The evolution of jiu jitsu bjj submission grappling

As I approach my 20th year of submersion in the jiu jitsu lifestyle I find myself reflecting on how many things have changed in the grappling world. Sometimes I look at the art and it seems almost unrecognizable to the thing I dedicated myself to all those years ago.

When I started training, you wore a white or blue judo suit to train gi jiu jitsu, or a pair of boardshorts and old t-shirt to train no-gi. A couple of weeks ago I saw a kid step on the mats in, I swear, a rainbow-colored gi. Goddamn I’m getting old.

And talk about options. Back in the day you went to study jiu jitsu at a karate studio or YMCA. Or, if you were really lucky, a full-time BJJ academy. Nowadays you can learn pretty much any technique online and there are people who’ll take you on a jiu jitsu cruise to Mexico with a dozen Gracies. It literally blows my mind.

Everyone ‘Knows’

When I discuss this with my colleagues who’ve also been in the game for a long time we all agree that the sport’s new found popularity is a double-edged sword. It’s great to know that it’s reaching more people and touching lives, but back in the day it had a kind of ‘underground fight-club’ cool factor that isn’t really there anymore.

This shit would not have flown in Helio’s day….

Not that long ago it was difficult to find someone who even knew what jiu jitsu was, let alone people who actually trained. This is how a conversation about my work would go in 2001:

Stranger: What do you do?

Me:I teach martial arts.

Stranger: What kind of martial arts?

Me: It’s called ‘jiu jitsu’.

Stranger: Oh. Is it like Karate?

Me: No, it’s more like wrestling.

Stranger: Like WWF!

Me: No, more like judo.

Stranger: Wow! So you do like judo-chops and stuff?

Me: Nice meeting you. I have to leave now.

These days, even though it’s still relatively rare to find someone who actually trains, most people at least have an idea of what jiu jitsu is. Now when I’m asked about my career the conversation usually goes like this:

Stranger: What do you do?

Me: I teach martial arts.

Stranger: What kind of martial arts?

Me: Jiu Jitsu

Stranger: No way! My cousin trains UFC.

Me: Nice meeting you. I have to leave now.

Far Corners

Not only does everybody know about jiu jitsu, it’s also everywhere. Let’s use my home country of South Africa as an example. When I started training in 2000 there were no blue belts in the country, let alone black belts. I remember a purple belt visiting from the USA and it was like the second coming of Christ. People were losing their shit.

The few dozen people who trained there used to share old VHS cassettes of rudimentary instructionals by people who could barely speak english. Despite being a pretty isolated place, the country now has dozens of schools and several quality black belts.

You find some kind of training experience in even more remote places. Hell, in 2016 I was on a tiny island in the gulf of Thailand and I still managed to find an academy.

Professional Impact

I remember competing in the worlds when it was still held in Brazil. At the time it felt almost like I was at a high school basketball game. There were a few hundred people there and to say it was disorganized is being kind.

I recently attended one of the the IBJJF’s showpieces and I almost had to pinch myself.. These have become uber-professional events well-trained officials, major sponsors and exhibition stands. And there are now thousands of competitors and spectators.

As little as 15 years ago I was competing in tournaments in big cities like London that didn’t even have warm-up mats. The emergence of the various governing bodies and the codification of rulesets bought a level of safety and efficiency that was severely lacking. Most events run on time and feature medical staff. I often wonder if the white and blue belts entering their first tournaments know how good they have it.

A Rising Tide

With the advent of professional leagues and money trickling into the sport, we’ve seen the athletes start to train much more seriously with a focus on nutrition, conditioning and other sports science principles. The modern fighters are bigger, stronger, faster and more flexible. When I look at some of the new breed of young players I’m awe-struck by the things they can do.

And the older guys are better too. Things like HRT and intelligent training approaches have meant some of the more mature players are able to remain absolute beasts.


Open-minded instructors like Kit Dale are driving the evolution of the art

It seems, to me at least, that good purple belts of today are better than average black belts from 10 years ago. There are very few easy rolls anymore.

Technically there is much more depth than ever before. Not only are there counters and recounters to almost every technique, but there are now whole systems built around what were once isolated moves. The Kimura used to be a submission – now the Kimura-Trap is a whole freaking system.

And we are seeing a move away from the traditional positions like mount, back-control and closed guard. In many instances they are being replaced by esoteric variations like worm guard and ‘new’ positions like ashi-garami. Hell, just a few months ago I saw an amazing black belt win a big match by pulling side mount.

There has also been a shift from the traditional Takedown -> Position -> Submission to a much more dynamic and fluid style where in which the ‘position’ element is losing it’s importance. Now submissions can and do come from anywhere, and every part of the anatomy is under threat.

It used to be that you tried to finish your opponent with an attack on his neck, elbow or perhaps a basic leg attack. Anything beyond that was considered kind of hokey and low-percentage. Now people are making cranks, chokes, twisters, crushes and wrist-locks work from pretty much everywhere.

The Fusion Era

We’re now entering a phase where all the styles of grappling are beginning to merge. Wrestling, Gi Jiu JItsu, Submission Grappling and Sambo and catch-wrestling are all melding to become something greater than the sum of its parts. My friend Liam calls it ‘Neo Jiu Jitsu’ – a ‘styleless style’ characterized by well-roundedness and improvisation.

Progressive players like Kit Dale are pushing jiu jitsu to new levels by questioning everything and being brave enough to discard old paradigms. Using conceptual approaches to training and teaching means that the new generation of players are becoming more fluid and adaptable.

Everything moves more quickly in this fusion era. ‘New’ moves and strategies spring up, become popular and then fade out of the zeitgeist in record time. Remember the Berimbolo? Not too long ago there was a group of guys using it at every single gym I visited. Now I hardly ever see it anymore.

I’ve been around long enough to realize that the emergence of the sub-styles we see in the art cyclical is cyclical. I’m starting to see the turn of the wheel and recognize things coming back in favor for the second or even third time. Younger players might think that John Danaher invented leg-locks but it just ain’t so. There was a huge wave of (admittedly slightly less sophisticated) leg-lock knowledge that emerged in Japan in the early 2000’s. They’ll fall out of and regain favor again in time.

The Future

Change, although sometimes difficult, is almost always good.

Even though the growth of the sport has been tremendous, jiu jitsu is still relatively small and unknown. Unlike places like California where there’s practically a gym on every block, there are still parts of the world where black belts are hard to find.

I expect that the art will experience another massive growth spurt once it catches on in the populous developing countries of China and India. I also imagine that the martial arts traditions of those nations will in turn have their own effect on the evolution of grappling.

I remember visiting Italy once and playing soccer with some kids on the beach. I was an adult and they could not have been older than about 7, but they were already light years ahead of me. They grew up in a culture in which the sport is everywhere. Can you imagine a future in which BJJ or No-Gi is as widely respected as soccer or tennis? There is still so much room for growth, and it’s exiting to imagine just how incredible the grapplers of the future could be.