BJJ for Self Defense

“Never go to the ground!” ….. hmmmmmmm…. “never”

I have a friend in law enforcement who has an excellent story of using a bottom half guard technique to keep a guy between him and a group of dudes trying to kick his skull in with his back to a wall while he waits for backup to arrive.

Or let’s say you’re at a holiday party, there’s family and friends all stuffed into a little kitchen while the food is coming out.  Children are running around at ankle height.  Just then the door comes in, and here comes your one friend’s baby daddy fresh from jail.  He’s screaming he wants his kid; he grabs a knife off the butcher block.  Now I’ve seen plenty of self defense training where you NEVER get entangled with a guy, you NEVER go to the ground willingly, and I’m sure there are some “I’ll just shoot him” types… in a room full of people… in front of his child… that’s your choice to make.  Personally, I think having a non lethal skill set that allows you to effectively control someone while your buddy calls the cops and lends a hand is probably a good choice given the totality of the circumstances.

Let me repeat:  totality of the circumstances.

We are having a training session focused on handgun disarms.  I start back to a wall, helmet on, and a Simunition gun shoved into my rib cage with a dude bearing down on me.  Miracles happen, ninja shit, and I pull off a picture perfect weapon disarm. Now we are in the clinch fight. I lose my balance, pitch the gun, and get tossed.  There is a moment as I’m going down where I make the choice to use an open guard technique, ready for him to pounce on me and look for up kicks.  Seems like a good plan… until he runs a few steps and picks the gun back up before I can get back to my feet.  In hindsight, pulling guard to keep control of him with a loose gun in the environment would have been the better choice.

On the one hand yes, training to stay upright, mobile, and conscious are priorities.  On the other hand is the “all fights go to the ground” mantra.  Well, here we are as a student stuck with catch phrases and empty slogans in a rich, chaotic, messy tangle of limbs and uncertainty.  What’s the answer?   What if I told you, it depends?  What if the capability to stay upright and keep someone off you is not independent of the ability to take someone down at will and control them?  Or that those same take down skills translate directly into one’s ability to stay upright?  And there’s the rub.  The guy training BJJ isn’t just learning cool submission techniques from bottom, he’s also defending them, and trying to stay on his feet while another grown man tries to throw him around and pull him down.

Here’s a performance driver:  if I’m going to the ground I want it to be on my terms because I’ve made a choice to do so based upon the circumstances.    The one dimensional fighter doesn’t get to take the fight where he wants; he tries desperately to keep it wherever he is comfortable.

“A boxer is like a lion, the greatest predator on land. But you throw him in the shark tank and he’s just another meal.” – Renzo Gracie

In Renzo Gracie’s book, Mastering Jiu Jitsu, he speaks at length about the early days of mixed martial arts and about all the ranges of the fight and why the BJJ fighter had such a dominate advantage in those days.  The part that translates best for our discussion is simply that it is easier to take the fight to the ground than it is to keep it standing once the players have become entangled.  Simple as that.  You need to not just be better than your opponent, you need to be MUCH MUCH better if you want to stay upright and he does not.  Further, the number of fights we see where guys simply fall over one another, curbs, slip on gravel or ice, etc and wind up going down with no intention to do so is too large to ignore.  Gravity is out to get you, it takes effort to stand even when you’re not being punched in the face.

Once we hit the ground, without some basic horizontal grappling skills we are in for trouble.

And then we could go down the rabbit hole on this discussion.  What techniques or style translate best to the Weapons Based Environment (WBE, as per Craig Douglas)?  What about Gi vs no-gi ?  What BJJ do we see in modern mixed martial arts where everyone has some sort of grappling and strikes abound?  I’d like to talk about some of those points later, but for now I want to talk about why I believe BJJ is one of the best martial arts as one of the core tools for self defense.


From day one the BJJ student will face a live adversary in classes.  There will be technique, and there will be drilling,  there will be learning a new skill, and there will be some guy that’s bigger, stronger, younger, and more experienced than you attempting to force his will on you while you try to execute it.  From the very first few classes you’ll need to deal with suffocation, panic, making observations and decisions when your gassed out tired and hit with adrenaline.

Over time, it will take more and more pressure to overwhelm the practitioner. We learn piece by piece to deal with stress, to become functional in the jumbled mess of limbs, and be able to execute complex techniques based on intuition and feel.

This is where BJJ shines.  Constant, relentless pressure.

Its not about under what circumstances the triangle choke is appropriate for self-defense, or whether breaking an arm will stop an attacker.  Its about what you do when your overwhelmed, when you can’t breathe, when your muscles give out and dizzy from exertion.

The BJJ practitioner knows this place.  He goes there every day.

Read BJJ for Self Defense Part Deux.

Shawn Lupka

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