Try talking to people about Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, and you will find that most of them suffer from one or the other of the following misconceptions: the first is that Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is Capoeira; the second, more common mistake, is that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the wrestling style employed by mixed martial artists in the Ultimate Fighting Championships.
BJJ is Not Capoeira
Perhaps you went down to Rio for Carnival recently, where you saw sweaty men spinning in circles, apparently trying to kick each other, to the rhythm of bongos.
This is not Brazilian Jiu-jitso. What you saw was Capoeira, a form of African-Brazilian dance developed a few centuries ago by slaves as an artistic form of subversion. True, it looks like fighting; but it is more fine art than martial art.
Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition
Whereas Capoeira is expressed as an intricate Brazilian dance, BJJ looks more like the Spanish inquisition. The arm bar, the flying triangle and the guillotine are just a few of the techniques that BJJ stylists implement to extract confessions of defeat from opponents. It’s tap or snap: admit that you’re beaten, or face the logical extreme of the technique.
But is the fighting style employed in the UFC really Brazilian Jiu-jitsu?
Under a strict definition of style, no.
BJJ vs. Submission Wrestling
The ground-fighting style employed in the UFC is actually a hybrid style of BJJ and freestyle wrestling known variously as Submission Wrestling, Sub-Wrestling, Grappling, or Submission Grappling.
Although the two sports are very similar, there is a noteable difference in the way they are practiced.
What’s the Difference?
The main difference is the gi.
BJJ stylists wear a uniform, called either a gi or a kimono, consisting of pants, a thick jacket, and a colored belt. Submission wrestlers wear only shorts and an optional rash guard.
What difference does it make? Surprisingly, quite a lot. In fact, the opponent’s clothing is a key factor influencing a fighter’s strategic decisions.
For example, consider the difference that clothing makes in a simple choke. The rules of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu allow participants to use the gi – both their opponent’s and their own – as a weapon in the fight. In this scenario, the gi can function much like a section of rope, which a fighter can use to restrain or choke the opponent, or as a handle, which makes grappling with heavy objects much easier.
In Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, a choke can be accomplished in several ways – by wrapping one’s arms around the opponent’s neck and squeezing; by using the collar of the opponent’s jacket as a garote; or by applying a combination of one’s own arms, sleeves, and the opponent’s gi as a sort of guillotine mechanism. In submission wrestling, there is no gi, so the choice is reduced to only the first method: wrap your arms and squeeze.
In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the fight almost always begins with the opponents standing straight up. Judo-style throws are enabled by using the gi as a handle to gain leverage and grip on your opponent. Takedowns and throws are almost always preceded by vying for control of the opponent’s upper body. In sub-wrestling, there is no gi to grab hold of, so competitors are forced to take a different strategy. Most sub-wrestling matches begin much like freestyle wrestling matches, with single- and double-leg takedowns.
At every stage of a match — the takedown, the guard pass, sweeps, and submissions — the gi influences which moves the fighter can choose.
Which Is Better?
Which style to apply depends entirely on the situation.
Submission wrestlers argue that sub-wrestling is better for application in the UFC. In the Octagon, fighters wear as little clothing as possible, so that their opponents have nothing to grab onto, and nothing with which to choke them.
But BJJ fighters are quick to point out that training with a gi is better preparation for real-life street fighting. A gi is a closer approximation to common street clothing than shorts and a rash guard, unless you plan on doing all your fighting at the beach.
In the early days of the UFC, when only BJJ practitioners knew the moves, the gi was a common sight in the ring, worn proudly by black belts as a symbol of their art. However, as more mixed martial artists mastered BJJ, wearing a gi became a big disadvantage, and sub-wrestling took hold as the dominant mode of ground fighting.
Today, most of the UFC’s mixed martial artists cross-train, wearing a gi one night, and shorts the next. By training in both styles, MMA fighters maintain fluency in both lexicons.