This article by 3rd-degree Roger Gracie Jiu Jitsu Black belt Nicolas Gregoriades was originally published in Jiu-Jitsu Style Magazine, and has been republished with their permission.
Now that Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the UFC have become global phenomena, I can't help but feel that the martial arts have lost a certain something.
For every humble and balanced Marcelo Garcia out there, there are a thousand guys in Affliction t-shirts training at 'Death-Kill MMA' or someplace similar.
A Change in Perspective
I've owned my share of Tap Out clothing and God only knows I've indulged the aggressive aspects of my nature on the mat, but at this point in my life jiu-jitsu is not about that anymore. One event, in particular, was responsible for a complete change in my comprehension. It was in early 2005 during my first trip to Brazil to train at the world-famous Gracie Barra headquarters in Barra da Tijuca, Rio. It was close to the end of an intense training session and after several tough matches in the humidity, the entire class was gassed. I was 26-years-old, a strong purple belt at the time, coursing with testosterone and ambition. Physically, I was not far off my prime. Add in a burning desire to reach the black belt and you had a recipe for a pretty tough grappler. I could give most black belts a run for their money and even beat a few of them. There was one more bout to go, and I looked around the mat for what I considered would be a 'light roll'. I noticed a guy who I had not yet sparred with. He was a black-belt, about 45 years old, and looked in reasonable (but not great) shape. I thought to myself 'Let me give this old dude a decent workout'. To my complete astonishment, the guy absolutely destroyed me. And the cool thing was the way he did it. With each movement, grip, and the counter was as clinical as a surgeon wielding a scalpel. He moved with a balance and grace I had not experienced on the mat before. Now it's one thing to be whipped by a 24-year-old, 100kg Roger Gracie. It's another thing entirely being crushed by a guy old enough to be your dad who looks like he's a dentist. As a consequence of that humbling experience, my understanding and perception of jiu-jitsu shifted forever. It was the start of a new attitude towards training that focused on what I now believe is the very essence of BJJ and combat sports.
The legendary Rickson Gracie epitomises the 'Essence' of Jiu-Jitsu.
Efficiency and Art
Jiu-Jitsu, like nature, is all about the conservation of energy. In jiu-jitsu 'efficiency' means using only as little strength and power as is required to accomplish your objectives. It means the economy of motion - eliminating wasted movements and effort. An incredible grappler once said to me 'You can always tell a good jiu-jitsu guy by the way he looks at the end of a hard roll. He'll be breathing through his nose.' This can never be achieved by someone who is haemorrhaging energy through sloppy technique. Efficiency allows you to train longer. Moving cleanly and efficiently is easy when all you're doing is hitting a bag or practising a kata against thin air. It's a little bit more challenging when you're wrestling against a motivated sparring partner. But ultimately it's very rewarding. The interesting thing is that the more efficient your grappling becomes, the better it starts to look. Once efficiency has been mastered, the next level of understanding jiu-jitsu is to see it as an art form. I'm not the toughest guy out. I'm not Roger Gracie. I haven't won any world championships. I don't have the flashiest techniques and I'm sure as hell not untappable. But I have an instinct for beautiful jiu-jitsu. This is my gift and my curse. I can see 'ideal' jiu-jitsu in my mind. I just can't do it yet. “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it” - Michelangelo Each of us has a perfect game. Although few of us will ever reach it, with every training session we move closer to it. Sometimes it may not seem so, but every roll and drill we do chips away a piece of the marble and moves the statue closer to completion. I don't care about winning competitions or stripes on my belt anymore. I'm not even concerned about submitting my opponents in training. I care about moving with grace and about making my jiu-jitsu as fluid and elegant as possible. I'm devoted to the very craft of it. The legendary Rickson Gracie said that it wasn't enough to beat your opponent, but that you had to make it look good too. I understand this now. The martial artist is no different from a writer or a painter. The very act of expressing himself through his art is his joy. You guys know this already - how cool does it feel inventing new and creative methods to escape, move and submit?
The Empty Jacket
Jiu-Jitsu translated from Japanese means 'yielding technique'. Knowing how to yield to an opponent's attacks and then use timing to subvert them is truly a thing of beauty. An old-school judoka once spoke to me of an experience training with a master. He said that it seemed like he was 'fighting an empty jacket'. He felt that all of his own movements were ineffective and awkward in comparison. Every time he initiated an attack he met nothing but empty space before being swiftly thrown. To me, this style is the most beautiful of all. Nothing satisfies me more than becoming the 'empty jacket' during my own jiu-jitsu experiences. Smashing guys in competition or grinding through somebody's guard doesn't interest me. Being able to move with such perfect coordination and balance that my opponent feels like I'm reading his mind is what I'm striving for. This allows me to focus on the process instead of the goal, which in turn brings me into the present moment, where my jiu-jitsu is always at its best.
Presence and Perception
Jiu-Jitsu, by its very nature, destroys delusion. The global début of the system in the first UFC was a great wake-up call to the martial arts world, showing what was real and what was not. If it weren't for jiu-jitsu, you might be training in Joe-Son-Do or trying to master the Dim-Mak. We all have our own mental filters which we impose on reality. With my life, I am always trying to clear these filters and see reality as clearly as possible. Jiu-Jitsu also helps me a lot with this. I have a tendency to get 'stuck in my head' and very often a good session on the mat is the only thing that can snap me out of it. I cannot be worried about my bank balance or an argument I had with a girlfriend while somebody is trying to strangle me. All of your rationalizations and delusions fall away when you're sparring with a good opponent. You cannot kid yourself. You cannot worry about the future or dwell on the past. You have to be completely in the moment. In fact, I have a theory that the best fighters are those who have the clearest perceptions of the situations and variables encountered, be they timing, pressure or technical opportunities. They are the people who are most able to be 'present' on the mat. Roger Gracie is an excellent example of this.
Life is Jiu-Jitsu
It's my belief that the highest level of jiu-jitsu is encountered off the mat. Life is just one big jiu-jitsu match. Perhaps the biggest gift I received from my involvement with the art is the ability to identify and apply this understanding. A favourite film of mine is 'Peaceful Warrior'. It's about an arrogant young gymnast, Dan, who struggles to overcome his fears and ego. He meets an old man named Socrates who becomes his mentor. In one scene, Socrates says to Dan 'Do you know what's the difference between me and you? You practise gymnastics, I practise everything!' Jiu-Jitsu taught me to practise everything. It showed me that there are superior ways to do just about anything in life, whether it be relating to people, walking up a flight of stairs or even just breathing. I move through the world in a completely different way now. I try to see everything as an opportunity to centre myself and apply leverage, just as if I were rolling on the mat. Most of us are never going to be mundial-winning superstars. But we can all ditch the Tap-Out t-shirts, focus on the moment and make our jiu-jitsu beautiful.