Q: There was a recent video on reddit of a mendes bros. white belt berimbolo’ing everybody
in competition. Everybody was raving about it.

I would love to see a video or post from you about whether or not we’re seeing the death of the ‘basics’ and ‘general skills’ approach and the rise of the specialist.

Are we still holding onto ‘basics’ because it’s whats best or because it’s what we’ve always done?

As a teacher (my profession), I wonder the same thing about making kids “well-rounded.” Do colleges want well-rounded kids over specialist because that’s what’s better or because that’s what they’ve always gotten and it’s what they encourage?

A: The basics are much like Mark Twain in that their deaths have been greatly exaggerated (unfortunately Twain’s did finally catch up with him). This is a perennial debate among jiu-jiteiros. Few have clear definitions of what they mean by “basic” and “fundamental,” instead taking a stance similar to the Supreme Court’s standard for porn: “I know it when I see it.” (Usually this means scissors sweeps and upa escapes.)

Ever since I began BJJ, I’ve heard how the basics are dying, that fundamentals are neglected, that those damn kids need to get off Helio’s lawn. That’s not to say that the basics are getting all of the attention they deserve, but the end of the world never comes.

Do you remember the blue belt Ryan Hall and his inverted guard? Eduardo Telles’ turtle guard? How about when the brabo choke was considered a fancy move? Each of those drew cries of “think of the basics!” That’s only within the past decade. I’m sure if you go back farther, you’ll find people making similar complaints back in the 90′s and earlier. Count Koma probably told little Carlos Gracie to hold his horses and stick with the basics too.

Don’t take this to mean I’m against the basics. Many black belts with far more experience, renown and R’s in their names advocate for the basics, and you’d do well to listen to them.

My own game has become more basic as I’ve gained experience and dealt with injuries and taken the advice of my teacher, Eduardo de Lima. You could probably create a workable definition of what the basics are by ranking moves by how much they protect you from unexpected injuries. Basic moves tend to protect your joints by avoiding silly positions.

Going back to Eduardo Telles, do you remember the chatter before his first MMA match? People thought he was going to go out and crawl around on all fours while he got soccer kicked in the head. Instead of committing suicide, he took the guy down and armbarred him. Each of his wins have come from submissions and strikes.

We had a repeat of this when Ryan Hall fought in his recent MMA debut. People wondered how he was going to use his inverted and 50/50 guards when he was getting his face smashed. The better question would have been how his opponent was going to defend being taken down and punched in the face until the ref stopped the match, because that’s what happened.

Let’s bring Marcelo Garcia into this. In his original rise to fame, he was defined by his armdrags, butt scooting, x-guard and rear naked chokes. That’s what sold his DVDs, and that’s why people flew him out for seminars. Then he started doing north-south chokes, guillotines, wrestling takedowns, smashing top game and armbars. This surprised people at first. We now take it for granted that he’s just good at everything, and seeing his regular training sessions through MGinaction.com has only reinforced this belief.

Do people not realize these are professional athletes who can change how they train depending on their goals? We’re not talking about pre-programmed Street Fighter characters here. They don’t want to get their teeth kicked to the back of their throat any more than the next guy.

Specialists are not new. Neither are “relentless fundamentals” grapplers. We think of fighters in these terms, but those two personas can even live in the same person. What we see in a competition is a slice of the fighter’s jiu-jitsu. True, it’s a very revealing slice, but it’s not the sum total of their knowledge. When someone has been training jiu-jitsu for a decade or two, I hope for their sake that we’re not the full scope of their knowledge by watching a few matches.

Here’s a real basic for you: “If it works, it works.” Until the berimboloing white belt is shut out of his favorite move, why should he stop using it? Don’t try to bring up self defense, because we’re not watching him do the Fundamentals class at Art of Jiu-Jitsu Academy (I checked, and the Mendes brothers teach self defense classes). If he is studying under experienced and thoughtful coaches (which he is), they will have the wisdom to make sure he fleshes out the rest of his game too. These issues self-correct as people train longer and longer. But who wouldn’t want to have been a white belt with a berimbolo built in?

If you survey the full breadth of what’s happening in competition, you’ll see the basics are alive and well. Most matches are determined by simple takedowns (or guard pulls), guard passes, sweeps, and submissions like rear chokes, armbars and triangles. Flashy moves grab our attention but they are limited to a few especially talented competitors.

Leverage and physics won’t change any time soon, unless CERN accidentally Higgs a few too many bosoms and breaks time and space. Humans only have so many limbs, those only have so many joints that move in only so many ways, and if you squeeze the right spots too long, our brains turn off. The basics are safe.

We are lucky to have a very effective martial arts system as laid out by the Gracies (or Luis França) and their many generations of black belts. We need to give respect to the old moves, not out of tradition, but because they prove themselves again and again. These old moves know the deal: if they stop working, we will throw them out and find new ones. The battle between sacred basics and relentless evolution is the history of jiu-jitsu, and its future too.

If you’re itching for more on this topic, you can read longer discussions about “the basics” between The Jiu Jitsu Lab and myself here: