Is BJJ good for self defense?
Is BJJ good for self defense? A critique of the classical BJJ self defense strategy.
Before answering this specific question, I must tell you a bit about myself and my experience with martial arts and aggression. I haven’t been in a fight since I was a child, somehow managing to successfully avoid confrontations. I have been picked on, though, but did not fight back, and after more than a decade of various martial arts experience I still think this is one of the best reactions you can have. Between acting scared as a kid (sometimes rightfully) and playing the fool nothing serious ever happened.
I have been training BJJ for more than 10 years, and during this time I have also cross trained in kickboxing, MMA, wrestling, sambo, kyokushin karate and filipino martial arts. I have studied martial arts extensively as an academic, wrote about it, published and as such I am not that easily deceived by marketing and the public discourse about grappling, and more precisely jiu-jitsu, krav maga, aikido or any other fancy martial art/combat sport.
This being said, BJJ is good for self defense, but it’s not something to solely rely on, and it’s not necessarily better than another form of combat/martial arts, as it has is very serious limitations. The most important one is, obviously, the focus on grappling and the lack of striking skills and stand up fighting in general.
Sports like BJJ does not teach you to successfully close the distance in a fight and sometimes it makes you focus on all the wrong things. But the most serious problem BJJ has is definitely the marketing claims. Ninety percent of the fights go to the ground, so if you know BJJ you can just go there and defeat the other guy. I’m sure everybody has heard this line hundreds of times, and if you train BJJ you have probably told a version of it to all of your friends and family.
Indeed, you can go quickly to the ground in a fight by getting KTFO. BJJ doesn’t help here. You can take the guy down and get injured in the process. Mats make you stop caring about the ground, but in another setting you never know how you’re getting there, what’s on the ground, and you need a specific takedown game if you want to apply it in a real life situation and be able to control the outcome. I must insist on the outcome because you can’t do anything you want in a street fight. You can’t kill the other guy, there are usually laws that make you pay for it, you can’t necessarily break his arms and legs either if you don’t want to go to jail or get broke from what his lawyer will make you pay, and chokes are very tricky to apply.
Have you ever choked someone unconscious? The BJJ go to scenario for a street fight is a double leg takedown, guard pass, mount, punch, get to the back and apply a rear naked choke. The guy is put to sleep and you can walk home like nothing ever happened. If you apply a more realistic combat lens to this scenario, you can see some fundamental flaws. The double leg takedown can result in a head injury, most of the time. Other takedowns where you have better control of the guy’s fall can be more suitable.
If you pass the guard and mount he will probably give you his back so you can choke him. This is indeed feasible. But how long will you apply the choke? And how long will he remain unconscious? And what will happen next? The most likely scenario, and it’s something a lot more realistic than the marketing one, looks like this: you choke the guy for a few seconds, let him go, and as you start to get up he wakes up and starts screaming and fighting back. You have probably seen people get choked unconscious in the gym or in BJJ fights. Some of them wake up in seconds and get back to fighting, not understanding they lost. Is this the best outcome you wish in a street fight? Win it for a few seconds then needing to try the same scenario a second time, and a third and so on?
A choke does not hurt, so the opponent doesn’t feel incapacitated once he wakes up, not to mention that regular people don’t know how to tap and don’t really understand what hurts and what happens in a submission fight. So even if you get the other guy in an armbar, there are three likely scenarios. You either break his arm, and this can have legal consequences, he screams because it hurts and you let him go and he understands what happened and stops the aggression, or he screams, you let him go, and he gets back into fighting and you might not get a second chance.
So what should BJJ practitioners do? First of all, understand the serious limitations of their sport and get their ego in place, just like all other martial artists should. If you get into fights with a superior attitude like nothing could ever happen to you, you’re in a very bad spot. And I didn’t even mention weapons, size difference or multiple opponents, just tried to show the limitations of the classical scenario.
Second, BJJ instructors, if they have self defense classes, should restrain the curricula to basic and effective techniques, taught in a self defense setting and with a different mindset. This means, for instance, eyes on the hands at all times, controlling them more than usual in order to avoid a hidden weapon, teaching takedowns that allow you to control the fall and focusing on positions and submissions where you are less vulnerable.
If it comes to submissions, you should emphasize effective submissions with the ability to incapacitate the opponent and hinder his subsequent movements. Ankle locks are a great pick, since a sprain is all it takes to make an opponent harmless and it’s a very common injury you can get from a variety of situations. This means that the outcome is definitely much better, legally, socially and even ethically.