After several lengthy conversations with the coach and doing a fair amount of study on my own about where Brazilian jiu jitsu came from, where it’s been since then, and where it is now, I have come to the conclusion that there are currently three, distinct paths that the martial art takes. And, depending on your preference, you can explore all of them to the utmost of your abilities and willingness to do so.
While Bjj may have started out as a complete grappling or even self-defense system, it has—like every other martial art—evolved over time with the popularization of tournament-style fighting. Both strictly grappling tournaments as well as mixed martial arts (MMA) events such as the UFC and others like them have had their influence. The explosion of these sports in recent years has brought in to the world of martial arts—and specifically, in this case, Bjj—highly athletic and diverse competitors who have used their own creativity to adapt their strengths to their particular preferred method of grappling.
It is upon this premise that I base the idea that there have, out of this evolution, come three paths of Brazilian jiu jitsu. None are necessarily superior and all, while being somewhat unique, have their own merit and originate from the same place and have the same core, fundamental attributes.
Path number one: Sport Bjj
This is where you see the big names of Bjj. Andre Galvao. Xande Ribeiro. Marcelo Garcia. Roger Gracie. These are the names that essentially define the pinnacle of jiu jitsu in the modern age with both their training, technique, and the intensity with which they engage in the sport.
Sport Bjj is also the world of scoring points. This has both upsides and downs, of course—as most rule-based systems do. But it must be taken into consideration when viewing Brazilian jiu jitsu as a whole. Any system that awards points for certain moves will tend to drive people towards focusing their abilities on those particular moves. For example, if a takedown is worth fewer points than taking someone’s back, then it logically follows that most Bjj competitors will spend more time training to take their opponent’s back than they will on takedowns and takedown defense.
Again, this has its upsides and downsides. If Bjj competition did not incorporate points, the matches could last so long that very few people would watch the whole thing. For the sake of it being a sport—and all that sports entail—that would be a decidedly bad thing, so having a point system in that regard is very good for the sport. However, we must remember what Bjj truly is—a martial art. And any time we have rules that dictate combat simulation, our view of reality tends to be skewed toward that simulation rather than the real thing. This can ultimately be very limiting for the development of any martial art.
Path number two: MMA Bjj
If we are completely honest with ourselves, MMA is admittedly what brought Brazilian jiu jitsu into the mainstream. The Gracie family and the UFC made Bjj a household term and enabled hundreds of schools around the country to open and have a regular flow of students through their doors wanting to know how those average-sized Brazilian dudes did what they did.
But since that first UFC, grappling in mixed martial arts has evolved considerably. Cross-collar chokes are out for obvious reasons, nearly everyone can escape from mount (unlike 20 years ago), and pulling guard is not necessarily the best course of action with a guy who can maintain a solid base and still rain down punches from that position. Even the average MMA fighter has a solid enough ground game to avoid being caught with the techniques that helped Royce Gracie win the first few UFC events.
Like sport Bjj, the world of grappling in MMA has its positives and negatives due to this evolution and is also dictated by certain rules and a point system. But certain facts have made high-level sport Bjj practitioners realize that their skills are not nearly as dominate in the cage as they were on the mat. The advantages possessed by an Abu Dhabi champion over an average Brown or Black Belt while wearing a gi and scoring by IBJJF rules are greatly diminished when punches, kicks, knees, elbows, and Greco-Roman slams are involved. A Buchecha Almeida, for example, may be considerably better than Anderson Silva on the mat, but the difference in skill level isn’t enough to make a difference in 5:00 minute rounds with numerous other factors coming into play.
Path number three: Artistic Bjj
This could also be called “spiritual” or “surfing” Bjj—there is no defined or agreed upon terminology to describe a third path that most certainly exists and has its own place in the evolution of Brazilian jiu jitsu. The difficulty in figuring out a name for this path probably stems from the fact that it is also the most difficult to define in any agreeable sense.
As an example, I have come to the realization that when I step on to the mat, I would rather have a good roll that involves multiple, smooth transitions, a creative dynamic, and tap out to a submission than to go after someone with the sole intent of scoring points or choking them out. This style of Bjj relies much more on fluidity of movement and is more akin to surfing in a way than it is to that of a competition or active combat.
The same fundamentals apply, but in this path the most important things are not winning so much as they are growing through the experience and achieving a better understanding of one’s self than anything else. Where this path most differs from that of the others is in the area of intent and, as a result, the intensity with which one approaches the game. If points play no part in the activity, then the approach is decidedly different because it becomes all about “the roll.” This allows for a great deal of exploration and experimentation of techniques, given that ending up in a bad position is viewed as just another part of the experience and not necessarily a negative thing.
All three of these styles come from the same place and still employ many of the exact same techniques—a triangle choke is still a triangle choke, whether it be in tournament Bjj, MMA, or friendly rolling. But the objectives of the participants change dramatically and, as a result, so does their approach and mentality. The mindset of the individual—what the intent and focus is—creates a different dynamic the further down each of these paths one travels.
At no point should the argument be that there is no crossover—on the contrary, because each style stems from the same foundation, the base is always there and can still be applied on every path. For example, those like Jacare or Demian Maia started out in tournament-style Bjj and transitioned into MMA. Both serve as examples of competitors who worked hard to not just rely on their past style, but adapt it into a new one.
My guess is that in 10 or 15 years, these guys will be transitioning again into a much calmer world of “surfing” Bjj, much like the older generation of Black Belts has already done. The body, after all, can only take so much of the extreme training required to compete at the highest levels.
There is a time and place for every style. That is what makes Brazilian jiu jitsu such an amazing martial art—it has evolved, is evolving, and will continue to evolve. This is not a bad thing, and it should be embraced.