The Fighting Strategy of Jiu-jitsu

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Fighting Strategy of Jiu-jitsu

Jiu-jitsu, as it was originally conceived, is a fighting art.  It was designed for combat, and as it evolved through years of trial and error in real fights, developed into one of the most sophisticated and effective forms of fighting the world has ever seen! Most Jiu-jitsu practitioners from my generation got into the art because we witnessed what Royce Gracie did in the early days of the UFC, taking on bigger, stronger, very skilled opponents, and vanquishing them with techniques of the "gentle art" that his family was so paramount in developing.  Some of the things that continues to make Jiu-jitsu such a dominant martial art, and a staple of every professional fighter, is the liveness of training-constantly putting our techniques to the test against a resisting opponent in a live setting-and the fighting strategy that makes it so successful. So what exactly is that fighting strategy?

The Jiu-jitsu fighter does not seek a fair fight.  If we are to assume that our opponent is likely to be bigger, stronger, and more athletic, it is already, by its very nature unfair.  So, the strategy of the Jiu-jitsu fighter is not to meet the opponent on equal grounds.  Rather, in order to provide the best chance of being successful, the Jiu-jitsu fighter seeks to put themselves in a situation in which they can do damage to their opponent, while minimizing their opponent's opportunity to do damage to them.  This is the basis behind the concept of positional dominance that is so key to understanding Jiu-jitsu's fighting strategy.  There is a hierarchy of positions, based on providing the fighter with the most control over their opponent, while simultaneously limiting their opponent's opportunities to effectively do damage.  At the top of this hierarchy are positions such as the mount, back control, and knee on belly.  These are positions in which one fighter clearly has a positional advantage over the other, from which they have more opportunity to launch attacks including striking techniques and submission holds over their opponent, who is in a clearly defensive posture.  Other techniques, such as forms of the guard, are more neutral positions, in which the fighter, while on the bottom of the fight (which is always an inferior position) can utilize their arms and legs to effectively control their opponent and minimize their potential to inflict damage, while also providing them a platform to launch successful attacks.  This heirarchy of position is fundamental to understanding the Jiu-jitsu fighters strategy, and leads to the often heard adage "position before submission".

In other words, the Jiu-jitsu fighter doesn't proceed with reckless abandon, relying on strength and athleticism.  Rather, they follow a carefully conceived strategic framework, looking to always improve their position relative to their opponent first, before launching an attack.  Achieve a dominant position, effectively controlling the opponent and neutralizing their ability to effectively attack, and then finish the fight through striking techniques, or some form of submission hold, utilizing leverage to give them a mechanical advantage over their opponent.

Utilizing this idea, there are several easily recognizable phases of a fight, and specific strategies in each that the Jiu-jitsu fighter uses to accomplish their goal of defeating their opponent.  The first of these is where the fight normally starts, with two fighters standing on their feet squared up with each other.  We can refer to this phase as the "free movement phase".  Because there is no contact yet between the two fighters, they both have freedom over their own movement and neither is in control of the other.  This phase of the fight can be very dangerous, because, without contact, the fighters rely primarily on their visual cues alone to anticipate the movements and reactions of their opponents.  Often, in this phase, the fighter who has quicker reaction time, better footwork, etc. will have the advantage.  But, what is important is that, at least in theory, it is a fair fight.  Anything that one fighter can do, the other fighter can do as well.  In this phase, the Jiu-jitsu fighter's objective is to stay out of range, utilizing footwork and striking techniques to keep the opponent away at a safe distance until they have an opportunity to establish a clinch.

The next phase then, is the clinch.  In this phase, the fighter closes the distance, attaching themselves and tightly wrapping their arms around their opponent.  The purpose of the clinch, primarily, is to enable to Jiu-jitsu fighter to safely transition into a grappling range, where they can better control and anticipate their opponent's reactions, and utilize their body weight and leverage, while minimizing their opponent's ability to land damaging strikes.  By closing the space between themselves and their opponent, the take away the distance necessary to land powerful strikes which have the potential to knock them out or do significant damage.

After establishing the clinch, the Jiu-jitsu fighter will often seek to take the fight to the ground.  This can be accomplished either by off-balancing and taking down their opponent, or, in some circumstances, pulling a form of guard, accepting the bottom position, with the strategy of utilizing the legs to defend and attack from the bottom.  The ground grappling phase is what Jiu-jitsu is most commonly known for.  Why is this such a common theme in the strategy of Jiu-jitsu fighters?  Often, fights will end up on the ground naturally.  As the two combatants are moving around, pushing, pulling, attempting to establish control, often there is a loss of balance that results in one or both participants ending up on the ground.  This can be seen often in street fights where going to the ground isn't a strategy, but more often just a matter of circumstance.  For the Jiu-jitsu fighter though, it is often a deliberate strategy.  By taking the fight to the ground, the Jiu-jitsu fighter is able to minimize the size and strength difference of a larger opponent, particularly if they are able to control the top position.  Because the ground provides a stable surface, the Jiu-jitsu fighter can more effectively use their body weight to control their opponent's movement and immobilize them, restricting their ability to escape.  This leads to our next phase of the fight-securing a dominant position.

Dominant positions are those in which one fighter has a distinct leverage advantage over their opponent, and one in which they are able to more effectively able to utilize offensive maneuvers, including powerful strikes and joint locks/chokes to subdue or control their opponent.  And, conversely, a position in which it is difficult for the opponent to launch any form of effective offense. Again, there are a heirarchy of various positions, with positions such as knee on belly, mount, and back control being at the top. In this manner, the Jiu-jitsu fighter can slowly wear down a more powerful opponent, allowing them to struggle and tire themselves out, while using efficient movements and a minimal amount of energy. The Jiu-jitsu fighter's main objective is to maintain dominant control first, before seeking opportunities to finish the fight right away.

Finally, the ultimate objective is to finish the fight, subduing the opponent by means of striking techniques (often these strikes are meant primarily to create movement and open up opportunities for submissions or improvements in position-particularly if the opponent is much larger and more powerful) or submission holds (chokes and joint locks).  These holds may be used simply to control the opponent or to render them unconscious (in the case of chokes/strangles) or incapacitate them by hyperextending various joints, causing (sometimes permanent) damage to the bones, ligaments, and tendons.  In the context of training, this "kill" is represented by the tap, where one person willfully submits to the other, so that these positions and techniques can be practiced safely.

All of these various phases of the fight encompass a general strategic framework for the Jiu-jitsu fighter.  These are not hard and fast rules, but more guidelines.  Often these phases will happen in different orders or some maybe bypassed altogether, as the situation dictates.  For example, it is not ALWAYS the best idea to take the fight to the ground, due to environment factors, multiple opponents, etc.  But following these general principles will help to better understand the strategy by which the Jiu-jitsu fighter can be effective, even when confronted with a larger, stronger, more athletic opponent.

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