Words: Callum Medcraft
Takedown, pass, submit: the credo of jiu jitsu stalwarts from yester-year. Technically, there’s no denying our art has changed, but what of the actual fighters who top the podiums?
Jiu jitsu’s receptiveness to evolution is, in my eyes, one of its most appealing attributes. It doesn’t matter who you favour – be it the aggressive top player or the flashy guardeiro – the stylistic diversity we see makes for entertaining matches. Cast your mind’s eye back to the origins of your training; I would hazard a guess that even those with little experience under their belt will recognise the constantly changing technical subtleties of our sport.
Technical evolution aside, one of the biggest changes I’ve noticed in recent times is perhaps less appealing; maybe even worrying. Professionalism within jiu jitsu is at an all-time high, with fighters working frantically away from the mats and in the gym to gain that extra edge. In light of this, I pose the question: has being ‘athletic’ become more important than being ‘technical’?
Let’s take Leandro Lo as an example. Lo is clearly a man on top of his game, with a trophy cabinet most jiu jitsu players could only hope for. Stylistically, he relies on his athleticism: frantic passing, explosive sweeps and dynamic scrambles. It can make for compelling viewing, but these bursts of action are rarely maintained over 10 minutes, and tend not to end via submission victories.
Conversely, we have Bernardo Faria: Leandro Lo’s kryptonite. Faria has developed a meticulous, pressure-based game that can only be achieved via decades of graft on the mats – not in the weights room or on the running track. His movements are efficient, his pace is consistent, his submission percentage is impressive; it’s everything I expect of an elite level jiu jitsu fighter.
Staying at a distance before engaging for a 10-second passing burst, hoping to score an advantage before disengaging, is not the sort of jiu jitsu I want to watch
I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t left me with a bit of a dilemma. Obviously, Leandro Lo is an extremely technical fighter, who only recently took up lifting weights to help bulk-up for the heavier divisions, but would his style be as effective in the absence of extreme athleticism? Playing devil’s advocate, would Bernardo Faria benefit from spending more time working on improving his athleticism, bringing it closer in line with his technical understanding? These are two opposing styles – but which one best represents Brazilian jiu jitsu?
Enough on Lo and Faria. I’ve used these two to help illustrate a trend I’ve noticed across our sport as a whole: jiu jitsu is growing. More tournaments are offering money and more people are pursuing their goals with the mindset of a professional athlete. With this shift in mentality, I worry that we are seeing youngsters focussing too heavily on becoming bigger, faster, stronger; as opposed to developing the vice-like pressure of someone like Xande Ribeiro.
Maybe it’s a passing trend – or maybe I’m just being an old stick in the mud – but, for me, jiu jitsu is about championing technique over everything. Marcelo Garcia is my star witness, as a man who, famously, has never supplemented his time on the mat with any physical conditioning at all. You could argue he’s an enigma in the sport, or you could argue that simply spending all your time on the mat is the way to go.
My coach, Roger Gracie, does little conditioning away from the tatami. Aside from jiu jitsu, he would often train judo or run hill sprints to balance his cardio, but I’ve pretty much never known him to incorporate weight training into his routine. Again, you could call him an enigma, or you could say he’s a stellar example of how you should use your training time.
Without doubt, there are countless jiu jitsu athletes who swear by their strength training and gain confidence from knowing they won’t lose for lack of power or explosiveness. I guess there’s never going to be a ‘one size fits all’ formula, so perhaps it’s pointless trying to define one.
Though I have no preference on how fighters should be training, I do have a preference on how they should be fighting. Staying at a distance before engaging for a 10-second passing burst, hoping to score an advantage before disengaging, is not the sort of jiu jitsu I want to watch. Give me long, drawn out chess matches; fighters edging forwards slowly and grinding down their opponents. For me, that’s jiu jitsu.
One of my favourite matches ever would look like nine minutes of apparent nothingness to a layman, but an absolute masterclass to jiu jitsu fans. At the 2009 World Championships, Roger Gracie took nearly the whole allotted time grinding down Romulo Barral’s patented guard. It didn’t look pretty, it wasn’t explosive or dynamic, but Gracie passed, he then mounted, he then got the submission. There were no moments of disengagement or frantic explosiveness – just pure jiu jitsu. I’d take that any day of the week over near passes, penalties and advantages.