As Hillary and I were headed to Australia to meet our friend Chad and teach a few seminars, Winter Storm Stella was scheduled to hit the east coast. Our flight out of Philly was cancelled, which made us scramble to get new a flight. We decided our best option was driving to Pittsburgh, staying with friends, and flying out of there the following morning.
24 hours later, we returned our one-way rental and headed to the gate. Along the way, this book caught my attention. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. A few flights, layovers, and whiskey and sodas later I am about halfway through the book, and I can’t help but start to draw comparisons to jiu-jitsu.
I never thought about it before, but BJJ counts large numbers of non-conformists among its ranks. And some of them really have changed the way we look at BJJ. If we take a historical approach, we can identify quite a few people that had a huge impact on how the game is played today, by either coming up with new positions entirely or changing how we look at old positions.
We can start by looking at half guard, which these days is as diverse and dynamic as any jiu-jitsu position. At one point, however, half guard was seen as a “stalling position” because many players would only go there to get lockdown and slow things down as they caught their breath. Gordo and Gordinho Correa completely changed that by adopting the position as their main sweeping tool. They changed the way the game was played.
By being able to re-guard to half and start attacking right away, it gave them a huge advantage since they didn't have to recompose all the way to a “full guard.” Even as Gordo and his brother succeeded, it took a few years before other people bought into it. Nowadays, the position has continued to evolve, and deep half guard and Lucas Leite style half guard are part of most competitive players’ arsenals.
Inversions were not always part of the BJJ game, either. Roleta was one of the first players to use this position in order to re-guard and use his patented “Roleta sweep” (mostly known as Tornado sweep these days since Cyborg Abreu has popularized it again). Many old school players were not fans of Roleta's style, and some didn’t even consider it “real” jiu-jitsu—he wasn't playing a normal guard after all.
His style was nicknamed esqui-jitsu (short from esquisito which means weird in Portuguese). After Roleta. it wouldn't be until a pair of blue belts started going inverted and triangling everyone that the inversion game gain popularity. Ryan Hall and my old training partner from Alliance NYC had much success catching triangles from inverted guard. At the time, many people, especially at the blue and purple belt level, didn’t even know how to pass the inverted guard which gave them a huge advantage in competition. Dave won blue belt worlds and Ryan, well, he became Ryan, accomplishing a great deal in BJJ and in MMA.
Ryan would later develop another position, the 50/50, which he would get to when opponent stood up to pass his inverted guard to avoid triangles. He would shoot his legs through his opponent’s legs and arrive at the 50/50, which was technically not a new position, but it had been regarded just as a stalling position until that point. Ryan Hall 50/50 heel hooking his way into ADCC gave the position notoriety, but it wasn’t until Bruno Frazatto and the Mendes brothers from team Atos started using the position to contain Cobrinha that the position gained popularity in the gi as well. The positioned that once frowned upon exploded as everyone started to come up with ways to pass and enter it.
The Bigger Picture of Non-Conformity
The inverted guard saw another Renaissance with the rise of the berimbolo, and there has been a whole lot of other BJJ innovation that was once against the grain but is now accepted as legitimate effective technique (or for the most part at least; looking at you leglock haters). Nowadays we have guys like Keenan who seem to come up with a different position every time he makes a taco run, changing the way we look at open guard again and again, especially when lapels are involved.
Benefiting from non-conformity doesn’t have to mean innovating on the level of Ryan Hall or Rafa Mendes. Simply being willing to try something outside of the box or to take the road less traveled can make you more likely to grow.
If you ask my mom, I have been in trouble for not conforming for a long time. I used to carry notes from my teacher almost daily during my early school years. As an adult, non-conformity is a part of my life that is evident in my grappling style and in my career path. The whole reason Inverted Gear was created was that I was not happy with the way the gi industry was heading (thank God the Affliction years have passed) and wanted to do something different
As you develop your game and go through your BJJ journey, don't be afraid to develop your own game. Maybe you are interested in a position that is not popular at the time, but don’t let that be a deterrent to creating your own game or investing time in any given position. Maybe you like passing to the right like some of us degenerates or attacking ankle locks across the body instead of the regular side. One of my friends had a knee injury and stopped playing the whole guard thing and sets up all his attacks and sweeps from side control.
The way things are done now should not dictate how they will be done in the future. Learn from the best practices of the day—fundamentals will always be valuable—but just because there is not a road already on your map doesn’t mean that you can’t make one yourself.