This article was written by 3rd-degree Roger Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt Nicolas Gregoriades.
I was recently in Tokyo filming the Soul of Jiu Jitsu, a short documentary about what I believe to be the essence of BJJ. The script called for some shots within a traditional Japanese temple. As luck would have it, one of my hosts in Japan has a jiu-jitsu student who is a bona fide zen monk, and he kindly offered to let me use his temple. In exchange, I offered him a complimentary private lesson. A recently graduated blue belt, he trains 10 times per week, which includes 8 regular classes and 2 private lessons. During the lesson, he had some technical questions, which I did my best to answer for him. After that, I suggested that we roll so that I could see and feel where he needed improvement. He came at me full speed and had some really flashy and interesting moves, including a wicked inverted guard and some slick reverse de la Riva stuff. I've been on the mats for nearly 20 years and yet a lot of the stuff he was attacking with I had never even seen before. But although I wasn't familiar with the techniques he was using, I never felt in any sort of danger. I simply waited for openings or mistakes and then used pressure (I admittedly had a size advantage) and basic submission to force him to make mistakes and give me a few easy taps. Later that week I sparred with a black belt at the same academy. He was exactly the same size and had a comparable physique. He also had a similar game and attacked me with an almost identical set of techniques. As with the monk, I expected another easy roll, but this time the match was surprisingly difficult and ended in a draw. The difference’s between the two fighters was like night and day. When I applied pressure to the one he crumbled, and yet the other was like a fortress. Although they were using the same attacks, I never felt in danger from the one and yet always felt vulnerable when rolling with the other. What were the real reasons for the discrepancy in ability between the two fighters, besides the obvious one of experience?
For most jiu-jitsu guys, you need to ‘earn the right’ to use the flashier techniques. How can you expect to submit someone when you don’t even know the basics of how to pass to side-mount, or how to keep them there when you do? A great example is 8th-degree red-and-white belt, Mauricio Gomes. I don’t think he even knows what a worm guard or a tornado guard even is. But I’ve seen him spar with 25-year-old, athletic blue belts who try to use these techniques on him and he simply passes and chokes with the same sequence almost every single time. He can do this because he has solid fundamentals!
The blue belt could attack, but when on the defensive it was not difficult for me to control and then submit him. With the black belt, any control I managed to get was really tough to hold on to and he knew the basic escapes and defences much better. This is closely related to fundamentals point above, as defensive techniques and concepts are nearly always fundamental in nature. You might have heard ‘attack is the best form of defence’. It doesn’t work that way in jiu-jitsu. Attacking often gives your opponent space which can quickly take you from the offensive role to the defensive one. But good defence tires out and frustrates your opponent and gives you attacking opportunities of your own.
After a 5 minute match, the blue belt’s chest was heaving and he was panting almost uncontrollably. But the black belt, although perspiring a little, looked relaxed and composed. Controlling your breathing is absolutely essential for good jiu-jitsu performance. It always astounds me how few jiu-jitsu guys understand this. Or perhaps most of them understand it but just ignore it. While jiu-jitsu breathing patterns is quite a broad topic, here are the basics: Try to keep your breathing as even and rhythmic as possible and try to breathe through your nose. Use your opponent’s breath to pace yours - make sure yours is always slower. Never hold your breath.
Even though I outweighed him by over 30lbs, his strength-to-weight ratio was so good that there was no way I could out-muscle him. As I mentioned in a previous article, strength plays a huge role in jiu-jitsu - the more you have the better. If you find yourself getting thrown around, hit the weight room or go rock-climbing. Or do both. While both had similar flexibility, the black belt’s other attributes were also much better. His balance was exceptional and he had more endurance. Interestingly, I found that it was the monk’s flexibility that was actually keeping him in the game during our match. If his other attributes had been higher he would have been much closer to the black belt in terms of performance.
The blue belt's attacks never really felt threatening, but whatever the black belt threw at me forced me to defend and broke my rhythm. As I mentioned earlier, these were the same attacks. The difference was timing. Whereas the blue belt was using effective moves, he almost always initiated them a little too early or too late, which meant I had time to counter them or I was already out of harm's way when they began. How do you improve timing? Repetition and practice. It would benefit the blue belt to take just one of those flashy sweeps and practice the hell out of it, instead of learning 10 of them half-heartedly. After our match, I paid close attention to how the black belt trained - it was no surprise to me to see that he did a lot of drilling and very specific sparring.
I strongly suggest that you do not build your jiu-jitsu foundation on techniques exclusively, especially not overly complex and esoteric ones. I’m always reminded of the biblical parable about ‘building your house on a rock’ instead of sand. When you build your jiu-jitsu around a set of flashy techniques, you literally are building your house on shifting sands. Why? Because those aspects of jiu-jitsu are always changing and evolving. Moves are replaced by newer, more effective ones or sometimes go out of style. Or perhaps a minor ruleset change might even make them prohibited. But the core principles and movements never go out of fashion and when you focus on them you are building jiu-jitsu house upon a rock-solid foundation. The Berimbolo can’t save you. And neither can the Tornado Guard, or the Worm guard or the inverted-reverse-dimension x-nipple-crippler. Or whatever the latest move of the month is. No technique can.