Thursday, September 3, 2009

Gi Grappling vs. No Gi: It's All in the Grip

One other thing to come out of my training in Spartanburg was a short grappling match I had against a 220 lb. British shodan named Oliver who, in addition to his training in Shorinji Kan, has spent some time studying BJJ gi grappling. After some chatting at the bar, we agreed to have a go at it after one of the training sessions. I've always maintained that gi grappling favoured larger, stronger people when the face off. Never was this more apparent than when I grappled Oliver. But then it wasn't just the size and strength difference. There was technique on top of that.

When I had grappled world-class BJJ competitor Jennifer Weintz in the past, she was very skilled at using my gi to manipulate me from her back like a puppet master using strings. With Oliver, it was the other way around. Being much bigger it was a simple task for him to hold me down from on top, but the gi added something more. Without a gi on, I'm usually able to use my speed, flexibility and agility to keep myself out of tight spots, even against much bigger guys. Oliver easily got around this by taking grips on my gi that effectively pinned my shoulders to the ground in ways that made it impossible to move the way I usually do. Yes, his size made it easier to hold me there, but the grips he used are technical and could be used effectively even without the physical mismatch. After he tapped me out, I was quick to ask him to show me the gi control he had used.

Upon reflection on this experience, I've decided that I want to devote some time to developing my gi grappling. I've always liked no-gi for its speed and the way you're required to use your body to control the person through weight shifting and body positioning. Gi, on the other hand, uses the same principles but adds in another layer, a fabric layer that can be used for added control.

I've found that generally when people lack skill in grappling, they tend to take a death grip on the gi and forget all about body mechanics, which is why I encourage my students to grapple without a gi first. But now that I've gotten a decent base in no-gi, I want to turn my focus to gi so I can learn more about grips, grip breaks and gi controls. This type of training can have practical applications in street defense too, particularly if you live in a climate in which people need to wear jackets. I'm going to study from some of the books I have at home when I get back to Vancouver, but in the meantime, I started checking out some vids on YouTube. Here is one video I found on YouTube showing a simple grip break from guard:


Anonymous said...

Interesting post and extra proof grappling on the ground is generally not a good idea, even if you’re good at it. I’m by no means an expert on groundgrappling (we don’t train to compete and submission-grappling is a mere add-on to the self-defense program) but from my limited experience I’ve learned it’s generally easier to apply techniques with a gi (with a strong grip he can’t slip out as easily) and easier to escape them in a no-gi situation. Especially when it’s hot and you’ve been sweating a lot. You should train either way (devoting more time to one over the other depending on your situation and goals of course), the more comfortable you are with both ways the better. Either way the most important thing is control and positioning (optimal use of weight and proper osae-komi), from there it’s generally better to first soften him up with strikes (both in self-defense and MMA) and then escape or attempt a submission. What I’m training for right now (with the very limited time we get to spend on the ground) is quick escapes from the various positions and figuring out the best way to strike and do some serious damage from the ground. Submissions are cool (especially in combinations) but they’re pretty slow (at least slower than a quick eye-wipe) and in the quickly changing conditions of a groundfight (especially if he’s much bigger, which I’m presuming when grappling) it’s not easy to get a proper submission. Since I do not train grappling all that much I’ll never get really good at the submission-game (at least not as good as someone training in BJJ or sambo) but I do think that with good positioning and reasonable escape-skills, coupled with dirty tactics, I should be able to hold my own on the ground. If he’s clearly better than you strike whatever targets are available and get back up, if he’s a complete amateur and he’s alone you can go for a submission but I would throw in a couple of strikes for good measure (I found striking the biceps is an excellent way of softening him up for any type of armlock: if you hit flaccid muscle or nerves he’ll lose a lot of power in that arm hence less resistance). The chances of facing an experienced grappler on the street are pretty slim but I’d still train to take him on in the most effective way possible (with the disadvantages inherent in a predominantly standing fighting style and training). If you can defeat a trained a grappler you should be able to take on virtually anyone on the ground.

Anonymous said...

The single best way is to remain standing and negate his attempts at a takedown (I’d invest a lot of time in that one, it’ll save your ass one day), if you cannot do that try to use a sacrifice-technique to get into the best possible position or to make him land badly (tomoe-nage with outstretched arms and legs is excellent for this: if you pull him down immediately chances are he’ll drop straight on his head), if you do happen to land on the ground either keep him away using your legs (presuming he lost control during the throw or takedown) and get back up asap, at the very least pull him into your guard forcibly (do not let him assume proper position or you will be sorry when he passes guard) and start attacking his throat, eyes, neck, ears and nose. If he pulls you into his guard (e.g. you really couldn’t avoid it) this situation can be effectively neutralized by immediately punching the groin and elbowing the tights, he’ll be forced to release his grip around your waist and you’ll be home-free. Leg-locks are also a good counter against traditional BJJ-tactics but they take practice to master properly and it’s still safer to just disengage.

I hope this is not too much off-topic, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately and it would be interesting to hear your thoughts about the topic (I take it by now you’ll have more experience in sports-grappling than me). More specifically: what would you propose in terms of grappling in a self-defense context? I do think I get the general gist of it but a few specifics would be helpful, most of all on countering submission-attempts by someone who has the advantage in terms of technique and finess/flow.



Lori O'Connell said...

I fully agree with everything you've said here. From my own experience, it's all true. said...

Good post. I have always found that there MUST be a balance in Gi and no gi grappling. Groundfighting is completly different when wearing a gi. There are far more chokes to be weary of and far more controlling techniques to use. However, with no gi grappling, becuase of the sweat one must make sure that there positioning is spot on when applying submissions otherwise the opponant will simply slip away. Both have advantages.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, what do you think are the best techniques in preventing takedowns? Since you're training for MMA I'm presuming you know quite alot about proper and effective takedowns. I found that certain traditional techniques just won't cut it against an experienced grappler who goes in deep, protects his head properly and aims to drive you into the ground instead of just tripping you. With MMA becoming so popular it would be a good idea for traditional martial-artists to come up with effective counters to these techniques since the takedown is a more than effective weapon if properly employed. Even more so on the street than in the ring: if you get slammed head first into the ground that fight is pretty much over and a double-leg takedown will produce a hard fall, even when you know break-falling. As soon as you're in boxing-range you should always be aware of the possibility of a takedown-attempt.

Lori O'Connell said...

The sprawl is probably the most important takedown defense to use against MMA type fighters as the most commonly used takedowns are shoots. It's not too hard to learn and is an important tool for anyone aiming to be a well-rounded martial artist.

Anonymous said...

One last thing I'd like to add (I hope it's not completely off-topic): what I found is that a fair portion of the techniques used in sports-grappling are actually quite dangerous when used in a self-defense context (to you, not to him). Especially those where you have to expose your face to the opponent when your two hands are occupied in setting up a choke or lock. A good example of this would be a cross-lapel-choke (nami-juji-shime or a variant thereof) when he has the mount: in BJJ or similar competitons this may work fine but in reality he'll just place his hands on your head (this is rather instinctive, even for the untrained individual) and force you to release. You'd be lucky if you didn't sustain damage to your eyes.

This is another reason why it's not always advisable to go for submission on the ground: in most cases an agile, street-smart opponent who's not constricted by rules will always find ways to counter them. Unless you get them right away and drive hard and fast (breaking the joint or making him faint in a manner of seconds) the risk involved is just too great in my view. Sports-grappling is a higly refined and very technical aspect of the MA (a thinking man's game) and top-level competitors are a force to be reckoned with(aswell as a source of learning) but I found that while it is very difficult to get out of a submission in a controlled enviroment (you do not want to hurt your partner) getting out of the same techniques while not having to worry about rules and safety is alot easier and actually quite do-able with even a minimum of skill and training. A good idea to train this is to have your partner wear eye-goggles and groin-protection and allowing them to control you (attempting locks, chokes) and see what you can do to protect yourself (always your first priority, if your arm is broken you're pretty much out of the fight) and retaliate.

Slow at first of course but after a while you'll know perfectly well what to do and you can speed it up and train more realistically. A little knowledge of grappling (basic positioning, basic escapes, a few locks and chokes) combined with dirty tactics (grabbing and squeezing the groin, wiping the eyes, hitting the ears) is enough to get you out of potentially very nasty situations, even against bigger and better opponents. If you rely solely on your BJJ or MMA-background I wish you good luck: chances are he'll bang your head on the concrete or break your arm before you got a chance to do any of the fancy stuff you learned in the gym or dojo and there's no better way to mess-up a perfectly good submission than a finger to the eye. It's not pretty but it works and a brutal street-fight is not the same as a mutually agreed upon, semi-friendly contest of strenght and ability under the watchful eye of the referee. Sports-orientated martial-artists would do well to remember this.

Anonymous said...

I was hoping for a bit more detailed information. I'm aware of the sprawl but sometimes when I do this they can still grab my legs and either continue with the takedown or switch to another one. Surely there must be more that you can do than the standard sports-respons?

Lori O'Connell said...

In my dojo we do both self-defense oriented grappling in which there are no rules as well as grappling with some limitations depending on the person you're grappling with. If it's a larger person vs. a smaller person, both we equal skill, then I encourage the smaller person to use any techniques at their disposal (groin strikes, pressure points, thumbs to the eye - we use the eye brow bone to simulate this). At the same time, I tell the larger person to focus more on body shifting, weight transfer and other technical considerations, limiting their use of "dirtier" tactics.

As students become more competent with their control and manoeuvring on the ground, we add more punches, knees, elbows, etc and more realism, but we take things one step at a time so that students aren't overwhelmed by the experience.

As soon as you add the strikes, it quickly becomes evident which techniques/submissions are more practical and which ones pose a danger to you in a more street like context. And on the street, ultimately, the goal should be to get off the ground or stay off the ground. That being said, that doesn't mean that students shouldn't bother learning submissions. You can only learn to defend against submissions if you can practice on people who know how to do them properly.

As for the sprawl, there is more to it than simply sprawling your legs out. The sprawl is a lot more effective when you learn the technique and timing of it and practice it lots. Many people don't realize that you have to drop your hip into it, and with the right timing. It IS effective. But then if for some reason you miss the timing or that they're just so big that you get overwhelmed, there are alternatives. If you can do a good tomoe nage (stomach throw) or a certain versions of tawara gaeshi (rice bale throw), you can continue their burst of energy into taking them over and to the ground. These techniques, in my opinion should be used as a back-up for when the sprawl fails. But I believe everyone should spend some time learning good sprawl technique and timing because it keep you on your feet and in a better position to fight/defend yourself. I'll look for a good video that demonstrates sprawl technique and do a post on it soon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I'm looking forward to it.

Lori O'Connell said...


If you're grappling with someone who has an MMA or BJJ background, it is best to combine the weight transfer and positional tactics of BJJ/MMA with what would be considered "dirty" tactics as I outlined in this article about MMA ground game vs. street defense. While these so-called "dirty" tactics, may be enough on their own against someone without a lot of experience in MMA/BJJ, it may not be enough against someone with extensive training, unless you get lucky and catch them off guard.

But, if you get a good foundation in BJJ positional strategy and weight transfer tactics, it is pretty easy to add the "dirty" tactics to great effectiveness.

For example, most people think it is simply a matter of striking someone in the groin if the attacker pulls guard. However, if they have any training at all in MMA, they will probably immediately grab your head and break your posture, then hold your head against their chest to make it impossible for you to strike effectively. In this context, I teach students to use their fingers or thumbs to either put pressure on the eye or on the throat so they can work their way up onto their elbows, at which point they can drop an elbow into the attacker's solar plexus, then as they work their way further up, they can attack the groin before breaking away.

But then, if you learn strong BJJ positional strategy like using the neck and shoulders to stay postured up, you can make it hard for the attacker to pull you down in the first place so that you can either get right up, or use some sort of distracting strike to create the opportunity to get up (like to the groin).

I'll be doing a post on defending against MMA takedowns for my next post since this seems to be a popular topic.

Anonymous said...

Good points, I know you should always plant one hand on his plexus or hip (to prevent him pulling you in) and retain proper posture (sitting upright, looking up with your elbows in), from there it is quite possible to strike the groin and get up. Your solution when pulled in (always a possibility) is vary valid and imo the first reaction that should be taught to a novice: the simplest and most effective techniques should be taught first. The philosophy behind this is to waste as little time and effort to accomplish the task at hand, minimise the risk and prevent the situation from escalating. I call ju-jutsu the art of avoiding or preventing problems: first of all you try to avoid fights alltogether, if they occur you end them as fast as possible and you win. If he attacks you absorb it and work from there: protect yourself, position properly, break his balance and defense and finish him. That is why techniques should be highly effective and totally ingrained in your muscle-memory: if he grabs you in a side head-lock you must deal with this immidiately and effectively otherwise you'll get punched out or pulled to the ground and that'll open up a whole new world of trouble. Counter quickly and aggressively: traditionalists will frown upon this but aggression truly is the single most important thing in a fight and consequently in the MA. You may be the best technician or kata-specialist in the world but if you lose your nerve when push comes to shove or do not strike full force you'll be doomed. When you get down to it fighting is harsh, ugly, brutal and exhausting and technique really does play a minor role. Locks and other fancy techniques are all good and well but getting a good puching-combo in is equally effective and generally much safer.

Another neat trick for the ground is to elbow his ankles, especially in the gunting or scissoring-fashion of the FMA. If done well you'll demolish his ankle and he won't be able to stand anymore.

As I said before we sometimes train BJJ and MMA-techniques (my sensei trains in it occasionally) but it's quite infrequent and it's clearly not the same as being taught by an expert. We both have a judo-grappling background but that's clearly outdated and fairly ineffective (judo-escapes tend to rely alot on strenght and there are relatively little effective techniques to fight from the guard or mount): on the street you want to go for a break of choke him out quickly, just keeping him down is dangerous and it won't change anything anyway. The best you can do is tire him a bit. In a few years I'd like to invest the time necessary to become good at ground-grappling but for now my priorities are stand-up, kickboxing self-defense and weapon-disarms. So much to do, so little time.


Anonymous said...

I really do not understand traditionalists who think their style is the bomb and who refuse to cross-train claiming it's simply not necessary. Imo this is bull and a serious obstacle in your journey and growth as a martial-artist. Just get a good grounding in one style (to this day I'm grateful to my old sensei for iniating me in the MA and being such a fine role-model and teacher)and explore others. Identify problems and see what the most effective answers to each are: if another style has a better solution just pick it up and integrate it in your system, this is the only way you'll progress and get real good at what you do.

BJJ and MMA have alot to offer but I'm not blind to their flaws (nothing is perfect, not in this world anyway), it is not my style to fight one-one-one in a ring (ego-contest) and completely disregard tradition and ethics but I want to learn what is most effective and what is realistic in a fight and what not. If certain MMA-tactics work I'm all for them but I'm not going to morph into a thaiboxer or wrestler and I do think that with proper training and knowledge of new developments in fighting a more traditional martial-artist is more than a match for an MMA-guy. They're not invincible after all (the guys you see fighting in the ring are the elite of the MMA-world and certainly not representative for the average joe putting in his few hours a week) and I refuse to believe training MMA will make you the ultimate fighter or that it constitutes the ultimate solution to self-defense.

Thanks for this discussion, it was most educational and fun to boot. I'm looking forward to the post on defending the takedown.