Combat Training Partners: Too Tough, Too Easy, or Just Right?

Renzo Gracie Black Belt John Danaher on training partners.

“It depends what you’re training for. People have a mistaken impression that you should always be training with the toughest guys which is not true at all I believe. **About 80 to 90 percent of your training should be people who are significantly of a lower level skill level than you are and as you get into competition mode, you start rolling with guys who are your own skill level or a little better but I do believe that it is a common misunderstanding that you should always be training with people better than yourself.*It’s very very hard to develop your technical skills on people that are better than you. You will develop your defensive skills but ultimately the point of Jiu-Jitsu is to defeat people and not to become difficult to submit. So there is this common misunderstanding: “To be the best, you have to train with the best” yes to some degree I do believe it’s important in your early days in training to feel what qualities Jiu-Jitsu feels like so you need to roll with someone good but as you progress I always believed that around 80% of your training should be with significantly lower level people than yourself so you can practice new techniques and you can expand your repertoire you can do these things when you go in to the nail with someone of your own skill level.”

Joe Rogan, How to Get Better at Jiu Jitsu, with a similar take. “The Best Way to Get Better at Jiu Jitsu is to Strangle Blue Belts.”

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Great topic!

My instructor and his instructor echo this sentiment. They are Renzo Gracie lineage, with the head instructor being Amal Easton’s first black belt. Amal was one of Renzo’s first American black belts, and a world-class instructor. The head instructor is also a judo black belt, former pro MMA and Vale Tudo fighter and all-around hardass. I’m not personally acquainted with anyone with more authority on the subject of violence. Much of what I share here is just regurgitating his ideas that have been validated in my experience.

@burien_top_team If I haven’t been clear on this before, I’ve got roughly equal mat time with this instructor and my other, more accessible nearby school which is of the Marcelo Alonso lineage. I’m sure that instructor has thoughts on this subject, but he’s never shared them with us during class.

I’ve got just over two years of fairly consistent mat time, much of which is one-on-one lessons at home mats with my Renzo lineage instructor who is a four stripe brown belt. Most of my ideas about self-defense have been shaped from those sessions and from bouncing encounters. He’s not in the business of awarding belts from home sessions, so I’m officially a three stripe white belt at the Marcelo lineage school.

I’ve also got about four years of part-time bouncing experience in a bar where violence sometimes happens, so I’ll go ahead and share my thoughts on this very interesting subject. This is from the perspective of a relatively new student who is starting to “get it” on the mats and has successfully applied jiu jitsu concepts in many situations off of the mats. I have no sport competition experience, so I can’t speak to what’s best for those situations.

If your goal is self-defense with your bare hands in uncontrolled circumstances, I have general advice to offer that’s independent of whether you’re training at a sport school that prioritizes competition, a hobbyist school that’s really chill or in a school that’s dead-serious about handling violence with your bare hands.

Roll with everyone you can, from upper belts to the youngest, strongest and most aggressive white belts. Roll hard often, at least until you know how to moderate your effort to match your partner. Moderating my effort is a gear I didn’t have for at least my first year, and I think most people will need some level of mat time to get there. If not, get to dominating without going all-out as soon as you can.

If you want to toughen up, get used to struggling against someone who is trying to stop you with everything they have. Get used to being smashed and learn to endure pressure and discomfort. Learn to stay calm and make informed decisions under whatever stress you’re being subjected to. Learn to make safe from strikes and submissions, and expend energy on high percentage techniques. Move with a clear purpose, whether on your feet or on the ground. Throw slaps into training to keep things honest with regards to strike management and sound tactics in a fight.

Start your rolls on the feet whenever your training partner agrees to it. Train on your feet as often as you can. Make your takedowns work. Make your takedown defense work. Learn how to close the distance and get to a good position, whether it’s a side-clinch, double underhooks, a Russian tie, a path to the back, a judo throw or a takedown. Learn to sprawl, and practice sprawling. I’ve ended several bar encounters by putting the other person on the ground and staying on my feet. You should not go to the ground casually in a violent encounter if there is any potential of other people being in play, so train your stand up just as seriously as you do your ground work.

Now we get to the meat of this thread. You have to make your stuff work, which will generally mean rolling with people you out-class once you’ve put the mat time in to out-class the other students you have access to. Prioritize positional dominance on your feet and on the ground. Being on the bottom sucks, so make safe and work on improving your position. If your partners don’t want to start from the feet, give them a top position and work from there. More often than not, you will either be starting from a bad position or committing assault if things are getting violent for real, so get good at working out of bad positions.

Treat the guard as an emergency position. Armbars, Kimuras and chokes are there, of course, but so are sweeps and so is standing back up, so train all of those options. The guard is not a good place to be in a fight, so don’t go there unless you have no other option. You can’t lose a fight from the mount, so work on getting to mount and then holding mount. Hunt positions and hold positions before you worry about submissions. You can always beat a guy into a pulp if you can hold mount, even if you can’t pull any submissions off. Lots of options from side control too, where you can throw knees and elbows while holding a good position.

Eating white and blue belts alive has been a boon to my jiu jitsu. I’m bigger and stronger than most on the mats, but I’m also bigger and stronger than most in the bar, or on the streets. There aren’t any weight classes when the whistle blows and a fight is on. That said, roll with the biggest and strongest people who step on to the mats. Seek them out, even if it means dragging your 6’9 300lb buddy to class.

Keeping on-topic, I’m light-years better at moderating my effort in training rolls now vs. when I first started. I really only had one speed back then, which was trying like hell to somehow not get tapped and usually failing. Nowadays, my rolls with most blue and white belts (even the biggest guys) do not involve me using any energy that isn’t directed at a specific technique that’s addressing a specific condition that I’m dealing with. I don’t even use much pressure unless it’s someone I know is okay with it. I just try to advance to high mount and/or a back-take and work from there.

That takes some mat time to develop. It took me a year, but maybe it takes a smaller, weaker person longer. Maybe it doesn’t. You’ll know when you can do it. You can roll longer, for more rounds and with more people. You can manage the aggression and unpredictability of new white belts who think every roll is a UFC title match, and you can do it without compromising your body if you’re conscientious about how you move.

Of course, I’m still at the stage where I’m in survival mode with brown and black belts, which doesn’t feel a whole lot different than when I started. I do less stupid stuff, but still usually fail when I try to do what I think the right thing is. That said, jiu jitsu has become a lot more like cardio for me in the last year, even if I’m spending a lot of time in survival mode. I’m not moving in ways that are likely to lead to injury. I’m tapping well before there is any chance of orthopedic damage. I’m also riding most chokes out right to the edge, since the consequences there are negligible.

Mat time builds awareness all-around, and I think it is very important to train safely with a clear purpose no matter what you want to get out of jiu jitsu. I think almost everyone is going to have to put a certain amount of mat time in, but knowing how to move on your feet and on the ground without injuring yourself is a core element of self-defense. Your training partners have a say in what happens to your body too, but hopefully you are training in a gym that instills good habits in the student body. It needs to balance courtesy and good mat manners with a level of violence that’s appropriate for your training goals.

If not, change gyms and train with people who aren’t assholes and are of like mind. If that’s not an option, exercise self-defense 101 and decline to roll with anyone you don’t feel is safe to train with. Self-defense begins with standing up for yourself verbally, so don’t let any sort of social pressure put you into a dangerous situation.

That’s my $0.02 on the subject.


Not sure I can add much to what 2JS has said on the subject. I’m a BJJ white belt, but due to some prior background and physical attributes I can generally hang with a lot of purple and brown belts. That said, it’s generally a case of defending, escaping, establishing position and base, framing and then just shutting them down for 5 minutes to survive the roll. I don’t take a lot of risks and I don’t get to work on many details of my own tech. It’s just survival time, which has its value.

Compare this with when I roll with other white belts and generally I am able to start working through sequences, put myself in bad positions deliberately then escape, relax and focus on details and try different passes and submissions. I feel I get way more out of this than I do from surviving for 5 minutes against a killer. It’s like batting practice in baseball. Definitely should be the base of your training.

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If we can all agree on the value of training with opponents you out-class from both a technical development standpoint and a health/longevity one, it brings up a question.

How do you get there?

Instructor: “Most of your training should be with people who are significantly lower skill than you”.

New white belt: “Okay coach!”

Instructor: “Hey, leave that child alone!”

I suppose everyone has a somewhat different path to getting to this point and it will all involve sticking it out and drinking from the fire hose for a period of time. Gym culture and people you have available to train with will play a role. You’re probably going to rumble with some crazy white belts, some blood-thirsty blue belts and all sorts of other personalities, but you can still control your mat experience to a degree.

One of the more valuable uses of training time for me was the tremendous opportunity to train with a very good brown belt once or twice a week at his home mats. In turn, he got a lot of value out of it for exactly the reason we’re discussing. His jam is self-defense and teaching self-defense, so what better way to build that than training with a guy like me, who was significantly bigger and stronger but who he out-classes by a large technical margin?

We’ve rolled together hundreds of times, and he’d usually work a specific sequence each day or sometimes over the span of days. He got really good at dealing with me and negating my attribute advantages, and I became very familiar with a lot of different lines of attack, both on the feet and on the ground.

From a safety/longevity point-of-view, I’m generally less worried about training with brown and above. As long as I do my part, I know I’ll be fine, even if they have a shin across my face.

In addition to the private or small-group instruction I’d get training with this guy, he also gifted me some of my most grueling rolls. He’s good enough where he can just let me work seemingly indefinitely, always dangling a carrot in front of me, giving me a door to walk through but never letting me finish a submission or hold a position any longer than he wanted me to. The rule was as long as I advanced or escaped correctly, he’d give me the position, but he’d always bump me back down after a little bit. He’d eventually let me get a submission after I’ve climbed the ladder for the umpteenth time. Some of these would go on for 10 or 15 minutes. Non-stop work, but tremendous value because you’re being kept honest about your technique and you’re also doing it in complete safety under the guidance of a high level guy who is giving you organized technical resistance but still letting you work. It’s also a great way to work in a fatigued state.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have access to people who can or will do that, but I was.

We’d usually finish the night with a roll like that. It was probably my most valuable form of live training overall, and I had access to it because that instructor saw the value in having a big strong goon who was fine with whatever he wanted to train (slaps, smothers, murder choke, pressure, shins across the face, neck cranks, leg attacks, etc).

It’s not entirely unlike rough sex. Great when both people are in to it, but not so great when only one person is. Consent and trust are very important.

I suppose the topic’s take-away is that Jiu Jitsu is a violent Ponzi scheme. You need to keep bringing in new suckers to train with so you have a bigger population to strangle without much effort, and you get more and more benefit from that the further up the chain you go. I’m not quite at the Danaher-approved 80-90 percent mark, but I’m getting there.

To add to what you are saying, I think its important to incorporate the person who isn’t as necessarily skilled as you are in BJJ but who is aggressive and strong. Too often the the guy who is used to the song and dance of BJJ will tap early “oh well I see you had me…tap” whereas the guy who knows not the cadence yet, might struggle and slip out where others sort of submit into it out of habit.

In my time training I’ve seen all the different stereotypes of those who train - the die hard train 5-6 days a week guy can be any weight but usually max’s out around 175 - the strong but inexperienced ex football player , cop or bouncer who has fighting in mind, but not necessarily being great at BJJ and tend to be 200+ in weight - the complete hobbyist who is there for self defense and fitness - can be any weight, but not usually athletic or powerful - and the MMA guys who can be any weight, but often are running no-gi only, as its more specific to their immediate goal.

While a majority of BJJ trainees are hobbyists (even some hobbyists can be tough) you don’t have to pick the docile white belt who has no aggression in him what so ever. Don’t get me wrong, its great to train with the milder guys, mainly because you can implement moves but also show them the moves, helping them to understand - which in turn allows you to see a new perspective and understand it further. It’s also great to train with the larger more aggressive guy, with little technique.

Of course as a lower to mid level guy you’re going to get tapped out by a Black belt and he’s probably going to do it very swiftly and w.out a lot of pressure - quite simple for him to use your balance and weight against you, catching an arm/neck/leg and you’re tapping. But as you progress lets say to blue or purple, you need reminding of just how quickly you’ll need to react to an athletic, strong and usually younger guy who is set on mounting and punching you.

Its very common to allow oneself to get “lazy” when doing BJJ. We’ve all been there - you’ve just worked a 10 hour day, your kid kept you awake last night, you had a shitty lunch on the run and its easy to rest on your ass, pull a white belt into your guard and arm bar them. You’re there, you’re training and learning but you’re not really sweating. Turn around and the 25 y/o weight lifter who wrestled all through high school, slept 10 hours last night and has been resting all day for this hour of practice is on your ass. Luckily he is new, so you can control lots of his attacks with your BJJ basics, BUT you start to see his explosiveness and you start to feel your heart beating heavier at holding this guy in position. Long story short, this is realistic training.

Outside of just grappling I encourage anyone who is training BJJ and wants to be realistic, to incorporate strikes into their training. Not every day, but maybe once a week or at the least a couple times a month. I personally did much more MMA and submission wrestling than I did BJJ, but for sure once you can get punched, your BJJ game changes completely. This is where you realize that playing lazy guard, hanging out on your back, or ass scooting around nibbling on ankles, gets your head taken off. This is exactly what your BJJ instructor was talking about when he tells you that basics win fights - its the basic defense, escapes, reversals and controls that allow you to survive and mount your own attack - not the flavor of the week "brava brava bongo guard " or some other pure sport technique.

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I agree 100 percent.

These training scenarios more than anything are what have translated to staying calm and handling chippy bouncing encounters for me. None of the guys I’ve encountered whose thought process gets them to fighting a bouncer instead of leaving when asked were particularly good fighters. They can, however, be young, dumb, unpredictable, strong, aggressive and confident.

Great guys to roll with once you know how to ride the wave and stay in control. Pretty common to have a few of these in the white belt pool too. Maybe you’re ducking these guys at first if they’re really spazzy, uncontrolled on their feet or cranking on submissions, but great guys to make your stuff work on. I love a guy who fights like hell and doesn’t follow normal jiu jitsu behavior patterns.

I’d say it’s a relatively recent development, last 6 months or so, for me to go up to any white belt and be completely confident I can handle whatever they throw my way, keep myself safe no matter what and dominate them technically.

That said, my one serious mat injury came from a guy like this. Said he was a “Ninjitsu Black Belt”. Super-aggressive, pretty strong and had a head full of ideas he got on his way to becoming a master Ninja. I’m not sure if it’s because I was tapping him easily as a one-stripe white belt, but he kicked the side of my knee pretty brutally when presumably working a takedown, ended up being a meniscus tear. Healed fine on it’s own, but it sucked for a long time.

He never came back to class after that. I think he showed up three times in total, don’t think he liked the medicine he got.

I’m still awake and this is another subject I’ve been developing my own thoughts on. You and I are definitely of like mind when it comes to training.

I’m not so sure it’s a matter of skill when it comes to when you decide to tap, but one of awareness and gameness. I’ve had more experienced players tap really soon and I’ve had ones that refuse to give up and make me WORK for the submission, often times winning the battle. Same with lower belts, although I tend to win those battles. Speaking for myself, I ride chokes out until my world starts closing in. If I go out, I go out. No big deal because I trust the people I train with.

Arm attacks I’m pretty familiar with safe planes of movement, so I’ll fight the battle in those small spaces when I know I have room to maneuver, even if I’m in deep shit due to poor decision-making on my part. I don’t have that awareness and familiarity with leg attacks, so I tap pretty quickly once I feel like I’m in trouble. I’m definitely not faulting anyone who taps at any time for any reason, because I did it earlier in my training life and I still do it now with leg attacks. Tapping is a core element of keeping yourself safe during training.

I’ve been frustrating the black belt instructor at my sport school lately. He’s told me he is grateful for it and I’m sure he is, but I can still sense the frustration when I ride his chokes out to the edge and turn it into a battle for grip endurance on his part vs discomfort endurance on my part, along with the battle to escape and advance to a better position. Most of the people I train with there tap pretty early to chokes, and he is probably used to this behavior. I often get taps where I KNOW the choke isn’t in and I KNOW I have a lot more work left to do if I’m going to put the person out, but the tap comes so soon.

In a live roll this is part of self-defense and I don’t fault anyone for tapping early for whatever reason they have. Respecting the tap is a core part of consent and safe training in jiu jitsu, and I consider it sacred. Drilling, however, is another matter.

I’ve had several conversations with other students from white to blue belt where I explain that I’m not being a dick by not tapping, they just don’t have the choke or joint attack secured. I can’t control the feedback they are used to from other students when trying to do the thing, but it seems self-evident to me that I shouldn’t tap if the technique is not being performed in a way that will either de-range the joint or successfully choke me. I’m not one to coach on the mats beyond very general white belt advice, but I know when the blood supply to my brain is being cut-off and when it’s not. I think giving accurate feedback to your drilling partner is very important.

The last guy I really rumbled with as a bouncer rode out my standing rear naked choke, fighting like hell for the control of the non-choking arm and using his considerable strength to try to turn in to me. I had him gurgling and if I was better at grip-fighting I probably could have won the battle and ended it right there, but I opted to put him on the ground and work from there. The guy definitely had some level of grappling training, but it wasn’t anywhere close to mine and he was still a handful. He stopped me from choking him and made me go to plan B.

He put up more fight than most of the people at my school, and luckily I was ready for it. The fight ended with me in mount and him giving up, with neither of us injured beyond some scrapes and being banged up from two takedowns I did on him and me following to the ground without mats. He’d be a great guy to train with if he could shelve the asshole behavior that led to the two of us going at it. Definitely had a lot of gameness, even if he was fighting for the wrong reasons.

This is such a great game to play. I’ve only got two bouncing shifts left before I have to hang it up due to a change in day jobs, but I’m really glad I’ve had the opportunity to apply my mat lessons in uncontrolled circumstances. I’ll still probably pick a shift up here and there on the weekends, so who knows? Maybe I’ll be a brown belt some day and have an entirely new perspective on dealing with routine bar violence.

I used to bounce for years, so maybe that’s why I can see your POV pretty well. I also see that you’re training for something different than the hobbyist or the weight class fighter.

Back to your response about tapping. I know what you mean about some guys giving the tap and others not, but I still am leaning toward experience on this one though and I’ll explain why.

IMO - A black belt can pretty much feel your technique, they are familiar with the positioning of your hands as well as the evenly applied pressure of a good choke. I am not a black belt (if I kept my gi on I’d easily be a black belt …I think haha) but after grappling and wrestling for 20 years, I usually know that feeling as well.

Its important to distinguish the good paced roll, where you have the submission and one partner taps because you both know when you have it - and the contest or fight preparation roll, where you’re tired, tend toward sloppier technique, you’re sweaty and maybe have gloves on - you are not doing your partner a favor if you tap too early, so you want to hold out. Maybe his grip is weak in a certain area, maybe his grips are non existant when the Gi is off, maybe his arm is slightly positioned in an odd way etc. - all the boxes you check to get his/your choke or sub as close to perfect as possible.

IMO it depends on who you’re rolling with and the expectation of the training session as to whether or not you roll hard , tap hard or easy and so on.

*Related note - One of my old BJJ coaches rolled with Oleg Taktarov (old UFC original and Sambo player in case you’re a young buck) It was a competitive roll, no punching just ground grappling - anyways, he was a well known BJJ black belt and both were wearing a Gi.So the Brazilian had tried to choke Oleg every which way but loose and swore that this Russian must have gills, because he was damn sure he had each choke sunk in but it just never tapped the guy. I think he eventually he might have locked an arm or leg or it could have eventually been the rear naked , but every other choke he tried just didn’t work - benefit of a thick/short neck I guess.

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BTW - Does anyone still have a good stock pile of instructionals? I miss the good ole days where there were some sick Judo / Sambo / BJJ / MT instructional dumps laying around !

Great explanation!

I don’t have any old instructionals laying around, but the head instructor I spoke about in my first post put his entire basic curriculum online. You can try it for free for three days too. Out of all the schools I’ve trained with I like his approach best. The entire white belt curriculum is designed to prepare a new, untrained and unathletic student for violence as quickly as possible, operating under the assumption that most will likely quit. Lots of judo and wrestling is incorporated in addition to all the other stand-up work.

He is very passionate about preserving the combative aspects of jiu jitsu. He’s also producing very high-level sport grapplers among his more senior students. No world champions, but I think at least six people from his gym have competed at Fight2Win Pro events and done pretty well. Every person I’ve rolled with blue or higher at that gym has been a handful for me, and he’s got the only white belt who’s tapped me out in the last year.

Even if you don’t subscribe, it’s a neat browse to see how he has it structured. Some of the intro videos are unlocked too, so you can watch it if you don’t see the little lock. It’s a ton of content and he’s put a lot of work into it over the years.

Thanks for the link - Its always good to get new perspectives.

Check this…MMA Documentaries

The above link is only one page, and I cannot find it now, but there was a whopper here for a while, like several pages full of great downloadable stuff.

I think I had been a blue belt for maybe a year at that time and I remember logging in and being in awe at the free knowledge a few guys had placed up.
There were some cool Sambo vids, some no-gi tricky guard stuff, some kick boxing etc. Bad thing, was at that time I didn’t have external hard drives or any real way to download these videos as fast as they were being placed up.

All the links are broken! Such a shame!

Well yeah, the links are ancient haha…I’ll look in an old hard drive I have, if I find any good one’s I’ll share with you. Can we even still use MegaUpload or something similar?