What is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?

Other 08 Dec 2013

If you’re reading this, it’s because you’ve got some sort of interest in understanding what Brazilian jiu jitsu is about. Of course, the best, and most beneficial way to understand the intricacies and sophistication of jiu jitsu is to practice it, but you can do (and gain) a lot by working on an appreciation, even outside of practice.

Why start now?

Taking the time to understand “the gentle art” is rewarding on multiple levels, but here are a few definite benefits…

  • Improved focus and concentration: Sedentary bodies are a problem, and so are sedentary minds. We live in a world of constant multi-tasking and over-entertainment…brain atrophy is unavoidable. Learning to watch and analyze the game of “physical chess” is a great way to incorporate a regular and engaging mental activity into your life. (It’s even more important for kids)

  • Understanding the BJJ addict in your life: You may be stepping into BJJ alone, but it’s likely that someone in your life trains…and competes…and talks…and talks. Developing an appreciation of the practice will not only turn listening sessions into genuine conversations, but you’ll also be able to enjoy watching the next Metamoris.

  • Dipping a toe in the water: Anyone who’s trained BJJ will tell you that it takes a while before you can watch a match and really know what’s going on. I know it was months into my training before I could watch a match with any decent level of comprehension. My progress would have undoubtedly been faster (and smoother), if I didn’t come in totally clueless about the difference between sweeps and submissions.  If you’re thinking of training one day, it’s a good way to whittle down a little of the intimidation factor.

What is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?

First off, it’s for everybody. Take a look at the video below, and note the wide range of ages and body types and that you see both men and women competing. These are intense competitors, but they’re also regular people

Now that you’ve had a preview, you should know that most BJJ that you’ll have access to watching is sport oriented, so the point of the exchange is to declare one of the participants a winner. If you’re familiar with combat sports, the different ways a person can win (by submission, points or judge’s decisions) won’t be too foreign. Different competitions (IBJJF, NAGA, FIVE, Grappler’s Quest, Metamoris, etc.) implement different combinations of those three criteria to decide who’s won a match. If combat sports are completely new to you, here’s a quick rundown.

  • Submission: BJJ is a grappling art based on chokes, joint locks and extensions to either end matches, or protect one’s self in a defense situation. When a person is caught in one of these and has decided they can’t get out without suffering damage, they signal that they give up, or “tap” by literally tapping on their opponent or the mat with a hand, foot, or sometimes even with vocal signals.
  • Points: Points are scored in matches by advancing position against an opponent. This can be done through sweeps, passes, attaining dominant positions (like mount or back mount) or even advantages. In competitions where both points and submissions are at play, a submission trumps any points scored.
  • Judges’ decision: Sometimes, especially in competitions that are purely submission based, judges are called upon to determine the winner of a match when no submission has occurred.


What you’ll see…

Jiu jitsu has earned the nickname “physical chess” for multiple reasons. One, I’m sure, is related to how mysterious (or admittedly, boring) it looks to people who aren’t familiar with what’s going on.

  • Gripping: …a whole lot of gripping and grabbing. Physically managing and limiting your opponent’s movement in BJJ is a must, so you’ll see two competitors jockeying for the best grips and holds early on, and throughout matches.
  • Mounts: The kings of control positions. They occur in full (straddling your opponent while they’re on their back) and back (basically becoming a human backpack) versions. Your opponent’s mobility is limited and you have a wide range of options for submissions.
  • Guards: There are many…full, open, spider, X, half…and then multiple variations on each-far too many to cover right off the bat. Not as advantageous as mounts, guards are basically offensive positions from which one player has more control than the other (true for all except 50/50, but that’s a discussion for later) and options to submit. The person who is “in the guard” (who has less control) is generally just looking to “pass the guard” (most simply explained as getting past and eliminating control of the legs) for the sake of getting out of danger of submissions and, if points are in play, scoring for the pass.
  • Sweeps: While BJJ (or jiu jitsu, Brazilian jiu jitsu, Gracie jiu jitsu…all generally the same thing) allows people to fight while on their backs (unlike wrestling), if a person is in someone’s guard (a top, non-mounted position) and is taken off that position by their opponent, that’s referred to as a “sweep”. You’ll see jiu jitsu players on the bottom playing with balance, body position and grips to get a sweep, which in turn scores them points and opens up more opportunities for control and coveted submissions.
  • Submissions: These are the chokes, joint locks and extensions we mentioned before that end matches. Armbars, Kimuras, leg locks wrist locks, lapel chokes…there are too many to name here, but you’ll learn to recognize them as you watch more matches and see people tapping out.


Let’s try a match…


In the video below, you’ll see the competitors talk a bit before they get going. This is important, not just because they explain a bit about their styles, goals and competition history, but also, because you get a chance to look at both players not dressed for competition. You’ll notice they both look and sound very “average”…an important point in BJJ because honestly, anyone can learn and even excel at this art. You’ll also see them playing a bit at the start of the match…a testament to the general good nature and relaxed atmosphere of jiu jitsu competitors, academies and the community in general.


Make sure to listen to the commentators. They’ll immediately point out how this particular competition (Metamoris) doesn’t use points and how that changes strategy. As you watch, don’t try to understand exactly what’s going on or worry if you don’t know what an Americana or omoplata is. Just watch for who looks like they’re in control and where each player is trying to go.


Now a slightly different one…

This is honestly one of my favorite matches to go back to. Not just because of the very different styles of the two competitors, or the palpable ebb and flow of intensity, but also because (spoiler alert) it ends in a draw—you won’t see any finished submissions and since, in the first Metamoris, there weren’t any judges or points, neither participant came out as the winner. This match goes the entire 20 minute limit, so it’s not easy to sit through for someone new to being a spectator of jiu jitsu, but get as far as you can. This was a hotly debated match and most people expected Andre Galvao to easily come out on top. You’ll see the match go from a brief standing exchange for control and then to the ground. Watch as they both make small adjustments to where their arms are, what they’re grabbing, where they’re putting their heads…all of that is where the beauty of jiu jitsu lives. You’ll also see about six and a half minutes in, that both participants decide to stand up and reset; something that is very common in matches.


Want to give it a shot yourself? Tell us a little bit about yourself, and we’ll set up a time to talk (or email). Thanks!

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