Jiu-Jitsu Letter

Why Jiu-Jitsu

One of the impediments to live training in a combat sport is the notion of dangerous technique. Martial arts typically have techniques that are designed to cripple or even kill a potential enemy. Usually, there is no regard for the safety of the opponent, since it is assumed that he or she is a dangerous enemy and that we are engaged with them in a struggle without rules. Many of these techniques are attacks to the groin, hair, or eyes. Biting, scratching, clawing, and a host of other potentially dangerous tactics are commonly employed, as well as joint locks, strangles, and powerful strikes to vulnerable targets. This list of crippling tactics creates an immediate problem that we might well regard as the basic problem of martial arts training. Practice is required to gain expertise in any form of physical activity, but how can you practice the techniques of the martial arts, given that application of these techniques almost always results in serious injury? This is the dilemma that faces all martial arts, and how a martial art attempts to answer this problem is a defining feature of that art. In answer to this problem, there have been two basic types of response.

  1. The first response is to include all the techniques of the martial arts, even the most dangerous, but limit their use in training to kata—the restrained, prechoreographed sets of technique practiced with no resistance on a cooperative partner. In other words, the techniques are never performed live on a resisting opponent, but instead they are limited to the abstract movement patterns of a safe kata. This strategy certainly ensures the safety of the students, since the groin grabs, eye gouges, and so on are never actually applied. The problem, however, is that it is only acted out without any real contact. In this sense, the student learns the theory of the move and understands what he or she is supposed to do when a certain attack occurs.
  2. Another approach, made famous by Kano, was the removal of the dangerous techniques so that the remaining safe techniques could be used in full power sporting competition. By removing certain types of techniques that simply cannot be made part of safe, everyday training—such as groin attacks, eye gouges, biting, and the like—one can create a set of techniques that can be used at full strength on a resisting opponent in open competition. Another stipulation of this approach is the adoption of a system of submissions, where both participants have an agreement that states the following: When a potentially injurious technique has been successfully applied by one player, the other can give a signal of submission that stops the match. In jujitsu, this signal is made by rapidly tapping the opponent’s body or the mat. With a combination of limits of technique and a system of submission, safe sporting competition and training is possible within a martial art. In fact, this system of limiting technique is also common in the Western combative sports. For example, wrestling obviously has a set of limits on technique that make it safe to apply at full power as does boxing, with its limits on what boxers may hit (e.g., nothing below the belt) and how they may hit (e.g., nothing but punches with a gloved fist).

These two fundamentally different approaches to the basic problem of martial arts training have created a deep divide in the martial arts. The issue has created a gap between arts that describe themselves to be “pure,” insofar as they have no sporting application. In fact, martial arts purists have long decried the “degeneration” of martial arts through the adoption of a sporting application. It is argued that this introduces an undesirable set of attributes into martial arts. Obsession with victory, arrogance, and (perhaps most of all) a watering down of technique to only those that are “safe” are the faults most often associated with arts that have taken the second approach to the basic problem of martial arts training. Such purists often dismiss the sporting arts as “mere” sports, as opposed to a truly combative art, with its emphasis on dangerous technique.

Perhaps part of the problem in looking at this divide that has grown in the martial arts as a result of these two approaches is the misunderstanding that surrounds the notion of a “safe technique.” When people think of a “safe” technique, they often think of a “harmless” technique. This reference is a clear misunderstanding. Many of the “safe” techniques of modern jujitsu and other combative sports are “safe” only so far as both participants have a prior agreement to stop when the techniques are well applied. Without this agreement, the result would be crippling injuries to the joints, unconsciousness, or possibly death. The potentially brutal joint locks and strangles of the grappling arts should never be thought of as harmless.

Consider also the strikes of the sporting striking arts. Thai boxing and Western boxing both have strict limits on what you may hit and how you may hit. In addition, safety equipment in the form of gloves, cups, and mouthpieces are compulsory. These rules may appear to make them less potentially dangerous than traditional striking arts, which teach strikes to the eyes, groin, and knees in addition to a host of other techniques that could not be made part of a reasonably safe sport. The striking of modern jujitsu as used in MMA competition, however, is much more like Western and Thai boxing than the classical styles of jujitsu, and thus, it would also seem to be open to the same criticism.

Yet there is a definite sense in which it seems obvious which of the two methods is the better approach to martial arts training. To most people, it would seem clear that an art that taught really dangerous technique would be a far more lethal art; it would be one that in a real fight would destroy an art that was limited to a “safe” technique. After all, the pure art would contain all the safe techniques of the sporting arts, plus the really dangerous ones that combat sports lack.

The truth is, however, that the pure arts, so laden with deadly and frightening techniques, suffer from a great disadvantage that has severely detracted from their effectiveness in MMA competition, which is the closest evidence we have for the combat-effectiveness of a fighting style. By making it impossible for students to train with their apparently deadly techniques in live situations, the traditional arts never exposed their students to the pressure and feel of applying technique in a real situation. It is one thing to know the theory of applying a technique on a cooperative partner; it is a completely different thing to apply it on someone who is doing everything they can to resist your technique and apply their own.

“The Basic Problem of Martial Arts Training,” from the book Mastering Jujitsu, by Renzo Gracie and John Danaher.

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