5 Years at Black Belt

Last week was the five-year anniversary of my promotion to black belt, and next month marks my thirteenth year in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on my journey through BJJ, how it has evolved, and share what training and teaching is like as a black belt.

Here are the personal projects I have worked on since earning my black belt:

Learning the modern leglock game.

Interest in leglocks, especially heelhooks, has exploded with the popularity of events like EBI with alternative rulesets. I always liked IBJJF-legal straight ankle locks, but with Nelson’s influence, I have joined Team Reap. For the past two years, I have attended Reilly Bodycomb’s 3-day RDojo winter leglock camps. Nelson is always showing me the latest tweaks, and many of my students are going out to learn leglock systems and bringing the knowledge back to the school. Heelhooks are not as dangerous as I was always warned, and they can be trained safely if everyone playing with them is educated properly.

Keeping up with the open guard vs guard passing arms race.

Sport BJJ is an eternal battle between open guard and guard passing. It has been that way as long as I can remember. Staying current on the metagame is a constant endeavor. What guard is popular this season, and what’s the counter? Is this one worth learning or will it disappear in a month?

At this point, it’s safe to say the berimbolo is real. “Old school” curmudgeons harped on it getting you killed on the streets, but it has won enough gold medals to prove itself. You need to know how to do it, if only to coach your competitors. If you cannot stop the berimobolo, a feisty purple belt will put you on your butt and leg drag/crab ride combo to your back like his lunch money depends on it.

Worm guard and similar lapel wrapping trickery is real too, but I only have so much mental bandwidth and I have spent none of it on learning that. I’ve seen it work, and it has worked against me, but I have never really got into messing with lapels like that, and I still have no plans to.

To quote Reilly, who was quoting Ryan Hall, “I’m not a vampire.” -- I’m not going to live forever and never sleep, so I have to pick what is worth my time and not worry about learning everything.

The old school is new again.

Coming up the ranks at my original school in FL, I was known as the “new technique guy.” I watched every instructional DVD I could and knew every unique technique that hit YouTube. At the school where I teach in PA, roles are reversed; I am known as the “old school basics guy.” That’s because I mainly teach fundamentals classes and my mid-2000’s style is now considered “old school.”

As much as I want to say I have kept up with the modern game, when it comes down to it, my best techniques are still basic ones I learned as a white belt: bull fighter pass, collar and sleeve open guard, tripod sweep, butterfly guard hook sweeps, etc. The good news is these all still work, and you can blend them with the new school. Despite all the leg drags I have drilled, I still dive into bull fighter passes, though I may end them with a modern twist by redirecting and rewinding to the leg drag position.

Filling the huge gap in my takedown training.

Coming from a pure sport BJJ background, my takedown game was severely underdeveloped. I have a distinct memory of being a purple belt preparing for comp. At the start of a stand up round, I decided “I’m not pulling guard today!” After a brief awkward grip fighting exchange, my coach scolded me -- “What are you doing? Pull guard already!” -- which I did and it worked. From then on, I became the typical guard puller.

After my first RDojo camp, and having Reilly in my ear all weekend, I decided to start from standing every round (without pull guard) and dedicate time every practice to takedown training. This was tough at first because, honestly, a decent high school wrestler was better than me in pure stand up. Nelson has helped me a lot with this and I am making slow but steady progress.

Developing a daily joint health routine.

You do not get to black belt without injuries. You can tell BJJ is rough on its practitioners just from the sheer volume of “hey, should I see a doctor for this?” posts across every message board. BJJ instructors rarely have sports or fitness education outside of their BJJ background. Most instructors do not know how to injury-proof their students, and most students don’t know how to do it for themselves either. Nothing is going to prevent 100% of injuries, but you can reduce the odds if you educate yourself and stick to a regular routine of joint care.

Functional Range Conditioning is the best system for this I have been able to find, in terms of comprehensiveness and scientific backing. Last November, I attended the FRC certification, and I have been working on learning and applying the whole system ever since. I have BJJ black belt Samantha Faulhaber from Move Well Philly to thank for giving me a lot of guidance.

Do yourself a favor and find a FRC/FR trained coach or physical therapist. Finding FRC was the best thing I’ve done for my joints since starting BJJ.

There’s always something else to work on.

That sums up the major projects I have embarked upon as a black belt, at least in terms of my personal approach to BJJ. If you found something I said interesting, please leave a comment because I love to hear from readers!