An insight into Brazil’s legendary grappling art and some of its techniques. BJJ-curious? Start here!
Table of Contents
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (aka BJJ), is a self-defense martial art and combat sport. It is heavily based on grappling, ground fighting and submission holds.
The art has its origins in both Japanese Judo and Jujitsu. However, these teachings were adapted and modified by the Gracie family of Brazil. The Gracie brothers were skilled Judoka and experienced street fighters teaching in Rio De Janerio. They added many elements from their experiences and observations to Brazilian Judo. This eventually led to the Brazilian art branching off from the original Japanese teachings to become BJJ. The Brazilian offshoot became a unique grappling style in its own right, famous throughout the world.
The new art that sprung from the Gracie modifications differs from its Japanese predecessors in a number of ways. BJJ is primarily a ground-fighting martial art with a focus on bringing a fight to the floor quickly. From the floor, skillful grappling techniques are employed to overcome opponents. BJJ emphasizes using leverage, weight distribution, and technique to control an opponent. This control allows users to gain a dominant position in any ground battle. A number of techniques can then be used to force opponents into submission via joint locks or chokeholds. BJJ prides itself as a ‘gentle art’ that allows a smaller, weaker person to use leverage and submissions (chokes, locks) to overcome bigger opponents.
Royce Gracie dominated against other fighting disciplines in early UFC tournaments. Demonstrating to the world the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The popularity of BJJ has seen a steady rise over the years. This has largely been thanks to the popularity of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) competitions such as the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).
It was after a series of performances from Royce Gracie in early UFC events that BJJ became highly renowned worldwide. It was at these early events where Gracie demonstrated Jiu Jitsu’s efficiency and effectiveness. He did this by defeating opponents from various backgrounds and martial disciplines (such as Wrestling, Boxing, Karate, and Kickboxing). His opponents were often much larger than him and had a significant weight and muscular advantage. At the time of the tournaments, Royce weighed just 170-pounds! Another factor to consider was that early UFC was very much a no-holds-barred style tournament with very few rules. Despite these obstacles, Royce went on to win three of the first four UFC Championship Tournaments. His victories put BBJ on the map and established the discipline as a legitimate power in the Martial Arts world.
BJJ continues to grow and evolve to this day and is practiced worldwide with many schools and institutes. It is considered a martial art, a sport, a method of promoting physical fitness and building character, and a way of life.
Overview on BJJ’s Fighting Style
Emphasis on Ground Fighting
BJJ is mainly differentiated from other martial arts by its greater emphasis on ground fighting. Many striking-based martial arts place very little emphasis on groundwork. Conversely, BJJ places little emphasis on standing techniques, such as striking and throws. However, it employs some basic takedowns, such as single and double leg takedowns. Due to these limitations, many BJJ practitioners cross-train with wrestling, judo, and sambo schools.
BJJ practitioners, very very comfortable fighting on the ground.
As well as takedowns, takedown defense and ground control BJJ utilizes submissions. Submissions refer to holds that either cut off an opponent’s air supply (chokes) or look to take advantage of a joint (such as leglocks or armbars).
Neutralizing Strength Advantages
One of the Gracie brothers (Helio Gracie) was considerably smaller than the others. He had great difficulty using traditional Judo methods against his stronger, heavier brothers. Helio began experimenting with techniques that used an opponent’s strength against them in a battle. Using leverage and technique allowed him to compensate against stronger opponents and neutralize their natural advantages. It was primarily Helio’s modifications that eventually led to the stylistic split with Japanese Judo. Today it is not unusual in a BJJ class for a heavier, stronger student to be schooled by a lighter, more advanced fighter.
One of the key focuses of BJJ is on bringing an opponent to the ground. Using effective BJJ techniques, physical strength or size advantages can then be neutralized and overcome. Once the fight hits the floor, ground fighting techniques such as submission holds (joint-locks and chokeholds) can then be employed.
When BJJ opponents compete, a kind of back and forth ensues, as each tries to gain positional superiority. One BJJ fighter will inevitably end up in the ‘top’ position and the other in the ‘bottom’ position. From here, there are various positions the fighters can take, some more valuable than others. For example, ‘guard’ position is considered good for both top and bottom practitioners offering good options for attack and defense. Alternatively, a ‘full-mount’ position is great for an opponent on top but very bad for a bottom opponent. Throughout a battle, opponents will make maneuvers and counter maneuvers. The practitioners will transition from one position to another trying to gain the upper hand on their opponent. They will move a shoulder, grab a leg, anything that could potentially help them transition into an advantageous position. (For more on positions in BJJ see below).
A grounded opponent will move to block that transition, or attempt a counter manoeuvre to give them an advantage. If a successful hold or submission is achieved and the opponent cannot counter the hold they are left with no choice but to submit. A fight in BJJ can end in a submission once a fighter ‘taps out’ to signal their submission. A fight can also end if the fighter is ‘choked out’ (loses consciousness to a hold that cuts off the blood supply to the brain). An example of this type of maneuver would be a rear-naked chokehold.
Achieving a dominant position on the ground is a major factor in BJJ. In a normal fight if you were on the ground and someone was on top of you then this would be very bad. Not quite the case with BJJ, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Being on your back with your opponent lying over you is known as the ‘guard’ position (See Guards below). The effective use of the ‘guard’ position provides a BJJ practitioner with a range of options. From the bottom position the BJJ user can utilize both submissions and sweeps, to help them achieve a more dominant position.
There is also what is known in BJJ circles as ‘passing the guard’. This is what an attacking opponent has to achieve to a grounded opponent who is in ‘guard’. Passing the guard is essentially moving past the grounded opponent’s legs. The legs are very dangerous obstacles for a BJJ fighter to overcome. A grounded opponent can use their legs to up-kick an opponent (in MMA at least) or use trips or sweeps to gain an advantage. Passing the guard essentially allows a BJJ user to gain a more advantageous position. From here they can dominate from the top position with side control, mount, and back mount positions.
Basic Techniques in BJJ
BJJ employs a wide range of takedown techniques to bring an opponent to the ground. Most of them are rooted in traditional Judo techniques such as Tai Otoshi, Ouchi Gari, and Tomoe Nage. BJJ has also taken several takedowns from wrestling including ankle picks, single-leg takedowns, and even suplexes. One very basic takedown in BJJ is known as “pulling guard”, which is not used in other combat sports such as Judo or Wrestling. Pulling guard is undertaken by grabbing an opponent’s Gi and basically falling to the ground, dragging them with you. It is a very basic throw often frowned upon by people in BJJ/Judo communities. Probably owing to the fact that it is unrealistic to use in a real street fight. It is also known as a ‘sacrifice throw’ because if you get the move wrong you can end up in a bad position. Most practitioners tend to stick with Judo/Wrestling/Sambo takedowns.
Taking in to the ground
Once the battle hits the ground, BJJ practitioners aim to take a dominant or controlling position where they can apply submissions. These positions provide different submission or transition options. Some positions are more advantageous than others.
When in the ‘Guard’ position, the practitioner is on their back controlling an opponent with his legs. The bottom practitioner pushes and pulls using the lower limbs to counter the movements of his opponent standing over them. This position allows practitioners a wide variety of counter-attacks from the bottom position, including submissions and sweeps.
There are a number of different types of guard to use, each having its advantages. However, the three most common types of guards include the Closed Guard, Half Guard, and Open Guard.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters tend to feel very comfortable fighting from guard when the need arises. The guard position involves using the legs as a barrier to control an opponent to limit their options. Guard position allows BJJ fighters to fight from their backs so effectively and is also something that separates their art from most other grappling styles. This is something that has translated to MMA very well. When an MMA fighter with a BJJ background is taken down or knocked down by another fighter. The fighter will often not panic and automatically and instinctively relax into guard looking to take advantage of the fighter coming forward. This is compared to an untrained fighter in the discipline who may be fighting at a disadvantage to the oncoming fighter standing over them (depending on their training background).
Here the bottom practitioner has his legs wrapped around their opponent’s hips. Their ankles are locked together to greater control of their opponent. The closed guard can be an effective position as it severely limits movement from the top opponent. This guard allows a defender many setups for submissions such as joint-locks and chokes, as well as sweeps.
Here the legs are not hooked together and the bottom grappler uses his legs or feet to push or pull their opponent. There are a number of variations of open guard. Some of the well-known variations include the Butterfly, De La Riva, X-Guard, Rubber, Spider, Octopus, Lapel and Worm guards.
Half Guard is considered the halfway point between full guard and getting passed (see below). In basic Half Guard, the top practitioner’s legs are controlled by the bottom practitioner’s legs. This prevents the top opponent from achieving side control or full mount positions.
However, half-guard is more of a category of guards as opposed to a single position. Each half guard position involves controlling one of your opponent’s legs between both of your legs from the bottom position. The positions include traditional half guard, sitting half guard, and the lockdown.
A skilled BJJ ‘top’ practitioner using half guard has the opportunity to utilize a number of offensive moves. These include a variety of sweeps and submissions such as a kimura or D’arce choke. The downside for the top position is that the position also leaves them exposed to a number of attacks. Many skilled bottom defenders can set up submissions and counters very easily from this position.
Passing the Guard
This is an attacking strategy, getting past the legs of a grounded opponent (in guard) to achieve a more desirable position. Once past the legs, the attacker can attempt to dominate their opponent via side mount or full mount control.
Side control/Side mount
The side mount is the best position to take when you pass your opponent’s guard. In side control, the practitioner pins their opponent to the ground from the side of their torso. The top opponent lies across the bottom opponent with weight applied to their chest. The bottom opponent may be further controlled by pressure on the shoulders and hips from the top practitioner’s elbows, shoulders, and knees. This position is considered very advantageous (when you are on top, not so if you are defending).
A good number of submissions can be initiated from side control (such as the Kimura, Americana, and several Gi-related chokes). Side control can also increase the opportunity for an attacker to advance to other more dominant positions (such as full mount or North-South). In MMA this position is particularly advantageous. The reason being is that the top fighter is out of danger from their opponent’s legs, they are also pinning their opponent’s body to the canvas using their bodyweight. This allows the top fighter to pummel their opponents with blows whilst the bottom opponent has to escape the position.
Knee on belly position
Knee on belly is a very popular position in Jiu-Jitsu. The move lies somewhere between side control and mount. The position entails control of the opponent with one leg out for base and balance and the other leg positioned across the opponent’s torso pinning them to the ground. This position is good for forcing an opponent to expose themselves when they are providing tough resistance. Since a knee on the belly is so uncomfortable it forces your opponent to react. Nobody wants that knee on their belly! As such it is considered a great alternative to side mount for defensively tight opponents. It is great for controlling an opponent, to use as a base for striking or for setting up submissions. As such it is considered a valuable position that brings an attacker closer to achieving the more ideal mounted position. All the while keeping an opponent under pressure.
Full Mount is considered one of the most dominant grappling positions in BJJ. In the mounted (or full mount) position, the top opponent sits astride the bottom opponent’s chest. From here they control the opponent using their bodyweight and hips. They can push the knees into their opponent’s armpits to reduce the ability to move or counter submission attempts. Full Mount can be used to apply a variety of submissions including armlocks or chokes.
This position is one well sought after in the sport of MMA. Here the Full mount position is utilized as a great ground and pound position. From here a fighter can utilize punches, hammerfists, and elbows. Raining down blow after blow relentlessly as their opponent attempts to defend or counter. An unskilled BJJ opponent will often ‘give up their back’ turning to avoid being punched in the face; they will allow their attacker to gain rear control (see below). Putting them in an even worse position. However, without the Gi for leverage, MMA fighters lack the wider range of submissions open to BJJ fighters.
Rear mount is generally considered the strongest position in BJJ. Aka “taking the back,” the rear mount is a position in which one’s arms and legs are used to control an opponent’s back.
The practitioner attaches to the back of the opponent by wrapping his legs around and hooking the opponent’s thighs with their heel. The upper body is then controlled by wrapping the arms around the chest or neck of the opponent.
Perhaps the greatest factor regarding this position is that the defender whose back has been taken is unable to see their opponent. The attacker can use strikes and submissions with the opponent having a severely limited ability to anticipate incoming attacks or defend against them.
Since both individuals are facing in the same direction, the attacker with the rear mount has a great advantage. From here are a plethora of options available to the attacker with rear mount, including arm locks and chokes. As mentioned above, in MMA, rear mount is often obtained after a fully mounted opponent turns in order to avoid strikes.
It is next to impossible to attack an opponent who is mounted directly behind one’s back. A defender can only try to defend and try to escape into a better position. They will do this by attempting to stop the attacker ‘hooking’ their legs into their thighs. Once the legs are free they have more maneuverability to attempt to achieve a more advantageous position. Wrist control is also important, to stop an attacker from striking or choking you out with a submission. To reduce chest-to-back contact slams against the floor can be used to knock the wind out of an opponent. This can provide the break that needed to quickly escape the position.
This can be a dangerous position for an unskilled defender. The bottom opponent has to defend attacks from all angles as their attacker goes for the kill. Defending against blows and deeper control (trying to remove hooks from legs) and maintaining wrist control. Perhaps the worst-case scenario is allowing the attacker access to apply the dreaded ‘rear naked choke’. This submission allows the attacker to wrap the crook of the elbow around the defender’s neck. From here pressure is applied and if not successfully escaped the defender will lose consciousness.
The turtle is a defensive position in BJJ. It is a position that can be used by tired or desperate practitioners when in trouble on the mat. Practitioners will ‘turtle up’ when they are in danger of being put in a bad position and need time for options. However, the turtle can also be used as a position to counter-attack and reverse from the bottom to the top position. Some BJJ practitioners view the position as a lazy, stalling maneuver. However, it can be a lifesaver for BJJ practitioners running out of options who need a second or two to collect themselves. A BJJ practitioner may not want to spend very long in this position. This position although difficult for an attacker to assault, eventually, a successful attack will breakthrough (such as a sweep or submission). This move is avoided in MMA due to it exposing a fighter to headshots from their opponent.
North South position
North-South position occurs when one practitioner (bottom opponent) is lying supine (back flat on the ground). Their opponent is lying on top of them in the prone position. Normally the attacker’s head is over the chest of their grounded opponent. So essentially they are facing opposite directions (hence the North-South moniker). This is considered a dominant position in BJJ for a number of reasons. Firstly, the attacker will pin their opponent’s arms to the floor with their hands and using their body weight. Secondly, the attacker uses their hips as deadweight to pin their opponent to the ground, further reducing their options. Lastly, the grounded opponent’s legs are neutralized as a method of attack since the attacker is well out of range.
Many BJJ practitioners consider the North-South as merely a transitional position. A brief control spot before moving into another position. However, there are several submissions possible from the North-South position. These include North-South choke, kimura, Ezekiel, D’arce chokes, arm-bars, paper cutters, and Bow and arrow chokes.
North-South is another very uncomfortable position for the defender in the bottom position, on both a physical and psychological level. The struggle to escape this uncomfortable place will often lead to recklessness which can open up great opportunities for improved positions or submissions from the attacker.
Submission, Locks, Chokes and Controls
Most of BJJ’s submission holds can be categorized as either joint locks and chokes. Joint locks involve isolating an opponent’s limb and creating a lever with the body position. The objective here is to force the joint to move past its normal range of motion. If a joint lock is applied successfully this can be intensely painful. The pressure can be increased in a controlled manner and released if the opponent fails to escape the hold. The aim of the game with chokeholds is to disrupt the blood supply to the brain and cause unconsciousness. Both submissions and joint locks will be released if an opponent signals their surrender by ‘tapping’.
BJJ practitioners can pull out locks and submissions from almost any position on the floor.
Many joint locks are permitted and taught in BJJ. However, not all are allowed in competition. The majority of joint locks involving the wrist, elbow, shoulder or ankle are allowed. The reason being that there is greater flexibility in those joints so the likelihood of permanent damage is reduced.
Some of the joint locks permitted and used in BJJ competition include:
Now for the illegal. Most competitions ban or restrict some or all joint locks that involve the knees, ankles, and spine. The reason being the angles of manipulation required to gain submission are very similar to those that would cause permanent injury. Any joint manipulations involving the spine are generally barred due to the hazards associated with damage to spinal vertebrae/cord. Other joint locks not allowed include any involving twisting motions of the knee (for example heel hooks or kneebars).
Leglocks are allowed in some instances, dependent on level. Specific holds only being allowed to be used by higher-ranked BJJ practitioners. In some of the bigger BJJ tournaments, limited, more straightforward leg-holds only are permitted for the lower ranks. The higher ranks being able to employ more advanced holds due to their experience.
Chokes are the other common form of submission in BJJ. The objective with chokes is to put pressure on the carotid arteries and the nerve baroreceptors of the neck. A BJJ choke (for example a rear-naked choke) is very effective if employed correctly. Typically a choked opponent will lose consciousness in seconds. In contrast, an air choke (involving constriction of the windpipe) can take up to two minutes, depending on how long the person can hold their breath and may cause serious damage to the throat.
Another type of submission hold is known as a compression lock. Here the muscle of an opponent is compressed against a hard, large bone (commonly the shin or wrist). This causes a huge amount of pain to an opponent. Compression locks are generally not allowed in competition due to the high risk of permanent damage.