The experience of an older individual telling you that, back in their day, things were tougher, better, and all-around purer to a practice’s essence isn’t exclusive to jiu-jitsu. Everyone, as they age, remembers the norms of their youth with a greater fondness than the current societal circumstances. Part of this is just human nature; we gravitate toward the familiar. And there’s nothing more familiar to us than “how things used to be.”
That said, even though the nostalgic musings of our more advanced-aged peers aren’t exclusive to jiu-jitsu, they still happen a lot within the sport. Older practitioners will laugh at guard pullers, chastise sport-based players, and ridicule those concerned with tournament rules during a training round.
Here’s the thing: They’re mostly right. Combat sports are becoming less tough. More rules are being introduced to make more money and appeal to as many people as possible. We all need to eat. And if you’re running a gym, you want to accommodate as many people as possible; it’s just good business practices.
That said, the watering down isn’t exclusive to jiu-jitsu, but all combat sports– or just sports in general. Just look at all the hits football players got away with in the eighties and nineties versus what they get penalized for today. But the introduction of more rules often necessitates higher skill levels and isn’t always a bad thing.
MMA Has Been Watered Down, Too
No sport has evolved more over the past three decades than mixed martial arts (MMA). Watch the first few Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) and compare that to the product the same organization puts out today– nowhere near the same thing. And yes, you could argue that the fighters of old are “tougher” than the modern fighters– lest we forget that Keith Hackney stepped into the octagon with a sumo wrestler that most likely outweighed him by 300 pounds.
The result? Hackney won with an open palm strike to his opponent’s face. He also won a fight by repeatedly striking his opponent in the groin. Other examples exist, too: Royce Gracie won in the finals in the second UFC against Dan Severn– triangle him after spending upwards of twenty minutes getting smashed by his much larger adversary.
The only actual rules to the early UFCs prohibited biting, eye-gouging, and small joint manipulation. Everything else was fair game. But you could argue that the rules of MMA have gone through several incarnations, and the current state of MMA is more watered down than even the previous decade. Look at Pride FC, which allowed soccer kicks, a technique not currently permitted in the modern UFC.
MMA, like jiu-jitsu, is becoming more sport-based. But, as stated in the introduction to this post, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some might argue it is. There may be old-school MMA purists lamenting the absence of freak fights in the modern combat sports culture.
More Rules. More Skill.
But here’s the thing: more rules can often mandate a higher skill level than their absence. Yes, nobody will debate Keith Hackney’s toughness or anyone else that fought in those early tournaments– back when you had to fight multiple times in one night. However, what is almost certainly beyond debate is that the skill level of modern MMA far surpasses anyone in that early era.
Put anyone from the early era in a cage with a modern fighter, and the fight isn’t going well for the former. Part of this is just the natural progression. In the popular anime Naruto— a show about ninjas– it’s common that each subsequent generation of ninja is more powerful than its predecessor. Art imitates life because this is also true in combat sports.
No disrespect intended to any of the founding greats of jiu-jitsu; they’ve all played vital roles in bringing the sport to where it currently is. And they should all be looked at with a degree of healthy respect. But, take any of those greats, even in their prime, and put them in a match against a modern jiu-jitsu world champion, and just like their MMA counterparts, it would be a quick match.
Indeed, we’re entering a golden age in terms of jiu-jitsu talent. We have green belt youths submitting black belts. The sport’s popularity alone creates massive brackets at tournaments, and the technical innovation of the modern game is unparalleled. Modern technology is mainly responsible. Communication is easier than ever, making for an easier exchange of ideas, helping to prove the Naruto Principal mentioned earlier.
Furthermore, the introduction of new rules does mandate a higher level of skill. When an athlete displays their mastery of a sport, it’s the mastery of a specific rule set on display. When an NFL receiver makes a catch near the sideline, he has to drag his toe in bounds for the reception to count based on a rule that both feet must be in bounds. You don’t see those as often at the college level, where the rules on what makes for a catch are less stringent. A parallel to this philosophy in the combat sports world is how the Art of Judo has changed significantly since the implementation of Olympic rules.
Those big ippon throws are encouraged, as they are the most spectator-friendly aspect of the sport. As such, more rules have been put in place to encourage those throws as much as possible. Is this the watering down of the sport? Perhaps. But the fact that current judo competitors have to contend with those rules means that they are likely the most skilled athletes to ever partake in the sport. Under that rules set.
With that established, are they less tough for not having to deal with takedowns that, traditionally speaking, are part of judo but have been banned from competition? From that point of view, we’re talking about toughness in minute degrees of variation; you’re still fighting, knowing that, within the blink of an eye, you could get tossed on your head.
The Changing Of Times
Toughness is a nebulous term at the end of the day. But what is undebatable is that the current slate of famous combat sports athletes is the most skilled we’ve ever seen. This isn’t to disrespect their predecessors, as the current jiu-jitsu athletes will someday have to contend with the fact that the next generation has surpassed them. It is a universal truth and will continue indefinitely as a natural trait of existence. It’s not bad. It’s not good. It just is.
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.