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Self Defense vs. Sport Jiu Jitsu: Eli Knight Settles the Debate

Self Defense vs. Sport Jiu Jitsu: Eli Knight Settles the Debate


Depending on who you ask, Jiu Jitsu is a great way to stay active, promote health, learn self defense, or practice a sport. Each individual might give a different reason, or combination of reasons, for pursuing the path. As a result,The world of grappling is filled with many competing ideas about the true purpose and function of the art. Although there are undeniable commonalities between most styles of jiu jitsu, there is often conflict between the philosophies of different schools. Anyone who’s spent much time around the sport knows that there are some strong opinions when it comes to the purpose of jiu jitsu. Is Jiu Jitsu most effective when taught through the lens of self defense, or of sport? Eli Knight weighs in below:


In the video above, Knight breaks down the common arguments that both mindsets raise against the other and attempts to address them. He points out that a well trained grappler will make necessary adjustments and that drilling for sport and drilling for defense are both important to grow.

“Self Defense” Jiu Jitsu

Self defense is often seen as the primary reason for martial arts. Knight points out that a new person walking in off the street does so in order to learn some measure of protection against danger. In this respect, a self defense mindset is crucial. Learning to defend against attacks and control a situation is clearly a valuable skill. 

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Some schools that are focused heavily on self defense are quick to dismiss sport schools as an entirely different entity. They often jump to extremes when characterizing sport Jiu Jitsu by pointing to something way off the beaten path, like “reverse de la worm guard. They go to the furthest extreme,” Knight argues. In truth, the differences in style and mindset are more superficial than either side wants to admit.

“Sport” Jiu Jitsu

Sport Jiu Jitsu gets its name from competition, where the moves are hyper-specialized to a Jiu Jitsu framework. The implication here is that a sport school teaches techniques that would often not work in street situations. To be sure, you may find yourself particularly exposed to punches while you’re hanging out in X guard but, outside of combat Jiu Jitsu, that is not an issue in a sanctioned tournament.

When sport schools speak negatively about self defense styles, they often dismiss the hypothetical nature of the drilling. “What if the knife-attacker is left handed?!”. Some might argue, incorrectly, that all the sport stuff will work anywhere or is totally sufficient. In truth, both a sport and a self defense mindset are helpful and necessary. So what considerations do we need to take when entering a particular situation?

Sport vs. Self Defense: Situational Awareness

In his podcast interview, Eli Knight makes the recommendation that people build their situational awareness while drilling and sparring in Jiu Jitsu gyms. This is most easily achieved through MMA rounds, or sparring sessions with 4 or 16oz gloves to demonstrate where the punches can land. There are four important elements to consider when evaluating the efficacy of a technique as you learn it.


One of the most important considerations in evaluating the street-readiness of a technique is knowing where you are vulnerable. Spending enough time on the mat can make you forget that full guard is not that safe when punches are allowed. Open guard becomes a nightmare if the opponent can kick you. Developing a knowledge of where you can get hit while executing a move is crucial to understanding what will and won’t work on the street.


Another consideration for real-world applications of Jiu Jitsu moves is the surface on which you’re standing or wrestling. Knight uses the example of gravel vs. a mat, and it’s a good one for this thought experiment. Moves that require you to post or base with your head might be poor choices. A recognition of the ring you’ll be dancing in is an important part of determining what works outside the gym.


A third, closely related idea for understanding how grappling skills will translate to real fights is spacing. You may be fortunate to be in a wide, flat, open space when things go sideways; but you might not. Imagine trying any number of takedowns in the vicinity of a glass coffee table to imagine the catastrophic impact that environmental factors can play in a street situation. Large, kinetic motions have a high probability of injury when surrounding objects are taken into account.


Finally, someone who is considering the value of a new grappling maneuver for street defense needs to consider how vulnerable they are to a second attacker. Unfortunately, a sad fact of grappling is that multiple attackers are incredibly hard to deal with. That said, there are certain positions which allow you to maintain situational awareness and to move quickly for defensive reasons. Consider what you can see when you’ve got someone’s back versus a tight side control: the top position means you often can’t see what’s behind you. Avoiding positions where you can’t see what’s happening around you is key for street situations.

The Verdict: Everybody Wins

At the end of the day, Eli Knight settles the debate for us: there is no monopoly on Jiu Jitsu mindset. Both self defense and sport schools represent an important aspect and, as Knight says, it’s a bit “disrespectful” to the art to overlook one aspect or another. He points out that, in truth, most techniques are useful in most situations and that a well trained wrestler or black belt is going to adapt and survive on the street. The next time you find yourself in an argument over sport vs street, remember: Jiu Jitsu is a deep and beautiful practice; take a step back and consider it as a whole.

Who Is Eli Knight?

Eli Knight is a highly respected voice in the Jiu Jitsu community with a sterling reputation for his social media following, youtube channel, and instructional videos. While that all sounds quite modern, Eli Knight has an incredibly impressive pedigree. After receiving his blue belt from Helio Gracie himself, Knight has become a 2nd degree black belt under Royce Gracie, one of the most renown Jiu Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts competitors in history.

If you enjoyed Eli’s commentary on the mindset of Jiu Jitsu, check out his youtube channel and any of his awesome instructionals available on bjj including “Gi to Street Self-Defense”, “Jiu-Jitsu Based Self-Defense Solutions”, and “Kimuras for the Street”. In these videos, you’ll get tips on mastering the self-defense aspect of Jiu Jitsu from one of the most knowledgeable practitioners alive.



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