T Nation

The Value of Innovation in Grappling

I avoided getting into a Twitter back and forth about this topic last week. But it’s one that I think about more often than I should: whether or not modern jiu-jitsu is conceptually superior to “back in the day” traditional jiu-jitsu, and whether the fact that jiu-jitsu has increasingly evolved in opposition to itself (i.e. become a sport) has produced unforeseen, unfortunate outcomes. I was impressed by an old video of one of the earliest American jiu-jitsu black belts who pointed out that one of the reasons why guard playing has evolved the way it has simply has to do with the kind of mats that we train on these days compared to the surfaces of the 1970s and before.

So it was especially heartening to hear one of jiu-jitsu’s technical innovators make a point I’ve seen in others (Demian Maia, for example) and made a staple of my approach to jiu-jitsu.

Reddit AMA: What is something that you know now but you wish you had known when you started BJJ?

Ryan Hall: Most of the things that people spend their time on can be replaced with a way simpler, more direct, and more powerful answer. 3/4 of what people are doing with the guard could be replaced by “come up on a single leg and learn not to be terrible at it.”

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I wasn’t around “back in the day”, but I’ve heard a lot of Mat Tales in between rolls and after class.

My first instructor was fond of saying that Royce Gracie was able to win in the UFC with blue belt level Jiu Jitsu. This only made sense to me from the perspective that a blue belt from his instructor’s lineage could identify most of the techniques used and demonstrate them on the mats.

It seemed rather self-evident to me that his 2018 blue and purple belts who were struggling in a friendly roll with me as a new white belt would be unlikely to fare any better against 1994 Tank Abbot in a cage with no rules.

But yeah, it was blue belt Jiu Jitsu that won the first UFC…

Roger Gracie won several world championships using blue belt bjj.

I remember Mario Sperry saying there is no such thing as advanced or beginner techniques; there are only techniques that work or don’t work.

I think your comment illustrates what I’m talking about, and also shows how people might think of training under a different framework than what I’ve grown accustomed to.

Roger Gracie executes everything he does at a Roger Gracie level. A blue belt from [pick your school] could surely explain the macro movements being done by Roger Gracie, but there is not a blue belt on the planet who can replicate his execution or performance, let alone explain his movements on a micro level.

My first school had more of a tendency to tie certain moves to certain belt ranks, which can put the right context around a statement like “Royce Gracie won with techniques we expect blue belts to do” or a similar sentiment. The guy I train under now has a core curriculum that doesn’t change as you go up in belt ranks. A technique is either part of the curriculum (which makes it a training priority for all levels, but especially white and blue), or not. Off-curriculum exploration begins at purple belt. Hence there are no “levels” to a technique, only on or off-curriculum.

There are undeniable levels to the execution of a technique, and that’s what I’m getting at. I don’t believe we are living in an age where your typical in-shape blue belt could time-warp back to UFC 1 and win the whole thing.

Sport, on the other hand, is probably a night-and-day difference now vs. 20 years ago. I can’t really speak to that though. I’ve only done one competition!

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Given your ‘curriculum’ statement, I’d be interested to see how testing is done if certain techniques are not tied to certain levels. Seems like that could devolve very quickly into a more subjective (rather than objective) type of testing: ‘Well, he did all the moves correctly, but he wasn’t as smooth or quick as we like to see in our blues/purples/octarines’.

I attended the last black belt test and I’ve seen a few stripe tests online, so I’ll do my best to explain the basic idea. Again, I train under one of this school’s instructors on home mats, not at this school (except when I make the trip to drop in). I’m probably missing some details, but I get the gist of it.

At that school you test for stripes. White belt stripes are looking for technically-sound execution of the techniques on the curriculum.

You don’t test for blue belt. You get it after you’ve tested for all of your stripes and the instructor decides you’re a blue belt now. Some combination of proficiency on the mats, technical competency and whatever secret sauce they look for, seemingly weighted for age/sex and athletic ability/potential.

At blue you also test for stripes, but here the stripes are for varying degrees of technical responses of techniques that are on the curriculum. Give-and-take drills, complete sequences from takedown to finish and that sort of thing. In simple terms, it is navigating from position-to-position and building your conditional responses across the curriculum.

Then someone says you’re a purple belt.

Purple belt is where you repeat the same structure of the blue belt stripes, but with techniques that are NOT on the curriculum. They must be incorporated into your game and conditional responses and technical pathways built off of them. Doesn’t matter if you learn them in the gym, off of youtube, at another gym, wherever. The emphasis here is to push you away from the curriculum into whatever suits your game.

Then someone says you’re a brown belt.

Brown belt is where you repeat the same structure of the last two belt’s stripes, but with innovations you’ve developed that suit your own game. Brown belt is also where you must begin teaching. The stripes demonstrate the same conditional responses, if/then pathways and competence in navigating the landscape of your personal jiu jitsu game.

At all points from blue through brown you can and will be asked to demonstrate techniques from previous stripes, going all the way back to white belt 1. The idea is that you always revisit the curriculum as you progress. The techniques are that valuable and fundamental. You may have a purple belt Americana but a white belt kimura, after all.

Black belt IS tested, unlike the other belt promotions. I watched the last one and participated in the shark tank, and it was an incredible display of martial arts skill, endurance and toughness.

The first hour+ was a complete demonstration of the entire white belt curriculum. The next two hours took us through the blue, purple and brown belt curriculum, as demonstrated by the candidate being tested.

The final 45 min or so was a shark tank. Non-stop rolling with the entire room from white-to-black. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

My instructor is probably due to test for his sometime this year, assuming the whole virus thing blows over and people keep training.

That sounds pretty hardcore, the way it should be. I used to grapple (under various arts at various gyms), and have a very limited experience with TMA (aikido, approx. 3 mo). I’ve heard and seen a bit though, about how American (and Americanized) schools test versus how they tested in their home country. Also one of the arguments I’ve heard against having child/teen age black belts - you’re telling me a 15/16 year old has all the traits you mentioned above, making him (what is supposed to be) one of the top members of your gym? Come on. A few here and there, sure. But you walk into most commercial gyms with a kids program, and they will have a whole group of black belt kids. And in most cases, when they transition to the adult classes, they keep the same belt rather than take a ‘demotion’. Unreal.

Anyway, off rant, back on topic.