BJJ / Grappling Tips: How to Become Good at Gi and No Gi Jiu Jitsu

“We are not a BJJ club, we are an MMA gym”

I remember hearing my old coach Karl say this, and not quite understanding what he meant. I was a white belt at the time and he was talking to someone about how well some of our members had done at a recent BJJ tournament, despite us not being a BJJ club per se. I didn’t get it. We had BJJ (Gi) sessions twice a week (2 x 1 hr sessions) and submission grappling sessions (No gi) three times a week (3 x 1hr sessions). Yes we did MMA sessions and even pure striking sessions but no one HAD to attend them. If you wanted, you could just do BJJ. Surely BJJ is BJJ?!

Over the years, I slowly started realizing what he meant. I didn’t use to travel to other BJJ clubs and, until the past year, I didn’t even realize there were other BJJ clubs in the Greater Manchester Area! My entire real exposure* to the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Grappling came from that one club which was deeply rooted in the MMA game. For all I knew, all other BJJ clubs / gyms / academies trained exactly the same. My biggest eye opener came to me when I travelled to EKBJJ headquarters in London, run by Mr Eddie Kone, black belt under Royler Gracie and a familiar feature on this blog.

When I rolled with Eddie’s students, I was shocked how economic their grip work was. Their hands shot like bullets to specific locations on my legs, arms or lapel. Even the white belts knew exactly where to put their hands to create the best leverage both defensively and offensively.

BJJ fighters taking their grips (people in photo have no relation to the article)

I was busy working for underhooks.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the importance of underhooks. They are by far the most important tool in grappling and they serve me very well.

Submission grapplers working for the underhook (people in the photo have no relation to the article)

What really shocked me, however, and completely changed the way I train today was how little I knew about the art that is correct offensive and defensive BJJ gi gripping.

Things started falling into place. I started realizing the meaning of other comments Karl made over the years: “Do you think I am playing Judo or Jiu Jitsu when I’m wearing the gi? No dude, I’m still wrestling!” he once said to me.

It made perfect sense. The gym was an MMA gym and the BJJ trained there needed to translate directly to the no gi submission grappling / MMA game. The goal was to produce good MMA fighters and BJJ, being an important part of the MMA puzzle, was shaped accordingly (including all the gi classes).

If you had someone in your guard, you controlled their head, you didn’t grab their gi lapel. I was never shown exactly where on the gi to grip when passing the open guard. Instead I was told to either grip the ankle (or the illusive "control the feet") or work for the double underhook pass.

Again, I’m not saying one method of learning grappling / BJJ is better than the other. I am, however, saying that if you train primarily at a MMA / submission wrestling based academy or gym** and think your Gi-based Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the bees knees, then you need to move around and try out some different more BJJ gi-based gyms!***

IT IS NOT ENOUGH to do gi and no gi sessions at the same MMA-based gym because even the gi players will have a no-gi based game.

Most of them will not be gripping your gi in the most efficient ways like a predominantly gi BJJ players would because, chances are, they either don’t know them or they don’t care about them or both. They will work for underhooks, overhooks, head control, wedges, C-shapes and many other no-gi based tools, which in turn, ironically, are all expressions of the same principles and concepts that the grips stand for!

The human mind is an amazing tool. It will adapt to its environment but if the environment is not changing, the mind will stop adapting.

*Watching some video clips or even instructionals won’t do.
**That's one of the reasons we at the Labs always stay updated on specific expressions of Grappling / BJJ and MMA with regular training with people like Mr David Onuma (competitive BJJ, No Gi), Mr Eddie Kone (Gracie Jiu Jitsu), Mr Vadim Komarov (Greco Roman wrestling) and the upcoming, highly anticipated Frank Mir seminar (MMA, UFC and F4FEP - Figure 4 From Every Position!)
*** There are, as always, exceptions to the rule. People who simply "get it" and adapt fluidly from environment to environment. Most of them are young, athletic and train many hours with the gi, without the gi and in MMA. I was never one of these "prodigies".

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Georgette said...

I'm fascinated. I train at a predominantly gi-based school, but we do have several UFC fighters and local MMA fighters training here.. so I know we also have a nogi base of knowledge I'm just not tapping into. Hope you follow this article up with some grip comparisons-- some of the terms you used (wedge, C shapes? some other stuff) was totally unfamiliar to me. Thanks!

Zen Mojo said...

Liam - one of the things I love about training in the gi even if you are a straight no-gi or MMA type is that it "reveals" a lot of holes and technical mistakes in your game. You can't get away with "almost right" techniques.

Grips and friction also slow things down and "equalize" a little bit of the attributes (size, speed, strength) you might be relying on and makes you focus on postition, control, and technique in new ways.

Then you can take some of the "different" feel and thinking back to your no-gi game and I think you will always see improvements.

Akbar said...

nice article, the difference is now pretty clear. so in ur opinion how does the bjj labs classes approach this situation? I mean they do bjj/no gi and mma classes.So even though it is primarily a place of grappling, one would have to imagine that its fair to call it a MMA gym as it does have MMA classes as well as the a bit of stand up?

The Part Time Grappler said...

Hi Akbar. Many thanks for the kind words. At the Labs, it was important to us to have the "s" at the end of the word. We train the arts separately (BJJ is trained withing the context of BJJ, Boxing likewise...etc.) and the experts who guide us along those arts do so with that in mind. Just this Saturday gone, we had a seminar with David Onuma on tournament BJJ & No Gi stand up. The seminar lasted 3 hours and I'll tell you this for free: It was not Judo, it was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu! It was not Wrestling, it was No-gi Jiu Jitsu!

When it comes to Mixed Martial Arts, since we understand the principles behind the arts, the expression of these concepts is once again specifically suited for MMA.

To sum it: We no longer train BJJ for MMA. We do BJJ for BJJ. When we then do MMA, we adapt the BJJ to it.

The Part Time Grappler said...

Thanks Georgette. I think our schools / Gyms approach the subject from similar angles, at least they do now. I find it easier to switch from gi to no-gi. Yes it takes some time to get used to a different expression of the same principles (controlling the neck vs the lapel...etc.) but I find transition easier than the other way around.

As for the terms, I took a few pics on Friday that I will be posting soon ;)

The Part Time Grappler said...

Thanks Zen Mojo. What an awesome name!!!

I know what you mean however I no longer look at these openings as "mistakes" per se. The buddhist view I've been investigating in the past few years harps on the whole "what is, is!" view:

If someone escapes in no gi using something that I could've perhaps stopped in a gi environment, I don't see that as a shortcoming or mistake. It's just the way things are in NO-Gi.

If someone used strength, speed, explosiveness...etc. to escape or tap me in No Gi, then it's my resposibilioty to take that as a learning opportunity. Was my No-
Gi adaptation of the principles of Jiu Jitsu dependant on grips afforded by the gi? How can I benefit from that observation?

The difference is subtle, but it puts a wonderful and positive spin on training with and tapping to someone stronger and more athletic :)