Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The BJJ Contrarian

I disagree! I am no contrarian!

A contrarian - is a person who takes up a contrary position, especially a position that is opposed to that of the majority, regardless of how unpopular it may be.

A BJJ contrarian - someone who takes up a contrary learning path, especially one that is opposed to that of the majority, in attempts to be unique, better, or learn quicker than the majority.

Machine learning - A core objective of a learner is to generalize from its experience. Generalization in this context is the ability of a learning machine to perform accurately on new, unseen examples/tasks after having experienced a learning data set.

BJJ learning - A core objective of a student is to generalize from its experience. Generalization in this context is the ability of a student to perform accurately on new, unseen examples/tasks after having experienced a learning data set.

BJJ contrarian learning - A core objective of a student is to generalize from the inexperiences of the majority. Generalization in this context is the ability of a student to perform accurately on known and previously seen examples/tasks.

What the hell does this all mean?

I have a friend named Jimmy. He got into grappling and Jiu Jitsu years ago after watching Royce Gracie first choke someone out. MMA is growing and he wanted to learn this new art, an art based around choking people with techniques no one had ever seen before. So what did he do? Did he sign up for a BJJ school or a Gracie school? Of course not, that would make too much sense.

No he had to beat them at their own game. He signed up for a different kind of grappling school, a school that focused on leg locks and neck cranks. So he could be the king grappler, the one who taps other grapplers out with techniques they had never seen before! The one who could tap black belts with only 6 months of training! Bypass learning! Time and effort into a craft is for suckers.

You look at old Black Belt Magazines and in one ad, it will talk about Gracie Jiu Jitsu, the secret techniques that beat all other martial arts. Then another ad for catch wrestling, sambo, pancrase, or what have you promising to beat Jiu Jitsu with techniques even secret to them. Who can out secret who???

Jimmy went to some open mats and he leg locked a bunch of blue belts. The higher belts were not pleased as his move sets were dangerous. He deemed that they were just scared of his secret techniques. Jimmy was convinced he was on the right path.

Some time passed and as BJJ uses machine learning, it got exposed more and more to leg locks and other exotic holds.

Jimmy enters a no gi grappling tournament. He faces an opponent, goes for a leg lock, the opponent gets out and gets on top. Jimmy scrambles for another leg lock but no use. He gets his guard passed, actually Jimmy doesn't have a guard. He gets mounted, Jimmy starts to flop around, Jimmy gets armbarred. Much in the same way the people who didn't train BJJ in the early UFC days got submitted.

Jimmy quits that school and joins a school that trains in Jiu Jitsu, but a special brand of Jiu Jitsu, with a special unique guard unseen to the world (Not just Eddie Bravo, believe it or not there are other schools that did this as well, just none as famously as Eddie's). He is now unstoppable! He has a guard, and he has his leg locks and neck cranks, who can stop him?

Jimmy enters a tournament to take his place as king grappler. But a problem arises, once someone gets trapped in his special guard, they are screwed. But the problem is, he can't get them into that guard. He didn't think about that part, getting them into his trap. The other thing he didn't think about was what if he was on top, he can't use guard! But wait he can leg lock. Why are the leg locks not working for Jimmy? A couple years ago, no one had seen it before, why are they escaping? Jimmy gets swept, he can't get his opponent into guard. He is down on points, he has to sweep his opponent back, but he doesn't know any sweeps... Jimmy loses and quits.

Jimmy wants to be a good competitor, the king grappler, so he joins another school focusing on MMA, then another school that focuses on self defense, then another where every student is trying to make up their own moves. He then thinks maybe Judo will help his competition Jiu Jitsu, then he tries wrestling, he tries everything else except a competition Jiu Jitsu school.

He finally joins a new school that opens up that promises to innovate Jiu Jitsu with techniques the likes of which no one has ever seen before. And to this day, Jimmy has failed at his mission at being king grappler.

Being "special" is one seductive bitch. It's almost like people who believe they are immune to cancer because they eat "super" foods. I'm special, your rules do not apply to me!

There's many of us out there

I'm like Jimmy. A lot of people I know are like Jimmy and still are. Anyone who hates on competition BJJ and schools that compete well have a bit of Jimmy in them. Instead of joining BJJ, I suffered for years at a school dedicated to ripping legs and necks and joints. It's been years since I left that school but I now deal daily with chronic pain I got from my time there. Just so I could be different. Now it is my greatest limiting factor, whenever I roll over my shoulder or I play De La Riva, I am in pain. The price of heel hooks and neck cranks is high.

Cauliflower Chronicles

I read this book called The Cauliflower Chronicles: A Grappler's Tale of Self-Discovery and Island Living several years ago. It was pretty cool to read a book by another Jiu Jitsu guy that wasn't an instructional. It was a memoir of his time spent living and training in Hawaii at BJ Penn's academy.

I really enjoyed the book, especially since I had also taken several trips all over the country and the world to train Jiu Jitsu. I actually spoke to the author Marshal Carper a few times on Facebook and since then he's gone on to write extensively about BJJ.

What struck me the most about his first book though was that, though he went to Hawaii to train with BJ in hopes of coming back home and dominating the competition with his new found Jiu Jitsu, what resonated with me was that he spent a lot of time learning from Eddie Bravo's book. When he got back, all the techniques he tried at the tournament seemed to be the moves out of Eddie's book. I'm not doing the book justice of course and in speaking with Marshal, he learned so much from the Penns along with other BJJ fighters who visited the academy. He also did like many white belts at the time get caught up in the rubber guard phenomena.

I think that aspect of training at one school while learning from a book stuck with me because I'm totally like that. There have been times where I am going to one school, but learning moves from a book or DVD by another instructor. Not just recreationally, I was trying to recreate that instructor's whole curriculum. I know it doesn't make sense but we do it.

The actual problem

To get good at BJJ, you have to train BJJ. To get good at competition BJJ, you have to train competition BJJ. That's it. I still get questions through email or Facebook about my thoughts on if someone should train wrestling to get better at BJJ, or Judo, or do more strength and conditioning, etc. If your baseline BJJ is good, go ahead it can enhance it. If you're baseline is not even at par, then train BJJ and forget all the other stuff.

You see it in fitness as well. Have you heard of this exercise no one's ever heard of? It's supposedly super effective! The more contrarian it is, the more effective it must be right? Why spend so much time and energy, when you could do this and short cut your way to the top.

Who's got 10,000 hours? Just learn this thing no one knows and you will be a champ.

Objective reality

I may know all these weird moves, but everything BJJ guys did to me in competition was new to me. I was so confused the first time someone did spider guard on me, and I had never seen the Berimbolo until I joined Cobrinha LA. The whole time I was thinking I was learning moves the other guy didn't see, when in fact it was the other way around. They were the ones who knew moves that I didn't know how to counter. They weren't confused by my rare skillset, I was the one confused. Somehow it ended up that BJJ was exotic to me, I spent so little time learning and, and more time trying to counter it, I didn't know any BJJ at all.

I rarely surprised anyone with my moves because there's always assholes like me trying these crazy moves on them. And they absorbed it. BJJ machine learning. Like the Borg in Star Trek, they assimilated it into the collective. Actually a lot of times they would beat me so badly, I never even got to try a move.

My whole game was based around the assumption that my opponent would be an idiot. When in fact I was the idiot.

We all want to be unique flowers. So some will convince themselves the best way to get good at chess is by playing lots of checkers, learn savate to learn muay thai, or to get good at football, play lots of lacrosse. Yes they are similar but there are certain unique challenges, data sets, and learning you must do that is unique to your activity and you cannot bypass that. That's not how machines learn, and that's an inefficient way for us to learn.

If you want to be good at wrestling, do wrestling, if you want to be good at sambo, learn sambo. But if you want to be good at BJJ, show it respect, do the right thing, and go learn BJJ.

In movies you will see a hero kick everyone's ass with secrets. I almost blame Bruce Lee for instilling this idea into our heads. It's great for movies but in real life, we have something called objective reality. And in real life it can punch you in the face.

MMA didn't reveal that its about secrets. MMA revealed its about learning as much as you can and adding it to your base. Like the Borg, like machine learning. You don't enter MMA with ninjitsu. Well people have, but it was ugly.

Will this change the minds of contrarians?

No. They are contrarians for a reason. I didn't learn until I tore both my knees and herniated the discs in my neck to give up catch wrestling and sambo.

I know people who train at random schools, and sometimes they will want to train together or drill. But I run into this situation, they don't know enough practical Jiu Jitsu to drill effectively. I hate to say it's a waste of time, but you don't want to practice something into your muscle memory that is not actually going to be the way you use it.

Then it's no longer drilling, it ends up being you trying to teach them enough to drill. In business they call it product knowledge. They assumed they had some baseline product knowledge learning other arts similar enough to BJJ to defeat BJJ, they were wrong. If you can't even assume the positions or the techniques of Jiu Jitsu, how in the world will you ever counter it?
“All I’m arguing for really is that we should have a conversation where the best ideas really thrive, where there’s no taboo against criticizing bad ideas, and where everyone who shows up, in order to get their ideas entertained, has to meet some obvious burdens of intellectual rigor and self-criticism and honesty—and when people fail to do that, we are free to stop listening to them.” 
― Sam Harris
If Berimbolo sucks, how can you defeat it if you don't even know how its set up or what it looks like? Where are the burdens of intellectual rigor and self-criticism and honesty?

It's what makes learning as a contrarian difficult. People who train with you will not feed you enough quality data, realistic data, and you will be limited in your knowledge base as you and your school has separated yourself from the majority. You only know what you guys can figure out on your own. If you are an athlete plus also a genius, you may still be okay. If you are just normal, you will have problems. You close your borders, counter the world, try to create your own rules. You will be North Korea. The most unique snowflake of them all.

Even in BJJ this happens

It's interesting to see black belts who still learn new moves. It's also interesting to see black belts who haven't learned a new move since brown belt. BJJ learning is about constantly growing, learning, and adding to the collective conscious of the majority. I hear black belts say, you must think like a white belt and always be open minded and grow and learn. Then in another conversation say every new move created after they got their black belt sucks (they don't say it that way but it means the same thing) and it was only invented because the inventor never understood the old moves in the first place.

See if they were still a brown (with the same knowledge and skill set but the belt was different), that attitude wouldn't fly. They would think, well I am still a brown belt, and though I may not like these moves, I better learn them because I will have to face people who use them and I can't control what others are learning or using. They would also have to answer to a higher belt.

But as a black belt you CAN control what others are learning. You have become apex. That thing everyone else is doing nowadays? Yeah I don't know it but it sucks. Instead of learning it, I will just teach you the stuff I already know because I don't need to learn anymore. My goal was to get my black belt, not to get better forever.

You may not start out as a contrarian but you may end up like one. Ultimately the path of the contrarian is the path of ego.

I Am Legend

I Am Legend is one of my favorite books. Forget the crappy Will Smith movie. It's about this guy in a world surrounded by vampires, and so he tries to kill all the vampires. He is special, the last human, he will slay all the beasts. But in a world where everyone else except you is the vampire, they are no longer vampires. They are the new human beings, and this guy who goes out at night killing people for no reason, he's the asshole.

BJJ Brickradio

Did a podcast, where they briefly discussed this article. You can listen to it here:

Don't Be Stupid

I'm going to reveal a big secret. Dun dun dun. This video we made of an armbar defense was a joke. We did it to fool the BJJ world. It's got over 100,000 hits but if you include other servers who host this same video (without our permission of course), it's closer to 200,000.

Read the comments. I still get emails daily from people who want to know if this move will really work, can I counter Jiu Jitsu with this, or statements like "yeah that move is cool but it won't work no gi." No joke, people think it's real and even though it ends the way it ends, they still want to believe the move has some secret mystical power.

Even the title, it's an ultimate defense, made people click. Instead of learning armbars, basics, guard, mount escapes, etc., I can just learn this move and never be armbarred again. That's what it promises and it's why people watch it to the end.

One of our catch lines for our video series is, don't be stupid. We even have shirts printed of it. So seriously, don't be stupid. Just train competition BJJ if you want to win medals in BJJ. If not stick with your art and be happy with it and leave BJJ out of it.


  1. I don't see why one shouldn't learn something else alongside BJJ even if you're not that good. You can win a competition by mixing things.

    1. You totally can. I think it's when you scale the importance of those other things higher than BJJ. Or when you think it's about doing the things your opponent has never seen.



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