15 Quotes From Moby Dick That Are Actually About Jiujitsu

I first read Moby Dick at a young age, too many years ago to admit. I first realized that the book is actually about jiu-jitsu just this week.

Herman Melville’s opus chronicles a titanic struggle between an otherworldly whale and his human arch-nemesis. Although ultimately the whale teaches Ahab to laugh and love again through the healing power of sea chanties — sorry for the spoilers — the novel is really about obsession.

The most powerful passages from what is, to me, the most American of novels, hit on these themes: there is power in passion and commitment, but also danger; the beautiful corners of life can also be terrible, and that terror has substantial interplay with the beauty; and finally, we’re drawn as human beings to perilous pursuits, but there is peril in ignorance and comfort as well.

Moby Dick is about a subculture of diverse, intrepid people who share an extreme life experience that only a small fraction of human beings ever will. Their journeys take them spectacular places, far out of each individual’s comfort zone, and are marked by the knowledge that nothing really serves as a substitute. Like I said: it’s about jiu-jitsu.

If this makes sense to you, you’re probably a nerd. If this really makes sense to you, you’re a nerd who trains. Either way, you’re in the right place.

I could’ve easily picked the top 100 passages from Moby Dick that speak to the jiujitsu lifestyle. Upon the advice of my attorney and life coach (a 10-year-old hound dog named Penny), I’ve whittled it down to 15. Here goes:


1. “…the great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open…”

The narrator of Moby Dick, who goes by the name Ishmael, speaks with awe and wonder of being at sea, using this phrase to describe his perception.

Remember the first time you hit a move cleanly on someone who was trying with all their might to stop you? Or: remember the moment when you first chained two or three moves together? For me, executing my first scissor sweep was like watching an angel came down from heaven and play the entirety of Led Zeppelin IV.

When you’re in the flow, the whole glorious world of possibility opens. This is what it’s like when Ishmael goes to sea, or when many of us hit the mats. We open the great floodgates of the wonder-world.


Learning shin on shin guard from Michelle Nicolini opens a lot of doors.


2. “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

The most rhetorically powerful speech of the book is also its most direct reference to grappling. These climactic epithets Ahab shrieks at Moby Dick always fire me up — and make me think of those gnarly death rolls in the final round of a tournament.

Ahab could really cut a promo, even on a marine mammal. I think more people would love Moby Dick if they produced a version that included just his venomous speeches. I mean, just read that passage again: it’s as if the Spartans at Thermopylae had a speechwriter that wrote for an academic version of Ric Flair. If they boiled down Moby Dick to these speeches, it’d be like Thomas Jefferson’s version of the Bible: lean and mean.


3. “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

The cannibal moral center of the novel, Queequeg, is a native of Rokovoko, “an island far away to the West and South.” But you can’t find it. Because it’s not on the map.

Speaking of jiujitsu is a journey is common — because it is. Your instructor might show you a move, or teach you a concept. It’s up to you to perfect that move for you, or internalize that concept. That takes time, and effort, and commitment.

It also takes faith. If your instructor could tell you “do these three things, and you’ll be an expert at guard passing,” it would make life a lot simpler. But no honest instructor would do that. You’ve got to pursue that yourself, trusting that walking the path the right way will ultimately lead you to the destination.

Jiujitsu is the truth. That’s why there’s no roadmap.


4. “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

This is Ishmael describing in vivid detail how turbulent his life would get between trips to sea. In the book, the sea provided a release valve for all that pent-up aggression.

One of my friends used to get into a lot of street fights. He’s trained in several martial arts, fought, competed, and generally run the gamut of training options. Once he told me that jiujitsu in the gi is the only art that ever made him a better person.


Don’t walk around knocking hats off of people, or beloved mascots: train.

We all know people who can only simmer down their blood by training. If you’re reading this, you can probably name a dozen people who are sanest and calmest immediately after class.

Maybe you’re one of those people. I am.


5. “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

Sometimes in class, you’re a step late to every move. Sometimes the people you usually submit get away, the people you usually dominate positionally give you hell, and the people who usually whoop up on you lay the smack down even worse than normal.

Sometimes a meme of you getting choked ends up everywhere on the Internet. Life is funny!

6. “I try all things, I achieve what I can.”

One of many “words to live by” lines in the book comes from the maybe-unreliable narrator, Ishmael. When he tries to describe the whale, he confesses it’s not his area of expertise, but he’ll give it a shot.

You have to do this in jiujitsu: you might know you can’t pass your instructor’s guard, but try. Fail. Fail again. Fail better. Try everything. Achieve what you can.


Sometimes, you can win the worlds. But on your way to achieving one thing, don’t forget to keep trying all things.


7. “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

Ishmael says this after he’s been staring into a fire, reaching a near hypnotic state.

The reality is this: sometimes, you should feel bad. Ego isn’t always the enemy, and disappointment is a natural fact of jiujitsu life. There is always someone better than you, and sometimes you have a tough day of competition or a night where everything you try gets shut down.

I’m not going to tell you not to feel bad when this happens. Disappointment is the source of strong motivation. There is wisdom in the woe that comes from a bad result.

In Moby Dick, Ishmael acknowledges that people with strong will — those with souls “in the mountains” — can profit from woe and gloom. This is the way we transcend the ordinary. Don’t let it drive you crazy, though, lest you end up on a boat with some nutjob, or in an emo band.


8. “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.


Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks.”


When you walk into a jiu-jitsu gym, you might think you know who the baddest people are just by looking at them. You’re often wrong.

Like the sea under the surface, jiu-jitsu is subtle, and the deadly creatures come in all shapes, sizes, genders and ages. Like the sharks in Moby Dick, the mat animals are treacherously hidden until it’s too late to avoid them.

9. “Ignorance is the parent of fear.”

This is how Ishmael feels about bigotry: that lack of exposure to cultures like Queequegs leads people to make unfounded assumptions, resulting in anxiety — which perpetuates the lack of awareness that leads to fear in the first place.

This is how I feel about leglocks.


10. “Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me, and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules.


Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally, as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill humour or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”


Who doesn’t love a good head squeeze? We squeeze each other’s heads with our arms, we squeeze each other’s necks with our legs. Then, like the sailors on the Pequod, we squeeze hands afterward in a gesture of friendship and comity.

… and in that passage, Ishmael is talking about whalers breaking up the lumpy spermaceti that is found in the whale’s head and sold. What did you think he was talking about?

11. “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.”

Life is a struggle between hardness and softness. You don’t want to be completely hard, because it stops you from enjoying existence. You don’t want to be completely soft, because you’re unprepared for what life throws at you.

Jiujitsu is fun. Jiujitsu is hard. Hard training necessitates discomfort, which prepares you for other forms of discomfort.


You’ll never stop being uncomfortable. You will learn to embrace the discomfort.


12. “For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught.”

The week Grandmaster Helio Gracie died, he was working on a new choke. Think about that. He’d constructed this art over his whole long life — and was still working on innovations at the end of it.

You’re never done doing jiujitsu. Ever. The power of the art is that you’ll never finish. There is — like the open sea — always more to explore.

This is the source of the blog’s name, too: training jiujitsu means you never stop learning.


13. “I am past scorching; not easily can’st thou scorch a scar.”

Stuff like this happens to you in jiujitsu. Are you really going to be scared of a conversation with your boss after this?


14. “All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.”

Ahab’s admission of his own lunacy rings true for me. I think meticulously and constantly about the best practices for improving at jiujitsu. I review scientific research about nutrition, body and brain health, and the process by which we learn complex tasks.

I do this so I can take part in things that strike the people who don’t train as, well, nuts.

Once, during a hard session preparing for a friend’s fight, we had five upper belts and one white belt taking part. It was summer in North Carolina and the temperature had cracked 100 degrees with the type of humidity associated with a steam room. The sweat was flowing like water and the action was non-stop. The wet air made it tough to breathe.

The white belt was young and in good shape: at least as good as any of us, and maybe better. But he was struggling, and after each drill or sparring round he’d look around at each of us in disbelief. I wasn’t sure what he was looking for — I was using all my mental resources to follow instructions and not fall apart, in that order — until about 20 minutes into the training.

He walked to the door, and opened it, letting in a fresh burst of air. Then he walked outside and shouted back at us:

“You guys are crazy!” It was clear he was leaving.

Without looking up, all five of us instinctually replied: “See ya.”

We kept training. He shook his head in disbelief and I don’t think I’ve seen him since.

If you want to improve, these are the things you do. It’s the correct means to a mad end. Here’s the thing: no one who doesn’t train has to understand.

15. “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”

This one is better left out of context. It’s just a good rule to live your life by.

We have no idea what our futures include. If they include jiujitsu and laughter, I think we’ll all be all right.



Visualize It, Don’t Criticize It

This morning at 6 a.m. jiu-jitsu class, I talked about iterated algorithms. Let me apologize here to all of the students that I hit with that number before daybreak or coffee, and thank the one person who nodded vigorously when I asked “does anyone know what an iterated algorithm is?” (An algorithm that’s been iterated. Duh).

I’ll get back to math-nerdiness in a moment, but let’s start with peer-reviewed study nerdiness. Why should you keep reading? Because this post is about a very simple way that you can improve competition performance — with minimal effort and no risk of injury. You can even do it if your time at jiu-jitsu class is limited. That simple method is visualization.

When I say visualization, here is what I mean: you use your mind to visualize the way you want your match to go. When I’m preparing for competitions, I do this a lot during my off-the-mat time. In fact, I’ll be doing visualization constantly all the way up to my time in the bullpen preparing for tournament matches. I’ll visualize myself doing all the techniques that I’d do if the match goes exactly the way I want it to: single leg takedown, knee cut pass, knee drive to mount, mounted collar choke. In my mind’s eye, I guide myself through all of these steps.

To name one benefit, it helps me be calm and focus in that nerve-wracking time before I step on the mat. But there are more benefits, and study after scientific study has shown that using visualization techniques has myriad benefits, including improving sport-specific skills, improving strength and coordination. Bluntly, visualizing a guard pass will help you pass the guard more effectively. 

Skeptical? A host of studies bear this out, on topics as widely varied as strength training, golf, judo and other skills-based competitive activities. While I’m hardly an expert on this research, I’ve read more than a few studies on the topic. There is a broad general agreement on the fact that visualization has benefits, although the theories about why these benefits exist vary. But you don’t care overmuch about the why, do you? You want to pass the guard better. You want better results.

So let’s get you there. First, I’m going to review some of the visualization studies I’ve read. That’ll hopefully convince you that this is a thing you should be doing, because this is rigorous, peer-reviewed research. Second, I’m going to tell you my method of visualization, which hasn’t been tested by anybody, but seems to work for me. Then we’ll get back to iterated algorithms. How can you not stay to the end after that teaser?

Visualize! ... but not like this.

Visualize! … but not like this.

Here’s the big picture: many, many different studies have been done on this, trying to establish whether we can prove that visualization effects are real. I’ll get into the specific studies in a second, but sometimes the most convincing evidence is a review that takes into account a bunch of research. Let’s say, for example, someone did a meta-study that examined more than 20 research projects into visualization’s effects. If they found a general trend toward major benefits, that would tell us something, no? Check this out:

Empirical research suggests that mental practice may enhance the performance of motor skills. Many variables have been shown to mediate the size and direction of the mental practice effects. The purpose of the present study is to provide an overview of research examining the role played by these variables in mediating the effectiveness of mental practice. In order to integrate the findings in the literature and to further analyze the relative contributions of each of these variables, a meta-analysis was performed according to the procedure outlined by Smith, Glass, and Miller. Twenty-one studies that met the criteria of having both an adequate control and a mental practice alone group were included in the meta-analysis. The forty-four separate effect sizes resulted in an overall average effect size of .68, (SD = .11) indicating that there is a significant benefit to performance of using mental practice over no practice. (emphasis added)

In summary, scientists picked 21 of the best studies they could find, and those studies had to have a way of determining whether mental practice alone could be shown to have a benefit. In those studies, there were 44 “effects” shown from visualization. And while these effect sizes varied, they were found to show clear and significant benefits to performance across the board.

Whenever I read a single study, my inner skeptic tells me to be cautious of the conclusions. You can find one study that says virtually anything you want it to. When it’s a couple of dozen well-designed studies across decades, you get on much more solid ground.

If groups of studies are more convincing, specific studies are more fascinating and evocative. Just check out the narrative from this guy’s thesis, describing a couple of important research projects and their conclusions.

In addition, Eddy & Mellalieu (2003) elaborated that the use of imagery techniques to imagine performing a specific sports skill has been shown to improve the physical performance of that. Using the mind, an athlete can register positive images over and over, enhancing the skill through repetition or rehearsal, similar to physical practice. Therefore, with mental rehearsal, minds and bodies become trained to actually perform the skill imagined. Imagery and visualization is the development of creating a mental image or goal of what he/she wants to happen or feel. Research by Newmark (2012) supports visualization was first applied to sports performance after the 1984 Olympics, when Russian researchers studying Olympic athletes found that Olympians who had employed visualization techniques experienced a positive impact on their biological outcomes and performance. (emphasis added)

To a certain extent, this is intuitive. Our brains run on electrical impulses, and using our brains to visualize, say, a sweep, seems like it should get the right patterns set in our brains. Besides, most of us spend an all-too-brief time actually on the mats during the week. The knowledge that thinking about the motion of shrimping while you’re sitting at your desk might improve your jiu-jitsu is powerful. While there’s certainly no substitute for hard physical training, it’s helpful to know that mental training — which you can do anywhere — can afford additional benefits.

This is how I visualize. (Note: not really)

This is how I visualize. (Note: not really)


When I say “benefits,” I’m talking sport-specific benefits. Take golf, for example. Two different studies tracked golfers on their putting accuracy: one found “significant performance improvements” in putting from visualization, and the other found that “using positive imagery” (i.e., imagining a successful putt instead of a missed putt) had a “significant main effect on performance improvement.” We’re talking a very specific motor-skills task here, folks: visualizing yourself striking a putt and having that putt go in makes your putting more likely to be accurate.

It’s not just golf, of course. Martial artists will be thrilled (and hopefully unsurprised) to learn that visualization while training judo not only helps you learn judo techniques, it also helps your “imaging” knowledge, your ability to successfully visualize. Like any task, the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the more you think about it, the better you get at thinking about it. When you put it that way, it seems like common sense, right?

Finally, one study that really blew my mind — and, to some researchers, hints at the mechanism by which visualization works. It’s one thing to talk about visualization improving your body’s coordination. But research shows that it increases your actual muscle strength as well. Read that again. Visualizing muscle movement actually increases your muscle strength. You remember in the Matrix, how Keanu Reeves had never used his muscles before, but he still could, y’know, move? Turns out that’s not so unrealistic.

Researchers asked 30 young, healthy volunteers to participate in the study. Eight of them were trained to perform “mental contractions” of their little finger muscles, without actually moving the muscles. Eight other people did the same mental task, but with elbow movements. Six other volunteers actually did the finger muscle movements instead of thinking about them. Then the remaining eight weren’t trained at all, physically or mentally, and served as a control group.

After the 12 week study concluded, they found this:

At the end of training, we found that the [mental-only finger movement] group had increased their finger abduction strength by 35% (P < 0.005) and the [mental-only elbow flexion] group augmented their elbow flexion strength by 13.5% (P < 0.001). The physical training group increased the finger abduction strength by 53% (P < 0.01). The control group showed no significant changes in strength for either finger abduction or elbow flexion tasks. The improvement in muscle strength for trained groups was accompanied by significant increases in electroencephalogram-derived cortical potential, a measure previously shown to be directly related to control of voluntary muscle contractions. We conclude that the mental training employed by this study enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength. (emphasis added)

This tells us that yes, physical exercise is best for building muscle — but mental training can build strength, too. The mind is powerful.


Norman Rockwell did visualizations. Be like Norman Rockwell.

Norman Rockwell did visualizations. Be like Norman Rockwell.

One caveat: the practice of visualization in these studies isn’t standardized, so there’s some variability in how people use terms like “visualizing” and “imaging.” This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it: in fact, if that judo study is to be believed, the more you do it, the more efficient you’ll be (just like jiujitsu itself).

Rather than take you through all the methods used in these studies, I’m going to tell you how I do it, why I do it that way, and what that has to do with an iterated algorithm. I haven’t been the subject of any research studies since I was a kid, so I can’t prove what I do works, but it makes me feel more prepared, and that’s valuable in and of itself.

Given that the research shows that positive imagine has a greater impact — and that Marcelo Garcia says “I don’t worry about what the other guy’s going to do” — I start out by visualizing my ideal match, where everything goes right. I see myself doing the techniques that I’d choose to do if everything works perfectly. For me, those techniques are:

Single leg takedown > Knee cut guard pass > Knee drive pass to mount > Mounted collar choke

What can I say? I’m a simple man who likes choking with his hands. This plan, given the techniques I know and do, is my optimal world. Obviously, you can change it up and insert your ideal match techniques as well. I run through these techniques in my mind over and over before my match.

As we all know, no plan survives engagement with the enemy. Often, people are pesky, and they don’t let you just dominate them from stem to stern. Plus, sometimes I just choose to pull guard. And finally, it’s boring to imagine the same match in the same order over and over.

An iterated algorithm is a concept from math. You start with a number (or point), then process it somehow to obtain a new number or point. When you integrate that new number/point into the process, you create a “feedback mechanism” — and after a while a pattern emerges.

You can think of how I do visualization as several iterations, or, if you prefer, a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I start from the ideal match (Single leg takedown > Knee cut guard pass > Knee drive pass to mount > Mounted collar choke). Then, I insert some changes into the system. What if I get taken down? Maybe it’s:

Get double legged > Recover guard > Tripod sweep > Knee cut guard pass > Knee drive pass to mount > Mounted collar choke

Or what if the process is disrupted in the middle? Maybe he recovers guard, and I have to pass again:

Single leg takedown > Knee cut guard pass > He recovers guard > Torreando pass > Back Take > Bow & Arrow Choke

You can see that the possibilities are infinite. But two commonalities remain: first, I always visualize finding a way to win the match; and second, I keep the visualizations to my A-game techniques, the most likely tactics that I’ll have to use. This keeps all my best options in the top of my mind. It also gives me something to do in the bullpen, which is nice.

In most competitive pursuits, the person who is able to impose their game on the other party wins. This is why drilling and rolling are both important: getting to your happy place quickly and efficiently is critical.

If you want both your mind and your body to get to that happy place more often, try visualization. No iterated algorithms required.




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!

The Woman God must be killed

I don’t know if you heard, but Ronda Rousey lost.

If you did hear, then you must have also heard from all the people who knew she would lose, who say she was overrated the whole time, and who believe that her lack of humility led to her fall from grace (as opposed to a well-prepared opponent who created matchup problems).

This shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. It’s the way humans think. The fact is, though, it did surprise me to see the narrative snap back so fast from “Ronda will just armbar her, obviously” to “I knew Ronda was overrated, and she got a big head from becoming a big star, and her moral failings led to her doom.”

There is a pithy modern reaction to this, which is: haters have a job, and that job is to hate.

There is also a deeper, less modern reaction, one that I think about often.

Continue reading

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 Worth of a Degree

Education is important. Nelson Mandela called it the most powerful weapon people can use to change the world, Abraham Lincoln said it was the most important task we could engage in as a people, and I say it’s the most important tool I’ve seen to improve the lives we all live.

Investing in education almost always pays off, for individuals and nations.

By the way, I use the term “education” broadly: some of the smartest people I know didn’t graduate from high school, and some of the dumbest have Ph.D degrees. If this sounds like a poetic exaggeration, I assure you I mean it literally. There are many ways to educate and improve yourself, with academic work being just one of them.

This month, after almost exactly four years of hard and consistent training. I earned my purple belt. I have a long way to go in my jiujitsu journey, but I’m so happy to have taken this step. The four-year mark is a nice coincidence, since it coincides with the amount of time it takes most people to complete something most people identify more clearly with education, an undergraduate college degree.

I have one of those, and believe me, I worked way harder to get the purple belt than I did to get my Bachelor of Arts. Sorry, professors, but it’s true.

oregon diploma

My mom always valued education, so she made sure I finished my undergrad degree. Later, I went on and got a Master’s, and earned an honor or two along the way. I don’t talk about that stuff a lot, and the only reason I’m doing so now is to put it into context.

This is the context: it’s no exaggeration to say that I’m as proud of this belt as any of that academic work. It took that much work and that much sacrifice.

It was a good day.

It was a good day.

In order to obtain an education in jiujitsu, I had to make several investments: a lot of time, a ton of sweat and pain, and of course some money.

When I graduated from college in 1998, in-state students attending public four-year colleges paid $3,243 on average in tuition and fees. It’s a lot more now (and frankly, I think college should be free, as it is in many other countries).

That investment has paid for itself many times over in life experiences, in jobs I couldn’t have gotten without the degree. As the great musical philosopher Tom Lehrer once said, “Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”

I already told you that I had to work harder to get my purple belt than I did to get a college degree. Factoring in gym dues, seminars, privates, instructional materials and expenses from competing at tournaments, I’m fairly sure I spent more money along my path to purple belt, too.

(If anyone is really interested, I can break out those calculations. I frankly never even thought about it until now: when you’re doing something you love, you just kind of do it.)

Getting a black belt takes more than 10 years in most cases, time that’s roughly equivalent to getting a Ph.D. To me, the comparison between jiujitsu education and advanced degrees just illustrates the value of learning jiujitsu: the achievements we’re proudest of are the ones that are hardest to accomplish.

For students, we have to accept early on that getting where we want to go requires commitment. Why, then, do so many jiujitsu students shortchange themselves — and try to shortchange their instructors — on their martial arts education?

There are two parts to what I’m trying to say: the part that involves us as students of jiujitsu and the part that involves the way we relate to our instructors.

Primarily, what I want to say is this: as students, we should be maximizing our return on the investments we *do* make. If you’re paying dues to your school, why not take advantage of all the classes that are offered? It costs as much to train twice a week as it does five in most schools. Training as much as you can maximizes your return on investment.

Everyone has their own path to walk, and we all have different resources at our disposal. I’m not just talking about spending money here. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the disposable income to go to every seminar, buy every DVD set or take privates consistently.

That’s why it’s important to acknowledge that there are different types of investments. Can’t afford seminars, but have time to stay after class? Get extra drilling in. Time is the most important investment you can make. Don’t have access to the gym? Do a spreadsheet or a mind map of the techniques you know. Jiujitsu is a long journey, but the more time you’re able to put in, the quicker and more rewarding it is.

I like spreadsheets.

I like spreadsheets.

The second part of this involves our instructors. This is a little trickier, as it always is when art and commerce intersect.

If we value a college education enough that we’re willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on it, though, why wouldn’t we place a similar value on our continuing education in jiujitsu?

It’s tough to make a living running a jiujitsu school, and I’m always surprised when people do things like get out of paying gym dues. To a certain extent, I understand — everybody’s trying to get by, and since your instructor loves jiujitsu, he probably wants people to train.

Keep in mind that your instructor has to make a living, and your school has to stay open. If you like training, that’s a shared interest that’s well worth preserving.

Invest in your education, whatever path that takes. And invest in the people that help you keep learning. We all get better that way.

Learn the Rules of JiuJitsu, Break the Rules of JiuJitsu

“Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.” — Marvin Bell


The American poet Marvin Bell has a tremendous body of work that spans traditional, experimental and radical forms. His work is passionate, intricate and thoughtful — and as you’d expect, this makes him worth listening to when he talks about creating art.

There are points of commonality between the literary arts and the martial ones. I’ve been thinking about writing more lately, so I returned to some Marvin Bell texts the other day.

What does this have to do with training? I was struck by how many of Marvin Bell’s 32 Statements About Poetry sound, with minimal editing, like he could be talking about jiu-jitsu.

Below, I’ve taken many of the 32 statements and lightly edited them. I removed the ones that are just about the process of writing poetry. But I kept the majority of the statements, replacing “poetry” with “jiu-jitsu” and “writing” with “training,” for example. To me, there are significant insights that cross over. This might say something about the practice of each art, or it might simply speak well of Bell’s observations about life.

If you’re interested in poetry, check out the original 32 statements (and, while you’re at it, The Book of the Dead Man). If you’re just here for the jiu-jitsu, read on for some advice from a different type of artist.

The Dead Man would actually make a pretty sweet gi patch.

The Dead Man would actually make a pretty sweet gi patch.


1. Every jiu-jitsu practitioner is an experimentalist.

Jiu-jitsu is like science: we experiment with techniques. If the techniques work against a resisting opponent, we keep using and refining them. If not, they’re changed or discarded. And each of us has different physical attributes: for a time, I experimented with the body triangle. Upon my scientific discovery that I had stubby legs ill-suited for the task, I moved on. Training means trying things and finding what works for you.


2. Learning jiu-jitsu is a simple process: learn something, then train it; learn something else, then train something else. And show in your training what you have learned.

Jiu-jitsu is a deep, rich, complex art: jiu-jitsu is hard. In contrast, learning jiu-jitsu is easy. You find a great instructor, show up and do what they say. Drill the older stuff regularly, and be open when they show you something new.


3. There is no one way to train and no right way to train.

One of the instructors I respect most is old school, but also open-minded. After he watched a Caio Terra DVD, he remarked about how odd it was that Caio teaches techniques in a radically different way than he does — but the technique still makes sense. This is one reason Dave Camarillo’s maxim “train with everyone” is so apt: there are many things to learn and many different ways to learn them.

This man might not be able to tap you (or he might, who knows?). But he has knowledge that can improve your jiu-jitsu.

This man might not be able to tap you (or he might, who knows?). But he has knowledge that can improve your jiu-jitsu.


4. The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff.

5. Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.

Some of Bell’s statements I didn’t have to edit at all: these two were among them. These are true of poetry and jiu-jitsu and life. The latter in particular has echoed in my head for many years.

In jiu-jitsu, I think about rules like “hands off the mat,” which new people absolutely need to internalize. Then you train for a while and you learn exceptions. But this simple dozen words could be a philosophy all its own.


6. You do not learn from work like yours as much as you learn from work unlike yours.

I will never pull 50/50. Yet I own Tony Pacenski’s 50/50 guard DVD set. This is both because it’s important to learn the techniques you’ll come up against, and because it gives me a window into a way of doing things that is vastly different from my own.


7. Originality is a new amalgam of influences.

Ryan Hall is justifiably known for making great instructional DVDs. One of the things I like most about them is that Ryan explicitly mentions where he learned certain techniques and principles — almost like an academic citing sources. The way he thinks about jiu-jitsu is original, but includes knowledge he’s gathered from other sources. In amalgamation there is creativity.

Like it says in Hamlet, there is nothing new under the sun. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

(This is also, incidentally, a reason I love rap music and mash-ups: creative combination and repurposing of found objects. But that’s a different post.)

"Wait, you're going to use this image in a weird post about poetry? ... Blue belts."

“Wait, you’re going to use this image in a weird post about poetry or something? …  Sigh. Blue belts.”


8. Try to drill techniques at least one person in the room will hate.

You can take this one of two ways. Either “that guy is going to make fun of me for drilling berimbolo, but I’m going to do it anyway,” or “I am going to drill heavy pressure techniques, like the kind Roy Marsh teaches, and give people free chiropractic adjustments.”

Like Bell says, there’s no one way to do things.


12. It’s not what one begins with that matters; it’s the quality of attention paid to it thereafter.

I started out with much better takedowns and takedown defense than one of my training partners. She’s been working assiduously on it, and now she’s basically caught up to me. Nothing is static.


21. Jiu-jitsu has content but is not strictly about its contents.

These days when I go to a seminar I’m more interested in conceptual understanding than I am in learning new moves. Concepts are more important than contents. Once you have a bucket, you can always fill it with water. If you have no bucket, get all the water you want, and all you’ll have is a wet floor.

Leo Vieira told me at a seminar this year: “As long as I am comfortable and using less energy than my opponent, I’m doing the right thing.” It blew my mind.


23. One does not learn by having a teacher do the work.

You can ask your instructor to show you every technique they know. They can spend weeks of their life doing so. If you don’t drill constantly, you won’t learn even one of those.

Sometimes you have to turn upside down.

Sometimes you have to turn upside down yourself instead of having the teacher tell you to turn upside down.



28. Jiu-jitsu is a manifestation of more important things. On the one hand, it’s art! On the other, it’s just art.

Dave Camarillo’s academy has one rule: respect. It’s amazing how one principle can apply to all practices and situations.

It’s great to learn self-defense, just like it’s great to learn to move people with poetic words. But it’s really about the larger picture: respect, beauty, work ethic and becoming a better person.


29. Viewed in perspective, Parnassus is a very short mountain.

I’m just going to leave that right where it is. It’s perfect.


Perspective is everything.

Perspective is everything.

30. A good workshop continually signals that we are all in this together, teacher too. 

Bell wrote this about writing workshops, but the best jiu-jitsu seminars are like this.

Murilo Bustamante, a man who as achieved more as a competitor, coach and instructor than 99 percent of people ever will, came to teach where I train. He listened to every question. He showed every detail people needed help with. He had enormous respect from everyone before he walked into the room and left with more than when entered.


32. Art is a way of life, not a career.

That says it all, no?

Interview with Fightland about nerd culture and BJJ

It’s been a while since my last post for two reasons: first, a lot of great stuff is happening (a few long-in-the-works designs are about to come out); and second, I’m in the process of finishing up a snazzy new website where I’ll migrate the blog. Stay tuned on that.

In the meantime, Fightland interviewed me about the TARDIS rashguard, and used that as a jumping-off point to talk about nerd culture and jiu-jitsu. I had a blast doing the interview, and this is my favorite part of it:

To me, a nerd is someone that is passionate about something that is not mainstream. … BJJ is an immersive culture, as are many nerd subcultures as well, and I think that’s not a coincidence. I think that folks that get passionate about certain aspects of cultural experience, [and] there is a particular personality type that is drawn to that. For some of us, that may be Doctor Who or comic books. It may be science fiction or ren faires or Dungeons and Dragons. Or martial arts history. It’s different for everybody, but it’s kind of cool to see the two parts of my world that are important to me fold in on themselves.

Shorter version: Nerd Life, that’s my alibi.


TARDIS training!

TARDIS training!

Anyway, it’s a fun interview. Check it out if you’re so inclined: you’ll get a preview of some new designs I’ve got coming out!