They’re All About Duty

Note: This is a guest post I did for JiuJiteira, a new online community intended to promote events that feature female JiuJiteiras and encourage both men and women training together.

Jiujitsu has much in common with musical theater, specifically Gilbert & Sullivan.

No, really. Besides being subcultures that inspire completists to obsession, the themes in both essentially run parallel to each other.

If you want pop culture confirmation, consider this clip from the West Wing, where Ainsley Hayes corrects Lionel Tribbey on whether the song “He Is An Englishman” comes from “HMS Pinafore,” which it does. Tribbey insists that it is from Penzance, or Iolanthe, or “one of  the ones about duty.”

Ainsley responds, correctly: they’re all about duty.

If you’ve seen any Gilbert & Sullivan — and really, who hasn’t? — you can testify that this is accurate. In song and story, the Englishmen sailing the ocean blue struggle with what’s right to do. Michael Bisping might represent all that’s bad about the English aesthetic, but “Pinafore” represents all that’s good about it.

We hear a lot about duty in the martial arts. Qualities like loyalty and courage in the face of adversity are embedded in the Bushido code and what traditionalists refer to as jiujitsu philosophy.

But what’s duty? What do we owe other  people? The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was perhaps more concerned with moral duty than anyone else, and he came up what called the Categorical Imperative — a single rule more important than any other.

What is this rule, and what does this have to do with how we train? We’ll get to that in a second. If you don’t care about the echoes of German philosophy in martial arts, you might be interested in Sideshow Bob singing the score of Pinafore before trying, fruitlessly once again, to murder Bart Simpson:

The rule Kant came up with — that most important of imperatives — is: “Act only on those maxims (or rules of action) that you could at the same time will to be a universal law.” Or, put more simply, only do things that you’d be comfortable with anyone else doing, at any place and time.

That might sound familiar, like it’s a more detailed version of a rule common throughout the world’s religions and cultures. It also might sound like a good idea, and it is. The trouble isn’t the rule, the trouble is that people aren’t always attentive to it, or don’t apply it to their specific life circumstances.

Let’s apply it to our specific life circumstances. What do we owe to our training partners? What is our duty to them? I came up with three principles.

  1. The most important person in the room is your training partner.
    Your training partner – even if they’re the newest white belt – is doing you a favor. They’re putting their body on the line and using precious minutes of their finite life to help you get better at something you love.

    Let’s say we look at every training situation, in jiujitsu and out, this way: a mutual exchange where we’re investing time in helping each other. If you’re looking  at making universal rules for how people in that situation should treat each other, you’d probably say they should treat each other like gold. This is particularly true in something like jiujitsu, a niche activity where mistakes can have physical consequences.

    Sometimes I hear people complain about training with white belts. I love training with white belts, because making sure white belts have good experiences is the best way to grow jiujitsu. And I learn things every time: new people often react differently than experienced people, which improves my ability to respond in those situations. Even when there is a skill gap between training partners, we can still learn from each other.

    The person you’re drilling with and sparring with is the most important person in the room at that moment. Your responsibility – your duty – is to make sure they have a good experience and get something out of it.

  2. Everybody has a first day. It’s your job to make sure they have a second day, too.
    Duty means that we should always make choices that could be universalized – that is, we would be comfortable with everyone making the same choices we made.

    Imagine a new person comes in that rubs you the wrong way for whatever reason. Let’s say you act like a dismissive jerk: maybe you ignore them when it’s time to pair up and drill. Or worse, let’s say you encourage them to spar with you, and you smash their face for five minutes.

    If that choice is universalized – if everyone makes that choice – jiujitsu dies. Period.

    Jiujitsu is hard, and we shouldn’t shy away from making that clear. When I talk to the toughest of the toughest, oldest of old school folks, though, there’s a common undercurrent in what they tell me: training has to be fun sometimes, too. To help jiujitsu grow and survive, let’s not show new people the first part without the second.

  3. The  more vulnerable someone is, the more attentive you should be to your own actions around them. 
    Fundamentally, I believe in personal responsibility. We are a product of the choices we make.

    We often hear that jiujitsu is for smaller, weaker people. Helio Gracie said that larger, strong people already have nature’s jiujitsu. We all know people who have tremendous jiujitsu skills that would have developed those skills no matter what gym they ended up at — people who are naturally tough and physically adept.

    I am not one of these people.


    I lucked out by walking into a gym that is very thoughtful about how to build people up. If that hadn’t happened, I might not have the chance to even do jiujitsu, let alone have it as a central, rewarding part of my life.

    Since I am, by any reasonable metric, a very lucky person, I think a lot about what I owe. What I owe people, what I owe the world.  Since there were people that kept me coming back, I want to be one of those people for somebody else.

    When people come into the gym that might not feel welcome for any reason – maybe they aren’t natural athletes, maybe they’re women who are worried about training with men, or maybe they struggle with claustrophobia, or are physically disabled in some way — I feel like it’s incumbent on me to make sure they see the possibilities that jiujitsu can represent for them.

Some things are universal. We all want to be treated with dignity and respect. We all want to train in place with people who are true and attentive. We are, all of us who train, a part of the same story.

So, yes, this is something that jiujitsu and philosophy and musical theater share in common.

They’re all about duty. And if we’re decent, so are we.

How to Prepare for your first IBJJF tournament

For one brief, shining, day, I was a Cub Scout. There are pictures. As it turned out, there were elements about it that I couldn’t abide (conformity) even though, paradoxically, I really liked the uniforms. Yeah, yeah, I’m a paradox.

The one shining lesson from scouting that has always stuck with me from those glorious few hours is simple: be prepared. With the IBJJF’s first trip to North Carolina coming up in a mere 10 days, I know that many Triangle Jiu-Jitsu students are competing with the federation for the first time. Others, presumably, are in the same boat. Hence, a quick post designed to help you not be nervous, not be flustered, not be scared, but to be … well, you know.

Much of this advice applies to any tournament, and I encourage you to check out my Getting Ready For Tournaments 101 post as well. There are particular aspects to IBJJF competition, though, that merit some attention. So even though we’re fewer than two weeks out, let’s start there and proceed.


Make sure you know the rules and scoring system, especially the legal submissions for your belt level. Note: the IBJJF has different rules than US Grappling or NAGA, so while there are overarching similarities, don’t go for that wristlock unless you know it’s legal.

Train hard. Work your cardio. Focus on the moves that you know are your best moves, that you’re most likely to need and use in the tournament. I’m a huge believer in high-rep drilling, so when the time comes, your body legitimately doesn’t know how to do the move any way but the right way. I do a drill called “Perfect Match” where I drill every move on my partner in order, as if the match went perfectly. Then I change my drilling based on circumstances that might occur (I end up on bottom, he gives me his back, etc.). But I drill my best 1-3 moves for each common position. This isn’t the time to learn new tricks, but to sharpen the tools you have.

Eat clean. Drink tons of water. Cut out alcohol, sugar and junk foods, especially if you’re close to weight.

This post isn’t about cutting weight — that could be an entire series — so I will only say two things about that. I don’t recommend cutting much, if any weight. I think you should compete at your natural weight, with you healthy. That means fueling your body with healthy food and lots of water. If you’re close to a particular weight class, though, and want to drop a few pounds, the single most effective method I’ve found is eliminating any beverages from your diet except for water and green tea. Drink a ton of water — I drink 1.5 to 2 gallons a day — until a few days before the tournament. This way you’ll be nice and hydrated, you won’t eat junk calories, and you can shed a few pounds easily without compromising anything.


Keep eating clean. You’re eating for performance. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth taking seriously.


A week out, it’s time to taper down your training. Some schools, including Robert Drysdale’s, have suggested competitors not train the week before the competition — that way, you’re hungry and excited and your body has recovered from the hard work it’s done. I don’t go that far, but I do mostly drilling and only roll light rounds, and then only with people I know and completely trust. This is another lesson I’ve learned the hard way: Don’t roll with that guy who sometimes goes too hard. Don’t roll with the guy you don’t know. You’ve put in time, effort, financial resources — don’t let an ill-advised sparring session jack you up 2 days before.

Personally, I drill light on Thursday, run through my perfect match, and then do nothing on Friday. If I’m close to weight, I’ll do yoga. (Hot yoga will take water out of you fast, but it might also deplete you if you’re not used to it.)

If you’re worried about weight, cut down on salt intake a few days before, and water intake 24 hours before. Note: be careful of ibuprofen. I’ve learned that hard way (after gaining four pounds overnight) that it’ll make you retain water. Otherwise, eat wisely, don’t over-exert yourself, and don’t take unnecessary risks.



* a bag of healthy food (fruit, nuts, protein bars) and water
* your ID
* at least one complete spare gi
* music or a book to get lost in if you like

Get to the tournament as early as you can. This isn’t because you’ll need to be there all day (although you’ll probably want to watch your teammates, too): it’s because you want to be familiar with the environment, acclimate yourself to the surroundings, and just get relaxed and comfortable. There will be many mats going, and it can be overwhelming. Give yourself time to get used to it.

Well before your division is called, if you’re close to the weight limit, go to the bullpen — an area blocked off with yellow barriers — there is a practice scale there. You can check your weight. Be sure to do so in your competition gi, so you can be assured of an accurate reading. This will give you an idea of how much food or water you can consume beforehand. If you’re thirsty, your teammates can get you water after you weigh in. More on that in a second.

The schedule will have a rough estimate of when your division will be called. Plan to be in the area an hour before, just to be sure: schedules change. When your division is called, you’ll go to the bullpen. Bring your ID with you.

When it’s time, the mat coordinator will call your name and check you in. Shortly after that, you’ll go to the line to have your gi checked. A worker will make sure your gi meets the IBJJF legal requirements for length and for patches. This is why you need a spare gi: they might disqualify your gi, or your belt, or make you tear patches off. This probably won’t happen, but it’s best to be prepared.

After they approve your gi, you’ll go to the scale. You only get one chance to weigh in, so be sure you’re on weight before you step on that scale.

Assuming you’re on weight, they’ll take you right to the mat that you’re going to compete on. Your coaches and teammates can join you there — and hand you water if you’re thirsty or get dry mouth.

From there, you’ll win your first match. You’ll get a break before you have to compete again. After that, if you have a second match, you’ll win that one too. This continues until you win your gold medal match, and decide to compete in Absolute (you have to medal to qualify for Absolute). Then you win Absolute too.

At least, that’s what I hope for you. Now go forth and have fun out there.

What Is A Competition Mentality?

As a visitor to another academy, I never expect high-level black belts to roll with me. They’ve earned the right to train with whoever they want to. But Fernando Yamasaki had heard that I was competing at a major tournament soon, and he wanted to help me.

“Come after me,” he said. “Really kick my butt.” (Yeah, like that’s going to happen.)

My philosophy on sparring with people who outclass me is simple: I try to be as technical as possible, to try to do correct movements. I try not to use much strength or athleticism — partially because I don’t actually have those things, but mostly because this person is going to beat me anyway. I might as well be cerebral about my beating so I can learn from it, instead of risking hitting them in the nose and really taking a whooping. I rolled as well as I could against Fernando, but I wasn’t trying to go at competition speed and he knew it.

After the round was over, he put my hand on my shoulder and said this:

“You’re a very nice man,” he said, not meaning it as a compliment. “But that doesn’t work for competition.”

(It sure didn’t work here, but this was still a fun match)


If you asked people I train with to describe me, I think that word would come up, nice. I certainly try to be. I also try to be realistic about my own level — I’m 41 and do this as a hobby, often in the 30+ division — and this type of realism creates humility, because realistically, there are a lot of people that are better at jiujitsu than I am. This isn’t something I have to be convinced of: it’s just naturally how I think and who I am.

Which brings up another story about another badass black belt scoffing at me. When I came out for a major tournament, I got pulled out of the bullpen and went to stand by the mat where I’d compete. Jason Culbreth saw me smiling and laughing and waving to people. He tried to give me a lecture about getting into the kick-that-guy’s-ass mindframe. But I just couldn’t stop smiling. This is what I do for fun, I said, and shrugged.

“Well,” he responded with a mix of amusement and disgust, “you’ve got to be who you are, I guess.”

Part of the way I act before the match is rational, and part of it isn’t. The rational part of my mind says that both me and the other guy have prepared as much as we can, and either I’m better than him or I’m not. There isn’t much I can do about it at the point right before the match, so why stress about it?

The irrational part is something that I don’t admit very often, and now I’m going to admit it in public. What I’m about to admit is odd, and it makes me very fortunate.

Once the match begins and we slap hands, I think I’m going to win. Always. No matter what. No matter who the other person is, no matter how badly the match is going. The other person could be a world-class black belt, and I just wouldn’t think about that during the flow of the match. My opponent could be up 25-0, and I’d believe that I was going to catch a neck or a foot and submit him. (This happened to me at the Worlds, when I was down something like 13-2 and I never thought I was going to lose until the timer went off).

Lost this match, too.

Lost this match, too.

This isn’t something I’ve trained: it’s just something that happens, which is lucky for me, because I think the mental aspect of jiujitsu is critical.In order to compete, you have to get rid of doubt.

By itself, this isn’t even very unusual. Most of the successful competitors I know describe something similar, a preternatural confidence.

What makes my experience strange is that, outside of that few intense minutes on the mat, I think I’m very conscious of where I stand. If you were to ask me about certain guys I compete against, I have no problem saying who I think is better than me (which drives my instructor crazy sometimes). During tournaments, I’ll find myself in a situation where I’m in a match with someone who, objectively, should smash me. But that thought won’t even occur to me. A few minutes after his hand gets raised, I’ll think … “wait a second, how did I think I could beat that guy?”

I don’t have an answer to that question. I don’t know why it happens. And I don’t feel like this is something I can take credit for, since it’s just happened for me, the way some people are naturally strong, or fast.

This works both ways, of course. We all know someone who is an absolute beast that, for some reason, doesn’t realize that they should be beating up everyone. I know a lot of competitors these days have mental coaches, which makes sense. Mental attributes are just like physical attributes. We all get dealt a hand by nature, and then it’s up to us to maximize what we’ve been given. You might be naturally strong, but you have to do work to maintain and enhance that. A competition mentality is the same: some people are born with it. Some people need to develop it, just like physical strength.

And maybe you’re strong, but don’t have a lot of flexibility: truly training to be the best you can be involves addressing weaknesses as well as strengths. Even top-level competitors admit to competition nerves. It’s unproductive to complain about the guy in the gym with monstrous muscles: it’s more productive to honestly analyze what your own gifts are, as well as the traits you have to improve.

When I compete seriously, I try to visit as many different academies as I can. My own school will always be home, but if we don’t have class or if I’m traveling, it’s valuable to train with people who do techniques differently, who have different strengths than I do, and people who are just plain better.

I’ll keep rolling with whoever will train with me. And I’ll continue to be as nice as I can. Most of all, in terms of competition, I’ll adhere to the advice of Fernando Yamasaki — modified by the maxim of my favorite philosophy graduate from NYU:

For every job, there is a perfect tool. Life is about taking the tools you’re given and applying them as best you can in the correct situations. I’m grateful for the odd little mental switch in me that flips when the match starts, even if I don’t fully understand it.

What Were The Top Submissions of 2015?

There are two reasons I wanted to analyze all the matches from US Grappling‘s points tournaments last year. The first: examining big-picture trends can tell us a lot about what works in practice, what people are doing, what we need to be drilling and what we need to be alert about defending.

The second reason is that I am a giant nerd, and I love data, and I wanted to talk about data on the year-end Cageside ConcussionCast. I go way more in-depth over there, and you can listen to the archived show here or subscribe on iTunes. What follows is a breakdown of all the matches for which we have information in 2015.

To get this, I went through all of the scanned brackets that were available (thanks, Brian & Chrissy Linzy) and put the results into a Google Spreadsheet for ease of data manipulation. There are some caveats about this data, but only super-nerds care about that, so I’ll save them until the end. What you really care about are the results, so let’s get into them.

Generally speaking, about half of US Grappling matches go to points. Of the 2091 matches I analyzed, about 1100 ended in submission, so slightly more than 50 percent end with taps. If you’re betting on whether a match will have a submission or not, you’re slightly better off betting “yes,” but keep in mind that you’re better off betting on points than on any specific submission. Even the armbar. But if you’re going to bet on one submission …

The arm bar is the most common submission in every division group except one, which is 30+ men’s nogi, where it runs a close second to the Rear Naked Choke (RNC). The armbar is still king in the Men’s Purple to Black belt gi divisions, but it’s close: the arm bar beats the bow & arrow choke by a narrow margin.

(To avoid confusion on something I say below, when I say “division group,” I mean “Men’s NoGi, Women’s Gi,” and those larger groups. The arm bar isn’t the top submission for Men’s Advanced NoGi, for example, but it is the top submission for Men’s NoGi generally. I broke the data down this way for sample size purposes.)

Here’s the chart of all the most common submissions, in order, with the top 15 in red:

US Grappling submissions

Of course, the arm bar is allowed in every division, so that gives it an advantage in terms of pure numbers. We’d expect the main submission to be something that every division, gi or nogi, white belt to black belt, can do. We wouldn’t necessarily expect the arm bar to be this far ahead of everything else, though, so that feels significant.

A related point: chokes using the kimono can only be done in half of the divisions, so they’re way more powerful than they look from this chart. The good old-fashioned collar choke performs very well, as does the bow & arrow, especially in the upper belt divisions. The same applies to leg locks. Aside from the straight ankle lock, only upper belts get to use them.

And if you break the data down into specific sub-divisions, you see how powerful the heel hook is. It’s only allowed in adult advanced NoGi, and yet there were 22 heel hook submissions — more than twice the next-most common submission. By the way, there were also 10 toe holds and a couple of calf slicers, so hide your feet in adult advanced.

Here are the top five submissions. Let me know if you see a common thread.

Armbar: 279
Rear Naked Choke: 105
Triangle: 102
Collar Choke: 88
Guillotine & Kimura (tie): 68

That’s right: the most common submissions are all moves you’re going to learn in the first six months. That stuff doesn’t stop working. Keep drilling it.

Yes, fancy stuff happens. We had an electric chair submission (what’s up, Marcel Fucci?). A gogoplata (what’s up Alec Cerruto?). And two Peruvian neckties, in the beginner division and white belt division (stop watching YouTube, guys). But for the most part, it’s the basics that get it done.

To give you an idea about this: the 6th most popular submission is the bow & arrow choke. There were more bow & arrows than the bottom 17 submissions combined, including all the funky stuff.

Wrist locks. The dandy is back with a vengeance, getting 13 submissions. That’s twice as much as the baseball choke. Cutter chokes are also more popular than I would have guessed: there were more cutter submissions than the North South choke and the Anaconda choke combined.

Three omoplata submissions all year. Yes, most people use the omoplata as a sweep. And maybe this is because it’s one of my favorite moves, but there were as many bulldog chokes (3) as there were omoplatas, which surprised me.

There were four taps to pressure last year. The surprising part about this: three came from blue belts, one from a purple belt. There were more taps to pressure last year than taps to clock chokes (3, two by Jake Whitfield) or loop chokes.

I rolled injury, default and disqualification into one category (and there was only one DQ that I remember counting) so this number tabulates matches ending in injury and people not showing for the next match, either due to injury, fatigue, or whatever.

The realities of our bodies: they get more fragile as they age. Another reality: one gender pushes out babies. Thus, it should be no great surprise that older guys (like me) get hurt at a higher rate and women just don’t default from matches at anywhere near the rate guys do.

Let’s start with the old guys: of the 47 total men’s division defaults, 17 were 30+ men. There were 441 30+ men’s matches. One in 26 of those matches had an injury default. This is still not a huge rate, given that we try to bend each other’s joints the wrong way, but it’s far and away the highest rate of the groups I looked. By contrast, the total injury rate for men is one in 38.5 matches.

What about the women? 282 matches, four defaults. FOUR. That’s about one in 70 matches. And it gets more impressive: I was reffing the tournament where two of those defaults took place, and at least two of them were closeouts. That’s when two teammates meet in the finals and choose not to compete against each other, meaning those were non-injury defaults as well. In reality, that number is more like 1 in every 140 matches.

Granted, this is a small sample size. But still, it’s worth noting. Women of jiu-jitsu, Kathleen Hanna and I tip our caps to you.


So, when you break the data down further to just a few advanced divisions, the picture changes slightly. I grouped the information from adult advanced NoGi and brown & black belt gi divisions.

The results: armbars are still powerful, but leg locks really change the game. Heel hooks are very common, and toe holds aren’t far behind. (Also, big surprise: in 219 matches, zero rear naked chokes or straight ankle locks.) Consider this, too: advanced grappling matches are slightly more likely to end in submission than other matches, from this sample. Out of 219 total matches, 131 ended in submission. Interestingly, in a fairly small gi sample of 51 matches, there were twice as many taps as there were matches that went to points (34 to 17).

US Grappling Advanced Division Stats

To close this out, let me show you the broad division groups I put the numbers into. I combined them this way for sample size purposes.

Here are the top five submissions for each broad division group:


Men White & Blue Belt Gi  Men Purple to Black Belt Gi  Men NoGi Women Gi Women NoGi 30+ Men Gi 30+ Men NoGi
Armbar Armbar Armbar Armbar Armbar Armbar RNC
Collar Choke Triangle RNC Collar Choke Americana Collar Choke Armbar
Triangle Bow & Arrow Guillotine Americana RNC Bow & Arrow Kimura
Kimura Ezekiel Heel Hook Bow & Arrow Guillotine Triangle Guillotine
Bow & Arrow Collar Arm Triangle Ezekiel Kimura Kimura Arm Triangle

By the way, if I put “Default” on here, it’d be the No. 3 submission for men’s 30+ in the gi.

Any project has limitations, and I want to acknowledge them. For one thing, this only tabulates the points tournaments, not the US Grappling Submission Only tournaments. If there is enough interest, I’ll do a post about those as well. Also, some data is missing: the majority of table workers did a great job with writing down results, but there were many brackets with either no information about how someone won, or the information was vague (“verbal submission,” but not what submission). So I didn’t include the information if it wasn’t reliable.

There are also issues with terminology. Some of this is easy. I rolled “keylock” and “Americana” into one category, which is obvious, and “Darce” and “Brabo” into one category. But there is also the more vague “shoulder lock,” which ended up getting counted as a kimura. And the whole “collar choke” category includes all collar chokes, because the brackets don’t specify from mount or from guard. That’s information I’d like to have, but we just don’t have it. Then, you have the possibility of transcription errors, so we should take this for what it’s worth: a fun look at big-picture data.

I guess I’m saying this: Before you use it for your master’s thesis, maybe hit me up with an e-mail. Thanks for reading!

Margarida, the Forgotten Champion

Have you ever seen the amusing video of a black belt explaining how jiujitsu movements equate to taking off tight clubbing jeans? Don’t worry, I won’t make you use Mr. Google:

Funny video, right? But today I was having a conversation with Jake Whitfield, who is a Royce Gracie black belt with a passion for jiujitsu history, and Jake mused that if you know the name Fernando “Margarida” Pontes these days, it might be because of this hilarious snippet. And that’s a crime.

(Full disclosure: a lot of the information in this post I got straight from Jake. So if you’re near Goldsboro, NC, go train with him, OK?)

Generations change. Some names remain prominent while others fade, and not always based on merit or accomplishment. On the basis of accomplishments alone, Margarida’s record speaks for itself. He was the first black belt to earn double gold at the worlds, and at that time was also the youngest absolute champion in history. BJJ Heroes calls him “one of the most accomplished and exciting fighters to have walked the Earth.”

Besides the gold medals, consider what Margarida’s aggressive, attacking style earned him.  For one thing — and think about how many times you’ll read the following words in this order — he submitted the legendary Fabio Gurgel:

He also tapped Marcio “Pe de pano” Cruz and Saulo Ribeiro, both in their respective primes.

If you’re part of the crowd that just wants to see highlights, don’t you worry: Margarida had an exciting and flashy game. Watch him stick his hand in the collar and make it a constant threat:

If technique’s more your thing, watch him teach the baseball choke here:

You can search YouTube and find full matches with Terere, Saulo, Xande, Roger and more that I haven’t linked here. It’s up to you to decide how to use your time.

But however you use it: don’t watch one amusing minute and think that’s all you need to see from one of the best ever.


What Makes a Good Tournament?

Competition is valuable. The experience you get from standing across from another combat athlete who is going to try assiduously to choke you or bend your joints the wrong way is hard to replicate.

A tournament can either be a winning experience or a learning experience, or ideally both. Apart from the matches themselves, though, whether you have a good time at an event really depends heavily on how the tournament is run.

Since I starting training almost five years ago, I’ve been fortunate to compete at a ton of different events run by different organizations. During this time, I’ve developed some fairly firm thoughts on what makes a tournament a good experience for competitors — and by contrast, what undermines a competitor’s experience.

Yes, you want to win medals. But other things go into making a tournament a good experience!

Yes, you want to win medals. But other things go into making a tournament a good experience!

Follow me through my list, which is organized into “you’ve got to have these things” and “it is nice when tournaments have these things.” Continue reading

Preparing for BJJ Tournaments 101

It’s tournament season, and with both the IBJJF New York Open and US Grappling’s Grapplemania in North Carolina just a few weeks away, I’m sure many of you will be competing — and some of you will be competing for the first time.

Since I did my first competition a little more than four years ago, I’ve learned a great deal. This includes a bunch of material I wish I’d known before my inaugural voyage into choking and being choked for medals. Hence, I wrote several posts designed to help my friends and the other students at the academy get ready.

We’re long overdue for lazy re-packaging of previous content some judicious aggregation and curation of past posts. Here are some of the posts that I think might be interesting if you’re relatively new to tournaments:


Be the Clerk, Not the Miller

While reading a technique post on social media the other day, I thought of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You know, as one does.

A very good black belt had posted a technique video with a helpful, fairly detailed explanation of the theory behind the move. Most of the commentary was positive, but one poster sneeringly suggested that the technique would only work in theory, and only against someone who didn’t know jiujitsu, which he called “jits.” He suggested an alternate technique, ending in what he called “kasa katami.”

It should go without saying to anyone who has browsed the jiujitsu corners of the Internet that this individual was a white belt.


Now, I’m not trying to pick on white belts in general here. Really. In fact, I’ll bet that every humble, dedicated white belt out there (and we have a lot of ’em) is making a facepalm pose. And yet, as the Bard put it, this type of shit happens every day.

Reacting to a black belt’s technique video in this manner is as silly as it is disrespectful — from any belt level — for two reasons. First, it assumes that you as the poster know more than the black belt does, which is a pretty bad bet.

Second, a strong statement reaction (“this wouldn’t work”) as opposed to an open question reaction (“I’m having a tough time visualizing how you’d use this. Can you explain why you’d do X instead of Y?”) cuts off access to information.

We’re all in this for different reasons, and so an instructor primarily concerned with self defense may be showing a move for purposes that wouldn’t make sense for competition, or vice versa. A black belt probably has a well-thought-out rationale for teaching something, but you won’t find out if you say something instead of asking something.

That, I hope, is apparent to most of us: respect the black belts. But there’s another element to this.

As someone gains knowledge in jiujitsu, that person feels more comfortable speaking up. Many of these folks want to teach, too, whether that means formally or just helping out less-experienced students in class.

Enthusiasm and passion should be encouraged, not squashed: I’d much rather have an enthusiastic person try to help someone out and make a mistake while doing so than have a selfish person never try. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach teaching and learning.

For guidance on the right and wrong ways, I naturally turned to an influential 14th century text.


If you don’t keep The Canterbury Tales beside your bed or commode for light reading, here’s a summary: a group of travelers becomes engaged in a storytelling contest, where the winner will receive a free meal. Along the way, we learn about the characters both from their descriptions and from the stories each of them chooses to tell.

It’s sort of like a medieval reality show, but with more believable characters and only one Kardashian (the Wife of Bath).

This line describing one of the characters, the Clerk, has always stuck with me. It was the inspiration for this post:

Sounding in moral virtue was his speech,
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

Clerk Canterbury copy

The Clerk and his friend on their way to class.

The Clerk is a student of philosophy. He doesn’t say much, but when he does, his words are helpful and virtuous. He’s hard-working and devoted to reading and studying. He’s open-minded in terms of receiving knowledge, and humble about passing on the knowledge he has received.

Training with people like this is great. They share videos with you. They help you break down moves that you can’t yet hit, but don’t condescend to you about messing the moves up. And let’s not forget, philosophy is a part of jiujitsu).

This is the ideal approach, in my view. Gladly learn. Don’t necessarily say much (“he never spoke a word more than was need”), but make what you say count. Help others if you’re asked to. Gladly teach.

I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of black belts. Most of the best teachers are like this. Draw your own conclusions from that.


One reason the Canterbury Tales is significant in Western literature is that it popularized the use of the vernacular. And The Miller, in the vernacular, is a dick.

"I'm that dude who bought the fanciest gi I could find after one class. And this isn't a musical instrument, it's a visual representation of me sucking."

“I’m that dude who bought the fanciest gi I could find after one class. And this isn’t a musical instrument, it’s a visual representation of me sucking.”

The Miller is stout and strong. His physical prowess no doubt helped make him inconsiderate and a bully: he interrupts others, even going so far as to upset the host’s plans for the order in which tales are told. (He is — I pass this along without comment — noted as a wrestler in the text).

Oh, and when he tells his story, he does so in a way that denigrates several in the group, especially the nerds. Does this sound like anybody you’ve trained with? I hope not, but I’d bet so.

This is the not, in my view, a good representation of a martial artist. In fact, the Miller is the antithesis of a good training partner. When I think of him, I think of the big, strong guy who calls out the smallest person in the room, keylocks them and celebrates.

Then, when someone tries to correct his technique — to help him improve — he responds with a derisive “well, it worked, didn’t it?” As if that were the point.

There are lessons here for being a good training partner, for being an effective student, and more generally for being a pleasant human being to be around. Those lessons in two sentences:

Be the Clerk. Then go train and tap the Miller.

The Great Cobrinha

Right before Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles‘s match with Osvaldo Quiexinho at this year’s worlds, I told some friends that the match could be a sleeper.

Quiexinho is a rising star who beat Paulo Miyao last year, and he has a strong competition game. With everyone expecting another final between Cobrinha and Rafael Mendes, I said, Quiexinho could create problems if Cobrinha is just looking ahead to the final.

One of the best ever.

One of the best ever.

This assessment was wrong, and I should have known. Cobrinha isn’t just one of the best ever, he’s one of the most consistent elite jiujitsu players ever. Quiexinho has a bright future, but Cobrinha is still right there with Rafa Mendes as the featherweight top dog.

While I don’t think Cobrinha is underrated among people in the know, I think it’s worth reflecting on exactly how much this legend has accomplished in his tremendous career. We’re getting to watch one of the greatest of all time in the midst of an epic rivalry. Let’s step back and appreciate it.

Let’s start with the world championships. Only three men have won four or more featherweight Mundial gold medals: Cobrinha, the aforementioned Rafael Mendes, and another all-time great, Royler Gracie. Cobrinha has three nogi world championships as well.

He’s also an Abu Dhabi Champion, having beaten (you guessed it) Rafael Mendes in the 2013 final:

Those accolades alone would make him an all-time great. But consider how things might be different had Rafael Mendes never existed.

In winning worlds this year, Mendes became a five-time world champion, the first featherweight athlete to earn five such titles. All of these gold medals came during Cobrinha’s prime years.

Consider that Cobrinha beats everybody other than Rafa — including accomplished competitors like Quiexinho — and beats them, in most cases, without a great deal of trouble. In a world without Rafael Mendes, there are six potential world championships on the table for Cobrinha.

In this alternate world, even if Tanquinho still wins in 2013 and another title slips away from Cobrinha somehow, we’re talking about eight world championships instead of four, and a reign of utter dominance from 2006 until now. (That number could be nine or even 10, but let’s be conservative). Keep in mind, too, that Cobrinha isn’t done by any means, and if there were no Rafa Mendes, he’d have breezed to another world championship last month.

In that world, this period of sustained dominance could have him in the conversation for greatest of all time, right up there with Roger Gracie and Marcelo Garcia . The alternative title for this post was, in fact, “A World Without Rafael Mendes,” but I thought that took the focus away from Cobrinha’s achievements.

Cobrinha also has an awesome dog, and is by all accounts a great guy.

Cobrinha also has an awesome dog, and is by all accounts a great guy.


We can take a pause here to consider what this says about the otherworldly skills of Rafael Mendes, but just for a moment. This post is about Cobrinha. Think about all that Cobrinha has achieved — and then think about how good a guy has to be to do this to him.

You can’t talk about one of these men without talking about the other, though — the rivalry is that significant. Mendes acknowledged this in a Facebook post after his win, saying “because of Cobrinha I became probably ten times better than I would ever be if he was not there.”

Cobrinha will turn 36 in December. He’s still performing at an elite level, but time has a way of passing.

If he retired today, we’d still remember him as one of the greats. But Cobrinha is not retiring today, so let’s be sure to appreciate what we’re watching while we have the chance.

Mundial Black Belt Predictions

The brackets are out for the Mundials, and since I’m not competing this year I have a little more time to think about watching as just a fan.

Some years, I try to do a pool where people predict the champion in each weight class. Maybe I’ll do that again this year. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on each division: I’m going to take a stab at picking the winner and then say a little something about the reasoning.


Roosterweight: Bruno Malfacine. Bruno is one of the best competitors ever, so he has to be considered the favorite. I’ll be interested to see Joao Miyao after another year of experience, though, and I hope for a rematch of last year’s final.

Light featherweight: Paulo Miyao. It looks like a Samir Chantre-Miyao final here, and although Samir is one of my favorite people in jiujitsu, this looks like Miyao’s year.

Featherweight: Rafael Mendes. Still the best.

Lightweight: Lucas Lepri. I was tempted to pick JT Torres (another of my favorite guys) here, but Lepri has the experience edge. Plus, he’s in North Carolina now. I will say that I’m very excited for this potential final.

Middleweight: Murilo Santana. This is one of the upsets I’m picking. Murilo Santana is probably the most underrated competitor in jiujitsu: Gracie Mag didn’t even list him among their top 5 likely winners of this division. And it’s true has a tougher road to the final than last year’s champ, Otavio Sousa. But I think Santana vs. Victor Estima, which is the potential quarterfinal matchup, is a great match that Murilo can win. I don’t think there’s anyone in the field Santana can’t beat, and I’m looking forward to watching him compete.

Medium Heavy:  Leandro Lo. No Keenan Cornelius in this division as a last-minute surprise makes Lo the favorite, I think, with Guto Campos a potential opponent for the final.

Heavyweight: Xande Ribeiro. This was an interesting division even before Keenan entered, with veterans (Ribeiro, Lucas Leite) alongside younger competitors like Jackson Sousa and Tim Spriggs. Xande is timeless. I think he’s the favorite.

Super Heavyweight: Bernardo Faria. Faria’s game is tough for anyone to deal with. Even if some people don’t like watching it, I imagine it’s way worse competing against it.

Ultra Heavyweight: Marcus Buchecha Almeida. An ultra heavyweight that moves like a lightweight and doesn’t get tired? And no Rodolfo?

Absolute: Marcus Buchecha Almeida. See above.



Light featherweight: Gezary Matuda. Matuda is a boss, and has no Leticia Ribeiro or Nyjah Easton in a small division this year.

Featherweight: Michelle Nicolini. Nicolini and Mackenzie Dern have awesome matches, and I expect another in the final. To be the women, you gotta beat the woman. And watch for Dern-Tammi Musumeci in earlier rounds!

Lightweight: Beatriz Mesquita. Last year’s absolute champion is still, in my eyes, the pound for pound queen. It’s tough to see anyone beating her in this division.

Middleweight: Luiza Monteiro. It’s an excruciating pick between Monteiro (one of my current favorite athletes) and Luanna Alzuiguir (one of my all-time favorites). Alzuiguir signed my belt when I met her at the worlds in 2011, a year in which she took double gold. But Monteiro has competed more recently, took silver to Mesquita last year, and I think she breaks through here. Assuming this happens, it’ll be an epic final.

Medium Heavy: Ana Laura Cordeiro. Last year’s champ. Another all-time great. Another small division.

Heavyweight: Dominyka Obelenyte. This is a small but very tough division with Gracie Barra’s Tammy Griego and GF Team’s Vanessa Oliveira as well. But Obelenyte, of Marcelo Garcia’s team, was a monster at brown belt and continues to perform at a high level. Watch out for her in absolute as well.

Super Heavyweight: Venla Luukonen. Without Gabi Garcia, last year’s champ remains the favorite. But watch out for Talita Nogueira, a former world champ and current Bellator fighter.

Absolute:  Beatriz Mesquita. The argument against Mesquita repeating as absolute champion is primarily size-based. But remember how she was able to keep matches even against the mighty Gabi close, and don’t bet against her.


Those are my initial impressions: take them as you will. And remember there are always surprises, so I’m looking forward to watching people I’m not as familiar with.