A Quest to Define the BJJ Fundamentals (Originally appeared in Jiu-Jitsu Style Magazine)
Advice that is often heard in jiu jitsu schools around the globe is to “Focus on the fundamentals”. It is hard to find fault with this advice and most students nod their heads in agreement with this seemingly wise wisdom. The problem is… what are the fundamentals?
I’ve traveled to countless BJJ schools across 4 continents and I have found that while there are many similarities to the way techniques are performed, there are also many subtle differences. Additionally, I found that some schools focused more on one aspect of the art than another. One school seems to focus more on passing, another school more on guard, and yet another more on BJJ for MMA.
With this wide variety of instruction, I started to wonder. Would all of these instructors agree on a definition of “the fundamentals”? So I started asking. Every time I would train with a new instructor, or even if it was just an interview, I would ask the question “What are the fundamentals or basics of BJJ”? Perhaps not surprisingly I got different answers from different instructors. Today I have a mission. I’m going to find a definition for “BJJ fundamentals” that works for me. But I’ll might need to rely on the help of some friends…
One commonly accepted notion is that fundamentals never change. This idea creates a nice feeling of legacy. Like we’re carrying on what the forefathers of the art created. But wait… are are we really doing kimuras the same way Conde Koma did back in Japan? Are we setting up armbars the same way Carlos and Helio did?
To get another perspective, I decided to contact my friend, multiple time world champion Caio Terra. He was quick to tell me that the idea that the fundamentals never change is a common misconception:
“Fundamentals change, because concepts change. As we gain a better understanding of mechanics we have to consistently revise. When I talk about modern Jiu Jitsu I'm not talking about berimbolo, I'm talking about revised fundamentals. From how we open the guard to how we cross choke.”
Ok… Well so much for the idea of carrying on an unchanging legacy. So fundamentals change. How am I going to nail down a definition of something if it’s always changing?
Well maybe fundamentals are called “basics” because they are simple movements. That makes sense, right?
Again Caio Terra was quick to correct me:
“Speaking of the cross choke the [reality] is that, "basics" aren't so basic. If the cross choke from mount were so basic, roger wouldn’t be the only one choking everyone. Calling it invisible Jiu Jitsu or magic doesn't make it any less real.”
So the basics aren’t really basic and they are always changing. I don’t feel like I’m anywhere closer to an understanding of how to define the fundamentals at this point. I mean, I understand what Caio said and I do feel like I’m learning more of what the basics AREN’T. So to rephrase, here’s what the basics are not:
-The basics aren’t set movements that never change.
-The basics aren’t simple.
As I sat trying to figure out a proper definition of the fundamentals, I decided to ask for the help of another luminary in our community. I posed the question to Gui Mendes – a world champ and owner of AOJ Academy. He replied:
“To us, fundamentals are all the basic essential positions that we learn from the beginning of our journey in Jiu Jitsu. They form the bottom of the pyramid. Closed guard, side control, mount & back are the bottom of our pyramid and as we understand more about the art we start learning more variations and different moves that we use to build our game.”
Hmm. Gui’s comments were easy enough to understand. Fundamentals are the moves that we do from the beginning. And there are basic moves for each major position. But again, the problem with this is that different instructors might focus on different moves. So does that mean there isn’t a universal understanding of basics across the BJJ world? I wanted to reach out to someone who would have a strong opinion on the matter, maybe some one not so traditional… Got it. I called up 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu founder Eddie Bravo. He actually agreed with Caio by saying “It's very hard to say what BJJ fundamentals are because it's constantly evolving.” Then Eddie explained the matter with an interesting analogy with Kung Fu:
“The lockdown is considered part of 10th Planet fundamentals but it's not in most traditional bjj schools. There are so many styles of Jiu Jitsu, in my opinion every style has its own set of fundamentals. There are also so many styles of Kung Fu and each style has its own set of fundamentals.”
Wow. I never thought of comparing BJJ schools to the various style of Chinese martial arts. While I like this analogy, I don’t think 10th planet jiu jitsu is as different from Atos Jiu jitsu as Wing Chun is from Tai Chi. Of course the difference is that BJJ is only about 100 years old while Chinese martial arts are well over 1,000 years old (much longer depending on who you ask).
Just look at some of the biggest names in BJJ and trace their history. You’ll find that many of them have belonged to more than one Jiu Jitsu school throughout their career. This shows how hard it is for organizations (who are run by people) to keep its members together. Look at the long history of any art and you’ll usually find top students starting their own thing after some time due to relationship differences, or money, or in search of power. When new organizations are born it’s natural for them to put a little more focus in one area than another. So what started as a commonly accepted practice often splinters into different “factions” who emphasize different aspects of the art. Thankfully, in BJJ we have events like the Mundials and ADCC where we get the best of the best together to see how they match up. This is something that most other arts don’t have.
I want to thank my friends who were available to answer the phone to help. Caio Terra, Gui Mendes, and Eddie Bravo all helped me to reach an understanding of what the fundamentals are in BJJ. This is what my definition is today:
The fundamentals are often repeated movements done from the basic BJJ positions however they are constantly changing and they vary from school to school.
Is it a good thing or a bad thing that different schools have different fundamentals? Some conservatives would say that there is only one “real” BJJ and we have to do things as those before us did. This is often how the issue is treated in traditional martial arts. While there is a tremendous value in maintaining tradition, there is also a real risk of becoming irrelevant or ineffective (however you choose to determine effectiveness).
My opinion is that diversity is a good thing. As a lifelong student of the martial arts, I love visiting new schools and seeing what aspect the instructor chooses to focus on. BJJ is an art filled with more than a lifetime’s worth of study. It’s rare to find someone that is equally good at all aspects. What is more common is to find an instructor that has a deep level of understanding of some aspects. I strive to be a well-rounded grappler and I will continue seeking out those around the world that have the deepest knowledge. And I will share with you what I find in future instructionals and blog posts.