Inverted Gear Blog / Nelson Puentes
My first grappling love was wrestling. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo soon followed, and in the last few years I have added Sambo. I watch most jiu-jitsu PPVs (can’t wait for Polaris 5) and most major IBJJF tournaments. I live in North Eastern Pennsylvania, so we get to see great wrestling at Lehigh University and at local high schools. On the Sambo front, I watch my friend Reilly Bodycomb compete, and a year ago I was in Paraguay as the unofficial translator for the U.S. team for the Pan American games. For Judo, I still follow the career of a few of my old training partners from my time at Cranford Judo, both of which are national team members.
So you could say that my love for grappling is pretty serious.
The reason I tell you all of this is that very often when I hear talk about the problems with BJJ rules the IBJJF system which has become default for the majority of tournaments. We seldom look outside of BJJ to see how we might improve competition rules. While they might not be BJJ, other sports have had to address similar issues, whether those issues were tactics abusing the current rules or safety issues, especially for kids matches.
Here are some of the rules I would like to be implemented in some form:
1. Standardized resetting positions. Every major tournament seems to generate some sort of controversy surrounding a reset position. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has evolved, and the advent of the post-modern BJJ games has made restarting positions increasingly difficult. We are not just looking for who had half guard or closed guard anymore. Some of the berimbolo positions or lapel guard positions are incredibly complicated, and it is incredibly hard for a referee to look at the position for maybe fifteen seconds and then recreate it perfectly, match after match after match.
Folkstyle wrestling uses standard positions: one neutral, one bottom, and one top. We can take a look at the FILA grappling rules to see how these look in a grappling context. If the action rolls out of bounds, we could use a standardized open guard position, for example, to restart the match.
FILA Submission Grappling's Reset Positions:
2. Lift to stop. A video of a teenage competitor injuring his neck after being lifted by his opponent has been making the rounds on social media. Thankfully, he is expected to make a full recovery. Much debate has been made about how the match should have been stopped, or how we need to train with those situations in mind and be prepared for slams. How about we borrow a rule from Judo and Sambo instead?
If you are locked in a submission and you lift your opponent, the action stops. You are then reset standing. This puts emphasis on performing submissions in a way where it is difficult for your opponent to lift you, instead of relying on the rules to keep you safe. If a standing reset is too much to ask for BJJ, but how about a restart from open guard? While this rule is not necessary for purple and above—ADCC already allows slams—but it could be a great way to protect both young and new competitors.
3. Kneebars and ankle locks legal at all levels. Ever since the 50/50 guard entered the BJJ metagame, this issue has occurred at the lower belt levels: One opponent goes for a legal ankle lock and the other opponent changes the angle, turning the legal ankle lock into an illegal kneebar. The result? One person gets DQed and then a bunch of people shout and argue in Portuguese. This happened at Worlds this year.
The competitor in the blue was DQed as it was deemed a legal technique and the competitor in black argued he was trying to transition to 50/50. Now with the way the game is headed I think it would be beneficial for everyone to allow both kneebars and ankle locks at all belt levels, and get rid of the silly reaping rule, as reaping positions will result from escaping kneebars. Sambo has allowed both ankle locks and kneebars, and contrary to popular belief these are no twisting leg locks allowed in sport Sambo, and they don't seem to have an issue with injuries many BJJ players fear so much.
These three rule changes won’t fix every problem in BJJ competition rules, but they will help. Our sport is evolving rapidly, and our rules should follow suit. If we insist on ignoring the latest developments in technique and strategy, our dated rules might actually hurt competition growth in general.
Due to an injury to one of my friends, I have found myself pitching in covering the fundamentals classes at his academy. Even though at one point I would teach about 4 fundamental classes a week, it’s been a long time since I taught a class of mostly fresh white belts. Most of my time teaching has been the odd advanced class at my home gym or mixed groups at camps or seminars. Thinking about what is best to teach raw beginners is a welcome change of pace.
I went back and thought through what my favorite moves were at lower belts and also recalled what approaches worked best when I had my own beginner’s program. I created a list of what to teach, covering four or five moves for sweeping, escaping, passing, and submitting.
When I teach beginners, I like to start by covering sweeps. The sweep game is a great place to start for white belts because the small victory of going from the bottom to the top is rewarding, and it gets them thinking more about base and timing early on in their careers.
Any move I teach beginners, including sweeps, must meet the following criteria:
- Develop movement patterns that will be needed for more advanced moves.
- Are not attribute dependent (long legs, strong, flexible, etc.)
- Able to rewind to a safe position if the move fails, like closed guard for example
The sweeps I chose for this criteria were the following:
Scissor sweep: I often introduce this sweep first because it starts introducing concepts of unbalancing, or kuzushi if you want to use fancy Japanese terms, and it also introduces a transition from closed guard into an open guard attack.
Headstand sweep: I think this sweep is crucial at the lower levels. If your open guard is not developed, you need a way to deal with someone standing to pass. To this day, this is one of my favorite closed guard sweeps.
Arm across sweep: Bringing the arm across and going for the pendulum sweep introduces what I like to call unfair gripping. Understanding the principles behind this sweep opens-up more advanced guard and control concepts.
Two on one back take: I will throw this one on the sweep section even if it does not mee the IBJJF definition of a sweep. Many times when attacking sweeps paths to the back open. The mechanics behind this one greatly help new students, especially when collar and armdrags come into play.
The beauty of fundamental sweeps like these is that even if you are not a beginner, returning to them can help you to enhance your game or unlock new, high-percentage paths for your techniques. And when you start teaching—even if it’s just covering the odd class or answering questions during an open mat—having some ideas of what might be best for beginners will help you to lead the next generation of jiu-jiteiros.
When I started BJJ I was 185 pounds. I have drifted upward since then (I don’t regret a single taco), and for the most part I have been considered one of the big guys in the room. As someone that has spent most of his BJJ career on the 200+ pounds range, these are some of the rules I follow in order to train in a way I can both develop my game and keep my training partners happy.
1. As someone blessed with extra gravitational powers, you can apply more pressure than most of your training partners. This does not mean you need to roll like a maniacal steamroller, flattening anything in your path. If there is a big weight or skill discrepancy between you and opponent, you don’t have to apply all of your pressure. Sure, use enough pressure to finish whatever pass you are working on or to hold a top position, but try to move, improve your position, go for subs, and be mindful of the build and frame of the person beneath you.
2. Ask yourself the question, “Did I get that sweep/submission/escape because my technique was right or because I am a giant panda?” I often encounter big guys that grow accustomed to being the only big guy in their gym and develop bad habits because of it. These habits become apparent when they meet someone of similar size or an equal or higher skill level. It’s an eye-opening experience when a big part of your game is suddenly nullified because you are no longer the larger grappler.
3. Don’t neglect your bottom game. While as a larger guy passing and takedowns can become your comfort zone, you will find yourself on the bottom eventually, and having a guard game that can handle a bigger opponent is important. Yet again don’t fall into bad habits here. Develop a game with an opponent your size in mind. Look at guys like Pe de Pano or Bernardo Faria for guys with great guards. While guard is important, make sure you work on your escapes as well. While rolling with a 260 pound black belt recently, I was painfully reminded that I had been neglecting to work on my mount escapes, and it is now something I will be working on for the next few months by starting my rolls from there as often as I can.
4. Work on your mobility and flexibility. Newcomers to BJJ are often stiff as a board, and this is especially true for bigger guys, even more so if they spent years in a less than ideal strength training routine. Pay attention next time Americanas are taught. It is very easy to spot the big bench pressers in the room. Tight hips, legs, and back muscles may keep you from performing certain things like triangles, inversions, or dynamic movements, but if you keep training and working on your flexibility, you will be able to do them down the road. When I started BJJ, my hips were so tight I had a really hard time getting triangles. I even injured my knee once adjusting one on a bad angle.
There is nothing wrong with being one of the bigger guys in the room. It’s not like you have much of a choice in most cases. What you can choose is how you approach your training and how you think about your body and your training partners. If you are diligent about being technical and develop self-awareness as to your habits and your own weaknesses, you can refine your technique to the point that you can both take care of smaller training partners and handle the challenges that a larger opponent presents. Hopefully this can help some big guys starting out in BJJ.
A little over two years ago, Hillary and I closed the small gym we had opened, sold our mats, and decided to travel as much as possible. 2 years and 20 countries later, we have more than accomplished this goal. Thanks to BJJ, I have gotten to have amazing experiences around the world. I felt like I was on an episode of the travel shows I loved so much. I jumped in the freezing ocean in Greenland, I fed a kangaroo at the Steve Irwin zoo in Australia, I learned to snowboard on the Austrian Alps, I surfed for the first time in Costa Rica a few weeks later, I went off-roading at night in Guam, and I paddle-boarded around Roman ruins in Sardinia.
More exhilarating and more rewarding than any of those things, though, was getting to meet and train with a kaleidoscope of people. We shared this common thread of jiu-jitsu, but the range of styles and cultures and perspectives we encountered on the mat was just as much an adventure as anything we did as tourists off the mat.
Through our travels, I got to learn a lot about the BJJ community. Here are some of my observations:
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu will open many doors. It never ceases to amaze me how embracing the BJJ community is. Whether it was being invited to grab drinks after training, home cooked meals after seminars, or airport pick-ups in the middle of the night. Having a friend in common, gotten a roll in at a camp, or taken one of my classes in the past was enough to be treated like longtime friends. I am truly grateful for all the people we have met along the way, you have made the last two years unbelievable.
BJJ can take root anywhere. No matter what remote area of the world we headed BJJ had managed to blossom, from a gym in the community center in Nuuk, Greenland to a small garage gym in the south of Chile, to gyms on small islands in the Caribbean, Mediterranean or Pacific. BJJ was there and thriving. No matter how small the population of the place, it seems that someone bit by the bug got some mats and started convincing friends to roll around on the ground with them.
Modern BJJ spreads like wildfire. With YouTube and all the grappling PPVs available these days, it seems like anywhere I went the modern game was present—berimbolo fans, crazy lapel guards, or fans of the modern leg lock game. Developments that took years to spread before now seemed to happen almost automatically now due to the overwhelming amount of not only footage but also online instructionals. A willingness to research and competent training partners will get you pretty far in adding material to your game.
There is always a foodie in the room. I am not alone in my love for food. I was always able to find a fellow foodie to show me the best nearby spots for an after-training meal. I got to eat amazing sushi in Tokyo, an amazing charcuterie board in Rome, Harkar in Iceland, roasted Christmas duck in Denmark, fresh caught prawns in Greenland, steak in Argentina, BBQ in Korea, scweinhaxle in Munich, or the most amazing al pastor tacos in Mexico. I am glad I got to burn some calories through BJJ otherwise I would be pushing 300 pounds right now. It also lead to adventures like the time we went to a TGI Friday's in Leeds England where the waiters had fake American accents, or the time—unbeknownst to us—went on the Overeem diet by eating horse burgers in Sardinia.
You can’t escape BJJ drama. No matter how small the community was there is always some kind of drama around grown man wearing pajamas. Whether schools in small towns split and become rivals, beef with the local judo programs, or school that prohibit their students from training somewhere else, jiu-jitsu seems to breed drama by default.
Female black belts are still unicorns. Plenty of times during our travels, we met girls excited to train with Hillary. Not only had they never trained with a female black belt, but they had never met one in person. It was really amazing to see my Hillary inspire other girls to stick with the sport.
Wrestling still hard to find outside of the US and few European countries. Whenever I teach, I always asked the students present what they would like to learn. I was surprised how often I was asked about takedowns, specifically wrestling takedowns like single legs and double legs. We often hear it from foreigners, but I never fully understood how fortunate I was to not only wrestle in High school but have training partners with amazing wrestling.
Eastern Europeans still love the Kesa Gatame. Perhaps an upbringing in sports like Judo, Sambo, and different styles of wrestling where you can win by pin is the reason for this, but compare this trend to the rest of the world and you’ll struggle to find a deeper concentration of grapplers who love Kesa. Training partners with good Kesa Gatame pressure will improve your guard retention and takedown defense. There are few things in grappling worse than being stuck under someone trying to remove your head from your shoulders.
Tatamis are a luxury. Most schools in the U.S. have beautiful tatami style mats, but most of the schools I visited make do with much less. We trained on everything from puzzle mats, to wrestling mats, to tarps over shredded tires, to gymnastics mats taped together. No matter the type of surface, training was always great, but we had to think about it twice before teaching takedowns.
Jiu-jitsu nomads are everywhere. My friend Christian wrote a book about his adventures as a BJJ Globetrotter that has inspired a giant community of travelers that love to train jiu-jitsu. I have made many friends that I have seen in different part of the globe for different camps, tournaments, or while visiting local academies. The BJJ community is richer for this roaming practitioners that visit areas where black belts are scarce.
For the first time in two years, I am home, and I don't have any flights book in the upcoming months. It has been quite the adventure. I remember being a kid and playing with my globe and telling my parents all the places I was going to visit when I grew up. I have been able to get through most of my bucket list, but after we recharge our batteries by spending the summer at home we will on the road again. If you would like to host Hillary and I for a seminar you can find some info here.
I got my black belt three years ago. For the first and second anniversaries of earning my black belt, I wrote blog posts about what I had learned in year one and year two. Time flies, but Panda Nation seems to enjoy hearing about my black belt adventures and just how much learning occurs after black belt.
So here’s the third edition!
My training has been inconsistent. Hillary and I have been traveling a ton for camps and seminars and a bunch of stuff in between. Sometimes we only come home for a week or two before heading out again. My time at my “home gym” has been minimal, so I haven’t gotten to spend as much time in the lab as I would like. I have, however, been able to train with a ton of great grapplers and pick up a few tricks along the way, so it’s a tradeoff.
Even with an unusual training scheduling, my work on leg locks continues. I keep finding new spots to attack my IBJJF-approved game of tripod ankle locks and cross body ankle locks. Last year, I had a goal of working on my knee bar game. After some trial and error, I am a lot better at them. I have collected a few entries that I can hit consistently, mostly from the bottom when opponents defend sweeps or while defending some passes. I have a lot of success with controlling both legs while attacking the knee bar and being able to switch to the toe hold on the free leg when they defend.
Also, since moving to the Allentown area, I get to work on heel hooks a lot more, and my timing and proficiency has gone up with those as well.
A big part of my work on leg locks is linking them with upper body attacks. I have been working on coming up to dominant positions off my leg attacks. If I go for a foot lock and my opponent starts pummeling and re-engaging the leg attack, I am a lot better at coming up into a passing position. My friend Reilly recently changed the way I did the cross body ankle lock: by posting on one arm it is much easier to rewind into the leg drag, so that’s also been on the practice plate thanks to the last R Dojo camp.
When I start to pass, whether I’m coming up from a leg lock attack or not, I have been looking for the folding pass. This has been my project for a few years now, and I’ve made a good bit of progress. Now that my training partners know what I like though, opponents have started playing with wider hips to prevent the fold, so I have been working on different set-ups for my knee cut when this happens. My passing proficiency has gone up, and I get to back step into leg locks when my opponent overcommits to defending the knee cut.
From standing, I been playing a lot more with front headlocks to set up takedowns. Front headlocks are one of the highest scoring takedowns in wrestling. They were so strong that rules needed to be changed and a shot clock added because competitors were refusing to shoot in fear of the front headlock. In a gi and no-gi context, it’s underutilized since many of us choose to jump on guillotines from the position. I have been working on getting the position and breaking my opponent down and then spinning behind, double legging when they pop up, and various chokes once my opponent is broken down to his knees. This new emphasis on the front headlock has made my singles and doubles more successful since my opponent's posture changes as I keep attacking their head.
On top of everything else, I have been working more and more on the Bernardo-style deep half guard. It’s great guard to play when I am tired and I need to tie up an overzealous lower belt while at a camp or traveling. It also feeds very well into my strong passing position to further slowdown my opponent.
This is what I been working on over the last year. A few of these items I have been working on for the last three years now, but I am always finding little details to refine them and add to them.
What have you been working on?