The Art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Sometime in the early 90s, a karate expert walks into a Southern California-based Gracie academy seeking a no-holds-barred challenge match. Disappointed that he gets paired off against a seemingly diminutive 60 kilogram Royler Gracie, the karate master nonetheless accepts the fight. Despite landing a succession of groin strikes, he soon finds Royler wrapped around his neck, choking him out.

This sort of story seems pretty common in Gracie lore, and the layperson who bears witness to such encounters will be amazed how effectively jiu-jitsu technique overcomes physical deficits, and heaven forbid, even shots to the groin. However, the jiu-jitsu practitioner who is already convinced of the value of his martial art should pay greater attention to the specific technique employed. Translated from Portuguese, the rear naked choke means, literally, "to kill the lion." It is extraordinarily effective for neutralizing larger and stronger opponents. Your opponent could be Mike Tyson, but so long as he has two arteries in his neck, he is susceptible to a choke hold.

Unfortunately, for those of us who are beginners, getting in position to execute a choke hold can seem fiendishly difficult. Rarely is a beginner capable, for example, of taking an opponent's back from the guard. In theory, it should be exceedingly simple: pass the opponent's arm, post a foot to climb around his body, seize a grip across his back, and hoist oneself up. Put both hooks in.

Practical implementation is another story. Try to grab control of your opponent's wrist, and he wriggles it free. Try to pull behind his elbow, and he holds it tight to his body. Somehow, magically, seize control of his arm to pin it down, and in an explosive motion, he yanks it back out. Especially against a larger opponent, it is tough enough just to pass an opponent's arm. Taking the subsequent steps to actually seize the back seems impossible!

This difficulty illustrates a bigger problem. For the practitioner who understands technique, the obstacle is often not lack of knowledge, but an inability to execute. Most practitioners eventually develop better execution by doing two things: drilling and visualization. If you want to follow in BJ Penn's footsteps, you might drill a technique 400 times in a day, and then go to sleep at night dreaming about it.

While there is no substitute for time spent drilling and visualizing, there are supplementary methods you can employ to accelerate your learning. Exercises that 'feel like' the technique you are trying to learn can be extraordinarily helpful. For instance, if you're trying to take your opponent's back while he's in your guard, but you find it difficult to pass his arm, try drilling clinche techniques. Practicing simple wrestling moves such as arm drags and two handed pulls will dramatically enhance your ability to control your opponent's arms. You will still have to master the other elements of seizing the back, but such supplementary practice can be great for overcoming sticking points.

Try it for yourself sometime. You may not become Royler Gracie overnight, but over time, your opponents might look more and more like that fateful karate expert who walked into that SoCal Gracie academy 15 years ago.