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Through a Beginner's Eyes - Foundation vs Advancement - Tom S.

As a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I often find myself explaining what BJJ is to people. The simple answer is that BJJ is a grappling system designed to use leverage on the ground as a means to defeat larger, stronger opponents. To the end of giving someone completely unfamiliar with BJJ an idea of what the art is about, this definition is useful.

However as I’ve (slowly) improved, that definition has become less and less useful. What constitutes a BJJ technique? What is the essential difference that separates BJJ and wrestling with submissions? And why is having a comprehensive definition important?

For me, the question around what is the essence of BJJ began after reading an article in which Rickson Gracie was critical of modern sport Jiu Jitsu rules. While I don’t consider the Gracie Family the arbiters of what BJJ is or is not, this stance on modern BJJ offers a glimpse into the fact that BJJ has changed from what many of its pioneers practiced. However, there is no argument that modern BJJ players are still incredibly skilled at grappling, and could apply common BJJ techniques as well as any who had come before them.

It seemed that Gracie’s gripe had more to do with the intentions underlying the actions of the competitors, as opposed to any technical deficiencies. Positions and tactics that he perceived as “stalling” or not “leading to submissions” were the crux of the issue.

This is critical, as it suggests the soul of BJJ may not be about any particular technique at all. Regardless of your opinion on Gracie’s comments, there is some attribute to positions such as Worm guard or Berimbolo that feels different in spirit to the knee-on-belly or half guard. To some, that spirit derives from application in Self Defense or MMA. However, if that is the criteria, why is X-Guard not typically included in the list of “stalling” or “non-foundational” techniques?

I believe that the distinction between these techniques comes down to two major factors; foundation and advancement. At the time that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a new entity separate from Judo or Japanese Jujitsu was being formed, it featured a few critical advancements in thinking on top of which technical innovations were made. The emphasis on leverage and being effective against larger and stronger opponents was one, and the requirement that fights primarily take place on the ground was another. These changes opened the door to reincarnate many mostly discarded Judo techniques, which gained newfound prominence in BJJ and were developed and fleshed out in ways they never had been before.

While it is difficult to find a BJJ technique that does not have roots in Judo, it is equally difficult to find any BJJ technique that was fully formed before the advent of BJJ. The new space created by the rules of BJJ allowed for experimentation and the implementation of the core elements that make grappling techniques effective. These techniques feel more “foundational” or “basic”, and perhaps that can be attributed to their Judo roots. A classic example of this style at its most refined is BJJ GOAT Roger Gracie.

Advancement, on the other hand, is the fickle force driving the machine inevitably forwards, for better or worse. It is natural that over time, as advancements are made, members of previous generations hold on to the knowledge they originally gained, and are slow and at times bitter of new generations and their experiments. A good example of this is the resentment some old-generation BJJ legends have for Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet system, although it has clearly been demonstrated to be effective (see Eddie Bravo Vs Royler Gracie Metamoris 3).

But for a simple beginner like me, what does all of this mean, and how is it useful? It is my opinion that BJJ, like any activity, comes with a certain degree of customization. Different personalities will gravitate towards different techniques, which over time will develop into different styles and strategies. To what degree you implement cutting-edge innovative techniques or the bare-bones foundation of BJJ is an individual decision, but it would be wise to consider that the original breakthroughs that make grappling techniques effective haven’t changed in hundreds of years, and that seeking techniques that build on those principles, instead of flamboyance or the ignorance of inexperienced practitioners, may contribute to better filtering of what knowledge you should invest your time in.

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