Integrating Judo and BJJ for Effective, Holistic Grappling

When I was learning judo as a kid while growing up in France in the early 80s, ground work (aka newaza) was a significant component of the art, especially as it was taught to children. We didn’t call it Kosen Judo, but it was pretty close to it in spirit and purpose. (For the semantically inclined, Kosen Judo is pretty much a varsity ruleset, not some special handshake secret form of judo, and it’s now called Nanatei Judo.)

Fast forward 30 years, and when I wanted to practice again, I found that judo had to some extent devolved into a standing-focused sport because of how official competition rules changed over the past decades. I heard about brazilian jiu jitsu and instantly fell in love with its intricate ground game and focus on submissions (as opposed to pins). But again it turns out sports competition took its toll to undermine the essence of the underlying martial art.

Indeed BJJ has evolved in the other direction, with many practitioners displaying poor takedown skills and resorting to guard pulling and butt scooting, which makes absolutely no sense outside of the confines of a sports competition. First, you have to be able to take the fight to the ground if you want to finish it there.

So, because I’m interested in being a complete grappler who can use his skills to defend himself “in the streets”, I’m now training Judo once a week and BJJ 3-5 times a week. Last year I also dabbled a bit with MMA and SAMBO, but I ended up deciding there’s only so much I can train with a credible chance at making significant progress.

As a middle-aged guy who neglected his once very fit body for a number of years, the more cerebral and deliberate pace of BJJ suits me best, but Judo will keep me honest with its explosiveness, sense of urgency, strong grips, solid takedowns, and emphasis on controlling from the top. Meanwhile, BJJ’s guard work, both in terms of playing and passing guard, is more developed than time-constrained judo. BJJ has a larger variety of joint locks while judo restricted itself to just elbow locks a long time ago. And BJJ is arguably the best at chokes, and I love chokes! Ideally I’ll also develop good transitions from standing to ground work, such as Sumi Gaeshi into mount, or Tani Otoshi into side control or back mount.

Arbitrary Rulesets

I’ve been reading a lot about the history and idiosyncrasies of the various grappling arts/sports, and found that each has its blind spots and myths:

  • Over its lifetime Judo severely limited its submissions, sometimes because a freak accident led to a sweeping rule change, other times to speed things up for purely cosmetic purposes in (Olympic) competition from the perspective of an international spectator sport. I find it crazy that judo no longer allows leg locks (for the most part, there’s a leg lock in Katame no Kata, and some clubs do mention them for self defense purposes), wrist locks, or shoulder locks. Some Judo refs think pulling on the head while finishing an arm-triangle choke (sankaku jime) is a neck crank, which is not really the case. But they’ll let you pull on your shin, which is functionally the same thing. This is completely arbitrary, as is the more recent ban on leg grabs from standing.
  • Why doesn’t sports sambo have chokes? That’s just weird, especially considering combat sambo does.
  • BJJ is only starting to overcome its fear of leg locks, and there are strange fetishes like the IBJJF’s obsession with knee reaping. On the other hand they only recently forbade jumping guard, and only did so at the white belt level, even though a bunch of people got their knee wrecked because of it. These rules are incoherent. Also, BJJ specialists tend to look down up the hon kesa gatame scarf  hold, claiming it’s just a pin and it exposes your back. Wrong and wrong, if you know how to do kesa gatame it’s a crushing control position with several submissions available to you, and no you won’t get the back of someone who knows what they’re doing, you’ll want to tap from pressure. See this Bloody Elbow article on the Hybrid Attack of Josh Barnett.

I’m not advocating groin strikes, finger locks, or head butts, and I do think some techniques should be either forbidden or limited to black belt competitions for safety purposes. That’s the essence of judo as a “sport” meant to be safely practiced against resisting opponents, as opposed to old jujutsu as done by samurais with intent to kill on the battlefields of medieval Japan. If you allow body slams from head height or full-speed neck cranks, you risk inflicting crippling injuries or worse.  On the other hand, wrist locks for instance can be practiced safely and at a controlled speed that lets your partner time to tap, so why forbid them altogether?

Incidentally live sparring (aka randori aka aliveness) is essential to proving that techniques actually work, and its absence in how most traditional martial arts are usually taught is their great weakness. I tried Aikido for a few months and stopped pretty much because it was so choreographed with little credible, practical application. There’s a time and place for technical drilling and katas, but in my opinion there’s no genuine martial practice without live sparring. And you do need to put some rules into place to preserve yourself and your partners if you want to be able to keep practicing!

People Working Across Boundaries

Fortunately, there is a number of both judokas and BJJ fighters who are cross-training and bridging a gap that shouldn’t exist in the first place within what historically and logically is the same martial art. After all Mitsuyo Maeda who taught Carlos Gracie and Luis França was a judoka under Kano Jigoro. Among people training and teaching both judo and BJJ:

National Connections

You’ll notice the people listed above are mostly from the US – where everything seems to go back to Jimmy Pedro – and Brazil, where Judo is much bigger than in the US, and, believe it or not, bigger than BJJ. This makes sense because BJJ is not yet that widespread in Europe or Asia. That said, it looks like ne-waza is making somewhat of a comeback in judo competition, and there are great competitors like Dimitri Peters (Germany) or Kaori Matsumoto (Japan) who won many matches with ne-waza. There are probably people expert at ne-waza from, say, the Netherlands or Korea, that I’ve never heard of because they’re not featured in videos in languages I speak.

In my native France – a country where Judo is widespread, and like everything there, under heavy governmental influence – the powers that be are doing everything they can to denigrate MMA and pretend BJJ doesn’t exist. Someone like BJJ world champion Laurence Fouillat (who graciously let me train at her club last time I was in vacation near Toulouse) would have it much easier if she was a judo coach. But there is hope thanks to individual initiative.

Among French judo higher-ups, Patrick Roux might be the person with the highest profile recognizing what judo can learn (or relearn after having forgotten it) from BJJ. See this article and video, both in French.

Larbi Benboudaoud, another former competitor and now trainer, considers that BJJ is “basically just judo” but acknowledges (video in French) that BJJ has the edge in ne-waza because of its specialization. Like Roux, Benboudaoud is teaching BJJ-inspired mobility on the ground, as opposed to passive turtling, or worse, lying flat on your stomach, which is to judo what butt scooting is to BJJ.

Christian Peden, a 6th dan judo black belt, has been giving BJJ seminars (videos in French) for a number of years, though the choice of wording does convey that from the perspective of the Fédération Française de Judo, BJJ is just a regional ruleset variant. Again, co-opt them if you can’t beat them, that’s how ground work made it into Kano’s curriculum in the first place. There’s a French IBJJF affiliate called the CFJJB, but with 5,000 members, it remains tiny in comparison to the IJF-sanctioned FFJDA.

The late Christian Derval, who pioneered BJJ in France under Rickson Gracie, and his pupil Olivier Michailesco (video) are other cross-trained practitioners worth mentioning in the French landscape. Overall there were lots of French dudes in the European Dirty Dozen. And some Judo champions like Frédéric Demontfaucon are known for their stellar ground work (see this video in French where he teaches standing-ground transitions).

The relatively weak performance of French judokas during the 2016 Olympics, in contrast to medals won by Kayla Harrison and Travis Stevens in large part thanks to their ne-waza, brought this discussion to the forefront as per this r/bjj thread or an article in L’Equipe [in French]. “Relatively weak” because France still finished with 5 medals, the second country behind Japan’s 12. Slightly less good than in past Olympics would be more accurate.

Elsewhere in Europe, Sweden’s Sebastian Brosche is a former judoka who switched to BJJ with great competitive results so far as a brown belt. Sebastian is also an enthusiastic promoter of yoga for BJJ (I’m a believer and do a couple hours of ashtanga yoga per week). Here’s an interview with him.

In the UK, former judo Olympian Sophie Cox is coaching judo for MMA and BJJ, and she’s started competing in BJJ (though doing so as a blue belt looks like sandbagging to me, ditto for Craig Ewers – both should have started competing at least at purple). Jeff “Ippon” Lawson is another Brit working across judo, MMA and BJJ boundaries.

Cross-training BJJ, Judo, Wrestling etc.

You do have to adapt your judo to use it against BJJ specialists, and vice versa, because of how each sport evolved to optimize for its rules. For instance in BJJ people tend to crouch in a wrestler stance and use a stiff arm in a a very defensive posture that would get you a penalty in judo competition, so your textbook Uchi Mata might not be successful in that context.

I’d be remiss not to mention that I respect the various forms of wrestling and recognize their effectiveness, especially in the absence of gi grips. Again, there are only so many hours in the day, wrestling is not taught where I live, and many forms of wrestling exclude submissions to focus on throws and pins. Mitsuyo Maeda was influenced by these practices from his bouts in the US, and they made it into BJJ to some extent. I believe that any grappler should have at least decent single leg and double leg takedowns (aka Morote Gari), as well as a strong sprawl.

These days BJJ seems much more open to outside influences than modern “official” judo. It’s a shame because judo used to be about seeking and integrating what works in different schools. The last additions to the official syllabus were made in 1982 and 1997 with the Shinmeisho no Waza batch of techniques (which also reinstated 8 old ones).

I went once to a Lita Livre club, and practice no gi BJJ about once a week. They have merit too, training both with and without the gi is advocated by the awesome Marcelo Garcia. But I have to admit I do like the gi, it helps me slow down young punks, and how can you give up on these sneaky, nasty gi chokes!

Speaking of Marcelo Garcia, he started his grappling training judo, but found jiu jitsu more playful and fun, with its bigger emphasis on rolling vs. drilling. Garcia does not believe in doing separate strength and conditioning either, and it obviously works for him. In judo there are endless discussions on the value of uchikomi. I love rolling more than drilling, but I do think that drilling is very valuable for the rest of us hobbyists who don’t live on the mats unlike professionals such as Garcia.

Further Reading

Rulesets

The Arts, Their Roots, Practitioners of Note, and Cross Pollination

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