One of the best things about training a combative style of martial arts is that it teaches you to become accustomed to conflict. One of the worst things about training a combative martial art is that it can make us think we are accustomed to what real violence is.
One of, if not the most, essential and effective aspects of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is its sparring methodology. Without sparring, you will never know if a move that an instructor (or anyone) shows you will actually work against a resisting opponent. This is what separates what I call Combative styles of Martial Arts – ones for which realistic sparring is central to the style – from other styles. It provides students with a tremendous sense of self confidence to be able to actually do the moves they’re learning against an opponent who is not playing along with them. In some styles, you have to take the instructor’s word that you will be able to pull the art’s techniques off in a real fight. This is both disingenuous and dangerous.
Gracie Jiu-Jitsu took this one step further and removed many of the dangerous techniques which couldn’t be practiced safely: eye gouging, biting, etc. And, in many cases, Jiu-Jitsu sparring has no striking. This allows students to practice the art at maximum energy and resistance and, as long as tapping is used and respected, then a student can train this way almost all the time. This is what separates it from other combative arts, generally. It is not realistically possible to go to Muay Thai class and spar full force and not get at least somewhat banged up. You simply cannot train that way every day. I’m not saying Gracie Jiu-Jitsu classes roll 100% every time but it is possible to do so and mostly stay injury free.
But, if you only spar and train this way, you begin to fall into the trap of thinking that that really hard sparring session you just had is like a real fight or that just because you were able to survive that 250 lb. wrestler mauling you and not lose your cool or get submitted that you are prepared for real violence. This is even more true in schools more focused on Sport BJJ, I believe, because you’re not constantly training against headlocks, punches, slams, – the types of things that would most likely happen in a real fight.
I used to jokingly call this yellow belt disease. I’d seen too many students in various martial arts get a rank or two in and begin putting themselves in possibly dangerous situations. They would deny it but there they are at a club hard-staring at people or not letting potential conflicts drop like they might have before. I think this mentality is more common in non-sparring arts since there’s an insecurity in not knowing if you can actually do what you’ve been taught so you tend to flirt with having to use it – the way people who are full of fear tend to be bullies. If they win a fight, then they can believe they aren’t actually afraid.
I believe Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is the best method ever developed for surviving a violent conflict efficiently and without potentially ending up in legal trouble (just stabbing someone or elbowing them in the face because they pushed you is obviously not something you want to have as your only options). But, because most schools do not constantly remind students of the realities of violence, some students begin to believe that they are prepared. They train hard with a set of restrictions intended for their safety but begin to take for granted how big an impact those restrictions are actually making. They love to watch and train MMA and BJJ because they are great sports but they conflate them with what a real fight might be. Yes, in many ways, they are as close as you can get, but it is those spaces between the two that are critical.
To quote Helio Gracie “The only way I can lose is by trying to win.” In these sports, our goal is to win. We have to go out there and put ourselves in danger in order to beat our opponent. The idea of not doing that, of trying to ensure only that the other person can’t win at any cost has vanished from many schools and is even anathema to many people’s idea of the art. And, obviously it misses the point of a tournament competition. Yes, we absolutely want to train ourselves to enter the conflict and be victorious but – and this can’t bear repeating enough – in a sport, the loser decides when it’s over. In a real fight, the winner decides. There are no rounds, no refs, no rules. It is easy to have the safety of “dude, I tapped – let go!” But, we must never have the What if far from the front of our minds.
This is why I think MMA and BJJ guys get so upset when they see someone like Palhares rip a knee apart or a video of someone slamming their way out of a triangle. It breaks the gentleman’s agreement and yes, it is breaking the rule set of the competition and should absolutely be punished. But, I think many BJJ people also get upset because it is a reminder that what we do is ultimately a method of visiting extreme physical violence on someone and that it could be us if we’re unlucky or unprepared. What if that guy in class with the armbar refused to let go? Or, what if I get slammed in a parking lot and the guy just keeps pounding my head into the pavement? We are reminded of the scary monster under the bed of what we do – and we should be. Our illusion of the cleanliness of this mock violence (slap, bump, roll) is dirtied by the ugly real thing and it’s something we know we may not actually be prepared for. We love our fake violence and it pushes us to flirt with the real thing but when we see the real thing we are offended that it doesn’t match up to what we thought it would be. It’s far uglier, more unfair, and indiscriminate.
I was talking to Jeremy Laviano, a Brown Belt who attended a seminar I gave, and (I’m paraphrasing) he said, “You know these Jiu-Jitsu Nerds? They kind of piss me off. Yes, they’re doing these amazing, creative things. But, it’s like they forget this is about violence. They’ve intellectualized it and sportified it so much that they forget that.” He’s right. The cutting edge sport should definitely be explored and it’s fascinating but we can never forget that the heart of the beast is ugly and we should train ourselves to avoid that reality if we can and to be prepared for it’s true face if we can’t.
This is again why the Philosophy of Jiu-Jitsu (Bushido) should be instilled in every student. The idea of trying to create a positive atmosphere and to treat others well is one of the main methods of avoiding violence. Students shouldn’t be afraid but they shouldn’t be comfortable. They should never lose sight of the What If? And, we should make sure we viscerally understand the difference between play violence and the real thing. Because, if we fetishize the former, then we can’t complain when we’re visited by the latter.