Why Jiu-Jitsu Works, or Why waste your time doing something else?

Jiu-jitsu, Karate, Krav-Maga, Taekwondo…they are all basically the same thing right?  A group of people get together wearing robe-like pajamas and break boards.  Usually someone is a “black belt,” and you refer to them as sensei or master or some other possibly Asian sounding term of respect.

If you’re nodding along you’ve probably found this website prior to embarking upon your jiu-jitsu journey.  Or, if you’re nodding along you may be a jiu-jitsu player who has encountered these assumptions from family and friends.

Well, jiu-jitsu is more than just another martial art, and not all martial arts are the same…or even equal.

Martial arts can be roughly grouped into three categories: striking, grappling, and hybrid.  Each of the arts can be subdivided by how they are practiced: light contact, medium contact, full contact.


Taekwondo (light contact, except at high levels like the Olympics)

Choikwondo (light contact)

Karate (medium contact, certain varieties permit sparring but no hits to the head)

Boxing (full contact)

Muay-Thai (full contact)


Jiu-jitsu (full contact)

Wrestling (full contact, but no submissions permitted)

Judo (full contact)


Aikido (light contact)

Krav-Maga (light/medium contact)


What is important to realize is that any martial art that is light or medium contact is largely useless in a self-defense situation.  If you’ve never used your skills against a partner who is resisting your efforts with all of their strength and skill then you have no idea how well it actually works.

This means that even some ostensibly very effective arts like Krav-Maga (developed for use by the Israeli military) are practically useless because their sparring is minimal.  A safe assumption is that any art that claims to be “too dangerous” or “too effective” to spar is just about useless in a real confrontation.

So whats left?

  • Boxing
  • Muay-Thai
  • Jiu-Jitsu
  • Wrestling
  • Judo

The limits of striking as self defense:

Practicing any of these arts is almost certain to increase your capacity to survive a confrontation.  However, some of these lend themselves more to self defense than others.  Boxing and Muay-Thai suffer when you are significantly smaller than your attacker.  The physics of hitting someone and being hit simply favor the larger person.  The smaller person is less likely to be able to deliver a fight ending blow and the larger is more likely to be able to do so.  This is perhaps not entirely unique to striking arts, but it does affect them disproportionately.

When the fight goes to the ground: Grappling

In the first gym I trained at it was constantly reiterated that fights go to the ground – whether or not anyone knows how to grapple.  Someone will trip, someone will grab the other in a headlock, etc.  I can’t say with any degree of certainty how likely a fight is to go to the ground…but I can say that if a fight goes to the ground, and you are on the bottom, you are in trouble.  Untrained people are fairly harmless when they are striking while standing.  Their body mechanics suck, and if things begin to go south at least you’re also on your feet and can run.  But once you hit the ground and someone is on top of you,all of that changes.  The ground underneath your head is unforgiving when you get hit in the face.  A punch that would have just knocked you around now knocks you out.

And this is why knowing how to grapple is essential to being able to defend yourself.

But if people don’t punch each other in jiu-jitsu, judo, or wrestling, how would you know how to defend yourself?  Ah, I’m glad you asked.

While I cannot speak with any experience about judo or wrestling, I can say that the escapes that get you out from the bottom of the mount work against someone who is trying to punch you even better than against someone trying to choke you.  If you can escape the mount against your partner in jiu-jitsu who is bigger than you or higher ranked, then your odds of being able to escape the mount of an untrained assailant are at least decent, and are actually probably quite good.

Ending a conflict: Tap, Snap, or Nap.

And then once you’ve escaped, your training has taught you how to control your opponents body.  How to manage distance.  How to apply fight ending techniques.  Even if you are outweighed by 50 pounds, a rear naked choke will put someone to sleep.  Even if your attacker is deeply committed to hurting you a broken arm will convince them that they are no longer terribly interested in continuing their attack.

This last point is why I personally advocate jiu-jitsu as self defense over other grappling arts.  Wrestling teaches you how to control someone, but does not give you the tools to end a fight.  Judo teaches you how to take a fight to the ground, but does not typically emphasize what to do if you find yourself on the ground underneath your opponent.

Bonus Benefit: What happens if you need to restrain someone but don’t want to hurt them?  Maybe they stole something – a non-violent crime – and you’d like to hold them until the police arrive.  Maybe they are a relative with a drinking problem at the family picnic and grandma would be furious if you hurt them.  Well, jiu-jitsu gives the ability to put people in a position where you can gently show them that they are in danger and need to comply.  An armbar gently applied while instructing them to stop trying to escape and to settle down goes a long way.  The gift-wrap position is pretty incredible when it comes to controlling an unruly individual.

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