Jiu-jitsu is different from other sports in many ways; when you think of athletic events, the biggest, strongest competitors are often looked at most favorably. Look at the four major sports in America. They all feature a popularity bias toward the biggest and strongest of their athletes. I couldn’t make it a day without being bothered by my school’s athletic director to join the football team. Indeed, size matters in sports.
In jiu-jitsu, though, preference is often given to the smaller competitors. It makes sense, too. The point of the art was to allow smaller people to contend physically with people of more impressive stature. Helio Gracie was the prime example of this. There is even speculation that he entered Royce over Rickson into the first UFC, mainly because the former was the smaller practitioner– putting the art on full display.
This philosophy makes the bigger person’s spot in jiu-jitsu somewhat dubious at times. A purple belt practitioner named Erin Quillen– Instagram handle “brutal_viking_bjj”– expressed some frustrations of being a bigger competitor in a smaller athlete’s sport.
Some of the posts were geared toward being a larger woman, which I can’t relate to, but some of the more gender-neutral aspects of her post I found common ground with.
So I thought I’d share my thoughts on my experiences as a super and ultra-heavyweight.
Heavyweights Rarely Get Enough Credit
When I was a lower rank– white and blue, mostly– I gave up lifting weights and pretty much sought to emaciate myself as much as possible. I was a rather unhealthy super heavyweight. I’d show up to tournaments looking skinny. It was tough maintaining a 215-pound bodyweight with my 6’4” frame. I would often have trouble getting the proper endurance to fight effectively past the early rounds, an issue that was fixed when I started gaining weight.
I did this, though, for a specific reason: I wanted to try and develop early, relying as much on technique as possible rather than strength. So, I started playing guard exclusively.
I adhered to this so much that my current teacher told me on many occasions to use more strength to utilize all my physical assets during rolls fully.
I wanted to be appreciated for my technique first, though, which I drilled obsessively. If the technique is a lens, then it amplifies your size that much more. And it was frustrating that I drilled and refined my technique more obsessively than just about everyone else in my original gym but was only looked at as “the big guy.” So much so that whenever I submitted a higher belt in training or just rolled effectively against them, my size got the credit.
This insulting misjudgment is a product of egos in the gym. People don’t want to look bad or get tapped out, and I developed a reverse Napoleon complex because of it.
Quillen’s post was an affirmation that I wasn’t alone in this problem.
Heavyweights Don’t Have Difficulty Settings
Another part of Quillen’s post that resonated with me was when she discusses being called a “bully.” As someone who once developed a similar reputation, this can be difficult to deal with– especially when most larger people that find jiu-jitsu do so after being bullied as kids for their size.
Not every big person was necessarily athletic.
Much of this reputation stemmed from a training partner– often a white belt, but not always– approaching me apprehensively. We would bump fists, and my sparring partner would ask to “go light.” I’d shrug my shoulders and agree, only for them to go as hard as they could.
The expectation was obvious: They expected me to go light, but they could go as hard as they wanted, whether they meant to or not. But once the complaints started piling up about me, it became a problem, and I was beginning to get avoided in my own gym.
Still, there is something to learning how to play with your partner. And the technique isn’t necessarily based on athleticism. Sure, it’s easier to execute technique if you’re more athletic, but it’s not the sole defining factor. And I think heavyweights could rely less on their size in some aspects.
If You’re Going To Differentiate Between “Small And Big Person” Jiu-Jitsu, Why Do Jiu-Jitsu?
Quillen’s post didn’t get into this too much. And I’ve never seen her compete, though her many photos atop podiums likely denote her ability. This section is less a response to her post directly and more an observation about heavyweights in general.
On several occasions, I’ve been told that I have a “small guy” game by other larger grapplers. I invert, play x-guard, de la Riva, and go for submissions from the bottom. I use butterfly guard a lot, too.
When bigger competitors tell me that I play like a smaller person, this denotes laziness to improve their game. If your game is predicated on you being big, you’re not doing jiu-jitsu. You’re trying to use an already existing advantage rather than mechanical ones developed using jiu-jitsu’s technique. At my gym, there’s a purple belt who’s about 4’11”– one of the most technical practitioners I’ve been around. She’s not afraid of going against bigger opponents either. Indeed, she’s one of the few smaller people I’ve met who doesn’t turn down a roll with anyone.
Still, I see heavyweight white belts do, well, not jiu-jitsu against her. Some try to knee-wrestle her to the ground. I’ve seen other people try to spear her like a schoolyard scrap. And while I’m not concerned about the purple belt’s safety– she can handle herself– I do question how much these bigger opponents care about building on their craft. I think they just can’t handle “losing” to a smaller female.
After seeing one such roll, where a physically larger white belt tried to muscle this purple belt, I pulled aside the white belt and told him to play guard against her; what he was doing wasn’t productive for his development. If he could try and retain his guard against her while she tried to pass, that would be much more conducive to building technique and reducing the stigma that big people have at some gyms.
Big People Like Jiu-Jitsu, Too
Quillen brought up several good points that I think the community should be more aware of. We often get dismissed as “monsters” or the like, but we have feelings, too, you know? We have good days, bad days, and everything else in between– just like everyone else.
Being big in jiu-jitsu also comes with its own set of challenges, both physically and socially, within the greater community.
That said, big people, particularly larger men, often rely too heavily on their size early on. So, to gym owners, maybe be a little less harsh on your two hundred-plus pound students. And for the heavyweights, don’t be afraid to think small, at least in terms of movement, but still roll with a large presence.
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.