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On Rank, Resumes, and Arm Bars — The Simple Reason Why Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Still Matters in MMA

(The Gracies proved that BJJ is indispensable — not that it’s invincible. / Photo via Getty)

By Elias Cepeda

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in mixed martial arts has been on my mind a bit more than usual lately. A few weeks ago Benson Henderson walked to the ring wearing a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gi with his brand new black belt tied around it at the waist.

Minutes later he walked out, his black belt still in tow but without his UFC lightweight title belt after getting submitted by an arm bar from inside the full guard of Anthony Pettis. At the time, Pettis was ranked as a blue belt — the belt just above white in BJJ.

Not many weeks prior to that, Roger Gracie, the most dominant submission grappling competitor in decades, lost his UFC debut and then was promptly dropped from the organization. This past Saturday, Roger’s cousin Rolles – son of legendary Rolls Gracie – got knocked out in the second round of his WSOF 5 fight with Derrick Mehmen in tragically comic fashion.

Rolles got hit, the punch put him out on his feet and he spun around slowly before falling to the ground. It looked like the slapstick “Flair Flop” move that pro wrestler Ric Flair used to pull off after getting hit to put over his opponent. Three and a half years ago, of course, Rolles humiliated himself against Joey Beltran in his lone UFC fight after appearing to exhaust himself almost immediately.

Both recent Gracie losses brought about public questions of whether or not the Gracie family and Jiu Jitsu itself have become outdated in modern MMA. Henderson’s submission loss to Pettis could have been seen as a triumph of Jiu Jitsu technique but instead, some critics chose to question the validity and use of BJJ belt ranks.

What did Henderson’s black belt mean, exactly, if he could go out and get submitted by someone with a lower BJJ rank, who was more known for high-flying kicks than anything, and with such a basic move? The notions that Gracies losing fights and Henderson getting submitted somehow reflect negatively on Jiu Jitsu itself are, of course, silly.

MMA isn’t about magical styles and secrets solely in the possession of those with certain-colored pieces of clothing or particular surnames. It never has been.

Royce Gracie won the early UFC’s because of his Jiu Jitsu style, true. His style, Gracie Jiu Jitsu, or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu won him his bouts, but not because it was mystical. Quite the opposite, actually.

Jiu Jitsu succeeded simply because it a) calls for real, hard sparring with resistance every day, b) because it was the only style to at least recognize that anything can happen in a fight, and c) because Gracie was the only guy who was practicing Jiu Jitsu in the UFC at the time.

Gracie may have been the smallest and weakest guy in the early UFC tournaments but he was the only one who trained each day against resisting opponents and was ready for people to punch, kick, grab, head butt, and pull hair. So, the most prepared guy won those early UFC’s.

In modern MMA, it’s largely the same thing. The most prepared, well-rounded and conditioned man or woman usually wins.

In that way, not as much has changed since those early days of MMA. The conventional wisdom about what the early UFC’s proved about Gracie Jiu Jitsu is wrong.

Royce Gracie and UFC’s 1-4 did not prove that Jiu Jitsu is dominant but rather that it is indispensable. You could have ancient secrets from Chinese monasteries and do one-finger push ups but you’d better be experienced in real combat.

You could be a game, hard-hitting boxer with great sense of distance and timing but you’d better be ready for someone to grab you and no ref there to save you by breaking up the clinch. You could be an outrageously strong and conditioned wrestler, used to working on the mat and man-handling opponents, but you’d better recognize that in the real world it isn’t illegal for your opponent to choke you or twist on that shoulder lock until you say uncle.

Many fight-styles and disciplines existed for ages but the introduction of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to the world is what made Mixed Martial Arts. Royce Gracie showed that you needed to train BJJ to be successful in real fighting.

That’s still true to this day. Every amateur and professional MMA fighter trains Brazilian Jiu Jitsu whether they call it that or catch fighting or submission grappling or what have you.

Proving BJJ necessary in real fighting is the long-ago established success of the Gracie family, much more so than any particular win by Royce or anyone else in their clan.

As for Henderson losing to Pettis, one guy was better that night than the other. That’s it.

Henderson, black belt or not, decided to let his arm hang out in a dangerous position in Pettis’ guard for no apparent reason other than his supreme confidence in his own slipperiness, and he paid for it.

Fighters make mistakes and, sometimes, their opponents make them pay for it.

No one questions whether a boxer who has spent his entire life training is a “real” boxer or whether or not boxing is useful for fighting when he gets hit with a straight right – a “basic” punch. More often than not, it is only the basics – executed with impeccable timing, that work in real fights.

And, only real fights show who is, in fact, better and should be ranked higher. A Jiu Jitsu belt, given to a hard working and accomplished student from a reputable and credible instructor can be a very meaningful and representative thing. But, in the words of Royce, the only thing a belt will do for you when push comes to shove is hold your pants up.

Getting submitted in and of itself doesn’t mean that Henderson shouldn’t feel proud of his black belt. However, submitting Henderson should definitely make Pettis damn proud of his blue belt.

As for Roger and Rolles, they also just lost to better fighters. That’s it.

Roger is no disappointment. In Tim Kennedy, he came up against a better, far more experienced and well-rounded fighter who, like all MMA fighters, has been studying Gracie’s family style for years. Overall, Roger has a solid 6-2 record in three weight classes, and has beaten former world champs and UFC and Pride veterans like Kevin Randleman, Yuki Kondo, Trevor Prangley and Keith Jardine.

Rolles is 8-2 in his MMA career in a number of different international organizations and all of his wins were by submission. Of course, Rolles and Roger face increased scrutiny because of their last names and because they are so accomplished in submission grappling competition.

Both Roger and Rolles are wizards in Jiu Jitsu competitions but probably will never become champions in MMA. “See?” one can hear sour critics of Jiu Jitsu taunt. “Winning world titles in submission grappling doesn’t make you the best fighter in the world anymore.”

Of course it doesn’t. The thing is, winning submission grappling world titles doesn’t make them the best BJJ practitioners or representatives, either. These guys are not the best BJJ practitioners any more than great boxers or kick boxers are the best strikers.
The best striker is a fighter who can land those same punches and kicks against people who are not just trying to hit them but also take them down, choke them, etc.

As such, the best grapplers, then, are the ones who do it effectively in MMA – not just win gold at Jiu Jitsu tournaments. There are plenty of examples of that in MMA.

Rolles and Roger have grappled since they were children and accomplished much in the submission grappling world. They don’t deserve derision for not being perfect in MMA, they deserve some respect for being brave enough to fight guys who have been fighting in the sport for much longer.

That said, the current and next generation of MMA champions are all fighters who have trained Jiu Jitsu and just about everything else since they were kids and haven’t wasted too much of their youth and abilities in contests where strikes, slams, etc. are not allowed. On that note, the son of perhaps Jiu Jitsu’s best practitioner ever recently announced plans to make his MMA debut within the year.

Kron Gracie, the youngest son of Rickson Gracie, told Tatame magazine that he’ll fight MMA in 2014. The twenty five year-old has medaled at the ADCC submission grappling world championships but has yet to win a world title since becoming a black belt.
Kron does have an attitude and approach to Jiu Jitsu that should suit him well for MMA. He’s also young enough to make the transition, and has been doing MMA sparring with some of the best fighters in the world for some time now.

Kron is close with Nate and Nick Diaz and has worked with them extensively, as well as their teammates Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez. When I spoke with Kron last May as he prepared to compete in the submission grappling event Metamoris II, his mind was already on MMA.

He was with Nate as he spoke to me about “real” Jiu Jitsu. “Jiu Jitsu is about what works in fighting,” he told me as he explained why, even in submission grappling matches, he never goes for the types of fancy, esoteric moves that so many other Jiu Jitsu competitors favor these days.

Kron told Tatame about fighting in MMA, “It’s a truer fight, there’s no guard… It’s you and another man going to war. It’s truer than jiu-jitsu.”

Here’s what separates guys like Kron, or BJ Penn or Demian Maia from other Jiu Jitsu-based athletes. Since BJJ began to be a big-money pursuit, medal stands have become stacked with great athletes who have dozens of world titles but have never thrown or taken a punch.

They claim that submission grappling tournaments showcase more elegant, technical displays than the stuff we see work in MMA fights. That BJJ matches are somehow more pure demonstrations of Jiu Jitsu.

They’ve got it all wrong. Before there were a million different grappling organizations — all with their claim to being “world championships,” and each with their own volumes of rules and all the moves that are not allowed — Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was developed and used in the real world, in real fights.

Kron Gracie, Penn, Maia and the like all went the submission grappling international tournament route for a time, sure. They’re fun, you can make some money if you’re good, and it’s excellent training.

Ultimately, however, they craved something more. They craved what Jiu Jitsu was developed for – the fight.

Submission grapplers are often referred to as Jiu Jitsu “players,” as if they played basketball or baseball or some other entertaining but ultimately useless sport. Before there were ever Jiu Jitsu players, however, there were only Jiu Jitsu fighters.

Some of them remain. Some, like Kron and his father and grandfather before him, know that if they train Jiu Jitsu, their destiny is to fight in the sport that Jiu Jitsu created.

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