show-business in general that is leading the growth of Jiu-Jitsu worldwide.

Regarding ticket sales and show-business in general, one can also think of extravagant ways of selling tickets, for example, by pitching a mud-wrestling match between the Russian internet sensation Hasbullah and Paris Hilton; or Tom Cruise versus Justin Bieber, etc. My point here isn’t to banalize the discussion, but rather to demonstrate that the placement of ticket sales and viewership as a top priority is already in itself an act of banalization of Jiu-Jitsu. That by following in the footsteps of pro-wrestling, we will eventually become more like them. Or best case scenario, we will become more like Boxing, which wouldn’t be bad for the athletes themselves (in financial terms at least), but would it be a sport for the masses as Jiu-Jitsu is now? Hard to say.

Show-business does have its advantages, it just also comes with many bad practices, the most obvious one being prioritizing what is best for the athlete or organization, while maintaining what is best for the art of Jiu-Jitsu as a secondary force and only in case it happens to be a side-effect of the primary force (money). My point here isn’t to question profiteering or to attempt to eliminate it, what I am trying to say here is that the community of Jiu-Jitsu practitioners would do well in rethinking the direction of the sport and if making money our guiding north is what is best for the sport in the long run or if it is merely what is best for those who find in this sort of show-business tactics a platform for individual political power and profiteering?

Secondly, the notion that this sort of promotion strategy (slander, self-promotion, show-business, personality cult and other sensationalist marketing practices in general) are responsible for the growth of Jiu-Jitsu can’t be taken seriously. If we were to go to any Jiu-Jitsu event, gi or no-gi, professional or amateur, north or south of the equator. It wouldn’t matter and the result would be the same, namely that the vast majority of the people in the arena are practitioners that are well within the IBJJF competition circuit, while the rest are family members supporting them. Jiu-Jitsu has no “fans” in the traditional sense of the word, it has practitioners and the ‘new eyes’ that are being brought into the sport are in reality not “new” at all, but rather the same people that go to every local Jiu-Jitsu event. In other words, the attendance and viewership of the new wave of professional events is to the credit of the organization and its promotion efforts only in a secondary way. Whereas in reality, the two greatest forces behind the growth of Jiu-Jitsu around the world are IBJJF and Joe Rogan respectively. IBJJF due to their organization and systems that grants Jiu-Jitsu the platform necessary for continuous and steady growth while Joe Rogan’s voice has been single handedly the greatest marketing tool for the expansion of Jiu-Jitsu at least since Royce Gracie.

So what is American Jiu-Jitsu?

In reality, AJJ began the day Jiu-Jitsu landed in the US and it was bound to transform itself by its sheer presence here. It was brought here precisely so it could be changed up and give wind to an almost dead tradition called Vale-Tudo who, thanks to the obsessive efforts of Rorion Gracie, were brought into the spotlight where the most sophisticated form of fighting there has ever been was to be further developed in the UFC and other organizations that followed the trend. The ambitious and bold move also had the intention of bringing to the forefront of this movement the family’s brand of Judo (later termed Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, terms that had, up to then, (almost) never been used in Brazil to describe “Jiu-Jitsu”).

A brand that up to then had little success in business terms, but that, with the right marketing and partners, had the potential to conquer the world and what better place to start a world conquering trend then in Southern California? The stage was set and History was about to write down another success story, a success story that could never be achievable had it remained a marginal and a little-known idiosyncratic version of Judo practiced almost exclusively in small circles in Rio de Janeiro, specifically in the South-Zone or “Zona Sul” (to be fair, there were other centers all over Brazil, but all very small in comparison to the post-Royce Gracie era).

In other words, the immigration of Jiu-Jitsu to the US had precisely the desired effect, namely, to create financial opportunities for those who practiced it, and who can say that Rorion’s plan wasn’t working given the enormous wave of Brazilian immigrants that for the most part and Jiu-Jitsu not existing, would never have the opportunity to live a good life abroad? It was no small feat by Rorion to simultaneously create two global brands (UFC and BJJ), create thousands of jobs for Brazilians all over the world and to make of BJJ Brazil’s number one cultural export ever. Certainly not a small feat by an ambitious lawyer who knew a thing or two about what a real fight would look like.

In the US however, JJ was to be changed forever. It was to become systematized, a global brand, a household name everyone knew of, and for a long minute there, everyone seemed to be on board with the project. JJ seemed to be on the right path for conquering the martial arts world and that was something everyone agreed on. This was in fact, the common denominator amongst all practitioners and it is highly unlikely that it would have succeeded had Rorion chosen somewhere other than Southern California to launch his campaign. Its practitioners, on a global level, were one family and one army, all marching with the common goal of spreading the gospel of Jiu-Jitsu to every corner of the globe.

On one end, these initial changes for the establishment of BJJ as a credible and profitable martial art business (structured classes, curriculums, belt tests, uniforms, classes starting on time, etc.) were extremely necessary for the scalable grown of the gentle art. In other words, the initial changes that took BJJ from a sub-culture that blended typical Latino machismo (possibly augmented by the more extreme machismo of the north of Brazil where the Gracie family is from) with the surf-culture of Rio de Janeiro, into a multi-million-dollar business were necessary and, for the most part, beneficial to everyone except rival martial-arts instructors.

What I am also saying here is that, perhaps, the biggest American contribution to Jiu-Jitsu has been the lending of the typical entrepreneurial mindset Americans are so known for around the world, an effort which was undoubtedly necessary for the growth spurt Jiu-Jitsu has been through in the past 15 years or so. Yet the changes didn’t stop there, they pressed on as IBJJF moved their headquarters from Rio de Janeiro and most of their bigger operations to California in 2007. They pressed on because there was an impetus to not only assimilate that which Jiu-Jitsu in fact needed (order and business systems) to borrow from Americans, but also other changes, and the changes I am speaking of here are less of a technical nature and more of a cultural change, reshaping the sub-culture of Rio de Janeiro and Americanizing it in the process. A reshaping that Brazilians, for the most part, didn’t notice, didn’t care about, or perhaps approved of, or even more likely a variety of combinations of the above. Regardless of how Brazilians perceived these cultural changes, the reality is that they followed suit in obeying the pre-established hierarchy and were, perhaps unknowingly, absorbed by the new cultural norm by indulging in it themselves. Resistance free.

The business minded shift didn’t stop at organization and good business practice that were in fact so uncommon in Brazil when the sport was beginning to take off there. The changes were also in terms of the values that guided the efforts behind the growth of Jiu-Jitsu as well as how the art was to be practiced henceforth. Jiu-Jitsu now had an entrepreneurial mindset that, coupled with the rise of Social Media, dramatically altered the landscape of the sport. But what were the factual changes that Jiu-Jitsu suffered in the US?

This cultural shift, became evermore wide and obvious the more the sport grew. As an example, insults like “marqueteiro” (marketer) or Carlson Gracie’s favorite “poderoso” (almighty or all powerful) don’t translate well into English, at least not as insults. If only 20 years ago a pre-teen, upon winning a match, posed to the cameras while opening his gi to flex his baby abs to the camera in celebration, it was likely that he would get a reprimand not only from his coach but suffer social ostracism from his training partners. The behavior of self-promotion was not only frowned upon. It was an embarrassment to yourself and your school. In this old-school mindset, recognition of any kind is necessarily a byproduct of merit on the mats, not of shrewd marketing practices. Yet, the “fake it until you make it,” isn’t perceived as bad, in fact, it is even taught and reinforced by many leaders and organizations.

And while it is indeed a cliché to say that money corrupts everything, in some ways, the commercialization of Jiu-Jitsu did exactly that. An error that is less finger pointing than it is analyzing of the reality of our daily practice. But isn’t the profiteering with Jiu-Jitsu good? Which, as discussed above, certainly is, but only as a secondary force and remaining behind the healthy growth of the sport (by healthy I mean practices that actually teach children good behavioral values other than winning medals), not as its guiding principle. A lesson we should have all learned when we allowed vital industries such as health and education to be corrupted by this sort of business orientation, namely that when the time comes to do what is best for Jiu-Jitsu (or health or education) as a whole, the business and money mentality of the top leadership prevails over what is best for the whole.

Wondering to myself what is the actual purpose of the AJJ movement, I am reminded of an old Roman saying:: “Qui Bono?” (“Who benefits?). And here we begin to get to the bottom of this discussion. AJJ (American or Anglo) isn’t about what is best for JJ. AJJ is about carving out a new space outside of the Jiu-Jitsu sphere in order to create a parallel new hierarchy. Unable to reach the top of that hierarchy through effort and merit, the strategy becomes one of self-gain through marketing and noise by creating a whole new hierarchy where the leading dissenters (who almost exclusively have never fared well in the traditional Jiu-Jitsu circuit) are now new leaders and top of the food-chain. Which, interestingly, for the students of Jiu-Jitsu history, isn’t a new theme at all. In fact, there is nothing new about this whole discussion.

What AJJ is attempting at doing to BJJ, is remarkably similar to what the Gracie Brothers (I am referring specifically to Carlos and Helio Gracie here, since George Gracie would fight anyone and under any rules and wearing any kind of uniform) did to Judokas in the 1930’s. Of course there was nothing ‘invented’ by Brazilians. What Brazilians did was add to their version of Judo a few moves from Catch-Wrestling (Luta-Livre) as well as a few other tricks from Capoeira, replace the Kodokan hierarchy with an entirely new one where they stood at the top, modify the culture in which the art was practiced until it suited their own internal beliefs and values.

And in case you believe you deserve a higher standing in the world, but still can’t defeat your rival hierarchy at their game (in other words, if your belief and ambition don’t match reality), then change the game by creating a new reality, or in this case a new set of rules where you can finally shine and where the confidence and belief  are finally rewarded by this newly created reality (rule-set and culture). Which is to say, modify the rules, market yourself and your favorites relentlessly, rewrite history, ignore inconvenient facts and market to the extreme the convenient ones. All this while insisting that your Jiu-Jitsu is the “real” one, while the mothership is suddenly inadequate somehow. An old trick that, shockingly, still works.

But is Anglo-American Jiu-Jitu improving on Jiu-Jitsu? A rational argument should always be analyzed free of politics of nationalism or technical preferences and stay within the sphere of the argument itself. With this in mind: Is the IBJJF rule-set inadequate? If so, does this justify a new rule-set? It is my intention in the future to dive deeper into the differences between these rule-sets and their consequences for the future of Jiu-Jitsu as well as a more appropriate and realistic rule-set that is more in sync with the reality of combat, but for now, I will just leave it that the IBJJF rule-set, with all its problems, is still much closer to the reality of a fight than a submission-only format is, by the simple fact that it still emphasizes (at times even mistakenly prioritizing position over submission) dominant control of your opponent, which is practically a prerequisite for real-fighting. Those who disagree would do well in paying close attention to what grappling looks like inside the cage, or even in a bar fight, where position may in fact, be superior to a submission for reasons that anyone who has ever been in a bar fight would know all too well.

But to justify the division, AJJ has to continue to ignore all this, insisting that they have something new and better to replace the old and inadequate and finally confirming that the fixed-hierarchy between “them” and “us” was right all along. It was only due to a fluke of what “real Jiu-Jitsu” looked like that the hierarchy has somehow been flipped on its head. Temporarily of course, since now it is back on its way to where it always rightfully belonged.

Which, naturally, leads to the question: If what the Gracie Brothers did to the Japanese Judokas worked for them and now we all have this new modified version of Judo with additions from Catch Wrestling and that we now call Jiu-Jitsu (or BJJ, or whatever), doesn’t that mean that if the same thing happens today it will also be an improvement? Firstly, the notion that BJJ is an improvement from Judo can only be made (in my view at least) on technical grounds by the sheer fact that BJJ allows for more techniques, since the cultural cohesion in Judo is something BJJ (AJJ being even less cohesive since it leans towards individualistic strategies and behaviors) lags well behind in my view (keeping in mind that Judo is at least 140 years old, while BJJ even if we count its founding in 1967, is still shy of half a century of life and where most of this ‘life’ it was in reality a practice limited to the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro and a few other centers across Brazil).

Secondly, the question whether a split is beneficial must be analyzed on its own merits and not with historical background as evidence to be used in this analysis. The background is, at best, context to inform calm consideration, not evidence that the departure is beneficial to the whole of the community, although it is likely that a departure would benefit a select few self-seeking individuals. Which raises the question: Is it beneficial to Jiu-Jitsu that it goes in this new direction? That show-business, money, views, and ticket sales become its reason for existing? Or should we maintain the course of growth that has worked remarkably well so far and keep doing what is best for the growth of the art, with its commercialization as only a secondary force?

The bigger difference I am trying to draw here between these two different cultural approaches. Whereas the Gracie Brother’s drift away from Judo had a motivation similar to AJJ's today towards BJJ, in technical terms the Gracies did have a justification, namely that Judo was becoming increasingly sport and stand-up oriented. But does the same apply to AJJ today? Is BJJ more sport oriented than the no-gi AJJ of sub-only? Hardly so, considering the lack of concern for positioning and the strategic practice of butt-scooting and suicidal submission attempts. What about the culture, where the Gracie’s abandoned the Judo tradition in favor of a mixture of a Spartan like ethos mixed with surf-culture and remnants of Japanese manners?

In reality, BJJ is an odd mix between traditional machismo, surf, Japanese manners and the unique Gracie Spartan ethos, while AJJ is an equally strange mix of surf-culture, business venture as the highest purpose and achievement in life, but minus the machismo and whatever was left of the Japanese manners in BJJ.

Furthermore, AJJ has a major problem in its hand, a problem that threatens to spread beyond the borders of the USA. A problem that is so big that those who coordinate the dissent strategically refuse to use the acronym “AJJ,” because they know all too well that the “A” ostracizes the rest of the non-English speaking world whom they must also target as potential clients. For the plan to work, the “A” must be dropped while the new reality frames itself as “real Jiu-Jitsu.”

As far as the “B” in BJJ, it cannot be viewed as any petty display of nationalism by the sheer fact that Brazilians never used it themselves. It was only during the growth in the US that the “B” was added to Jiu-Jitsu in order to distinguish itself from what is normally called Japanese Jiu-Jitsu or Ju-Jutsu. Speaking of Japan, the people who are most well positioned to claim the acronym of “Jiu-Jitsu” don’t seem to care about any of this and instead are perfectly happy calling their national federation the Japanese Federation of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. A lesson in humility we would all do well to heed.

Anglo-American Jiu-Jitsu is in reality a copy of a copy of a copy. In martial arts, nothing is created, everything is transformed. Judo itself was heavily influenced by Western Wrestling, Sumo and possibly even 17th century Dutch fighting (see Craze 1 for details). The issue here is in reality about whether or not it is acceptable to cut out Jiu-Jitsu in order to aggrandize personal and financial ambition. The result is for the future to tell, but the greater question is, “what is best for Jiu-Jitsu? While I make my stance clear in this article, I am less trying to convince the reader of this or that stance, and more concerned that the community actually gives all this some thought and rethink what is it that makes Jiu-Jitsu so appealing to so many people.

Keeping in mind that for Jiu-Jitsu to grow worldwide, it never needed sensationalism and self-promotion. Jiu-Jitsu made headways around the world because a skinny and unthreatening man named Royce Gracie showed us how Jiu-Jitsu was really about efficiency not entertainment (for that we already had Hollywood movies and pro-wrestling), and that this efficiency outdoes fancy moves meant for movies and ticket sales every time. Royce, the UFC and BJJ were tornados in the fight world not because they were out to sell tickets, but because they had a good product to sell that was still grounded in the reality of combat. Big difference.

Lastly, I want to conclude this article by completing my story of the 2019 edition of the ADCC. The chanting of USA! USA!, showed its face a few times during the show but was never overwhelming. What did become overwhelming was what was about to happen next, in what looking back now, was to me at least, the highlight of the event. Fabricio Werdum and Braulio Estima, in midst of the chants, began to urge the crowd to perform the traditional “Mexican Wave” that is so common in games held in sports arenas and that besides being a spectacle for all who attended, also had the added benefit of unifying the entire crowd into one single body who produces the wave in harmonic unison.

I remember taking the moment to think about that wave and what it actually meant for Jiu-Jitsu and its future. I also took note that some did not participate in it and were not on board with the ecstatic energy that the wave was producing in the entire arena. Some, a small minority, were sitting down while the wave went full circle, perhaps thinking their own identity and place within Jiu-Jitsu or their feelings towards the reality of the wave. Or, perhaps, dreaming a new reality, a divisive rather than unifying one. 

It was a truly remarkable moment, as if reminding all in the crowd that we are all one. That what is best for Jiu-Jitsu, is not always what is best for the individual, but rather what is best for all practitioners in the long run. Ultimately, fighting is a team sport, and we can’t do it alone because we can’t grow alone, and the more of us, the better the competition. And how do we grow without the friction of competition? And doesn’t Jiu-Jitsu teach that when faced with hardship we should instead embrace it wholeheartedly? That when there is a problem we ought to confront it head on? Or do we cower away and create a new, easier and more gratifying hierarchy where being the top dog is only half as difficult and well within the domain of one’s comfort zone?

The wave was symbolic and spoke volumes about who the viewership of Jiu-Jitsu was and what they really want, all manifested in that moment of interaction that was as much electrifying as it was unifying. An interaction that reminded spectators supporting various players, that even if on opposite sides of the arena, we are all one in the passion we share.


 (c), 2022, Robert Drysdale. All rights reserved.


More articles by Robert Drysdale on GTR:

Remembering George Mehdi

Reflections on the Evolution of BJJ

Who Taught Oscar Gracie?

I was Skeptical

Selling Self-Defense

Rickson Gracie is Wrong

Rev. of book by João Alberto Barreto

Maeda Promotes Five Brazilians

Science and Sanity in BJJ

Jiu-Jitsu in Cuba

Is Oswaldo Fada Jiu-Jitsu a Non-Gracie Lineage?




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