GTR Archives 2000-2022

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Jiu-Jitsu Books 

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Roberto Pedreira

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The Rise and Fall of Jiu-Jitsu in MMA  

Robert Drysdale

Posted August 22, 2022

 

In 1993, a less than athletic Brazilian man sent shock waves through  the martial-arts world by reviving a style of combat that had largely disappeared from the minds of movie enthusiasts and martial-artists in general. It was a revival, because there was nothing new about it. In fact, we can trace back its origins to the late 19th century and to judo, a practice that was arguably the first martial-art in history, at least in terms of how we define a martial-art practice today.

But submission-grappling had never been really dead. It had survived in the West in Pro-Wrestling and in other arts such as judo and Sambo. So why was Royce Graciefs performances in 1993 such a mental jolt? If submission-grappling and its efficiency had never really left the world stage, why the shock?

The issue was that between Hollywood movies and comic books, the popular understanding of what a real fight looked like was limited by the need to sell movies, comics or tickets in general. It wouldnft be the first or last time where this happened, but reality would have to take a backseat to entertainment and ticket sales. At least for the time being.

After Royce brought reality back to the center-stage, fighting, real-fighting, would never be the same and for a minute there, what the world was calling Gracie jiu-jitsu or Brazilian jiu-jitsu seemed unbeatable. Of course, the minute was only that, a short-lived minute of invincibility because it didnft take long for wrestlers to learn how to defend an armbar or triangle and for strikers to learn how to sprawl and stand back-up with or without the fence. The playing field had been leveled and jiu-jitsufs dominance in the cages of the world had become merely a distant and nostalgic memory.

Nostalgic for some at least, mostly the old-timers who liked the idea of practicing combat as realistically as possible and knowing how to win in it. That generation, would have welcomed absorbing new tricks to keep up in the arms-race that cage-fighting had become. But most jiu-jitsu practitioners simply donft care about reality anymore. Entertainment is once again at the helm. They were perfectly happy practicing jiu-jitsu for what it was becoming: fun, entertaining and trendy. An attitude that was essentially a farewell decree to the days where jiu-jitsu seemed invincible. A reality we would all have to come to terms with, including those who cared and those who cared so little, that they didnft even notice the decline.

So, what of jiu-jitsu in MMA today? Is it dead like some claim? Is there no more room for an almost absolute domination like in the old days? Ifll begin by stating the obvious: no one, other than the most dogmatic and fanatical, ever suggested that jiu-jitsu ought to stand alone in a fight. Something that might have worked in the past, but times were changing quickly and it didnft take much to get left behind.

Carlson Gracie, the eldest son of Carlos, understood and tackled this problem well before jiu-jitsu lost its supremacy in the cage and well before his cousin Royce was shining in one. To him, the assimilation of anything that works was a given, accordingly, he made sure his students learned it. Someone like Vitor Belfort, became known for their boxing rather than jiu-jitsu. And had Carlsonfs open-minded vision been the dominant force in jiu-jitsu, things might have been quite different. But that wasnft the case, the dominant force was a different one that quickly overwhelmed Carlsonfs vision and became the standard definition of what jiu-jitsu is. The sport-oriented practice quickly became the dominant definition of jiu-jitsu. From then onwards, who cared if jiu-jitsu won in a cage or not?

Another obvious factor is that it wasnft grappling in MMA that was dead, but rather the shift of focus in a jiu-jitsu that was combat-oriented towards one that was geared towards the practice by the masses, something MMA was unlikely to accomplish due to its gruesome nature. Which was not a new problemc if you want big numbers, you will have to water down the product to reach the greatest number of practitioners. And so, it went with jiu-jitsu as it slowly lost exactly what had set it apart from judo to begin with and into the commercial prominence it enjoys today. A prestige that was essentially built upon the back of this more Spartan like approach to combat that was being neglected by the commercial demands of its growth and popularization.

Dominance in a cage through grappling had never been dead however, it was just no longer exclusive to jiu-jitsu. Wrestlers, came to become the best representatives of grappling in MMA, in fact, one could easily argue that they have become the dominant force in MMA today. The Dagestani Khabib Nurmagomedov being the best example of this dominance, with an astounding record of 29-0. But this dominance of grappling was in the hands of wrestlers, not jiu-jitsu folk. So where does jiu-jitsu stand in all this?

The reality is that jiu-jitsu survives in MMA less through the hands of those who represent jiu-jitsu than it does through the hands of those who borrow from it. A good example of this is Khabibfs last victory over Justin Gaethje via mounted triangle. A move that is illegal in both Sambo and wrestling, the styles where Khabib traces back his foundation as a fighter (that and wrestling bear cubs as a child of course).

Other wrestlers absorbed from jiu-jitsu instructors what they didnft have in wrestling, without losing their wrestling as a foundation. A combination that has proven to be incredibly successful. Which basically meant that these wrestlers didnft just learn how to defend armbars and triangles coming from their opponentfs guard, but they now also knew how to take the back and apply kimuras and guillotines from just about everywhere. That and whatever else they felt didnft compromise their wrestling foundation of being on top no matter what.  

Of course, there are exceptions. Demian Maia managed to win almost exclusively with the tools he took from jiu-jitsu in what might have been the best adaptation of pure jiu-jitsu for MMA ever. Not even Rickson or Rodrigo Minotauro can claim such a successful adaptation. And then there is Charles Oliveira who dominated by smoothly blending jiu-jitsu with striking. But Demian and Charles are dying breeds in a way, the Last of the Mohicans of sorts. Because despite the worldwide growth of jiu-jitsu, this growth was largely around the competitive world, where successful practitioners in the past would have had no financial outlet other than vale-tudo. Today jiu-jitsu practitioners have a burgeoning professional jiu-jitsu circuit, online instructionals, schools, privates and seminars from which they (we) are all making a comfortable living. Vale-tudo is no longer the only financial option on the table. Accordingly, the vast majority of its most competitive representatives go through their careers without even considering MMA as an option. Hence, jiu-jitsu today is sadly largely underrepresented in the cages of the world.

This coupled with the evolution of jiu-jitsu in a direction that had less and less to do with the reality of combat have made jiu-jitsu a bubble completely independent from the reality of combat that launched it into prominence. The results of all this, were basically the lack of results in the cages of the world. Hence the accusations that jiu-jitsu is dead.

To be fair to jiu-jitsu, the rules donft favor it: short rounds, resets on the ground and untrained judges certainly donft help. And by guntrainedh I mean exactly that: judges with no previous fight experience. Once a commission judge gave a seminar at Xtreme Couture where I was training at the time, I asked him if a near submission counted as much as a near knockout, a proposition that made him laugh, as he explained to me that even a nice takedown was worth more in the eyes of the judges than a near submission. Despite a near submission, from a practical and objective perspective, being the exact same thing as a knockout as it almost finishes the fight. Albeit, a near knockout normally has a long-term effect in a fight that a submission rarely has (as in a rarer event of a torn ligament for example). But how much fairness and reason can you expect from someone who has never been in there? Not much I suppose.

The crowd, generally uneducated in terms of grappling, prefers a knockout over a tight choke and prefers an exchange of punches over an exchange of grappling sequences. Naturally, the organizations as well as the athletic commissions that give structural support to MMA, follow the money. But thatfs not all, there is the bias and resentment against jiu-jitsu and its popularity. Wrestlers primarily, who despite overall being better trained athletes and for the most part more dominant in the cage, resent their efforts normally leading to nothing after college (unless they succeed in MMA or as high-school or college coaches, essentially the only financial outlets for wrestlers). Jiu-jitsu coaches, however unsuccessful and incompetent they may be, have the luxury of opening a school and watching a flood of students walk through the door with virtually no effort due to the current jiu-jitsu fad.

It is this sort of resentment towards the financial success and growth of jiu-jitsu that leads people to say things like gjiu-jitsu is dead in MMA.h Ignoring perhaps that the act of defending an armbar or triangle is in itself an act of successful use of jiu-jitsuc

But there is more. Interestingly, critics of jiu-jitsu often use the inability of a jiu-jitsu to finish a fight as the fault of the art. Perhaps ignoring the amount of right hands and left-hooks that are thrown and missed in a fight. Are we to apply the same standard and say that right hands and left-hooks no longer work in a fight? Or stick and admit to a double-standard instead? As the saying goes in Brazi, gpau que bate em Chico, também bate em Franciscoch (a stick that beats Chico, must also beat Francisco).

It is undoubtedly true that the days where jiu-jitsu alone was a major force in MMA are long gone. Was there any other way? Probably not. As Carlson himself well knew, a fighter needed to be complete in order to qualify for a kind of combat whose name is literally ganything goes.h Perhaps the failure, hasnft been of jiu-jitsu after all. Perhaps the greatest failure has been in how jiu-jitsu is seen, taught, trained and structured in the midst of the same financial success that gives it the edge financial edge over traditional martial-arts and wrestling.

Have we become what we once criticized? Have the true to the core strikers and wrestlers remained loyal to the reality of fighting, while jiu-jitsu has lost that same reality oriented spirit it used to represent and that was perhaps best represented by Carlson and his students?

It is a curious feature of this whole discussion that the MMA world has learned a lot more from jiu-jitsu than jiu-jitsu has learned from it. The respect for jiu-jitsu, despite claims to the contrary, is so obvious that few MMA fighters would venture inside a cage without a fundamental understanding of it. What about jiu-jitsu? Does it still watch MMA as closely as MMA fighters are learning from jiu-jitsu? I doubt it. Most jiu-jitsu practitioners have completely abandoned their interest in real-combat.

The reasons for the rise and fall of jiu-jitsu in MMA are complex and much of the discussion in this article is simplistic and arbitrary. What seems obvious is that by watering down the intensity and the quality of the product in order to please the commercial demands of jiu-jitsu had the added benefit of making it a viable financial reality for thousands of instructors like myself. On the other, it has steered jiu-jitsu away from exactly that which made it special and brought it to prominence in the first place. The days of a jiu-jitsu graizh (traditional, tough, and true to its grootsh), might be over, but the days of the raiz use of jiu-jitsu by those who took what was best from it, are far from over. 

Jiu-jitsu, once the most dominant art inside the cage, will survive no matter what. Just not by the hands of its representatives.

 

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

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More by Robert Drysdale-

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The Fallacy of Submission-Only

Rev. of Breathe, by Rickson Gracie

The ADCC Blind Spot

Winning at Jiu-Jitsu while Keeping it Real

Creonte: Loyalty versus Self-Perfection

The Rectification of BJJ's Rules: To Gi or Not to Gi

Americanization of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

BJ Penn for President

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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GTR Archives 2000-2022

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