Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fight a Boxer, Box a Fighter

I am a firm believer of variety of techniques

I have attended classes and seminars by high level BJJers. Many of them will tell you the same thing, that they only teach and believe in the basics, because its what works for them. Unfortunately, most of these guys, being high performance athletes can do their moves to anyone, because they are typically big strong guys.

There are no basics that work for everyone. One thing I have realized teaching in Malaysia, is that the students here come in all shapes and sizes. My lightest student weighed in at 40kgs and my heaviest 120+kg.

There will be moves that work for the lighter one that won't work for the heavier one and definitely vice versa.

There is an old saying "Fight a Boxer, Box a Fighter". This exact phrase is used by John Will and Gene Lebell as their basis of their success in their individual autobiographies. This is the reason how they climbed to the top in their fields (John in Silat, Gene in Judo).

What it means, is that you use techniques that your opponent is unaware of, not good at or unprepared for. You don't go head to head with a particular technique, strategy or game if your opponent is better than you at it. 

Every technique, there is a counter. So if you do basics only, the counter will quite easily counter it. Furthermore, different instructors have different ideas what the basics mean. Even a simple technique, say armbar from mount, 10 black belts will give you 10 different emphasis on the same move. So most instructors will say learn the basics, but more often than not, they are all talking about different sets of techniques.

To me the beauty of BJJ is the variety of moves. I try to teach as many games as possible, and the techniques that make up those games, although perhaps physically or attribute wise, I am not able to play those games at a good level.

Roleta's Helicopter Sweep

Thus I have students who play rubber guard as their primary guard, and one particular blue belt plays a mean upside down guard with triangles and oma platas as traps. My purple belt plays a mean Z and De La Riva guard, and another blue belt plays primarily half guard.

The De La Riva Guard

Does that mean that these guards (or othe techniques) are useless and we should only learn "the basics"? Eddie Bravo, Ricardo De La Riva, Gordo and many others would take offense with that.

Eddie Bravo's Rubber Guard

In a class I typically teach my students perhaps 4-8 techniques for a particular position. That is not to say I expect them to remember all of them. In fact I expect them to remember only those that fit in to their game.

This is my montessori way of teaching BJJ. You pick and choose what you want to learn, and how fast you want to learn is up to you.

Two of my students messing around with the twister

BJJ first and foremost requires intelligence. As instructors, I believe our place is to show you the way, give you the tools, but it is up to you which path you take, and the level and direction of your growth. We help you develop your game, answer your questions the best we can. But at the end, there is no "best" game that everyone leans. There is a best game for you, that only you can develop.

There's always the flying rubber guard!

Sam Wee is the head instructor for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) at the KDT Academy (, Malaysia and has been teaching BJJ since 2003. 

Don't Worship the Move, Learn the Flow

Coming from an traditional martial arts background, there is a tendency for martial artists to "worship" moves.

This is even more prevalent for Asians, and this can be seen my the numerous kung fu movies in the market. In many of the movies, there is always the hero or bad guy spying on the master, learning his secret Buddha Palm that the students are not taught. And this move is used by the hero at the end to save the day, or the bad guy uses it to destroy the master, whereby the hero has to find an even more powerful move.

In the martial arts circle, many practitioners too fall into this trap. It is all too easy to start labelling this move and that move is attributed to this or that martial art, and giving more importance or less importance to that move based on the art its attributed to.

Unknown Comic Book

History's Greatest Disciple Kenichi

While labeling a move, attributing it to a martial art is not wrong per se, names are useful after all for communication and describing the move without demonstrating it. However, it becomes a mental barrier when your move that your instructor taught you is the only way to execute it, and you think that move is the be all and end all. 

I remember a story from either my instructor John Will, or another BJJ Black Belt instructor (my age is catching up with me), on when he was teaching a BJJ seminar hosted by a JKD school. The students told him that they knew all about armbars, so he asked them to demonstrate. One by one they demonstrated an armbar, but at the end of the move all of them strangely used one hand and pointed a finger to the roof. He couldn't quite figure out why all these JKD guys were doing that until one of them showed him a picture of how Bruce Lee does it.

Its a funny story, but it goes to show how worshipping a move made by someone you revere basically makes the move less effective than it should be. 

Specialization is not the problem. I have had fellow training partners who were experts in a particular choke, experts in armbars, experts in escaping and a particular sweep etc. The problem is the people who try to emulate this, thinking that thats the way to go.

Truth be told, there is no magic move that can finish off all your opponents. For every technique there is an counter, and a counter to the counter, and so on and so forth. So even if you have can do a technique textbook perfect, if your opponent knows you are going to execute that move, and knows the counter, there is a good likelyhood he will escape. 

There are also those with freakish abilities. I've encountered a student who is nearly immune to chokes, at least 3 students whose shoulders can rotate more than 90 degrees for kimuras and americanas, a student whose ligaments are flexible enough to hold out in a fully extended armbar and kneebar. 

What I have discovered as I go up the belt ranks, and watching better grapplers grapple and grappling them, is that their flow is different. No doubt blackbelts have each their own ways to making certain techniques work for them that don't work for us. But more importantly, it is their flow, their timing and their "in between" moves and positions that make them better. 

Unfortunately, those are the things that are hardest to teach, and learn. So most instructors cannot teach this, and most students will have to learn it the hard way. 

So the next time you watch or grapple someone better than you, don't just look at the techniques performed, but look for the flow, the timing, the "in between" moves and positions. For example, analyse why some black belts can do "BJJ No Nos" in bad positions and yet stay safe from submissions, small moves that they do in between positions, so that their opponent cannot recover. Study combinations that work for certain people, and why certain black belts escape a certain way, and not the normal way you were thought.

So remember the old saying: "Its not the size of the boat, but the motion of the ocean".... oh wait, thats for something else......

Sam Wee is the head instructor for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) at the KDT Academy (, Malaysia and has been teaching BJJ since 2003.