Defending yourself with Sport Jiu-Jitsu

“Horrible” is how Royce Gracie describes modern Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in his recent interview with Bloody Elbow.  He laments how the art has developed lots of competition oriented rules which have made it less viable for self-defense.

Are things really that bad?  Should everyone who trains BJJ just resign themselves to their competition medals and accept that they can’t defend themselves in a real confrontation?

Royce thinks a few things are wrong with sport jiu-jitsu:

  • Slams like this are illegal in jiu-jitsu competitions

    Weight classes

  • Belt rankings
  • Competition rules

His critiques are understandable, self-defense situations don’t have weight classes, don’t ask you what color your belt is, and don’t obey rules.

I cannot claim to have even a tiny iota of the experience Royce has, but I believe I can argue effectively against his concerns.

Weight Classes

This concern (as expressed by Royce) is most applicable to MMA, not self-defense.  In the interview Royce scoffed at MMA fighters complaining about their opponents coming in a pound over the weight class.  His derision isn’t baseless – when he fought in the UFC he went against opponents who outweighed him by 80lbs.

In a self-defense situation you have to assume your attacker will be larger than you, otherwise why would they have attacked you?  Thankfully, sport jiu-jitsu emphasizes positional dominance, and techniques that work against a skilled opponent of your own size will often work against someone who is larger and unskilled.

Belt Ranking

This concern puzzles me and I cannot precisely determine what Royce is referencing.  In a self-defense situation this is not much of an issue.  If your attacker has some fighting experience you’ll figure that out one way or another – but the reality is that most people over estimate their ability to fight.  Training for even a couple of months will give you a handy advantage over most people.

Competition Rules

This is the most important difference between sport jiu-jitsu and jiu-jitsu for self-defense.  In sport jiu-jitsu you can’t:

  • slam
  • strike
  • bite, eye-gouge or otherwise fight dirty


This permits strategies like keeping your guard closed (or holding onto a triangle or armbar) when your opponent stands.  Doing this in a real conflict will get you slammed, and getting slammed will get you dead.  Being slammed on mats routinely knocks people out, causes concussions, breaks ribs, and causes long-term back injuries – you do not want to be slammed on concrete.  The good news is that what self-defense taketh away, self-defense giveth.  While you will be forced to open your guard if they stand, there are no prohibitions against kicking from open guard.


This brings up striking in general – something that generally is ignored in sport jiu-jitsu.  The good news is that it is fairly hard to punch someone who is in a dominant position, and jiu-jitsu teaches how to get and maintain dominant positions.  Biting, eye gouging, and other ‘dirty’ fighting techniques are things to watch out for in a self-defense situation, but generally these strategies work better from the top.  If someone wants to eye gouge you from the bottom of the mount, odds are you are in a position to defend yourself from their attempt.

Sporty Guards:

The biggest changes you’d need to make to your strategy is from the guard; some sporty guards like de la Riva, butterfly, and half-guard are the same as asking to be punched in the face.  Some fighters in MMA actually will put themselves into half-guard in order to strike from the top.  The solution is simple: don’t use these techniques.  Stick to the simplest most basic techniques that work in any given situation.  Closed guard is preferable to open guard.  If you use open guard, don’t do anything fancy like berimbolo, instead use the self-defense open guard shown here.

Time Limits:

Jiu-jitsu competitions vary in length from competition to competition, but generally they are 5 minute bouts.  The same applies for modern MMA.  However, in the 90s and early 2000s fights were frequently untimed.  Royce fought some opponents for over an hour, and so this critique definitely needs to be addressed.

If you ever have to use jiu-jitsu to defend yourself you have to recognize that the fight will go on until you either incapacitate your attacker, you are able to run away, or the fight gets broken up.  With this in mind your goal should be to survive.  In a competition setting you are on the clock, and if you don’t get a take-down quickly and then establish a significant point lead you could end up losing.  This approach is incorrect when defending yourself, but the good news is that your attacker is most likely not taking the long view.

Ultimately the skills that are important to compete in jiu-jitsu are not the same as those necessary in a real confrontation.  However, they are not so radically different that you will be totally unprepared.  Some competition strategies are horrible ideas, but as long as you recognize that you can’t hold your guard when you’ve been picked up you’ll find your training improves your chances of surviving a conflict.


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