Sunday, September 6, 2020

Wave People


I came across a new definition of the term, "Ronin" the other day and it got me thinking.  Generally, the term refers to a samurai with no master.  But interestingly enough, it is literally translated as "wave person".  This likens the samurai without a master to one set adrift in the ocean, to be tossed about by the waves of life.

I've always liked the whole "Ronin" thing.  This new (to me at least) translation of the term resonates with me on a whole new level being an ex-sailor.  Moving around as much as I have over the the past two decades, switching from dojo to dojo, "master" to "master", I've learned much of my jiu-jitsu game on my own, similar to the way I imagine a masterless samurai would've had to back in the day.

While I do enjoy fancying myself as a samurai, the whole ronin thing has it's pluses and minuses.  On the plus side, I'm not attached to any one person's vision of what my jiu-jitsu should look like (except perhaps my own).  Furthermore, I've been able to see, experience, and learn from a wider variety of styles than the average jiu-jitsu player.  Hey, lucky me, right?

On the down side, I've missed out on that steady, traditional, student teacher relationship that more traditional jiujitsukas get (jiu-jit-su-kas... is that a word?).  It can be frustrating to be told that this is the way to do a given technique by one instructor, only to be told that it will get you into trouble by another. You'd be amazed at how many ways there are to do the Scissor Sweep!

I've always found this fascinating by the way.  We live in the information age.  There is no shortage of learning resources out there.  A simple YouTube search for your favorite fundamental technique will show you that there are a multitude of little variations being taught on any given technique.  They all have their pros and cons, and are more applicable in some scenarios than others.  For someone to have the audacity to think that what they learned from their instructor is the only way, the holy grail of that given technique, is... well... audacious!

Thankfully, I think we're starting to get away with that.  I'm starting to see more and more, instructors saying words to the effect of, "I won't go so far as to say it's wrong..."  Of course this is more often than not followed by some explanation of how their technique is better.

Most of what I've learned in jiu-jitsu, I've learned on my own.  My sporadic training (made so by often chaotic flight and deployment schedules) made anything I learned in class seem like a disjointed collection of unrelated techniques.  This forced me to seek out other instructional resources and figure out how to learn from them.  It's most certainly lengthened my journey, but I feel that it will make me a better martial artist in the long run.

The human race has a long history of self-reliance, and innovation.  Nobody gave Thomas Edison the answer on how to invent the light bulb.  He figured it out!  Nobody showed Henry Ford how to make an assembly line.  He figured it out!  Nobody showed Steve Jobs the ancient secrets of how to put a computer in every household, a thousand songs in your pocket, or the internet on your phone.  He surrounded himself with smart people, and made them figure it out! 

Is it possible to learn jiu-jitsu without a coach?  Absolutely!  It's easier to learn with a coach, but it's entirely possible to do it without one (provided you have some dedicated training partners).  You research what ever information is out there, and innovate the rest.  

We still have some pockets of civilization out there that have no access to a traditional BJJ school, much less a blackbelt to teach them.  And in those pockets we have some folks who are dying to learn jiu-jitsu.  I've met a bunch of them through my travels over the last two decades or so.  They get together with a few friends in somebody's garage, lay down some mats, and make do with what they've got.  Some of them are getting unbelievably good!

If you're one of those wave people, a proverbial samurai with no master, a BJJ Ronin... I've been there.  I'd like to encourage you to stay the course.  Learn from whatever resources you can get your hands on, experiment with your buddies, and get after it!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Positional Sparring

Back when I trained at Razzano Academy, Dax (my instructor) used to joke that his "Basics" classes weren't always that basic.  He'd pretty much teach the same techniques he was working on with the advanced classes, but when it came time to spar, he would only have the class do positional sparring in the basics classes.  

I really grew to enjoy the positional sparring.  I found myself taking more risks because if I failed we'd just reset, and I could try, try again.  

I'm trying to incorporate more positional sparring into our classes at El Diablo, so I sat down the other night and organized my thoughts on the matter.  Here's what I came up with...

Big Mike’s Positional Sparring Games






top: submit/progress

bottom: escape

Side Control

Knee on Belly


Turtle/Panda/Hawking/Running Man

top: take the back/break down to side control

bottom: recover guard/reversal


Closed Guard

top: open the guard

bottom: sweep/submit/take the back

Open Guard

top: pass

bottom: sweep/submit/take the back

Half Guard

top: pass

bottom: recover guard/sweep/submit/take the back

Kill Zones


top: submit

bottom: escape

Spider Web

Kimura Trap

Omoplata City

Triangle City

Standing Front Headlock

Ashi Garami

Big Mike’s Positional Sparring Formats

6 minutes switching

  • Set timer for 6 min.

  • When someone achieves their goal, reset the position switching top to bottom, bottom to top, and keep going.

3 minutes

each side

  • Set timer for 3 min.

  • When someone achieves their goal, reset the position.

  • Bottom man stays on bottom.

  • Top stays on top.

Bull in

the Ring

  • Best for guard or turtle drills.

  • Line up some folks on the wall.

  • Put one in the ring (the Bull).

  • The bull assumes bottom position.

  • Next person in line assumes top.

  • Loser leaves.

  • Winner is the Bull, and stays in the middle.

  • Next in line assumes top position.

  • Continue until time runs out.

Shark Tank

  • Best for pin and perhaps turtle drills.

  • Groups of 4 work well.

  • Set timer for 3 minutes.

  • One goes in the Shark Tank and assumes bottom position.

  • Sharks line up on the wall.

  • First in line takes top position.

  • When someone achieves their goal, top man leaves and is replaced with next shark in line.

  • Bottom man stays in the Shark Tank, on bottom.

  • The more tired he gets the more the sharks smell blood in the water!

  • After three minutes is up, bottom man leaves the shark tank and becomes a shark.

  • Next shark in line becomes new bottom man for the next 3 minute round.

  • Continue until everyone has had a turn on the bottom.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Under-Hooks, Turtles, and Pandas,

I've been experimenting with Priit Mihkelson's stuff in class lately.  I don't know if I'm teaching it correctly... in fact, I'm sure I'm not.  How could I?  I've never met Priit or trained with him.  I've certainly never had the opportunity to demo the moves for him and ask if I'm doing them correctly.  But even if we're not performing the techniques 100% correctly, the core concepts seem to be extremely effective.  Whatever it is that we're doing seems to be working quite well. 

It's so different from what we're all used to doing however that it takes some time and practice to get used to.  For instance, most of us prioritize protecting the neck over preventing the underhook.  Priit almost seems to do the opposite.  He prioritizes underhook prevention, and leaves neck duties to what he dubs "the boxing shoulder".  At some points in his videos he even goes so far as to say, "I don't care about my neck."

At first this seems like Jiu Jitsu heresy.  But having gone through much of his material, it's making more and more sense to me.  We always talk about how we need to keep our elbows close in Jiu Jitsu.  Many of us default to the T-Rex position when things go horribly wrong for us and we're stuck on the bottom.  It's a nice posture to fall back to, regroup from, and fight back out of.  When you really think about it, you know that in order to get any kind of arm lock you need to occupy the space between our opponent's upper arm, and their body.  Hence, the under-hook.  In order to take and control the back position, you generally need to establish the seat-belt.  Again, the under-hook.

Really any time I've let a decent opponent get an under-hook on me I've ended up in trouble.  Like Priit is fond of saying, we give our opponents the under-hook and then we complain that Jiu Jitsu is hard.

Now that's all well and good, but what about protecting your neck?  It turns out the boxing shoulder, while not impervious, does enough to slow our opponent down that one has time to bring the hands in to assist if need be.  And if your opponent is really serious about attacking your neck with one of his arms, then that arm isn't threatening an under-hook.  Hence prioritizing under-hook prevention makes more sense than I initially would have thought.

We've played with these concepts in the Turtle position as well as what Priit dubs the "Panda" in class over the past few weeks.  So far everyone seems to have noticed a significant, positive difference.  Priit's ideas are easy to remember, and even easier to implement.

I love simple solutions to difficult Jiu Jitsu problems, and Priit's are some of the best I've seen in awhile.  If you haven't checked out any of his material yet, I highly recommend you head on over to YouTube and check him out.  You might even consider heading over to BJJ Fanatics and giving one of his instructional products a whirl.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Dear BJJ Fanatics

I'm frustrated today.  I'm a little angry, disappointed and confused all at the same time.  Hell, this is one of those days where I'm not exactly sure what I'm feeling... but I know for a fact that I don't like it.  Not one little bit.

It all started when I saw this video clip introducing John Danaher's BJJ Fundamentals instructional series (better known as Go Further Faster).  I knew then and there that I would eventually own the entire series.  

Why this series?  There is a fundamental difference between a world champion, and one who makes world champions.  John Danaher was the first person I could think of who became famous not because of his own performance, but because of coaching results.

We all tend to want to learn from the greats of a given sport.  A Marcelo Garcia, a Joe Montana, a Michael Jordan.  But I watched an interview with Michael Jordan a few years back that changed this for me.  The reporter asked him what his secret was.  What kind of advice could he provide to a young basketball player who wanted to put in the hard work and become the next Michael Jordan?  And Jordan's reply?  Words to the effect of, "I don't know.  It's like the basked is this giant bucket, and I just can't miss."

Now most people think they have some idea of what got them where they are today... even when they're completely wrong.  Others have no idea, but make something up on the spot when asked.  It usually runs along the lines of hard work and discipline.  But in this refreshing moment of clarity, self awareness and honesty, Jordan admitted he had no idea what he did to make himself so great.

John Danaher on the other hand never made it big as an athlete on the IBJJF or ADCC tournament scenes.  But boy did his students!  Garry Tonon, Eddie Cummings, Gordon Ryan!  If you follow Jiu Jitsu, you know who they are.  And more importantly, you know who their coach is.  Danaher is the first Jiu Jitsu figure I can think of who made his name solely on his coaching ability... on his ability to repeatably produce world champions.

With that said I was excited to see how he teaches what he considers to be the fundamentals of Jiu Jitsu.  And how did he break down the fundamentals in that clip introducing his new series?

He separated the fundamentals into 3 areas: Standing Position, Ground Position Bottom, and Ground Position Top.

He detailed that each of those areas had 5 basic skill within.

  • Standing Position he said was composed of Stance, Motion, Grip, Kazushi, and Transitioning to the Ground.
  • Ground Position Bottom was composed of Pin Escapes, Guard Retention, Guard Sweeps, Half Guard Sweeps, and Turtle Escapes.
  • Ground Position Top was composed of Opening a Closed Guard, Passing Open Guard, Passing Half Guard, Pin Maintenance and Transitioning, and Turtle Breakdowns.

That's 15 skills in all folks!

I eagerly awaited every single installment and gobbled it up as it came out, determined to eventually become a master of all 15 skills.

  • Pin Escapes & Turtle Escapes
  • Half Guard
  • Guard Retention
  • Closed Guard
  • Open Guard
  • Passing The Guard
  • Half Guard Passing and Dynamic Pins

(Okay, I don't own that last one yet.  I'm saving up.  I have to stick to a BJJ Fanatics budget, otherwise I'd go broke!)

Then BJJ Fanatics announced his final installment of the series was almost ready to be released!  What could it be?

I have thoroughly enjoyed every installment to date.  The way John Danaher breaks down complex problems, organizes overall strategies to address them, and then communicates those strategies is unparalleled in the world of Jiu Jitsu instructional products.  Each volume of the Go Further Faster series belongs in the library of any serious Jiu Jitsu practitioner or coach.

But the one I was looking forward to perhaps more than any other was his volume on the standing position.  If there was one area we all needed to work on a little more, this was it.  If there was one area that lacked an overall structure and still remained just a collection of seemingly unrelated techniques... one area that needed a great instructor to come along and show us how to connect them all together in a way that suits the unique needs of Jiu Jitsu practitioners and competitors this was it!

John Danaher has gone on record in the past, calling for people to work more on takedowns, "Takedowns my friends… Please learn them. And stop this non-sense that jiujitsu is a ground art. We begin on our feet, stop being so lazy. The purpose of the guard is to continue to fight in case you make the mistake of being taken down… Lets keep the martial art aspect of jiu-jitsu alive."  

He has talked about the dire need for a Jiu Jitsu-centric takedown strategy.  He spoke with Roger Gracie about how we take this naive approach of using techniques and strategies from other martial arts like Judo and Wrestling, and then try to make them work in Jiu Jitsu.  

When I heard that John Danaher was releasing his final installment of the Go Further Faster series, I knew this had to be it!  This final installment had to be his grand opus on the fundamentals of the standing position!  I couldn't wait to find out what his favored stances and grips were!  How did he create motion and kazushi?  What unforetold secret methods did he have for transitioning to the ground?  How would he simplify it and connect it together in such a way that would allow us to make sense of it all?  This stuff was the first thing he mentioned when announcing his new series on fundamentals!  It accounted for one third of the fundamental skills of Jiu Jitsu!  This had to be it!

But alas, it wasn't.  His final volume has none of this.  Instead, it covers Strangles & Turtle Breakdowns...

Seriously?  Strangles & Turtle Breakdowns?  Strangles weren't even mentioned as one of his original 15 fundamental skills!  And turtle breakdowns?  Didn't he cover that in his Back Attacks series?  What happened to that first and arguably most important third of the system?  We practice an art that specializes in ground fighting... and you're leaving out the part that explains how to get our opponents to the ground?  Did you think that instructions from Nicky Rod, and Garry Tonon would fill the void?  No disrespect to either of those athletes.  They're amazing competitors in their own right, but when it comes to breaking down complex techniques, skills and strategies, they're no John Danaher.  And no offense, but they're young, strong and in their prime.  Again, no disrespect intended whatsoever, but I don't want the stand-up system that works for them.  I want the system that works for a 50-some-odd year old man with a crippled knee and a hip replacement!

Please BJJ Fanatics!  Please John Danaher!  Say it ain't so!  Please tell me it was a misprint when you wrote that this would be the final installment of the Go Further Faster series!  I know you've got one more installment left in you! You've talked about the fact that your athletes have a standing strategy!  You talked about it as 5 out of your 15 fundamental skills when you announced the series!  Your athletes have stood with some of the best of them at ADCC!  Please for the love of God don't back out now on your promise to share the fundamental secrets of Stance, Motion, Grip, Kazushi, and Transitioning to the Ground!  Please, please, please give us just one more volume!  

Very Respectfully,

Big Mike

Friday, August 7, 2020

Holding the Line

Imagine your favorite football team playing their most bitter rival.  The good guys are on the 20 yard line, first and 10.  They run the ball, and gain 5 yards on the play.  Second and 5.  But then the most peculiar thing happens.  When setting up for the next play, they go back to where they started on first and 10.  They run the ball again, and this time they gain seven yards.  Had they not back tracked after the last play, they'd have another first down, but alas, third and 3.  Oh, but wait, they walk back to where they started on first and 10 again!  They gain 3 yards on the next play, but because they kept giving up their hard earned yards on each play, they never made it far enough to get that first down, and are forced to punt. 

Now this is a ridiculous example.  No semi-competent football coach would ever allow this to happen.  And what does this have to do with jiu jitsu, you might ask?  Well in one of his instructional DVDs, Roy Dean uses this as an analogy for how some people try to pass the guard.  They attempts a pass.  The pass is thwarted.  Then instead of holding what little ground he's gained, they back to wherever he started the pass from.  The moral of the story is that one needs to find a way to hold on to that progress, to hold the line.

There is however another area of jiu jitsu that this analogy applies to which Roy Dean doesn't mention in his video.  This is the area of committing techniques to memory.  Hard-wiring them into your brain so you don't forget them.

Most practitioners go to class, pay attention to the technique being taught, practice it a few times, then go home and forget it.  By the time the instructor teaches that same technique again it's been months and the student hast to relearn the move.  "Oh, yeah.  I think I remember this one.  How does it go again?"  They remember a little more than they did the last time this happened, but still not enough to perform the move correctly the next day. It's just like the football/guard passing analogy.  They fail to hold the line. 

How many times have you done this?  How many YouTube videos have you watched and thought, "That's a sweet move!  I could totally use that in my game!"  But 2 hours later down the YouTube rabbit hole, you can't even remember where to find that first technique on the interwebs much less know how to perform it.  So much wasted time and effort!

I know that I for one have wasted countless hours doing this. If I could go back in time and give one piece of advice to my younger self, it would be to stop the madness, to find a way to hold that line when it comes to learning new techniques.  Take notes!  Make flash cards!  Remember what you learn!  Otherwise it's just wasted time and effort.  
If a football coach did this every time they gained a few yards you'd want him fired, and rightfully so!  If you're doing this with the techniques you learn during class I would offer this.  Consider that the old you.  Fire that guy and replace him with the new you.  A you that will make it a point to remember every single technique from every single class or video, from now on.  Yes, it will take a little more time and effort on the front end.  But if it's important enough to sit through a class or video on, you might as well take that extra time in the short term committing it to memory so that you don't have to waste time later on learning it all over again.  Hold that line, and I guarantee that you will be glad you did in the long run.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Placido - The Unsung Hero of BJJ Fanatics.

I've bought and watched a ton of instructional videos from BJJ Fanatics.  I'm a big fan.  If you are too, chances are you're familiar with Placido Carl Santos.  If not, allow me to explain.

When one of these big names like John Danaher, Marcelo Garcia, Andre Galvao and the like come to BJJ Fanatics to film an instructional, they need someone to demonstrate their techniques on.  The Uke.  Sometimes they bring a friend from their home gym, but many times they don't.  When that happens, BJJ Fanatics finds someone to fill in.  Seems like that's Placido more often than not, as I now own a significant ammount of BJJ Fanatics footage with Placido in the scene.

Sometimes I feel sorry for Placido.  I mean every time I see him, he's getting smashed, choked, arm locked or leg locked!  The pain registers on his face quite often. 

Sometimes the instructor gets frustrated and/or annoyed with him.  And that frustration often manifests itself subtly, but visibly.  "If Placido posts up on his left leg... no, your other left... no, like, the other direction..."  Commence the the rolling of the eyes and the short, choppy sentences.  Poor Placido.  Didn't the instructor watch Karate Kid?  Don't they remember the wisdom of Mr. Miyagi when he said that there are no bad students, only bad instructors?

Poor Placido has taken a lot of punishment over the hours upon hours of instructional footage I've watched, but he hangs in there and keeps plugging away quietly. 

On the other hand I am quite jealous of Placido.  He basically gets extensive private lessons from the best of the best.  And when he's not getting smashed, choked or locked, he's listening intently to what the instructor is saying, hanging on every word, really doing his best to soak up all that knowledge being dropped. 

And you might say, of course he's listening!  Wouldn't everyone in his position listen?  But this isn't always the case.  Sometimes the Uke is someone else who has (or is working on) their own instructional.    Sometimes it's like they're afraid to appear as if the move being demonstrated is new to them.  They nod their head knowingly as if to say, "Yeah, I know this one."  Other times it looks like they're just off in la-la land.  But not Placido!  He's always paying attention, looking at the instructor as he's talking, respectful, and I totally dig that about him! 

I would love to hear Placido interviewed about his experiences filming all of these instructional videos.  There's got to be some real gold there.  The lessons he's learned, not only about jiu jitsu, but about dealing with big names (and sometimes big egos) must be fascinating!  And it seems like he brings the right attitude to learn those lessons.

All in all, whether you feel sorry for him, or jealous of him, I have to say that I'm a fan!  Here's to you Placido!  Thanks for doing what you do.  I wish you continued success in your jiu jitsu journey.  And if you ever find yourself in Montrose, I'd love to invite you to come in and train with us... and perhaps go out for a frosty beverage afterwards.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Grappling with Guillotines

So I hit a road block of sorts while studying John Danaher's Front Headlock System.  First off, my whole purpose in studying the system is to get better at guillotines, and I do feel smarter on them having watched through the system so far.

As he describes his overall strategy, his assertion is that you need to get good at both submissions from the front headlock position, and positional transitions (i.e. getting past your opponent's arms to the rear of the turtle position so that you can take his back).  He asserts that as you get better at the positional path, the submissions will open up, and vice versa.

I was really hoping for some hand fighting systems similar to what he has laid out in his Back Attacks series.  Ways to get to that uncontested strangle arm from that front headlock position.  But alas, the threat of transitioning past your opponent's arms, and subsequently taking the back is what's supposed to open up the path for your strangle arm. 

And there lies the crux of my issue.  I've never had a problem transitioning to the rear turtle position.  It's always come natural to me.  Simple.  Easy.  And this has never opened up the neck.  My training partners and opponents always seem to guard that neck for dear life from the turtle position.  On a good day, I might get a chin strap.  But the second I do, his hands are all over it like white on rice!  There is no way on God's green earth they're letting me punch that sucker through to a high wrist position!

Now I don't think I'm all that amazing at transitioning from the front to the rear of the turtle, but it's not like I've been training with slouches over the last 20+ years either.  I just don't see people I roll with offering up the resistance that Danaher talks about in his instructional. 

Now I've trained with plenty of strong wrestlers.  We have a few in the gym I train at now.  But none of them seem to use that double leg option for instance to catch someone attempting to transition from the front turtle to the rear turtle.  At least they don't seem to use it on me.  They all just seem to let it happen.  They seem to prioritize protecting their neck over position.  Hence, I don't see this really opening up the neck for me. And that makes me sad.

Now maybe it's silly of me to complain about this.  According to Danaher, I should be content to use his system to get around to the rear of the turtle and take the back.  And HE'S ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!  I SHOULD be content to take the back instead of sinking guillotines.  But I REALLY want to start sinking guillotines! 

I suppose there are worse problems to have.   Hopefully I'm missing something here, and all will become clear after I've had a chance to completely digest the entire system and experiment with it on the mats..

I wonder, has anyone else out there had a similar problem? 

Monday, July 20, 2020

The John Danaher / Priit Mihkelson Death Match

I would love to see a death match between John Danaher and Priit Mihkelson.  Okay, not a death match.  Just a friendly exhibition match would be fine.  You see, I've watched a good chunk of Danaher's instructionals now, including his Back Attacks and Front Headlock systems (which covers among other things attacking the Turtle position).  I've also been through all of Mihkelson's BJJ Fanatics Instructionals which focus on defense for the most part.  The Turtle position is a big part of his defensive game, and I've never seen the Turtle taught quite the way he presents it. 

Now Danaher's attack systems are second to none.  The way he's mapped out the attack game is absolutely masterful if you have the patience to wade through it all.  Pouring over his DVD's has improved my game significantly! 

With that said (and I can't believe I'm saying this) I don't think he addresses the problems that a Priit Mihkelson style defense presents.  Now I know that's a bold statement coming from a mere purple belt (even if I have been doing this for 20+ years).  And I'm not entirely sure that I'm right.  But I would love to see what Danaher would do to crack that defense.

Mihkelson is all about denying his opponent the underhook.  He protects his neck with what he terms, "the boxing shoulder," thereby freeing up his hands to help defend against those underhooks.  My 13 year old boy was watching his Turtle instructional with me.  After watching 10 minutes or so he got bored, and started poking me (his way of telling me he's ready to wrestle).  So I turn around and get ready to rough him up a little, and he goes straight to the turtle position.  Now I way at least twice as much as he does, and he only watched 10 minutes of the stinking video, but I'll darned if he didn't give me a whole lot more trouble than he used to.  I had to resort to tickling to get him to move his elbow away from his body so that I could get an underhook on him.  Only then was I finally able to crack open his Turtle and go to work.

Now I'm no John Danaher, but Zachary's no Priit Mihkelson either.  Which got me thinking... What would Danaher do?  I've been through Danaher's instructionals again paying particular attention to see if there are any techniques or strategies that seem applicable to such a defense, and I've got to say if it's there I haven't found it. 

I would love to see how John Danaher would go about solving the problems presented by a Priit Mihkelson style defense.  In one corner, we have John Danaher with some of the best attack systems on the planet. In the other corner we have Priit Mihkelson with possibly the best (and certainly the most unique) defense I've ever seen.  It would be the classic contest of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

Somebody please get these two together.   Let them train with each other for a few weeks.  Then come back, interview them about it (preferably on the mats so that they can demo a few things), and put it on YouTube.  A sort of John Danaher/Priit Mihkelson Jam Session if you will.  Heck if BJJ Fanatics would put it together as another one of their instructionals, I'd probably buy it!