A lot of Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s explosive growth over the last 20 years can be attributed to Royce Gracie’s wins in the first few Ultimate Fighting Championships. Years ago, when I was a blue belt, I remember watching matches in the UFC and getting really frustrated, thinking to myself, ‘That guy’s right open, just arm-bar him!” Now that I’ve competed in MMA matches myself, I realize that the sport is very, very different from jiu-jitsu. It is my hope that through this article individuals who are considering competing in MMA gain some insight into the differences between the two disciplines and can subsequently make informed decisions about their training.
The Early Advantage.
Although today Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a mainstream martial art, it hasn’t always been that way. Prior to the first UFC in 1993 not many people had heard of it. Royce Gracie won a lot of his early matches simply because his strategy and techniques were so completely foreign to his opponents that they had no way to deal with them. They didn’t know how to defend against an arm-lock from the guard because they’d never even seen the guard position, let alone an arm-lock.
Today this advantage doesn’t exist anymore. Although the techniques are still dangerous and effective, most fighters today know how to defend against these attacks and exploit their weaknesses.
BJJ is not magic. I love the art but I’m not a zealot. We have to be realistic about what is and what isn’t. I always laugh when individuals make statements like ‘Jiu-Jitsu was made for mma’. Mma in its current form did not even exist when jiu-jitsu was invented. MMA is a young sport and it’s evolving incredibly quickly. The difference in the quality of the competitors and matches is massive when compared to even five years ago. What was originally a mixture of boxing, wrestling, muay thai and BJJ has become greater than the sum of its parts and is now a complete martial art in its own right.
And BJJ itself has also changed. Sport Jiu-Jitsu in the form in which it’s practiced in most academies today is evolving into something that’s become more and more removed from the brutal hand-to-hand combat that is modern MMA. Originally, jiu-jitsu was created to allow a smaller, weaker individual to defend himself against a larger aggressor using the elements of tactical awareness and knowledge of technique and leverage. This would allow the slightly-built Buddhist monk to defend himself against an untrained thug who outweighed him by 20 or 30 pounds.
But countering a clumsy swing from an unskilled individual is very different from trying to control and submit an all-american wrestler who trains in boxing and muay thai, lifts weights and injects himself with growth hormone five times per week. All other things being equal, in an MMA match I’d put my money on a guy who’s done 2 years of bjj, 2 years of boxing and 2 years of wrestling over a straight jiu-jitsu black-belt any day of the week.
Rorion Gracie used to tout the statistic ‘90 percent of fights end the ground.’ That may be true, but I’ve got news for you – 100 percent of fights start standing up. If you’ve never been punched in the face, you have no business doing MMA. The late Carlson Gracie said “Punch a black belt in the face, he becomes a brown belt. Punch him again, purple…” While I don’t completely agree with his sentiment, I think he does have a point. Being hit contracts your awareness in a big way. Try to pull off your reverse-spider-inverted-De la Riva sweep while somebody is raining hammer-fists down on the bridge of your nose and let me know how that works out for you.
Of all the martial arts styles, jiu jitsu is the only one in which a practitioner can be dangerous from lying on his back. In sport jiu-jitsu, 60-70% percent of the engagement takes place in the guard, so jiu-jitsu guys naturally become good at working from this position.
There are two reasons this is not good for fighting in the cage. Firstly, in MMA far less time is spent in the guard, so devoting the bulk of your training time to this position is counterproductive. In the jiu-jitsu academy you are able to stall, look for grips and wait for submission or sweep openings while on your back, but in mixed martial arts the referee will stand both fighters up very quickly if the match even looks stale. Secondly, the guard is nowhere near as effective in MMA. It’s one thing to try to sweep a training partner while you are both wearing gis and having a friendly grappling match. It’s another thing entirely to try to do it on somebody who’s sweating and raining strikes down on your face.
The cage can also neutralize the guard by restricting the bottom fighter’s ability to swing his hips into place for submissions and sweeps. I have no doubt that BJ Penn is a far more technical fighter than Jon Fitch, and yet I watched Fitch absolutely destroy him at the UFC in Sydney using the cage to close down his guard.
The primary strategy in BJJ is to get the opponent to the ground where we can use the floor to maneuver into an advantageous position. And yet strangely, takedowns are relatively under-trained in BJJ. How often do you practice sparring from standing at your academy? I realized that takedowns and throws were the most neglected part of my grappling game after I starting doing some full-contact sparring from standing a couple of years back.
In Jiu-jitsu, both opponents’ want the fight to take place on the ground. In MMA this is rarely the case. More often than not, at least one of the combatants will be a striking specialist, and will do everything that he can to stay on his feet. It’s hard enough trying to take down a fellow BJJ player in a competition, when he wants to fight on the ground. Doing it against a world-class thai-boxer who can knee you in the head as you shoot for his legs, or a wrestler who has a base like a tank is even more difficult.
It’s pretty obvious that training in a gi is very different from training without one. I cover this in a dedicated article that you can read here.
Adapting BJJ for MMA
If you want to train BJJ for MMA, I would suggest you do the following:
1. Learn to strike
You don’t need to be a world-class striker but you will need to have a basic knowledge of either boxing or muay thai. Pay particular attention to the defensive aspects such as footwork and head movement. Most importantly, learn and understand what it takes to close the distance when you are in striking range.
2. Fight from the top
Do not, under any circumstances try to plan your strategy around pulling guard. Your goal during all your training should be to get to mount, side mount or the back. Guard is only your back up plan. Practicing agility and movement drills will help you end up on top after scrambles
3. Master at least two takedowns
Drill these to a high level of proficiency, and practice setting them up with strikes.
4. Focus on simple, high percentage submissions
Guillotines, Rear naked chokes, knee-bars and Kimuras are all good examples.
Jiu Jitsu still has a place in the cage
After reading this article people may be inclined to think I don’t believe that jiu-jitsu is effective in MMA, and this couldn’t be further from the truth. BJJ is essential in MMA. There very few successful MMA fighters today who aren’t well-versed in both striking and grappling, and their number dwindles every year. There are still BJJ standouts (see my instructor Roger Gracie) who possess a mixture of both great attributes and extraordinary technique that allow them to stick to their art, but even they are taking cross-training more seriously, practicing and adding other disciplines to their repertoires.