Is BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) good for 

street self defence?

 

Firstly, for those who don’t know what BJJ is, please do have a quick read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_Jiu-Jitsu

While this article as largely aimed at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, its content is equally applicable to any fighting system that advocates submission grappling on the ground as a means of self defence. My reason for making reference to BJJ is simply because it is the most popular of such fighting systems.

Inevitably I will upset some people with the following article, although this is not my intention. If you read it thoroughly, you will find that I have much respect for BJJ for its various qualities and give it credit where it’s due.

I don’t claim to be a complete expert on BJJ but I feel I’ve had enough experience with it to make the claims that I do and am confident that I have simply followed commonsensical thinking to reach my conclusions.

Ultimately, the main reason for writing this is because my students ask me my opinion on the grappling arts so often. Having this all written up is just more convenient than repeating myself every week!

 

Gracie/Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was born on the streets of Brazil

This argument essentially states that because the late Helio Gracie tested his submission fighting skills (which were amazing by the way) on the streets, beaches and gyms of Brazil, BJJ is inherently street-oriented. What must be noted here though, is that while the environment of these fights was indeed ‘street’, the tactical dynamics of the fights themselves were still sport-based and ‘dueling’ in nature – ‘vale tudo’. That is to say; generally pre-arranged and against one opponent.

Whether it takes place in a ring, on a mat, on the street, on a beach or even the school playground… a match-fight is a match-fight. And match-fighting isn’t self defence. When two people square up to each other and battle it out, it generally means both have chosen to engage in the fight. This is far removed from being ambushed and therefore forced to fight back. Simply put, it’s not true self defence if the fight didn’t have to happen.


Most fights end up on the ground

There is a very popular quote that is often used by martial arts and self protection instructors/practitioners to justify training in ground submission fighting that goes “xx% of street fights end up on the ground”. The ‘xx’ is used in place of actual numbers because this figure changes depending on who you talk to. Apparently, it’s a ‘fact’ because some police study somewhere concluded so. Personally, I’ve never come across this often-talked-about study and certainly don’t know what the true percentage is. Either way, I will agree that MANY fights end up in clinching/grappling and often on the floor.

But what does this mean? What does one do with this information when putting together a self defence system? Consider that to become tied up with one person, whether standing or grounded leaves you incredibly vulnerable to being attacked from one of your ‘flanks’ by a second attacker. And with this in mind, the fact that most people will want to grapple with me in some way tells me that I should be training in ways to prevent this from happening, and methods of disengaging if it does happen.

Just because somebody grabs and grapples you, doesn’t mean you have to do the same back to them. When defending yourself, you are allowed to HIT people who are grappling you. I emphasize striking because it allows you to be more mobile and therefore in a better position to escape the chaos of a multiple attacker situation, whereas grappling one person (because you really can only grapple ONE person at any given moment in a fight) literally anchors you to the situation.


 

Submission fighting is a support system to fall back on… 

just in case striking fails

Having a fail-safe is always a good idea, in any context. However, what you use as the fail-safe has to be considered carefully.

Many public buildings have an emergency power system in the event of a power cut. Generally what happens is that as the power goes out, smaller lights (powered by a cellular power source) will automatically come on so that the building isn’t plunged into darkness. Or in some cases, the cellular power source will re-power the same lights that ‘blacked out’.

Armed operators (SWAT, special forces, close protection units etc) will often have a primary and secondary weapon. The primary will often be a rifle, carbine or submachine gun – accurate, high rate of fire, large magazine capacity and often a large caliber of ammunition. In the event that this primary weapon malfunctions or runs out of ammunition mid-fight (while still facing a threat), the operator is trained to respond by abandoning the primary weapon (rather than waste time clearing the stoppage or putting in a fresh mag) and instantly drawing their secondary weapon. This weapon will generally be a semi-auto pistol - less accurate, slower rate of fire, smaller magazine capacity and small-caliber, but… still a firearm. Similarly, the emergency lighting in buildings… are still lights! 

 I could of course give more examples, but the point is, if a particular strike is proving ineffective, it makes sense to simply use a different one (!) or manage the position to facilitate that strike better (note that this could mean ‘grappling’ to get a better position – but only to continue striking and NOT to ‘submit’ the attacker).

And as for the idea that striking as a tactic can completely fail and be replaced by joint-lock submissions mid-fight; I’d be very interested in being shown a human being who can receive multiple concussive blows to the head unharmed but can be incapacitated by having his extremities twisted into awkward positions.

 

You need to know how to grapple on the ground so you can escape the ground fight and/or prevent being taken there

Of all the arguments for BJJ being street-effective, this is the one that comes closest to something I agree with. To elaborate, ‘grappling’ can simply mean fighting for a position using pushing or pulling motions against the opponent. And within my own system, this is all grappling means. And so with this in mind I have no problem with certain drills that isolate particular positional skills. Consider the simple exercise of having two students start off from a grounded position, with one having the task of keeping the other on the floor while the student being trained tries to grapple their way to their feet or an ‘on top’ position. At a glance this looks very jiu jitsu-esque. But its sole purpose is simply to isolate the ability to gain a position from which to fire off effective strikes.

‘Submissions’ on the other hand, do not feature on my list of high-force self protection techniques. To clarify, by submissions I mean techniques that cause an opponent to give up the fight by causing pain or discomfort in a position from which they cannot escape. Followed through, the submission will result in the breaking or hyperextension of a skeletal joint or unconsciousness due to cerebral hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain).

Considering that submissions can only be applied by the extensive grabbing and holding-onto of an opponent, this method of fighting is instantly tactically flawed for high-risk self defence training. Putting yourself into a position from which you cannot defend against assault from secondary attackers is not something I recommend. While it is true that a highly skilled practitioner of submission fighting can apply a hold/break very quickly against an unskilled (in grappling) attacker, and can therefore in theory disengage when the need arises, this is ultimately based on a gamble. You COULD chance your hand at submitting opponent #1 on the hope that you can disengage before opponent #2 starts to seriously hurt you (good luck with that by the way) but if opponent #1 manages to resist your attempt at breaking his arm/leg etc and keeps you tied up while his buddies come to help him out… the consequences could be fatal. Striking on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem.



Bear in mind that just because an attacker appears to be by himself, doesn’t mean that he is. And besides, it’s really not uncommon to see complete strangers try to get some kicks in when two people are fighting on the ground. Crazy, I know, but it happens quite a lot (especially when all parties involved are drunk).

 

If a BJJ guy gets you in a triangle choke / kimura / arm-bar… 

you’re finished


A strange thing often happens when you ask some grapplers if their art is indeed good for self defence training; they sometimes respond with an answer to a completely different question. By this I mean that some people often get confused between an individual’s ability and a martial art system’s applicability to realistic self defence.

The difference between having no skill/familiarity with fighting on the ground and having only a few months of high quality training in BJJ is immense. This cannot be argued. Therefore a good BJJ white belt will have little trouble submitting an untrained person on the ground; even a slightly bigger/stronger opponent (providing he doesn’t have his friends with him). However, this should not be used to answer the question “Is BJJ training good for street self defence?” – the answer to which is ultimately ‘no’. Why not? Consider the following aspects of classic BJJ training:


- Soft mats covering the floor

- Barefoot training

- Uniforms that provide grabbing points that are not always present on modern clothing

- No incentive to get back to your feet when sparring on the ground

- A guarantee of only having one opponent to fight

- Rounds that last for several minutes


I feel these points generally speak for themselves and so will not elaborate on each of them. The general conclusion is however, that the training environment and training model do not lend themselves well to real life-and-death violence.

One point, however….

While it could be argued that the BJJ guy will of course get back to his feet ASAP when in a ‘live’ situation, it must be understood that he will generally do in spite of his training and not because of it. BJJ and related arts certainly do have techniques for getting back to one’s feet – but they aren’t stressed when sparring/under pressure (when it counts). And so it is in fact the situation that FORCES the practitioner to get back up; because a second attacker is running at him for example.

 

The attraction

Undeniably, BJJ is hugely popular in the martial arts and self defence world. And there is no smoke without fire, so to speak, so it must have qualities that people like. At this point, haters of BJJ will often attempt to degrade it by arguing that if any art received the amount of publicity BJJ has had, it too would be equally as popular. Personally I disagree and attribute BJJ’s success in this ‘business’ to very real qualities that the art itself possesses. These qualities however, do not make it self defence!

The student’s progress in skill is very measurable – they can tell by how often they are able to submit an opponent vs. how often they are ‘tapped out’ and the grading system is based on real ability and is unforgiving towards those who cannot meet the challenge. For competitive people, BJJ is a dream come true. There is no theory in how good somebody is – everything can be verified by rolling with a challenger.

It sort of looks and feels like real fighting – except that the risk of serious injury or death is very, very small. Compare this to the training we do in my own class – there is no way to TRULY test your skills in a true reality-based fighting system (unless all parties agree that they may get seriously banged up). For many people, knowing that they are increasing their survivability of a serious assault is far less satisfying than knowing they can tap out Jonny the purple-belt. It’s simply not as tangible.

It’s a great workout! Simple as that. Without going into the specifics of what athletic attributes BJJ produces, it certainly ticks quite a few boxes with regards to all round fitness. But not all boxes, it should be noted, especially with regards to getting fit for unarmed combat. And the Gracie family, specifically, certainly seems to be very clued up about healthy living and regularly share this info with their students. I personally used a baby yoga method on my daughter that I picked up from a video of Rorion Gracie.

It’s fun. If the instructor is good and has his ego in check, the type of students he will attract will generally be the same, making for a very fun and friendly atmosphere to train in.

It makes for an effective – if over-elaborate – low force system. Think of those scenarios where a physical response may be required but not one that causes serious injury. If Uncle Jim has had too much to drink at the family reunion and starts getting out of hand, having a means of subduing him without hurting him is a good thing. I should state however that this is more of a byproduct of BJJ training, and I don’t feel that you need an extensive range of submission techniques for this purpose.

 

So to conclude, while I certainly see merit in training in BJJ for several reasons, becoming combat-ready for real violence on the street is not one of them. And I think it’s about time this myth was dispelled. And to clarify my main points:

- Submissions are not necessary for - and indeed dilute the effectiveness of - self defence training

- Match fighting / dueling is not self defence

 Lastly, I’d like to point out that I’ve been an informal student/dabbler in BJJ for several years and will be for the foreseeable future – if only for the exercise and for fun. I’m the proud owner of a gi and I’m perfectly happy with the white belt that came with it staying that colour! I have trouble submitting anybody but the complete beginners, but that’s fine.

 

Sharif Haque

NorthLondonSelfDefence.co.uk

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This is a great example of exactly when/where BJJ does work for self defence - LOW threat scenarios where restraining is the appropriate level of force over striking and where there is only one threat. Plenty of other stuff to observe in this video too - such as the level-headedness required for dealing with such people, as opposed to the 'tactical overreaction' that many advocate. 


You’ll notice that I’ve made several references to ‘good’ BJJ throughout this article. If you’re interested in training (for the right reasons) in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the North London area, then I can recommend nobody as highly as Eddie Kone in Tottenham, North London. 


10 points if you can spot me in the vid. 

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