Open-Source Martial Arts - What Makes BJJ Different?

by Tyson LaRone May 19, 2016

Open-Source Martial Arts - What Makes BJJ Different?

The last several years have been huge for me developmentally, especially since getting my black belt and completing my book project. I've done a lot of thinking about the culture and community of BJJ and how it defines the style as much as the techniques do, and come to some interesting realizations.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has emerged over the last couple of decades as part of a number of what could be called "functional martial arts", that is, styles that have proven themselves in more open, uncontrolled environments like MMA alongside wrestling, Muay Thai and boxing. There are plenty of styles that can point to specific examples but these four styles overwhelmingly form the base for the most consistently successful fighters. Of the eleven division champions in the UFC, six originally came from a wrestling background, one from Muay Thai, one from Boxing and two from BJJ. If you added up all the champions going back to UFC 1, the concentration would likely be similar - nearly if not entirely saturated by fighters representing one or more of these bases. I started thinking about the common thread between these martial arts and have come to refer to them as "open-source" or "goal-oriented" martial arts. This is as opposed to what I would refer to as "closed-source" or "proficiency-oriented" martial arts.

A proficiency-based martial art is a style in which at each level, you're given a series of techniques to learn. Once you show proficiency in those techniques, you get your belt and move onto the next series of techniques. A black belt in such a style would have shown proficiency in many techniques, but simply put someone can easily demonstrate proficiency in a wide range of martial arts techniques in a vacuum, but still not know how to fight. Some styles will go so far as to have competitions that do involve some contact, but with heavily skewed and specific rule systems that severely limit tactics to a few high-scoring techniques that may or may not be effective in open-rules combat.

An open-source martial art is a style which is defined not by any set of specific techniques but by an objective. In the case of BJJ, the objective is to force the opponent to submit. Failing in a submission, points are awarded according to dominant positions which, given more time would have allowed more opportunity for the submission so even in competition with time limits, the winner of a match is whoever would have most likely won by submission had there been no limit. I use the term open-source because this objective along with a few simple rules is really all that's shared across all affiliations and schools all over the world. You could visit ten BJJ schools, and see ten totally different styles. Some schools teach street self-defense, some only sport. Some teach takedowns, others teach to pull guard. Some schools produce leg-lock specialists, others leave them out entirely. Even the process by which belts are awarded is left up to the individual affiliation or club owner. Some clubs go out of their way to create curriculum to use as a base of reference, but no one requires them to. Many schools don't even have gradings, they surprise their students with the belt in class or after a tournament. All that truly matters to anyone is the ability to achieve the objective, and that has created a culture of innovation. New techniques and approaches are developed all the time, and they live and die by their effectiveness alone. That over time has produced the techniques that form the framework of what the "style" we call BJJ. No one arbitrarily wrote down a list of techniques and said "These are jiu-jitsu, these are not". Those techniques form the basis of what you'll see taught at most schools because they proved themselves more effective in achieving the objective of jiu-jitsu and worked for a wide range of people, against a wide range of people. What we call a blue belt isn't defined by which techniques that blue belt knows, what we care about is that he rolls like a blue belt. Even when an affiliation or school uses a curriculum of techniques, those techniques are the ones that they find to be most consistently successful in achieving the goal.

When I look at it that way, it's easy to see how BJJ is related by virtue to boxing, muay thai and wrestling. Every wrestling club will teach the sport of wrestling differently, and whether or not you're a good wrestler comes down to the very simple question of whether or not you can effectively achieve the objective of wrestling which is to pin the opponent. In boxing and Muay Thai, it's to knock the opponent unconscious. All of these styles value results above all and allow for essentially complete freedom in terms of which techniques you use to achieve said results. Ask anyone involved in boxing what they think of Roy Jones Jr.'s antics during his prime and they'll all say the same thing - that you wouldn't teach someone to box that way, but he was still the best boxer in the world because he won.

The proficiency-based approach isn't without merit. It makes students and teachers much more interchangeable between different schools, and makes teaching beginners and large groups much simpler. The problem occurs when either A) The style is never put to the test in a relatively open environment or B) It is put to the test in an open environment but the style doesn't adapt or evolve according to its results in that environment. An example of this would be when the International Judo Federation controversially banned grabbing the legs in competition in order to promote throws that use the more traditional upright stance. In my opinion, rule changes of this nature are a step backward when it comes to open combat since sport-focused schools will stop teaching how to perform (and defend against) takedowns that involve grabbing the legs, of which there are many. 

As always, a balance is required. Curriculum is very useful, but at the end of the day martial arts are for fighting and there's no running from that. There should always be a two-lane highway of evolution between the techniques that are taught and how, and the results they produce when they're truly tested.

Tyson LaRone
Tyson LaRone


Tyson LaRone is a Senior Agatsu Kettlebell Instructor, BJJ Black Belt, Registered Massage Therapist, IYCA Speed and Agility Specialist.

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