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Why Training MMA is Detrimental to Your Jiu-Jitsu

This title may appear to be a contradiction of terms. Isn’t Gracie Jiu-Jitsu an integral part of MMA training? Of course it is, but the door doesn’t swing both ways. If your main focus is being a complete Gracie Jiu-Jitsu practitioner then supplementing MMA classes can actually slow down your learning progress and even veer you down the wrong path entirely. Twenty years ago, this was not the case; but so much has changed in MMA in order to accommodate the desires of the fans. What MMA started out as, is but a distant and faded memory. So with the weight classes, time limits, rules, scoring systems and pressures on the fighters to provide a high level of entertainment for the fans the strategy required to win an MMA fight is dramatically different (if not directly opposed) to the strategy behind Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. This argument must make one major assumption; the Jiu-Jitsu being discussed is Helio Gracie’s Jiu-Jitsu for self-defense, not sport BJJ which comprises of totally different variables that would nullify this argument. There are three major differences that can have a direct effect on your personal progress: strategies, effective techniques and even the utilization of energy systems. In this blog, I will provide a very brief explanation of each of these differences and provide just a few examples for each in order to help paint a bigger picture. In future blogs, I will go into more depth on each individual topic.

Strategies: The strategies used for success in GJJ and MMA are polar opposites. One focuses on energy conservation while the other focuses on energy exertion. Due to the fact that in GJJ we always assume we are weaker and smaller than our opponent; we cannot rely on our physical attributes to defeat our assailant. Therefore, energy conservation is important because we must first survive our opponent’s barrage of attacks by negating the effectiveness of their strikes and exhausting them in the process. It’s not until our opponent begins to reach the point of exhaustion that we are able to turn the fight to our advantage. Depending upon the physicality of our opponent, this could take 30 seconds or it could take hours. We must prepare ourselves for the latter. On the other hand, the time limit of an MMA event is finite and is something that competitors train for specifically. The well-conditioned athletes do not exhaust in 3 or 5 minute rounds. Nor do either of the competitors expect themselves to be weaker or smaller than their opponents, at least not significantly so. They train with the goal of being just as fast and strong in the 3rd round as they are in the 1st. Therefore, their strategy is not to weather the storm, it is quite the contrary, they attempt to bring the storm.

Effective Techniques: Today MMA mostly consists of collegiate level wresting and B-class boxing; there is relatively very little GJJ that takes place anymore. This is ironic given the origin of the UFC but if we look at the current statistics it’s very easy to see why. In 2013 only 70 of the 386 fights that took place ended in submissions (18.1%), whereas 128 were TKO’s (33.1%) and 181 went to decision (46.9%). Therefore, nearly 82% of all the fights ended in a manner other than submission. So, if one wants to be successful in MMA it is wise to play the numbers game as many do. Judges determine the winner of the rounds by effective striking first (hence the focus on boxing), then effective grappling. The definition of effective grappling is successful takedowns combined with reversals, advancement of position and control (hence the wrestling). So, if someone wants to win a fight by decision (the #1 method a fight gets finished in the UFC) then boxing and wrestling should be their main focus. It goes without saying that boxing and kickboxing is the next major focus if someone wants to win a fight by TKO (the #2 method a fight gets finished in the UFC). It is not to say that learning GJJ isn’t important for MMA, it’s just not on the top of the priority list. On the other hand it is the ultimate goal in GJJ to finish a fight by submission. Of course, GJJ practitioners strike but they utilize the strikes in order to close distances, advance position, or to set up submissions since it is unreasonable to think a weaker, smaller individual will generate enough force to knock out their opponent. GJJ practitioners must also practice negating the effectiveness of strikes from their opponent and while doing so, exhausting their opponents energy. One example of this is utilizing ranges from the guard position (something Royce Gracie did incredibly well back in the origins of the UFC). Today in the UFC most fights are stood back up when a fighter is negating the other fighters’ strikes from the guard due to a lack of action; once again this creates a Catch 22 situation for GJJ fighters since following their strategy in an MMA setting makes them have to start all over and go through the hard work yet again of regaining the clinch and getting back to the ground.

Energy Systems: GJJ is a marathon and MMA is a sprint(ish). There are three major energy systems that we use: the alactic anaerobic (ATP), lactic anaerobic, and the aerobic energy systems. Of course, we feed from all three of these systems when we are training for either GJJ or MMA but we draw from them differently. With GJJ the major energy source we must draw from is the aerobic system because it is imperative that we have the energy stores if a fight lasts 5, 30, or 120 minutes. The other energy source we must utilize is alactic anaerobic. Since this is what we use during very short (under 10 seconds) bursts of energy, we will use these stores when we are both escaping and/or attempting a submission. MMA on the other hand, requires a more careful balance of all three systems. Even though many athletes underestimate the importance of the aerobic system, it is still the most important system to develop. Yet, it must be more carefully balanced with both anaerobic systems so they can generate the power they need for bursts of up to 90 seconds. Therefore, a well-conditioned GJJ practitioner must have an incredible aerobic capacity, that of marathon runners (enough to last hours), but also have a well developed alactic anaerobic system they can draw upon whenever it is needed in order to survive or finish a fight. Well-conditioned MMA athletes must have an excellent aerobic capacity, enough to last 15-25 minutes, but balanced with their ATP and lactic anaerobic systems, so they can generate large amounts of power for semi extended periods of time (60-90 seconds).

With all this being said, it is easy to see how GJJ and MMA are no longer synergistic, not like they were 20 years ago when MMA was no holds barred fighting. One simply cannot expect to master GJJ if they are putting just as much effort into a sport such as MMA since they have such a dichotomous relationship. This of course is not the case with everyone and there are always rare exceptions. I am not addressing the professional athlete whom has 8 hours a day to train; I am addressing the average individual. The husband and father, whom if lucky, is able to get to their local academy 3 days a week. When our time is limited we must prioritize accordingly. If becoming great at Helio Gracie’s Jiu-Jitsu is up there on our list, then it may not be the wisest choice to split our precious time between the two. Food for thought.