Why I Am Rooting For Royler Gracie

Today, Royler Gracie headlines the third Metamoris Pro jiu-jitsu invitational in a high-profile match. Although I’ve never taken a seminar from or trained with Royler, I will be cheering hard for him today.

Because his opponent, Eddie Bravo, can be a controversial figure, this matchup has been polarizing. But when you look back on what Royler Gracie has accomplished during his storied career, this much is clear: it isn’t necessary to say anything negative about an opponent when there is so much positive to say about Royler.

Simply put, Royler Gracie is one of the best there has ever been.

Royler was the first truly dominant featherweight. During a run of dominance from 1996-1999, Royler won gold at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships (Mundials) for four straight years. At the time, this was a record. Who did he beat in the finals? Only guys like Shaolin, Leo Vieira and Draculino.

In 1997, Royler took a bronze medal in the Mundial absolute division. He fought at 70 kilos. The gold medalist, Amaury Bitteti, outweighed him by 40 pounds. He always competed against the best and usually won.

All told, Royler Gracie has nine black belt gold medals from Mundials, ADCC and the Pans. Nine! In 1999, he took gold at the worlds ADCC and the Pans in the same year.

 

He also took a moment to let a random blue belt get a picture with him at the 2002 Mundials.

He also took a moment to let a random blue belt get a picture with him at the 2002 Mundials.

I’m listing mostly sport jiu-jitsu achievements, but Royler also made his mark elsewhere. Royler has 11 professional MMA fights. He is also a renowned teacher, developing a next generation of jiu-jitsu talent as leader of Gracie Humaita.

What we’ve just discussed is a complete body of work, a legacy that encompasses all aspects of the martial arts: training, competing in multiple formats and rulesets, doing the open weight divisions, fighting, teaching. That’s a legacy worthy of great respect.

Royler Gracie turns 50 next year. He looks like he’s in his early 30s, so sometimes people forget or misjudge that. As someone who turns 40 this year, I also appreciate his willingness to put it on the line when he really has nothing to prove to anyone.

Here’s the crux of it: for the same reasons I am rooting for Royler, I ultimately do not think it matters what happens today. No one can take nine gold medals from the most prestigious tournaments away from him. A body of work is completed over a lifetime, and for years, Royler has created a resume that few can even approach.

No matter what happens today, Royler Gracie is one of the absolute greatest of all time. I will be rooting for him to add another win to his resume at Metamoris.

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The Union of Yoga And BJJ

Since I was six years old, I’ve been doing yoga in one form or another. Over the past three years, though, my jiu-jitsu training has relegated my yoga practice to an occasional enterprise.

This isn’t abnormal for me. My yoga practice has always run in cycles. Thankfully, over the past few months I’ve been able to work more yoga into the routine, usually two or three times a week.  That’s one class of hatha yoga and one or two classes of Bikram yoga — the kind you practice in an artificially hot room.

Both have real benefits. And I’m not the only one who thinks so! From Rickson Gracie to Sebastian Broche‘s Yoga For BJJ project, the old school and the new seem to concur that yoga helps with your training and your life. Nick Gregoriades of the Jiu-Jitsu Brotherhood, a Roger Gracie black belt, says that he finds yoga to be “by far the most effective” additional training method.

Let me drop 10 things yoga does for your jiu-jitsu, some of which are meant to be taken more seriously than others.

1. Flexibility. This is the most obvious one. Yoga is always going to improve your ability to bend, which has a wide array of benefits. And Bikram Yoga’s 100-plus degree room ensures you’ll be warm when you begin.

I don’t have any photos of me doing Bikram yoga. This is totally me as far as you know.

To be honest, though, I find jiu-jitsu improves my flexibility for yoga just as much as the converse. The positions we find ourselves in while training are different than yoga postures, so I think these two activities are self-supporting.

2. Injury Prevention. Injury is the enemy. Although Dalton from Road House once astutely observed that “pain don’t hurt,” an injury does keep you off the mat, which is way worse than feeling pain. As a smaller person, I’ve been squashed in numerous different positions. Without the strength and flexibility I’ve built through years of yoga, instead of discomfort several of those positions would have caused time off from jiu-jitsu. Staying on one mat helps you stay on the other.

3. Healthy Habits. Making healthy choices creates a positive feedback loop. If you eat poorly, you feel badly, and you don’t train. If you don’t train, you feel badly, and avoid training. One of the benefits of jiu-jitsu is also a benefit of yoga: it encourages that positive feedback loop. We all know we should drink more water, for example. But get up for a Bikram yoga class, and that will come into stark relief. You’ll drink that water, you’ll feel better, and you’ll have more fun training jiu-jitsu later. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I'm supposed to drink more than a gallon of water a day. I knocked out 72 ounces before 8 a.m. this morning thanks to a 6 a.m. Bikram class.

I’m supposed to drink more than a gallon of water a day. I knocked out 72 ounces before 8 a.m. this morning thanks to a 6 a.m. Bikram class.

4. Balance. True, the best way to get good at something is to do a lot of it. I’m a huge believer in training jiu-jitsu to get good at jiu-jitsu. But so much of jiu-jitsu is about getting on top and staying there that balance shouldn’t be understated. So many yoga postures provide the balance and strength that help you avoid sweeps. The Bikram balancing series is challenging even for seasoned athletes, and I’m sure it has helped me dance out of De La Riva sweeps more than once.

5. The Ego Check. Again, this is something that jiu-jitsu is also wonderful for. We’ve all seen the young, dieseled up MMA fighter come into a jiu-jitsu gym and get submitted by the lady, the old guy, and the small guy. There is always something humbling in training.

But yoga comes with a different type of ego control. Even when I’m in my best shape, there are grandmothers who can do postures better than I can, who can hold poses longer and somehow maintain serenity while I’m dying. This keeps you mindful and humble.

It’s here that I want to quote Sebastian Broche: “The more Yoga and BJJ you practice, the more you will realize that the essence in the two is the same, and everything you learn in Yoga can be immediately applied on the mat.” It’s true!

6. Laundry. I’m the sweaty guy in the gym anyway. I bring two towels to Bikram yoga classes and when class is done, they’re both soaked. Working hard for 90 minutes in a 110 degree room makes you thirsty for a reason, and all the water has to have gone somewhere.

This leads to the World’s Toughest Laundry. I might not be able to tap you, but my laundry can beat up your laundry, or at least asphyxiate it. At least you can say to your romantic partner when they sniff your car with derision, “no, I didn’t leave a stinky gi in the car this time.”

7. Great Early Morning Training. I do 6 a.m. drilling twice a week. I am deeply grateful for the training partners I have who get up with me, because most gyms don’t have pre-work classes. Many yoga studios do, however, and it’s a tremendous way to start the day. That’s in no small part because of …

8. Mental Strength. There’s a lot to this particular intangible. Personally, I don’t find it hard to find motivation when I’m training jiu-jitsu. Someone is trying to choke me and bend my limbs the wrong way: that’s incentive enough. Yoga presents different mental challenges: the ability to stay focused, to stay calm, and to focus precisely on one’s breath. And you don’t have anyone else challenging you, so you have to find your own fortitude.

When I did a seminar with the great Rickson Gracie, he said learning breath techniques was the second-most important thing he ever did (after jiu-jitsu itself). So there you go.

If Rickson does it, you might think about doing it, too.

9. Weight Loss. I’m not a big believer in “weight loss” in and of itself. I think we should eat healthy, train hard, and however many pounds our healthy body is, that’s just fine. But in reality, especially here in America, many peoples’ fitness goals include weight loss. Yoga is a relatively low-impact way for people carrying extra pounds to get to their goals in a steady, healthy fashion.

Also, you may have noticed: jiu-jitsu competitions have weight classes. Do absolute, but if you need to get into a particular weight class, also do yoga.

Finally,

10. [Something Different]. I mean “something different” in two senses here: yoga is something different to diversify your training, but I also expect you will find benefits to yoga that are different than the items on this list. Like jiu-jitsu, there are numerous benefits to the practice that vary from person to person. What I’ve listed are the reasons I have: your list may (and should) include something different.

Yoga means union. If you’re looking to unite your jiu-jitsu training with another system, yoga might be for you.

Training, Failure and Videotape

My basic butterfly sweep has never worked.

I mean that literally. The most basic of butterfly guard sweeps, and I’ve never been able to pull it off against anyone save a brand-new white belt with no sense of what “base” means. This despite the fact that I, by virtue of my small size as well as personal preference, spend a lot of time working on my guard.

Now, if you know me — or if you read this blog — you know that I am obsessive about getting better at jiu-jitsu. I train a lot, drill, take privates, go to seminars, watch videos, read books, you name it. Yet this most basic jiu-jitsu technique eluded me at every turn. For more than three years.

Until last night. My instructor — a black belt under Royce Gracie — was watching me drill it, and immediately noticed two small but vital mistakes I was making. The sweep works now. It took him probably two minutes of instruction.

You might have heard that Royce Gracie, head of my association, recently criticized the online training program Gracie University. For me, the butterfly sweep incident clarified in my mind one of the reasons why online training, absent qualified in-person instruction, is nonsensical.

This man knows a thing or two about teaching jiu-jitsu.

This man knows a thing or two about teaching jiu-jitsu.

I feel deeply fortunate to be living in a time when we have access to all these training resources that the people who came before me didn’t have. My teachers came up in a time when having a black (or even a brown) belt around was extremely rare. What videos they could get were expensive, infrequent and took a long time to ship. Failing to take advantage of these training supplements would be silly.

That’s what they are, though: supplements, not substitutes. The way I was doing (well, failing at) the butterfly sweep for the past few years looked exactly like it did in the books and videos. It was enormously frustrating that I couldn’t get it to work during live sparring, even after a ton of drilling.

This doesn’t have to be a butterfly sweep, of course. It could be any basic technique. If you’re just repeating what you see in videos, it is nigh impossible to correct errors. You might spend, oh, a few years doing something incorrectly. Without someone experienced to ask questions, you could waste valuable time . Worse, without meaningful live sparring, you might not even really know you’re making move-killing mistakes.

Or you could train with a legitimate instructor who can fix your problem in minutes.

This seems like an easy decision to me. Bear in mind also: I am a jiu-jitsu-obsessed, guard-playing, Internet dweller who watches technique videos the way some people breathe air. I of all people should be able to recognize the value of online training.

And I do recognize its value. I’ve seen the Gracie University videos: they’re excellent. For people who want to learn more about jiu-jitsu, I think they’re great.

The flashpoint of the current flap.

The flashpoint of the current flap.

A few problems, though. First, there is a different between abstract knowledge (how a move works in principle) and applied knowledge (how to make a move work against a live opponent). Also, so much of a technique must be felt instead of simply seen. Where should my pressure go? What does correct posture in this position feel like? How high or low should I be? Rener and Ryron are terrific teachers. But they aren’t going to come over and diagnose your trouble with the butterfly sweep, or upa escape, or collar choke.

Besides, even the most basic sweep has so many details and moving parts that no video, no matter how long or comprehensive, can cover it in totality — while an instructor can see what you, the individual practitioner, need the most help with. The training you will get at a legitimate academy is qualitatively better than even the best online-only training site. This is a point that I don’t even really consider debatable.

Second, there is the fact that Gracie University is doing belt promotions. Personally, I try not to think about rank. Training should be an end in itself: you do it because you enjoy it, and you want to learn the art. But in an art like jiu-jitsu, where belts are earned through a ton of hard work and no small amount of pain, it’s easy to see why someone getting a blue belt through the mail after sending in video rubs many the wrong way.

Online training, I think most would agree, is a fine addition to your academy. Getting a promotion from someone who hasn’t ever rolled with you — whose hand you have never shaken — is a different matter.

blogbluebelt

Both of these men have beaten me up and shaken my hand.

The only argument for online-only training, from my perspective, is the absence of any other option. You can make a case that, for people in remote areas, training in this manner would be better than nothing. Honestly, I think this is far from a certain truth, but I can see the argument.

That’s not what’s happening, though. Students who received a blue belt through Gracie University are opening their own schools now — schools in areas with qualified black belt instructors nearby. This strikes me as unjustifiable, and frankly inexcusably disrespectful to people who have spent a decade or more earning a black belt.

I can think of lots of blue belts under Royce Gracie off the top of my head that are better than I am. Then, I think of their instructors, and how much more jiu-jitsu knowledge they have than the blue belts that beat me. Every single one of those blue belts I expect has more jiu-jitsu knowledge than the overwhelming majority (and perhaps all) of online-certified instructors. None of those blue belts, myself included, would dream of opening a school at this point.

Jiu-jitsu, it’s often said, is a journey. All long journeys worth taking contain errors, losses, setbacks. To successfully navigate journeys of this nature requires both commitment and humility.

Sometimes that means admitting that you’ve been doing a basic sweep wrong for three-plus years. Sometimes it means acknowledging that taking the easy way at first is only making the eventual trip longer — or undermining the purpose of the journey in the first place.

In Defense Of Point Fighting

The derision directed toward “point fighters” seems to be growing lately. Hey, I’ve even engaged in it myself.

At first blush, this seems reasonable. The match is about the tap. The logical conclusion of an encounter between two grapplers is a submission: this gives us the finality our minds crave. To settle for less — for merely achieving a position of control — seems to diminish the martial artist in many eyes.

As I reflect on this, though, I think so-called point fighting has gotten a bad rap beyond what it deserves.

Since I’m still pretty early in the journey — hello, blue belt here — I’d like to hear what others think about this.

Making fun of point fighting is not productive. It is, however, funny.

Making fun of point fighting is not productive. It is, however, funny.

Before I get into the details of my argument, here is the essence: positional dominance is at the core of jiu-jitsu. It’s critically important to get to a safe position (sidemount or mount, for example) and be able to hold that position. In many contexts — say, a 5 minute BJJ match or a 15 minute MMA fight — this faces criticism as “stalling” or “playing for points.”

Let me also explain a few things I don’t mean. I certainly don’t mean that you shouldn’t focus on submissions in training. We should all be developing a robust, diverse submission game and working hard on finishing those submissions during matches and rolling sessions.

Believe me, I’m also not arguing against Submission Only tournaments. Quite the opposite: I love them. Being forced to fight until the end without time limits gets back to the roots of jiu-jitsu. Having multiple tournaments with different rulesets is also good, in my view, since it forces people to adapt to multiple situations. I think as we build our jiu-jitsu, we’re wise to focus on control first.

My reasons are two: first, jiu-jitsu is about self defense, and controlling position is an essential self-defense skill; and second, many objections to so-called “point fighting” are actually objections to certain tactics of gamesmanship in sport tournaments and sport MMA.

Jiu-jitsu is rooted in self-defense, and controlling position is vital for self defense. 

As the saying goes, we should put position before submission. My instructor consistently preaches the importance of submission setups: when we put enough time and effort into the setup, the finish should be easy.

Why do we put position before submission? Several reasons. The ideal outcome of a self-defense situation — for me, at least — is to end the confrontation without anyone getting hurt. This isn’t always realistic, but from a human and legal perspective, it’s a good vision to start from. What’s most likely to lead to this outcome? Avoid fights. If a guy tries to fight you, leave, or talk your way out of it.

If that fails, though, and someone does attack you, the best way to stop anyone from getting hurt is to take that person to the ground, get a dominant position, and control that person. It’s also a lot easier to explain to the police “he was attacking me, so I controlled him to protect myself” than it is to explain “he was attacking me, so I broke his arm.”

This is one reason I’ll even defend stalling to a certain degree — or I should say a certain type of stalling. A lot of fights are “heat of the moment” fights, where if you give the angry guy the chance to calm down — or exhaust him underneath you, and let him see his struggles are fruitless — that’s the end of it.

And let’s delineate what I’m calling “stalling” here from common jiu-jitsu tournament stalling. There’s a big difference between locking someone down in side control, where I’m largely safe in a fight, than in 50/50, where I’m not. Similarly, there’s a big difference between going for an actual submission and pretending to toehold someone while making a constipated face. I think these are the practices most reasonable people — legitimately — take issue with.

Are there self-defense situations where taking someone down and controlling them isn’t sufficient? Certainly. Sometimes, a person defending themselves will need to just get up and get away (in the event of multiple attackers, for example); and in some rare cases, only a submission will keep someone safe. This is why we train for as many potential situations as we can.

But I would argue that even in these two situations, controlling position is vital. Need to get away? You’d better be able to either sweep from the bottom or stand up and create distance. Need to get a submission? Again, in the majority of cases, you’ve got to be controlling position first — and you’re taking a big risk if you go for a submission when you aren’t.

This, incidentally, is one thing I worry about with sport tournaments. People often talk about the bad self-defense habits tournaments create: artificially insulating you from punches and kicks, incentivizing being on bottom, etc. One thing I haven’t heard folks talk about a lot is encouraging premature submission attempts due to the match time limits.

It’s certainly important to develop a dangerous submission game. It’s more important, in my view, to develop a dominant positional game. One follows from the other. If you can control someone and give them no chance to escape, you’ll submit them eventually.

JoJo isn't trying to submit me here. But don't you think he's going to eventually?

JoJo isn’t trying to submit me here. But don’t you think he’s going to eventually?

Speaking of sport tournaments:

Most of the objections to “point fighting” are rooted in a spectator mentality. 

Submissions are exciting. That much is undeniable. It’s rare that you come away from a tournament or a fight card saying “wow, my favorite part of that match was his mount maintenance.”

From a self-defense perspective, though, it’s not the point to be exciting. The point is to stay safe. The point is to survive the situation and, using technique, ensure that you face minimal danger throughout. Grandmaster Helio Gracie famously wanted jiu-jitsu practitioners to be able to defend themselves with no rules, no time limits and no points, and he was willing to defend that principle in his own fights. No one can deny the effectiveness of the art he created.

When we talk about entertainment, though, we’re talking about something different. How many of today’s UFC fans would have watched Helio Gracie fight Waldemar Santana for nearly four hours? (And how many shouts of “Stand them up, ref!” would we have had to endure if they did?) This is fan mentality, and an unproductive one.

In a real-life situation, there is no referee to stand you up. If your attacker can’t escape your mount, that’s it: he’s stuck. That’s why, imperfect as they are, we have points: as a proxy to encourage fighters to achieve dominant positions.

"Point fighter ... non-point fighter. I'm the guy in the mount."

“Point fighter … non-point fighter. I’m the guy in the mount.”

Again, I’m not defending the get-an-advantage-and-stall style of sport jiujitsu that has rendered many matches unwatchable. It’s fine to want to create a sport that is exciting for the viewer. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that a sport competition for entertainment is a totally different thing, with a totally different purpose, than self-defense jiu-jitsu.

The fact is that excitement is often in tension with safety. A fighter that is always going rapid-fire for the finish is a thrilling thing to watch. That strategy isn’t usually optimal for that fighter’s safety, however. And jiu-jitsu isn’t just for young competitive athletes who can wow the crowd with their skills: it’s also for older people like me, who of necessity must take greater care.

My ideal jiu-jitsu is jiu-jitsu that maximizes my safety in all situations. I feel like focusing first on position, and taking the time to secure positional control before I even think about the tap, stands the best chance to do this in most cases.

So: what do you think?

Charity Challenge 2014

Last year, I decided to donate $10 for every match I won to a couple of great charities. Some generous donors offered to match me, and together we raised $720 for the Women’s Debate Institute and the George Pendergrass Foundation.

We even made a giant novelty check!

We even made a giant novelty check!

I had so much fun doing it, it’s time to run that back. My first tournament of the year is going to be the US Grappling NC State Championships on April 5, and shortly thereafter the New York Open on April 12. My tournament schedule isn’t going to be as ambitious as I initially believed — life got in the way — but there will still be plenty of competitions. I plan to do all the local US Grappling tournaments, the Atlanta Open, the No-Gi Pans and the Montreal Open. I’m also going to the Mundials again, and I might try to sneak in one more big tournament as well.

What does this mean for you, the charitable-minded blog reader? It means you can help in one of two ways!

Pledge your support by donating based on the matches I win: Fill out this Google Form and you can pledge to donate either on a per-match basis, or just to drop a flat donation to the wonderful Women’s Debate Institute or the George Pendergrass Foundation.

* Share this post on Facebook and Twitter: The more people that see this, the more potential supporters. Tell your friends! The more donors we get, the more we can raise.

Last year, we did some very cool donor rewards. I plan to do something like that again, something probably BJJ gear-related. I’ll keep that a surprise this year. Like Indiana Jones said, it isn’t about the fortune and glory.

There you have it. Wish me luck, and please give generously.