From a system designed for peasants to defend themselves in feudal Japan, to the mean streets of Rio De Janeiro, Jiu Jitsu finds its origins as a martial art. And, regardless of the direction modern sport Jiu Jitsu is heading, it will always be the best martial art for learning self-defense.
Throughout history, humans have needed to defend themselves, and as societies grew, the ways they learned and taught each other evolved. As those cultures became more structured, many of the lethal martial arts grew unnecessary. A polite society governed by laws doesn’t have the same need for swords and battle-axes. As a result, many of the striking arts like Karate and Tae Kwon Do became ceremonial in practice.
I watched a video once with Lloyd Irving describing an encounter he had at a seminar with a Karate Master who was being honored with a lifetime achievement award after teaching for an impressive 80 years.
The ceremony included a display of acrobatic “forms” and flying kicks before the presentation of a certificate of lifetime achievement. Afterward, Lloyd got to ask the master a few questions.
Being a BJJ and Judo practitioner, he was skeptical of the usefulness of these flashy displays, so he asked the old man what he thought of their practice. The Master’s answer was a simple sentence; “Every art has a use for the reason it was created.”
Lloyd went on to explain that this simple answer made him dig deeper into its intent. At the time of its invention, these high-flying kicks were a part of self-defense and commonly used. Peasants needed to leap in the air to dismount attackers on horseback. As the need for those attacks became less necessary in a more modern world, their practice has become little more than a connection to heritage passed on through the generations.
Most striking arts follow this lead. Their application dictates their effectiveness, and if practitioners do not need to practice the art in real-time, it is never tested, and therefore, never combat-ready.
Learning a skill is easy. By reading a book or watching a video, anyone can teach themselves to do anything these days. To apply a craft is a different story. Being able to perform an activity requires more than just repeating moves, it takes real-time practice. Watching a video about painting your house 200 times won’t make you a better painter unless you get your paintbrush and run it on the walls.
Most martial arts practiced in the last 50 years are used less often because there is no real need to defend yourself to the death during everyday life. So, the application of those lethal techniques is never practiced and not sharpened.
Drilling these deadly styles also falls short. While it builds muscle memory, the techniques are never battle-tested because practicing full force could end in serious injury. A student can drill disarming an attacker with a plastic knife, but until the blade is real and the attacker is trying to kill you, things are not the same.
Understanding how the mind deals with stress clarifies this. Depending on your state of mind, the brain functions on two separate planes of activity. The cortex is the section of the brain responsible for fine motor skills and complicated mental operations like mathematics and speech. Most of the time, we reside in this state; however, during periods of extreme duress, brain function switches to the more animalistic plane of the limbic system.
Under stress, the human brain reverts to its most fundamental responses. The adrenal gland releases giant hormone dumps causing the heart to race and pump massive amounts of oxygen-rich blood to the muscles. The result is superhuman strength to escape danger or fight for your survival. But the fight or flight response is not designed for long periods or to process the complicated mechanics that martial arts require.
Enter Jiu-Jitsu. Training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu allows you to recreate the stimulus of a real encounter daily for as long as a fighter can train. Even the techniques that could lead to severe injury or death can be practiced at full speed because we can tap before a catastrophe. Training the brain to think under that elevated stress keeps a practitioner’s mind from switching to the limbic system.
That detail is the single component of Jiu-Jitsu separating it from most other martial arts. A Jiu-Jitsu student learns how to stay in control and think a conflict through by constantly recreating those scenarios every time they train. Other martial arts fall short because the only time their martial art is thoroughly tested is when a conflict outside of the gym happens.
There are many elements of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that fall short as a complete martial art, mainly when dealing with multiple attackers, but in its simplicity lies its strength. Landing a perfect strike against a moving opponent takes incredible timing, but with Jiu-Jitsu, securing a clinch is a natural response in hand to hand combat. After that, everything else flows from there. This streamlining adds another element that aids in the high-stress explosion of a real fight.
All martial arts have merit, and any endeavor into a discipline as demanding as learning one has benefit. For centuries martial arts have given people the ability to protect themselves from danger in whatever form it came. But when the world changed, performing those arts in real combat frequently enough to become effective ended too. A Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practice enables practitioners to keep that blade sharp, without using it in common practice outside of the gym.
Many young Jiu-Jitsu practitioners look down on other arts as worthless, but just like the old master from the story earlier said, “Every martial art has a use for the reason it was created.” So, never lose respect for a man that has studied a topic long enough to put his hand through a brick or jump six feet into the air to kick a target. That skill can still be deadly, but in Jiu Jitsu is a level of practicality that places it above any other martial art.
We train to kill every day, and that makes all the difference.
Kevin is a 1st degree Black Belt under Matt Arroyo and an active competitor on the professional jiu-jitsu circuit.