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What is BJJ?

November 7, 2023

BJJ is a grappling martial art that concentrates on the ground game with the ultimate goal of getting your opponent to submit via a joint lock or choke. BJJ has its origins in Japan when judo practitioner and prizefighter Mitsuyo Maeda went overseas to share his art with the world in the early 20th century. After arriving in Brazil, he taught brothers Carlos, Oswaldo, Gastão Jr., O’Brien, and Hélio Gracie jiu-jitsu. Several years later, the Gracie family developed their own self-defense system, modified judo ground techniques, and eventually created a unique fighting style called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Today, BJJ is considered one of the most effective martial arts for self-defense because it emphasizes that a smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger assailant using technique and leverage. Because everyone can practice BJJ, it has become one of the most popular martial arts in the past few decades.

How does BJJ differ from most other martial arts

The thing that really makes BJJ stand out from other martial arts is how it enables anyone to successfully defend themselves. BJJ has the most developed method of fighting from your back, a position weaker people will often find themselves when attacked. No matter your size, if you know BJJ, you can take your opponent to the ground and defeat them using holds and submissions. Fighters try to use gravity to their advantage and take away the opponent’s strengths. Success in BJJ relies on strategy and proper technique rather than explosiveness and brute strength.

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BJJ, like other martial arts, is practiced as a competitive sport. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s main differentiator is its emphasis on ground fighting. While rules may vary slightly from tournament to tournament, some remain consistent. For example, fighters are never allowed to use strikes on their opponents, such as punches, kicks, elbows, or headbutts. Weight classes, skill levels, and age categories are in place to put together fair divisions.

Training is heavily focused on submissions, sparring, and live drilling (AKA “rolling”). In these drills, athletes practice at full speed and strength to simulate a competitive environment. BJJ is usually practiced one of two ways: Gi or no-Gi. Gi are BJJ kimonos that include wearing a thick, durable jacket, trousers, and a belt indicating rank. No-Gi includes wearing rash guards and grappling shorts instead of the traditional kimono.

Let’s look at a few other martial arts and examine how they differ from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Wrestling

BJJ is slower, more methodical, and strategic, while wrestling is fast-paced and explosive. Wrestling focuses on takedowns and body positioning to pin your opponent. In wrestling, you want to stay off your back and avoid being pinned, while in BJJ, being on your back is a fundamental position where you can attack and win.

Judo

BJJ originated from Judo, so they are very similar. BJJ concentrates more on the ground game, while Judo focuses on standing techniques. Judo throws can be more challenging for smaller competitors, which is why BJJ was developed. Neither of these disciplines allows opponents to use strikes during combat.  

The goal in Judo is to throw your opponent onto their back and either pin them or get them to submit by using joint locks or strangles. In BJJ, on the other hand, you receive points for achieving dominant positions (such as mount or back control). BJJ matches are won by accumulating more points or submitting your opponent.

Sambo

Sambo is basically another grappling art focused on self-defense that has a different ruleset than BJJ. The Russian military developed it as a fast-paced fighting style emphasizing fast submission, ground fighting, and effective throws. Unlike BJJ, you can strike your opponent in Sambo but cannot use chokes. You can also only use straight ankle locks and armbars. Like Judo, you can win a match by throwing.

Karate & Taekwondo

BJJ is a ground game, while karate and taekwondo are striking-based martial arts. Striking is forbidden in BJJ competitions, while karate primarily uses striking techniques, including punches, kicks, knee strikes, and elbow strikes, as well as blocking and parrying. Taekwondo emphasizes a dizzying array of high, fast kicks and spinning and jumping kicks. In karate and taekwondo, athletes earn points for clean, controlled strikes to specific body parts.

Kung fu

The primary difference between Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and kung fu is that the former emphasizes fighting on the ground, while kung fu is more open and fluid. Kung fu is a striking art closer to karate and taekwondo, but it is more reactionary, and in addition to punches, kicks, etc., fighters also use sweeps, joint locks, and throws. Success in kung fu is based on anticipating and reacting to your opponent’s moves and attacking out of defensive actions. Kung fu is unique from BJJ because it allows striking and grappling techniques.  

Jeet Kune Do

Jeet Kune Do is famously known as Bruce Lee’s martial art. It is a mosaic of martial arts, such as boxing and Wing Chun, all merged. Jeet incorporates the best of all martial arts as a means of promoting efficiency and adaptability. Jeet Kun Do allows striking, trapping, and grappling techniques. While BJJ is one of the most popular competitive martial arts in the world, Jeet Kune Do is meant strictly to be a self-defense system rather than a sport.

Why do people train in BJJ?

People train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu over other martial arts because it is one of the top arts for competition. The training is excellent for staying in shape; it doesn’t take a TON of strength, plus it has real-world use. BJJ focuses on leverage so a smaller person can overcome a larger person if applied appropriately.

Health and fitness

At its core, BJJ is a great workout. Athletes work many muscle groups, and grappling engages your entire body. Taking down an opponent and escaping from submissions will help you build strength, lose weight, and increase your endurance. Not to mention that warmups and recovery will help your flexibility and mobility.

Mental strength

There’s no doubt that BJJ can be downright uncomfortable, if not painful. Learning to stay calm and patient amidst the discomfort will serve you beyond the mat. Practicing BJJ teaches you perseverance, the value of hard work, and increases your confidence and humility.

Community

There are BJJ gyms and competitions all over the world. When you join a gym, you become part of a team that often includes people from different backgrounds.

Better self-defense

BJJ was designed so that anyone can do it. No matter your size or strength, if you know the techniques, you can defend yourself. It also teaches you critical thinking skills such as conflict avoidance and mitigation.  

Styles within BJJ

BJJ truly is a game of strategy. To win, you have to carefully control your opponent and apply techniques that force them into submission. Let’s quickly look at the terms, positions, and techniques essential to know in BJJ.

  • Standup: Standup refers to the phase of a match where both practitioners are on their feet and attempting to take each other down. Standup techniques such as grip fighting dictate the initial position and control in a match.
    • Takedowns: BJJ employs takedown techniques to bring an opponent to the ground, such as “pulling guard.” Many are unique to BJJ and are not used in other martial arts. Common BJJ takedowns include single-leg takedowns, double-leg takedowns, hip throws, and foot sweeps.
    • Self-defense situations: BJJ is a self-defense system that can be broken down into four phases. In the first phase, you close the distance with your opponent, and in the second, you take them to the ground. In the third phase, you establish a dominant position using the guard, side control, full mount, or back mount. Finally, you finish the fight by either choking them or applying a lock and immobilizing them. 
    • Control: Control is the ability to maintain a favorable position over your opponent by restricting their movement and advancing your position. 
    • Ground game: The ground game describes the portion of a BJJ match when fighters are on the ground engaged in grappling, submission attempts, and fighting for positional control.
    • Submissions: Submission holds include joint locks and chokes. Joint locks typically involve isolating an opponent’s list, restricting movement, and applying pressure until the opponent signals defeat by tapping. Chokes disrupt the blood supply to the brain and cause unconsciousness. 
    • Position: In BJJ, positions describe ground-based grappling situations where one practitioner has gained a dominant stance over their opponent. BJJ positions dictate the flow of the match, opportunities for offense, and the ability to control or submit your opponent. Common positions include full mount, back mount, side control, guard, half guard, and knee on belly, among others.