What did Helio Gracie and Vince Lombardi have in common? Brazilian jiu-jitsu strategy is a hot topic and recent events like the Gracie Worlds and the Metamoris Pro have added fire to the debate by pitting the traditional “submission is the only victory” BJJ against more competition-friendly strategies. All of the talk got me thinking about my own approach to rolling and what the strengths and weaknesses are.
As mentioned in my “First Year of The Jiu-Jitsu Vortex” post, and hinted at in my article about the importance of breathing in jiu-jitsu, the strategy that I keep coming back to is Frustrate and Annoy – a close relative to the Gracie Humaita style. Stay safe by shutting down your opponent’s attacks, save your own attacks for when your opponent makes a mistake (ie. when your chance of success is high), and above all… don’t exhaust yourself by freaking out.
Ryron Gracie used this strategy – which he’s branded “KeepItPlayful” – during his match against Andre Galvao at the Metamoris Pro Brazilian jiu-jitsu competition. The post-match discussions were pretty interesting. A large contingent of the BJJ world criticized Ryron for speaking out against competitors who stall… and then stalling for an entire 20-minute match. But what I saw was a relaxed-looking Ryron shutting down Galvao while slowly gaining momentum against his increasingly frustrated opponent. By the end of the match (which I would have happily watched for another 20 minutes), who was moving forwards? Who looked more confident? Who was backing up? Pulling guard?
Helio Gracie and Vince Lombardi: Shared Competition Strategy
Ryron’s game is as straight from the source as is possible for his generation:
Jigoro Kano -> Mitsuyo Maeda -> Helio Gracie -> Rorion Gracie -> Ryron Gracie.
His grandfather Grandmaster Helio lays it out in his introduction to Gracie Submission Essentials: Grandmaster and Master Secrets of Finishing a Fight:
“If you lose it is because you made a mistake, if you don’t make any mistakes, you won’t lose. I fight not to lose! I never entered a fight thinking about winning. My frame of mind is different – I enter a fight thinking about not losing!”
Interestingly enough, Helio’s fight philosophy is reminiscent of a passage from “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl”, Hunter S. Thompson’s account of the 1974 Super Bowl for Rolling Stone magazine. While discussing the pros and cons of the Minnesota Vikings vs the Miami Dolphins, Thompson muses about Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers:
“Lombardi never really thought about winning: his trip was not losing… Which worked, and because it worked, the rest of the NFL bought Lombardi’s whole style: Avoid Mistakes, Don’t Fuck Up, Hang Tough, and Take No Chances… Because sooner or later the enemy will make a mistake and then you start grinding him down.”
Sound familiar? Ryron Gracie vs. Andre Galvao at Metamoris, mayhaps? Royce Gracie’s triangle that shook the martial arts world vs. Dan Severn at UFC 3? Randy Couture stomping Tito Ortiz’s spirit into dust at UFC 44? Most fighters in Greg Jackson’s stable?
Thompson’s criticism of the strategy also sounds familiar:
“[Dolphins coach] Don Shula… has adopted the Lombardi style of football so effectively that the Dolphins are now one of the dullest teams to watch in the history of pro football.”
You don’t have to change many of those words to get what’s become a common opinion of the current state of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA competition. Spectators like excitement, which Frustrate and Annoy (or KeepItPlayful) doesn’t necessarily deliver. But even if you plan to gear your game towards IBJJF-style competition, it’s important to understand this traditional approach if self defense or MMA are anywhere on your radar.
Six Miscellaneous Notes on the Frustrate and Annoy BJJ Strategy
1. It won’t win you many competitions, but it is the most applicable form of hand-to-hand combat for a fight to the death on a desert island.
2. It isn’t exclusive to the bottom position. Relentlessly pressuring an opponent’s guard and nullifying their attacks often makes them try weird stuff out of desperation. Same goes on the feet.
3. Know when to let it go. If you’re committed to never ever getting tapped or swept by anyone, ever, you won’t try anything new. So keep it playful, so to speak, and ride the teeter totter to a more dynamic game. Open up more than you’re used to for a while, get caught a bunch of times, then figure out what you were doing wrong and pull things back in just enough to stay safe. Once you’re comfortable there, start opening up and experimenting again.
4. Get comfortable in the netherworld of gripfighting. Blame it on my judo roots, but I love this stuff. If you keep breaking your opponent’s grips, they might get fed up and try to make do with a crappy grip – and there’s your opening. If you need any hints on the subject, track down ubiquitous Internet marketing presence (and judo Olympian, and Strikeforce / ADCC / Mundial competitor) Rhadi Ferguson. Once you’re on his mailing list he’ll send you so many gripfighting emails that you’ll forget your own name.
5. During a conversation with Vancouverite / Grapple Arts mastermind / all-around nice guy Stephen Kesting I referred to myself as a slow learner. His response was, “you mean a thorough learner.” Who am I to argue? This strategy is perfect for thorough learners. Just like Saulo Ribeiro tells you in his landmark book Jiu-Jitsu University: build your jiu-jitsu foundation around the basics. Survive first, then systematically expand your game from there.
6. Remember to attack! Frustrate and Annoy is rooted in defense, but if you aren’t actively looking for openings to escape and mount an offense you’re out to lunch.
The Schadenfreude Factor
Of course there’s no ignoring the element of smartassery at play here. Watching someone have a frustration-inspired meltdown can be amusing in its own right, especially if it results in them making a dumb mistake and getting tapped by you. For today’s schadenfreude fix, we visit the ever-colourful world of skateboarding to watch quintessential east coast skate photographer and legendary hothead Giovanni Reda freak out in a variety of circumstances. This is the guy who smashed a Hasselblad camera into oblivion in a fit of rage.
Most of my bills get paid via business copywriting, branding, and communication, so I often see things in terms of taglines and soundbites. Since my original term – “fungal jiu-jitsu” (slow, steady, persistent, and largely unexciting) – was shot down as being too negative, I changed angles. Those who are familiar with the skateboard scene will recognize the font as the one invented by Craig Stecyk III (aka Lowboy) for his article “Skate and Destroy” from the December 1982 issue of Thrasher Magazine. There’s lots of fun to be had repurposing the work of others.
- Gracie, Helio and Royler. Gracie Submission Essentials. Invisible Cities Press 2007.
- Thompson, Hunter S. “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl: No Rest for the Wretched.” Rolling Stone magazine. February 28, 1974.