A Starry-eyed blue belt’s perception of jiu-jitsu is, at best, a false binary. They will say there are only competitors and hobbyists– with no room for anything in between. But, as you spend more time on the mat, you find that this idea isn’t accurate.
Your average father with four kids and a mortgage who trains three times a week never competes and just wants to learn a skill while getting a good workout. He is a hobbyist.
You have the inverse of this as well– someone who trains twice a day, six days a week and has an Instagram page littered with podium pictures. They probably have cauliflower ears and drill obsessively. These people are competitors, no doubt.
That starry-eyed blue belt would likely go to the nearest high-level gym, either for a vacation or cross-training, and see all the competitors they’ve watched compete on FloGrappling. It’ll be an experience, for sure– being on the same mats with people you’ve only seen on screens before. It’d be like a basketball fan running into LeBron James. Except, in jiu-jitsu, they’ll be able to train with their favorite athletes.
There will also likely be people they don’t recognize too, and they’ll be people who that gym’s competitors are always eager to roll with.
These are people who break that false binary. Practitioners who are super high level, but for some reason, just don’t compete. It could be that they just have no desire to or that they have competition anxiety they just can’t manage. But, whatever the reason, there are high-level people out there that you’ve never heard of and likely never will unless you go to their gym.
Where do they stand in the jiu-jitsu community? How should they be evaluated next to people of equal ability who do compete?
That’s a tricky question, but let’s try to unpack it.
There’s More To Jiu-Jitsu Than Competing
Practitioners often falsely assume someone’s competition record is the beginning and end of their ability as practitioners. While there’s some truth to that– a black belt hobbyist indeed couldn’t march into an ultra-heavyweight bracket at no-gi worlds and expect to beat Gordon Ryan. But, there is more gray area than we like to think.
Dillon Danis has a win over Murilo Santana in competition. Still, he trains at Unity, a gym owned by Murilo where he is also the head instructor. Simply winning a competition or beating someone in a match isn’t indicative of the sum of their knowledge. I’ve been to Unity many times and have never seen Murilo struggle while rolling with anyone, including icons of the sport like Leandro Lo.
In addition, John Danaher, one of the most famous people in the sport, has never competed– at least in a widely known competition anyway. But, talk to any Renzo Gracie student training in NYC back in the late nineties, and you’ll hear stories of him making the best fighters of the time look painfully human.
In addition, if you look through Garry Tonon or Gordon Ryan’s social media, they hold him in high regard– not just as a teacher but also a practitioner. Gordon, in particular, has routinely stated that he feels Danaher is better than him at jiu-jitsu– not at teaching it, but at the art itself.
Still, while there’s more to someone’s jiu-jitsu than their competition record, there’s something to be said for people who can replicate their game successfully on that competition mat.
Performing Under Pressure Is A Thing
There’s more to competing than just who has the better jiu-jitsu game, and it’s the same reason there are so many mental coaches in athletics. Mental toughness is a big part of what makes champions. You can have all the talent in the world in training, but if you freeze on the competition mats– either from nerves or some other cause– you will not get very far in your brackets. Indeed, competitors may have their favorite training partners in the gym, and they might give them a great fight in that setting. But on the competition mats, it would be a completely different story.
Just like there is an art to jiu-jitsu, there is also an art to competing. It isn’t just controlling nerves, either, though that’s a big part of it; there’s also knowing the ruleset under which you’re fighting, knowing when to push and when to relax (relatively speaking). This is all knowledge acquired from trial and error in dozens and dozens of tournaments.
Leaving It All On The Mats
There’s more to jiu-jitsu than competing, so competition accolades shouldn’t be seen as the sum of what someone knows or doesn’t. Some people may just not like attention, nerves, or anything else relating to competing. But, they can still be world-beaters in the gym and go toe-to-toe with anyone who walks through the doors.
To invoke a cliche, jiu-jitsu is a journey; let them experience it as they want to. That may sound like some pseudo-introspective nonsense you find on motivational Instagram accounts, but in this sense, it’s true. These people can contribute a lot to a gym, even if it doesn’t equate directly to points acquired for your team at a tournament. They can be great teachers and training partners, and that helps lift your gym to a different level.
So, are these people who are very high level, but don’t compete, good at jiu-jitsu?
Yes. Absolutely. No one would ever deny that. Just being good at jiu-jitsu is enough for some people. Are they good at competing in jiu-jitsu? Well, we don’t know. They might be, but they’ve never tested themselves, so we’ll never really know. And that’s fine. They should still be respected for their mastery of the art, though.
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.