The BJJ System of Combat with John Danaher
We may have many personal reasons for practising jiu-jitsu, fitness, lifestyle, a social activity, or a sport, but the main attraction to and roots of BJJ is a system that an individual can use to protect themselves from attack.
Understanding the jiu-jitsu philosophy of combat gives us clarity on why we train the way we train and a means to assess whether or not we are meeting our own goals through training.
A core insight from the Godfather of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the Japanese Judoka Mitsuyo Maeda, is that there are distinct phases of combat. Long, medium, short range striking, vertical grappling and ground grappling are all different phases of combat, and different arts tend to specialise in different phases.
Maeda was pioneering in understanding that if a fighter could take an opponent outside of their range of advantage and into their area of weakness, this would be a force multiplier to one’s own victory.
The jiu-jitsu of Helio Gracie developed on this by stressing that we should train with the assumption that our opponent is bigger, stronger, and more athletic than we are. As John Danaher explains in the video below, this is the primary reason BJJ focuses on fighting on the ground.
Fighting on the ground begins to reduce the importance of size and strength and curtail the chaos of a standing physical confrontation.
John Danaher uses the analogy that in the same way a rancher would take a steer to the ground in order to safely brand it without being kicked, so a jiu-jitsu practitioner would take an opponent to the floor to minimise their offensive striking capabilities.
Simply going to the floor in itself however doesn’t entirely remove the threat of attacks, as while our opponent has their legs between their own and our own upper body they can either kick us or execute submission attacks against us.
Go Further, Faster with John Danaher!
It is for this reason traditional self-protection jiu-jitsu strongly emphasizes passing our opponents legs and imposing a controlling pin on our opponent.
In the video we see Gordon Ryan take the position of side control on Bernardo Faria. From the position of side control it can be difficult to both maintain control and strike our opponent if needed.
Gordon changes from here to knee on belly, which offers the distance needed to throw punches, but lacks the degree of control given by side control. It’s for this reason Gordon now switches to a mounted position on Bernardo, which gives both control and the distance to strike.
If Bernardo was untrained and responded to this situation by turning away from Gordon’s strikes then he would be leaving himself open both more strikes from Gordon and to attacks by strangulation, without the ability to attack back himself.
The points system of Brazilian jiu-jitsu reflects these different characteristics of pins as they pertain to full unarmed combat between two people.
Here John has outlined a four point system for the person on top to move from:
1. Taking an opponent to the ground
- Moving past their legs
- Gaining and maintaining controlling pins
Securing victory through striking, joint locks or strangulations.
As they say, the best restraint is unconsciousness.
But what about the person on the bottom of the fight? What if we were tackled and taken to the floor?
If the person on top is wanting to pass our legs then it stands to reason that the person on bottom wants to stop this from happening and to keep their legs in between themselves and their attacker.
If our attacker gets past our legs then our first priority is to get our legs back in between our upper body and the upper body of our attacker.
Once we have recovered our legs so that they are in between us and our attacker we can begin offensive action of either applying joint locks, applying strangulations, or reversing the situation so that we become the person on top of the fight. We can also create space and deploy up kicks, the efficacy of which Renzo Gracie clearly demonstrated in his fight against Oleg Taktarov.
The importance of the legs goes back to one of the core principles emphasised by Helio Gracie; that we assume our opponent is larger, stronger, and more athletic. It’s for this reason that we deploy our legs against their upper body and arms.
Once we understand this we can see that from being in the typically disadvantageous position of being on the bottom of the fight we can deploy either a two or a six step process to successfully defend ourselves.
The two step process is that;
- We are taken to the floor and retain our legs between ourselves and our opponent and
- We successfully apply a joint lock or strangulation to our opponent from underneath them.
The six step process is that;
- We are taken down and fail to retain our legs between ourselves and our opponent
- We escape our opponents top control and re-establish our legs between them and us
- We reverse the situation by sweeping our opponent and being in their guard
4 - 6. We now begin the same process for the top game of jiu-jitsu.
This outline by John gives us a very clear heuristic to understand what micro-goal we should be aiming for at any point during a combative exchange.
This heuristic from John also gives us a way of assessing what techniques we are learning and what purpose they serve, in either sportive or self-protection aspect of our training.
These kind of distinctions are crucial for us to learn as practitioners as we can’t always rely on individual training centers to teach them, as knowledge of this may be taken for granted.
To see John’s excellent tutorial on escapes check out ‘Pin Escapes & Turtle Escapes: BJJ Fundamentals - Go Further Faster by John Danaher’ here!
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