Why I’ll always recommend Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for Self Defense

By Kaitlin Young

Whenever I am asked about which martial art a person should take up to best learn self-defense, my answer is always the same: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. There are several reasons for this and there are certainly other arts that can get the job done. Usually when someone is asking about which martial art they or their children should begin to practice, it is coming from a place of concern for their own safety or the safety of their loved ones. They need the most effective option that will work in a relatively short amount of time.

The Thing About Self Defense

The thing about self-defense is that you don’t need it until you absolutely need it. It is difficult to be prepared for as the intensity of that sort of situation is very hard to mimic. Self-defense isn’t winning fights. It’s self-preservation. It’s getting away. If a person wants to take your wallet, it might ruin your week, but it won’t have the lasting and painful effects of being assaulted. With that in mind, the goal of self-defense is often to discourage the assailant to the point that the effort or pain is not worth the pursuit.

I, along with pretty much everyone on the planet who has practiced full-contact martial arts for an extended period of time, am sickened by the invention of weekend self-defense courses and the like. The sale of self-defense as a buzzword or health trend is ignorant at best. It would be nice if we could download the necessary skills as if we were in the Matrix, making us able to execute them under pressure after just a few repetitions. However, this is not reality. In order to be able to pull off anything in a high-pressure situation, we need practice. Lots of practice.

Why BJJ is a Useful for Self Defense

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a grappling art that uses skeletal leverage to either a) create space or b) take it away. Often, the two are used in conjunction to control the movement of another person who may be significantly stronger than the grappler, but does not understand how to use their body in the same way. In essence, an education in Jiu Jitsu is an education in space management. This is why BJJ is such a versatile tool in violent interactions. If someone is looking to strike, you can control them until help arrives or send them into a dreamlike slumber with a choke simply by taking away the correct space. If someone is looking to take control of you, or put you in a compromising position, you can create the necessary space to get away or stop the assault. Since most people are not familiar with these concepts, it doesn’t take much training to be significantly more advanced than an untrained person.

In my last blog about competition experience and coaching, I touched on the effectiveness of BJJ both as an art and in the way it is commonly learned and taught. The process of learning Jiu Jitsu is much more practical than the standard we see in many other martial arts. Initially, students begin with drilling basic movements. Usually they will begin classes with coordination drills and then progress to more specific techniques. Once a student becomes comfortable with the basics, they’ll begin to do live rolling, meaning they will grapple with another student or instructor while trying to do these movements spontaneously and at the appropriate time.

From a very early point in their training, students will begin to develop timing, pressure, and feel. They will train with a variety of body types, so from the start they will be learning about how they need to adjust their movements and focus based on which variation of the human body they are grappling. A couple of years of practicing in this manner will make a person very, very adept at controlling another person. It also helps develop an acute awareness of one’s own abilities and shortcomings, making them much more effective at assessing what they need to do to “win” in a given situation. Sometimes the practitioners themselves don’t realize how skilled they have become as their partners are also skilled in the movement and knowledge of their own bodies, but when compared to a person who has not been practicing in this manner they are leagues apart.

One Common Oversight

Participating in live rolling with any regularity will also make a person exceptionally strong in a way that simply drilling will not. Technique is very important, and we can make up for a lot of strength here, but in order to effectively pull off a technique there must be appropriate strength developed as well. The oversight of this factor when teaching self-defense is maddening. (Frankly, a weightlifting and a sprint program would probably be more effective in developing a person’s actual ability to defend themselves than many of the one-step self-defense arts.) Jiu Jitsu develops both the technique as well as the strength and endurance to pull it off.

A Higher Standard

The instructors of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are held to a rather high standard. Most people won’t reach black belt until they’ve been practicing for more than a decade. Moving up the ranks is slower and requires more patience. The culture requires that a blackbelt at least be overseeing any program. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu rarely suffers from the problem of intermediate or beginner level practitioners opening a gym and designing curriculum that we see in other martial arts. That is not to say that there aren’t some bad apples out there, but it is far less frequent.

Just as we’d see with any skill, there is variation between the level of Jiu Jitsu belts depending on location, trainer, and athleticism. For the most part, rank does correlate with ability, at least to a degree. Even less experienced grapplers can tell someone is a black or brown belt when they roll with them. If someone is falsifying their rank, they’ll most certainly be busted the moment they roll. It’s a beautiful attribute of BJJ culture that has helped preserve the integrity of the art even as it has grown in popularity.

See a “black belt” being busted by some purple belts. (NOTE: This isn’t at all representative of UFC GYM. I used to work at the Torrance location and we had incredible blackbelts. When this happened, it was dealt with swiftly and immediately.)

Removing Discomfort

Another incredibly valuable tool that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu provides is the removal of surprise or discomfort at having someone in one’s personal space. It may sound funny, but the shock of having another person suddenly inside the personal space bubble can give a person pause. In a self-defense situation, it is a terrible time to hesitate. The comfort with contact that one develops from grappling is nearly as valuable as the ability to grapple by itself. It removes this barrier and allows a person to simply react while decreasing the amount of time it takes to process the event.

My Personal Experience Using BJJ as Self Defense

I had a situation at work several years ago that has contributed to my opinion on this topic. I was managing a private personal training gym at the time, and would often work alone, sometimes very early or very late. One evening when I was waiting for a client to finish in the shower before closing the gym, a not-so-gentleman about my age staggered in. It was clear he was under the influence of something. There were a lot of fun bars in the area, so it wasn’t particularly alarming. I greeted him at the door. I figured it would be easy to advise him that he was not at his intended destination and send him on his way. He responded with, “Can I have a hug?” Chuckling, I told him, “No, I think you had better be on your way.” He was not satisfied with that answer and took a step forward, asking for a hug again. I stepped back and repeated once again that he ought to leave. At this point I was back against the elliptical, and he came forward again. “Ok, out you go,” I said, still relatively unbothered. He was just a drunken idiot, after all. I tied up with him as he lurched forward for his precious hug and began to march him backward out the front door. Then he started to fight.

We were about the same height, but he was an adult male around 30lbs heavier. From previous experience in the gym, I knew I was in for a difficult task. I hoped that once I got him out the door someone passing by would see it and call the police. My client was still in the shower and couldn’t hear a thing. As I shoved him out onto the sidewalk he pushed back, trying to wrestle me back into the studio. That was the LAST place I wanted to be. I snapped his head down and he landed on all fours on the concrete, then jumped on his back. WHOA! I thought. He feels like a child. He struggled to get up as I flattened him from back mount, very thankful that I happened to be wearing thick cold-gear sweatpants. My knees dug into the sidewalk as he flailed helplessly.

At this point, a group of guys leaving the restaurant next door had gathered on the sidewalk a few feet away. I heard one of them say “Oh, shit!” and take his phone out. Only later did a realize that he was taping the incident rather than calling police or trying to help.

“Are you ready to calm down?” I asked. The assailant responded with a cloud of obscenities and began to flop some more. I sank in a choke and he….tapped! WOW! The guy knows enough to tap?! So I let go and just held him there for a good minute until he relaxed. I posted on the back of his head and got up from his back, walking backward into the studio. He was mad as hell! He got up and stormed the door. Unfortunately, it did not lock from the inside, but I had a good handle on it. My client had emerged from the bathroom by now and was phoning the police as I held the door shut. In his rage, the guy started using his mouth to create a fog patch on the window so he could let me know that I was a “bitch” in writing. Finally, a police car rolled up and screeched to a halt in front of the building. They tossed him into the back seat and off he went.

I learned a few valuable things about self-defense that day. First, and sadly, people can’t be counted on to help when you are in that situation. They might help, but it can’t be counted on. My client wanted to help but we had crashed against the door and it was not physically possible for him to make it outside. The passersby couldn’t be bothered to do anything. Maybe it was shock, or maybe they felt I was in control and didn’t need help. Regardless of the reason, I was completely alone in this situation until after the threat had been extinguished.

Second, things can go from not threatening to very threatening in a hurry, and sometimes the distinction isn’t so clear. Part of the benefit of Jiu Jitsu is that you can escalate and deescalate. You can add or remove force as necessary. If we are striking in a situation like this, it is all or nothing. There is no calming someone down after you’ve broken their nose, and a broken nose may not stop them. If we start striking, we have to commit to beating that person until they (or we) can’t continue, or someone else intervenes. That is a lot bigger a commitment than I was willing to make at the onset of the confrontation. There is no need to curb stomp every happy drunk that requests a hug but there is also no need to be forced into an unwanted hug… or unwanted anything. It is not always clear when being a little uncomfortable is going to turn into an assault. In fact, in most cases assaults are committed by a person who the victim knew prior to the incident. Jiu Jitsu allows us to adjust as needed and gives us an invaluable tool that is highly effective in the gray area.

Lastly, a person that doesn’t know how to grapple does NOT feel like someone who does, at all. It was easy to control this man. Previous experience had taught me men that size are a handful; the majority of my teammates were intermediate/advanced grapplers or former collegiate wrestlers. You must do everything near perfectly to be able to pull off anything against them. That was not the situation here. While it’s understood this is an extreme case in that professional fighters spend significantly more time training than the average recreational student, I have no doubt another woman trained in grappling would have been able to effectively manage this scenario as well.

The Unfortunate Truth

As a female, rarely is someone looking to challenge us to a fist fight when we are attacked. They are usually trying to grab us or put us on our back. The best way to defend one’s self in that situation, and in many others, is to learn to grapple (icing on the cake would be also learning some Muay Thai clinch and knees.). In addition to it being the most effective art for that specific situation, it is also the easiest to become functionally proficient in a short amount of time. This is not to say that a smaller person can’t be overpowered by a larger person, but Jiu Jitsu will provide the best opportunity for escape and survival. The way it is taught and practiced is as much a part of that recommendation as the art itself. For all of these reasons, I will always recommend Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when asked about the best martial art for self-defense.