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Why BJJ Lineage Matters

Without a fighter from Japan and a few Brazilian pioneers, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Without a black belt from Vermont, I wouldn’t be competing at high-level tournaments. Without a select handful of dedicated people, I would be a completely different person than I am — a less happy, less tough person leading a less fulfilled life.

That last paragraph is about my lineage in jiujitsu, the teachers that have trained me. We think about that a fair bit in the martial arts.

Interestingly, a new guest article on JiuJitsu Times purports to not see why lineage matters. While I see where the author is coming from — yes, in a fight or a tournament match, no one cares who your instructor is — the piece wildly misanalyzes what lineage is and why it’s important.

I’ll confess to some sympathy for the article’s core argument. As a working-class kid, I’ve always prided myself on outworking those who had access to more resources than I did. I figured if I could achieve great things on my own, it would prove that the Harvard kids didn’t have a monopoly on intelligence or work ethic (which of course they do not).

But that’s not really what lineage is about. Lineage is about helping people choose the right school for them. It’s about making sure new people aren’t abused. And, for me at least, it’s about respecting the people who paved the way for you and helped make you who you are.

These aren't the only people who helped mold me, but mold me they did.

These aren’t the only people who helped mold me, but mold me they did.

The old dictum that “a belt only covers two inches of your ass: the rest you have to cover on your own” is true. But there are a lot of reasons lineage matters even if you’re tapping everybody. Here are three of them.


Lineage matters because of new people entering the art.

Let’s begin by admitting a few important things: there are some people who will become tough no matter where they train.

We’ve all met them: they’re generally athletic people who tend to be bigger and stronger. Many have a background in other arts, like wrestling, or military combatives experience. Those people should, of course, be applauded for their achievements both in and out of jiujitsu.

But if you put a bunch of hardy, physically gifted people into a room and make them fight, eventually you’ll have a bunch of tough people. That’s partially because they’ll develop skills due to necessity, and partially because the people who aren’t incredibly tough will quit.

That’s not really what jiujitsu is about, in my view.

Jiujitsu is for everyone, and jiujitsu is about finding the most effective solutions for problems. There are people who, with really basic training, don’t have to worry about defending themselves. I am not one of those people, and most of my friends aren’t either — smaller people and weaker people need good jiujitsu technique.

Take a bunch of tough people and make them scrap, and you’ll end up with a few tough people. But if you take a cross-section of society that includes women, kids, and tiny, middle-aged guys like me, then train them correctly, you’ll change lives.

I feel like I got really lucky walking into the gym that I did. My instructor is a Royce Gracie black belt who created a friendly, tough and technical training environment. I knew, of course, who Royce Gracie was, so I was fairly sure I was safe.

But I didn’t know anything about jiujitsu. It would have been very easy for me to stumble into another North Carolina “jiujitsu gym” with a guy who “created his own style” and waste 6 months of my life doing things like this:

These videos were funny to me at the time, but eventually they made me quite sad. I think about all those people, who invested their time and money into learning what they thought was real jiujitsu — and it wasn’t. Do you think any of those people are going to train again? Do you think that would have happened at a legitimate school?


Lineage matters because of quality control, which helps in achieving your goals.

Jiujitsu  is vast. Many of us are here for different reasons. Lineage helps you understand what you’re getting yourself into.

And let’s be honest: elite educational institutions have that reputation for a reason. For example, is it possible to succeed going to an inexpensive state school instead of going to Harvard? Absolutely, and I’m living proof.

But if you have 100 Harvard students and 100 students from my alma mater, the University of Oregon (Go Ducks), what group are you going to bet on?

If you train under a Rickson Gracie or Royce Gracie black belt, you can be fairly sure that you’ll get a well-rounded martial education that includes self defense, strikes and takedowns. At more sport-oriented schools, this may not be the case. We all evaluate what matters most to us. Lineage helps us do this.

And if you train under a person who has “developed his own system” of jiujitsu … well, caveat emptor, pal.

In fact, the article makes this point very well for me:

If you still think lineage, in and of itself, matters, consider this: How did Robert De Niro learn to act? Where did Michael Jordan play his college ball? What university did Bill Gates attend? What school of journalism did Oprah Winfrey go to? Better yet: Who was Marcelo Garcia’s BJJ instructor?!?!

Let’s concede again that there will always be outliers who succeed no matter where they are. But these are really, really ill-chosen examples.

Michael Jordan played in college at the University of North Carolina (Go Heels), a basketball factory where he learned under the legendary Dean Smith — a figure so venerated that even the egocentric Jordan continually pays homage to him. Bill Gates went to (there it is again) Harvard, where he met Steve Ballmer.

As for Marcelo, he’s a five time world champion that got his black belt from a four time world champion (Fabio Gurgel) that got his black belt from the guy that is the head of the ten time world champion Alliance team (Jacare Cavalcanti) that was the last person awarded a black belt from Rolls Gracie, who in turn got his black belt from the founders of jiujitsu in Brazil.

And Marcelo talks about his lineage proudly: just because some people don’t know about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

Being proud of your accomplishments is wonderful. Believing your accomplishments are yours alone, and that your instructor is irrelevant, is comical.


Lineage matters because of respect

In a fight, you’re out there by yourself. In a tournament, we all step onto mats alone. But that doesn’t mean we got there alone.

Even leaving aside that none of us would be training without Helio Gracie and others like him, there’s a respect piece that’s very important. Your instructors and training partners invest their time, sweat and physical health into you.

Whenever I go to another school to teach a class, I always mention my instructor. I also mention the black belts that aren’t specifically part of my lineage, but have taken the time to teach me. There’s a martial arts side of this as well as a human side, a side that honors the ones who help and is grateful for the assistance.

Jiujitsu isn’t just about jiujitsu, and fighting isn’t all about fighting. Both of these things are about being a part of something bigger than yourself, of helping others and being helped in return. And all of that is worth preserving.


About Jeff

I write, work for social justice, listen to music and grapple. That's about it for now.

2 responses to “Why BJJ Lineage Matters

  1. Pingback: August 21, 2015 - BJJ News

  2. Ty ⋅

    Another terrific article, thanks Jeff! Btw, I am a UO alum too! Go Ducks!!

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