Jiu-jitsu is supposed to be the great equalizer, the thing that allows small, wiry people to fight larger, stronger opponents. In a way, that’s true. If someone of a more modest physique learns jiu-jitsu, their chances of emerging victorious against an untrained or lesser skilled opponent of greater stature do go up dramatically. Indeed, we’ve seen this on display in viral YouTube videos, as well as personal testimonies from the art’s practitioners.
There is a caveat, though; when someone of more robust physical stature learns jiu-jitsu and acquires the same skill level as a smaller grappler, that chance for victory considerably narrows, and in some cases, it gets erased.
I say this as an ultra-heavyweight. My first ever roll as a white belt was against a high-level female competitor. She was a purple belt at the time, and I was, obviously, a brand new white belt. She smoked me. I was 250 pounds at the time, and she was likely 140 on her heaviest day.
I remember fumbling around like an oaf when, after a quick blink of the eyes, she was on my back, submitting me. I lost count of how many times she tapped me out, but It was a lot.
Then I reflected. If this works for her, I thought, then it’s really going to work for me.
So, I immediately started to focus on the technical aspect of jiu-jitsu and tried to eschew using strength whenever possible.
I, however, ran into another problem as a mid-blue belt; the smaller people who used to beat me up were now getting frustrated. The inverse was happening. Worse, I was rolling noticeably light with some smaller people to have a more productive sparring round. Not much good can come out of holding someone in mount and wrenching Americana after Americana (looking at you, white belt heavyweights).
Here’s the problem you’ll face. How do you roll with smaller opponents (who are frequently females, but not always) in a way that’s respectful to their skill level but isn’t noticeably over-aggressive? Size matters. It’s why I wouldn’t be able to do jiu-jitsu on a silverback gorilla.
So, here are some ideas that I’ve learned through my years as a jiu-jitsu player. Get ready; more heavyweight tips en route.
On Rolling With Women
I often hear the platitude thrown around that you should just roll with everyone the same, regardless of their size, age, or what have you. This misjudgment is the credo of a grappler looking to get thrown out of a gym quickly.
Yes, in an ideal world, everyone would possess the same level of physical strength and durability. We’re not in an ideal world, though, and we should consider people’s differences at the gym while rolling with your training partners.
From what I’ve seen in jiu-jitsu, men are usually more averse to rolling with women than the other way around. I’ve seen grown men look apprehensive, as though they’re diverting back to the “girls have cooties” phase like we are still in the 3rd grade.
I’ve spoken to several female practitioners, and most of them enjoy the challenge of rolling with the opposite sex. Even though men, on the whole, have more muscle mass and bone density.
There’s still, however, the matter of size and the disparity that often exists between men and women. You rarely see men who are 6’4, 250 pounds. Even less common, though, are women of the same size. I can only think of one, Gabi Garcia.
As a kid, I always tried to be aware of my size, to a fault. Playing youth basketball, coaches said I had to be more aggressive. But, I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and I was pretty much always the biggest kid in my class.
This mental block has carried to my adult years. I once had a female training partner, a very high-level judoka who would say to me after rolling that I “didn’t need to treat her like she was made of glass.”
At the time, I thought she was unreasonable. I was 235 pounds, and she was much smaller. It wasn’t a gender thing, just a size thing. This same woman, though, would regularly toss men much larger than her in sparring.
She was on her country’s national judo team and had pride as an athlete. Some random blue belt treating her like a novice likely didn’t sit well. Granted, that wasn’t my intention; I just didn’t want to hurt anyone.
Other women I encountered preferred when I rolled lighter, namely, the more hobbyist grapplers. They just enjoyed the social and aerobic aspect of the jiu-jitsu and weren’t necessarily trying to be world-beaters.
You have two different types of people here—hobbyists who want to hang out after work and those who have egos as athletes. For the latter, like my judoka friend, I solved this problem by, well, doing judo rounds with her– or starting in Kesa Gatame. I could exert more physically, to the point where she no longer felt disrespected and was able to learn a few things along the way from someone who knew far more about judo than I did.
Because of this, my Uchi-Mata got much better, and I learned some pretty invaluable details on hip placement for a taller person, at least when it comes to O-Gohis, Seoi-Nages, and the like.
For the more casual types, this is less of an issue. Jiu-jitsu can be intimidating for some. But, seeing someone who could pass for an NFL defensive end rolling light with smaller people can be a welcoming sign that jiu-jitsu isn’t all Tapout shirts and mohawks. There’s something good in it for everyone.
Don’t Be a Jerk
It may be a roundabout way of saying it. But the point is, don’t be a jerk. People come from all different backgrounds and have different things they’re trying to get out of training. If you’re big, it’s essential to try and keep safety in mind. But it’s also crucial to try and not come off as condescending to women who feel you’re treating them like a liability first and a training partner second. There’s something you can learn from everyone, just was the case from the two scenarios I outlined above– one being the purple belt who decked me on my first day, and the second being my judoka friend.
Go in with an open mind, and you never know what skills you might be able to walk away with. Your judo might get better, or you might discover that jiu-jitsu works just as good too.
Jeff Nelson is a brown belt under Danilo Cherman of Team Nova Uniao. He started training jiu-jitsu in 2014, and he always complains about Star Wars on his personal Instagram account.