I've been dropping by a traditional ju jitsu class for the pass few weeks, figuring that it offered a wider array of techniques to add to the Brazilian jiu jitsu I've been practising (throws and striking to go with the groundwork). Now, this isn't a comment on classical ju jitsu as a whole, because I'm sure there are many great classes out there, but after last night, I'm not going back. The way this particular class is taught (and frankly, the way two of the three other clubs I've been to were taught) really worries me. Here's why:
In two hours of training last night, we didn't do a single minute of sparring. We didn't roll bjj style. We didn't do any judo style randori. We didn't do some kind of all in, MMA-esque sparring that would seem to best represent the multiple ranges the art works at. We didn't even do the point karate stuff that we did in the first week. It has been a hundred and thirty years since judo demonstrated the importance of alive, randori focused training as a path to learning to really do things against a resisting opponent. In the first week I was there, for a grading, we did some non contact stand up sparring, followed by some ground grappling. On my second week, where the main coach wasn't there, we did some ground grappling at the end as our only sparring of the night, because I suggested it.
In both of those ground sessions, I dominated completely, despite being a bjj white belt. Despite having spent most of my Sunday afternoons getting absolutely smashed by blue and purple belts. This is not because of some inherent superiority of the art, the traditional club did some of the same movements on the ground, but it is because I have had a chance to grapple flat out with people every week for a couple of years and they choose not to. I also more than held my own against them in the stand up sparring, essentially because it was just that peculiar 1950s brand of karate that is neither hyper traditional and brutal nor modern and based on the lessons of full contact tournaments. This is in some ways more worrying, because they considered themselves to be a very striking based club, and although I do have a background in both karate and kung fu, I know from my MMA training that I am not a serious striker. Boxers and Muay Thai guys have to hold back with me to the point where I feel the need to apologise to them for not giving them good training. And then choke them.
Learning techniques was frequently by way of either the kind of pairs technique where the attacker does something and then stands still while you do three things back, or by way of kata in the case of the ground work. No one seemed to care where these kata had come from, or if the techniques were genuinely effective. Because it was just a kata, some of the small things that you need to be aware of when using the techniques involved were completely missing. For example, when it started with kesa gatame, no one pointed out what both judo and bjj people have put in different ways to me, which is that it's a great hold down, but that you need to do this to stop getting rolled, and this to stop them immediately taking your back.
This came out most when we did a kata for leg locks. Leg locks are my 'thing' on the floor. I was doing them before I took up BJJ, most of my submissions against better people come from them, and they're the one area where I really feel like I'm in a position to comment. So I'm sure you can understand how upset I was when of the seven locks we did, four would never work against a resisting opponent, one (a version of the English Pretzel, which is quite rare) would have needed some serious adjustment to make it functional, and the remaining two, while fine, were taught without any of the fine detail needed to make them tight, and without any sense of how you enter into them. When I actually lost my temper enough to politely mention this problem, they shrugged it off.
Perhaps this reflects a broader error in how this particular group judges the effectiveness of a technique, which is to say that a joint lock or throw seems to be deemed effective if it produces pain at the end, whereas I would also include such criteria as 'can I actually do this to someone who is resisting intelligently' and 'is there an easy escape that anyone can do even if they haven't been taught it'.
Let's move to another area for an example and take kote gaeshi (the classic aikido throw where you evade and draw someone on, taking hold of their wrist, then reverse directions, using a twist of the wrist to force an already off balance opponent to the ground). I've picked this one for three reasons. One, we did it a lot last night, including against knife attacks. Two, I trained in aikido for about three years, so I should have a decent chance of making it work if it can be made to under normal circumstances. Three, it's a move that I have tried to mess around with in a bjj context, when people have reached out for me on their knees, so I know how it behaves in a live context.
It's a move that seems to work really well when you practise it with a partner. I know people go on about aikidoka jumping, but with kotegaeshi, the reason you jump is that it really hurts when you don't. The initial lead can draw you right off balance, the turn back gets you into all kinds of tangles, and the wrist lock is both painful and controlling once it's on. It's a move that looks and feels deceptively effective. Doubly so from the knees (where aikido does a lot of practise, which is why I tried it in bjj)
So why have I never been able to make it work in any kind of competitive sparring, either on the ground or wrestling on the feet? Well, the answer is twofold. First, in situations where the striking is not predetermined and/or from a longish distance, I have had real trouble catching people's punches. Because people trying to hit you hard tend to do so from close range. And because they typically withdraw their punches quickly, before you can catch them. Secondly, where I have grabbed their hands, and even started to put the lock on, in a wrestling/bjj context, they've just pulled their hands out of my grip. You know all those easy wrist grab escapes that used to form part of every self defence curriculum? Well, it turns out other people do them too, often by instinct. The same is true for a number of other wrist locks that really hurt once they're on, like nikyo. I actually use that now as a way of breaking a grip, because I know that even if I try to hold the hand, a sensible opponent just rives his hand away as I try to apply it.
So, is this a broad attack on classical jujitsu and aikido? No, but it is an attack on a way of practising, and more importantly on a way of teaching. Because a teacher who passes on techniques that he or she has not tried and tested in a meaningful form of interaction (or who has not at least seen them used that way- I will teach the counter attack with the sabre even though it doesn't suit me, because it is used extensively in international competition) is passing on techniques that they do not know will work. Their students will take what they say at face value most of the time, so they are potentially putting them in serious danger. Worse, those students will go on to be black belts in their turn, perpetuating the cycle.
I was going to end it there, but I feel I need to go one further. If you are a teacher of a martial art, and you have never trained against a resisting opponent in moderate/full effort/contact sparring (even once or twice would be enough, but there are differences from non-contact) then please do me a favour and stop teaching until such time as you have. If you don't fancy being punched in the face (and it's not my favourite thing in the world) then by all means do it through some hard grappling rather than boxing. But please don't pretend to be some kind of expert on fighting until you have actually fought, even if it is only in a controlled context. Trust me, everything you think you know changes in that one moment someone hits you, or doesn't let you past their legs to apply your lock, or actually fights for grips.