Observations from a Two-Year Black Belt

I got my black two years ago, and I’m making it a tradition to write about what I’ve learned each year as a black belt. I’m amazed at how much I learned and improved over the last year, but I am even more surprised at how little I have actually trained. This is probably the least I’ve been on the mat since I first started jiu-jitsu. Between traveling, life, and business I still train about 5 times a week, but gone are the days where I log multiple double sessions in a week.

Some observations:

  • I still love BJJ. I am still thoroughly fascinated by it, but since I am not competing I just can’t justify a reason to maintain my old training volume. My body feels much better, old nagging injuries have mostly cleared up, and I feel much more productive. This blog is evidence of this new found productivity.

  • One issue I’ve run into is that I kept eating the way I had over the last few years. However, since I am burning much fewer calories, I started to add extra pounds. Things hit an all-time high when I came home from a trip to Europe in January for one of the Globetrotter camps. I was 232! This is the most I had ever weighed. It was time to make a change, after some reading and research I began the ketogenic diet. I am down to 215 and on the way down (I plan on writing a blog on ketogenic diet for BJJ soon).

  • My takedown work continues. I even got to compete in a sambo tournament during one of Reilly Bodycomb’s leg lock camps. I have put a lot of work into my grip fighting, and I can tell the difference on the way I am able to get much deeper when going for single or doubles and how is much easier to set up my throws and foot sweeps. I highly recommend on working on your grip fighting early in your BJJ career. This skill is often overlooked and it makes a huge difference in your stand up game, both gi and no-gi.

  • I have funneled my guard passing into one position: the folding pass. Everything I do inside the guards leads to that position. After tinkering with it, I have had great success and annoyed plenty of training partners along the way. The folding pass is especially useful against the new wave of open guard games. Collapsing the knees and settling into a top position lets me eliminate mobility, shutdown inversion, and force them to carry my weight as I slow the game down.

  • As far as my open guard goes, I abandoned almost all of the double sleeve grip techniques I used to use. I play very little spider guard and very little de la riva guard. If I end up in open guard, I mostly look for overhead sweeps, sit up into single legs, or force seated guard. If I can, I try to set my butterfly hooks. According to my training partners, butterfly guard is one of the most powerful parts of my game, yet I wasn’t actively pursuing it, so now I am hunting for hooks from full guard and for half guard, working my way into X-guard variations as well.

  • Closed guard is back in style! As I diet and as my training volume decreases, my cardio isn’t at the level it used to be, motivating me to play more closed guard. My approach has become to simplify my game to the point that everything I do either gives me the mount or the back, typically by starting with an armbar threat. It might sound odd for a black belt to go back to something as “basic” as an armbar from closed guard, but my renewed focus on the position has tightened up my technique overall.

  • Leg locks were the biggest hole in my game when I got promoted. Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to continue to work with Reilly. I have probably been to 5 of his Seminars now, and two training camps. Heel hooks are becoming more and more popular, and thanks to Reilly I have become not only familiar with them but very comfortable going for them and defending them. Understanding leg control positions has been the key to my finishes as well as my escapes. Learning these principles has allowed me to adapt a lot of Reilly’s material into an IBJJF-approved leg lock system. While I am a big fan of belly-down ankle locks and cross-body ankle locks, I have to admit that kneebars are still a weakness, so I’ll be looking more deeply at those in the next few months.
This has been a fascinating journey, and as I continue to train the more I realize there are so many things I need to work on. Not only is there is always something new to work on, but I realize there are old things I need to revisit and work back into my game as well. Not only will I receive the first degree on my black belt next year, but it will also mark 10 years since I started training. This has been an amazing journey, and even though my life and my attitude towards the sport aspect of BJJ has changed, I am still in love with BJJ as much as the day I started.

I’m looking forward to many more years of training, teaching, and helping spread this wonderful thing that has become a huge part of my life. I’m curious to see what I write about next year.