The Four Corners of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

As a student or teacher of jiu-jitsu, it can help to break the martial art into four main contexts: gi, no-gi, self defense, and MMA. These categories let you to analyze the effectiveness of your training methods and inform how you select techniques. It can also help you understand conflicting opinions between people who may not realize they are training for different reasons.

Let’s breakdown the four contexts to their specifics:


A sport with rules
No striking
Uniform to grip
No weapons
No environmental obstacles
Knowledgeable opponent


A sport with rules
No striking
No uniform to grip
No weapons
No environmental obstacles
Knowledgeable opponent


A sport with rules
No uniform to grip
No weapons
Cage with a fence
Knowledgeable opponent

Self Defense

No “rules” but legal concerns
No referee but maybe police
Potentially striking
Probably clothing to grip
Potentially one-versus-many
Potentially weapons
Potentially many obstacles
Potentially unknown opponent

At its core, jiu-jitsu is a system of techniques that enables a human to defend against an attack from another human and come out victorious in hand-to-hand combat. On top of this we add further requirements and expectations, such as sport rules and real life applications.

An instructor who loves to teach sport BJJ techniques but doesn’t recognize that his students believe they are learning self defense techniques is setting those students up for a rude awakening. I believe one of the biggest confidence boosters you can give a student is to remove the fear of someone just shoving them around and swinging at their head.

The “sports” aspects of jiu-jitsu builds many skills and attributes that will be useful in a hand-to-hand fight: sparring against a resisting opponent (even without strikes), learning through constant trial-and-error, dealing with adrenaline dump, physical conditioning, etc.

How would you define “winning” in these situations?

  • You are a woman being followed by a stranger as you walk alone at night.
  • You are a police officer intervening to stop domestic violence.
  • You are a husband getting carjacked with your wife and kid in the car.
  • You are a soldier encountering enemy combatants while clearing a building.
  • You are a 16th century feudal warlord charging your horse into foot soldiers.

And how much would jiu-jitsu help in those situations?

My personal opinion is that hand-to-hand combat is one of the least important aspects of most self defense situations that don’t resemble a street fight. A fully realized self defense system would include developing verbal skills, de-escalation, threat assessment, situational awareness, using the environment, practicing escaping rather than engaging in combat, etc.

Let’s talk about street fights for a minute. They are often held up as the best example of how jiu-jitsu is used in self defense. There is some truth to that since it’s two apes jumping on each other in the wild, but I’d argue that it’s closer to a form of “mutual combat.” Most street fights can be avoided if you stay away from 1) groups of aggressive young men, 2) groups of drunk people, and 3) people competing to get laid.

(Interesting aside: Someone did a reddit AMA about being in prison. He had a BJJ blue belt so he was asked if it helped. He said it didn’t because if he clinched and took it to the ground, other inmates would separate them and stand them back up to “fight like real men.”)

The more you specialize in any one of these four areas, the more likely you are to practice techniques and tactics that aren’t practical in the other areas. This is how we get double guard pulls and winning by advantages after 10 minutes stuck in 50/50 in the sport, but self defense can get just as weird. What starts as blocking haymakers and escaping bear hugs can evolve into LARPing and 5-on-1 taser knive fights (but to be honest that sounds pretty sweet).

A useful definition of “the basics” is to look for the techniques and positions that have the greatest crossover between all four areas. This gives you the list of common fundamentals: mount, rear mount, side control, closed guard, bridging, shrimping, armbar, guillotine, rear naked choke, etc.

We can also understand the conflicting opinions between jiu-jiteiros by where they place themselves across these four corners. Someone whose primary reason for learning jiu-jitsu is self defense won’t be concerned with learning modern sports techniques or keeping track of points while rolling. Their sports-oriented training partners will wonder why they don’t seem concerned to learn berimbolo defenses or check out cool techniques from YouTube. But why would they?

Likewise, if you don’t care about self defense, but enjoy sports and competition, you’ll get bored drilling headlock escapes and wish you were repping out the hot new tech you liked on Instagram. Given how many of the classic “self defense” techniques are taught, without any resistance or sparring, I can see why. These techniques need to be trained like real skills with live drills, not just dusted off when the instructor feels guilty he hasn’t shown Helio’s “defense against arm’s length overhand karate chop” since the 90's.

In last year’s US BJJ Globetrotters camp, Chris Haueter entertainingly rants about the struggle between the old school and new, street versus sport, and his golden rules for jiu-jitsu. Watch it now if you missed it:

Back in 2014, Philly-based Josh Vogel ran a 30 Day Punch Challenge with these Cato-vs-Clouseau rules:

Grab a friend. Tell them to throw 10 punches or slaps at you every day. Avoid, block, parry or clinch when those punches are thrown. You can have them hit you hard, or light, slow or fast. I suggest doing this from standing, but you can do this from ground positions. You can ask your friend to do this all in one shot, or randomly throughout the day (I'm going to ask my wife to randomly attack me throughout the day, for example).

On the Show the ART podcast, another Philly grappler, the kettlebell juggling Jason C. Brown talked about putting on boxing gloves and doing takedowns versus punches in the old school days training with Steve Maxwell. This was a common practice when I was a white belt, but I haven’t seen it in a long time (and I’m partly to blame). To borrow from Philly one more time, I’m going to be copying the Migliarese brother’s practice of having a monthly “street week”.

A martial art only consists of the things its practitioners regularly do. Judo may supposedly have strikes in its kata, but that’s like karate claiming it has grappling hidden in its katas too. Your training is only what you actually do, not what some Gracie did 70 years ago.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Which of the four contexts do you want to train for? You can pick more than one, but think about how important each one is to you.
  • Does your school’s curriculum and training actually prepare you for that?
  • If it doesn’t, how can you change your own training to align with your real goals?
  • Would you benefit from exploring a neglected context?

My purpose for this article was not to spark yet another tiresome street versus sport debate (it will do that no matter what), but to help you see the bigger picture and place yourself and your training on the greater map of jiu-jitsu. I don’t believe training for self defense is better or worse than training for sport, but that you should be truthful with yourself and your students about what you’re really training for.

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