Sunday, June 15, 2014

Jiu-Jitsu: Innovation v.s. Evolution

There's an idea in jiu-jitsu that every innovation is a good innovation. Once upon a time it was half-guard that was a betrayal of jiu-jitsu. Spider guard was an abomination to some. More recently techniques ranging from the 50/50 guard to the berimbolo back-take transition suite (and accompanying double guard play) to the so-called "Worm Guard" have become the definition of what is new and novel in jiu-jitsu.

In my jiu-jitsu lifetime, there was a brief furor over the 50/50 guard. But while the appearance of the guard still draws a few mumbles from time to time, the 50/50 proponents have essentially won. "If you don't like it," taunted no less than multi-World Champion Rafa Mendes years ago, "learn how to stop it."

Take that. Never mind that at the end of the day the inability to "stop" a technique does not in and of itself validate that technique. At this point, the 50/50 is no longer even that controversial. We stare at the slow-motion, rocking horse, leg wrestling, waiting for one or the other competitor to "come up to the top", meaning take two points that are all but 100% conceded by the opponent, and then talk about the "chess match" we've witnessed.

And people want to take this to an Olympics that threatened to throw wrestling overboard?

I remember hanging out after a seminar from a visiting black belt had concluded. (By the way, here's a tip for those of you new to training: when you see large congregations of black belts hanging out after a class or seminar, stick around. Free money is about to rain from the skies.) The visiting black belt showed an incredible choke, something no one had seen before and couldn't figure out how to stop. The set-up wasn't the easiest - in large part because it involved a grip that leveraged the grey area of IBJJF rules. But once in place, it was a choke that came on like thunder. He showed only the standing version. It was crazy.

But it involved a major exploitation of the gi (hence the rule grey area). In fact, it was impossible without the eccentricities of the gi. And I remember wondering, after a certain point, what are we doing exactly.

I say this as someone whose open guard borrows heavily from Otavio Sousa's excellent sitting guard grip work. I say this as someone whose half guard game as often as not results in a Rodolfo Viera-like lapel wrap around the trapped leg.

There is no argument: the more the gi becomes an integral part of what we are doing when we do jiu-jitsu, then the less I feel we are doing what jiu-jitsu truly wants us to do. It is an evasion, a decadence, an exploitation of some otherwise irrelevant detail into the foundation of what is ultimately an edifice only a very few will ultimately feel safe within.

I'd argue that right now, jiu-jitsu suffers from too much innovation and not enough evolution. That's somewhat nonsensical insofar as the concepts don't typically share timescales. But it does get at what is most annoying about what is "novel" in jiu-jitsu right now. To steal a line from Revolution tournament founder and jiu-jitsu black belt Jeff Bourgeois, just what is it that is truly "sharpening" the iron we think we are wielding?